Director Jim Mickle’s latest thriller Cold in July, out in theaters on May 23, may be his most mature film yet, but it took him years to get the project taken seriously. Luckily, some wise words from fellow filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn proved the key to allowing Mickle to make the film he needed to make, regardless of how Hollywood wanted him to make it.
By the time Cold in July hits theaters, it will have been in my life for almost eight years. That sounds crazy to say now, but the road to getting it made was incredibly long and many times felt impossible and impractical. Yet sticking with it was right. In the end, it was a terrific reminder to me as an independent filmmaker that perseverance is many times the biggest tool in your toolbox. In 2006, we were finishing the edit to our first film, Mulberry Street, and moving towards the sound mix. For any filmmaker, this stage is a highly emotional one: part excitement about the possibilities and the life that lay ahead for the film, and part misery at having to say goodbye to a process that’s been your whole life until that point. Not wanting to quit storytelling cold turkey, I turned to one of my favorite authors, Joe R. Lansdale, for inspiration. Mulberry Street was a very urban NYC tale and I wanted to shake my brain up with a different world of stories. Joe’s writing always creates a very singular universe. Halfway through a stack of his novels, I picked up Cold in July, a novel he had written almost 20 years before. It slapped me in the face with the first line and then continued slapping me for the entire book. It was a fascinating genre mash-up with a terrific everyman lead character. It was like a cowboy wish-fulfillment tale, unpredictably driving familiar genre threads straight into a wall, only to pick up the wreckage and then spin things in a new equally thrilling direction. Once you start reading other scripts, especially in the horror or thriller genre, it’s easy to notice a pattern of storytelling. While editing Mulberry Street, I was told by a sales agent that horror movies fall into six different sub-genres, and if your audience can’t tell which sub-genre you’re doing in the first 10 minutes, the movie won’t work. I wanted to vomit. As a fan of horror movies, this entire philosophy was degrading. But it’s not hard to see that this approach is what dominates not just this genre, but most genres in general. Watch the Cold in July trailer:
Cold in July refused to do that. And for me, my co-writer Nick Damici, and my producer Linda Moran, we loved the book because it never played by those rules. And it’s probably also what led to six years of development on it, because it wasn’t deemed a safe bet. We contacted Joe and convinced him to option us the rights, ignoring the fact that it had been optioned and developed previously for the better part of a decade before we came along. Nick wrote a very quick first draft of the script, and we learned the art of adaptation as we went. Rewriting, condensing, layering and translating things. We learned that some ideas, no matter how much we loved them, would have to change. We learned that things that work inside the head of your narrator would have to be rephrased to cinematic form. This is when the foreign sales game began. For most filmmakers looking to get financing for an independent film, it’s a necessary but incredibly frustrating experience. Foreign sales companies are not evil. They work within a business model where movies are the business, so the format can become quite rigid. At times it can also seem totally impossible.
In our case we had a fantastic company, Memento Films International, handling our presales and they did a great job putting Cold in July together. Before that, we worked with several different companies during the film’s lifespan, and it was almost always the same obstacle with each one: the film could only raise its budget once we got three “A-list” actors attached. Sounds easy, right? Very quickly, cast lists gets circulated and I can guarantee that the cast lists you get for your movie are identical to the ones I get and everyone else gets. At the top are all the guys who play Marvel superheroes and who are booked for the next century on franchises with 10 times your budget, with directors who are 10 times bigger than you. In the middle are guys who are great actors but just not right creatively. And then there’s a random smattering of actors who are head-scratchers until you find out that they’re not interesting in the States, but they have huge value in Germany or Japan based on direct-to-DVD movies you never noticed. Then there are the people you love and admire and think would be great and have always dreamed of working with, but they’re often times not on those lists. We struggled with this, as many independent filmmakers of all shapes and sizes do. It’s a massive game of chicken-before-the-egg. Most actors and reps are aware of the game and so your script is usually not a high priority, meaning long waits and fuzzy passes. In our case, actors or financiers would come along and we’d get close, only to have someone hesitate. Then the house of cards would inevitably collapse. Years of wearing a hole through the wall with my head. Things ticked along as always, waiting for the right elements to align. And then one day, I had a chance encounter with a filmmaker I adore: Nicolas Winding Refn. My wildly talented sister Beth Mickle was the production designer on Drive and Only God Forgives, and I had the opportunity to talk shop with him briefly. I lamented about the situation of endless development and foreign sales only to realize that he, too, had to deal with the foreign sale models for financing. And as he pointed out, he had the same cast lists and financier lists that I had, as did Scorsese and everyone else trying to make films. And he had a terrific piece of advice. “Don’t try to build your movie on stars. Instead, make yourself the star.” Go make a movie that only you could make. Stay true to that and your work has a chance of rising above and attracting the elements you will need. It was easy for Refn to say this: He had Ryan Gosling sitting in a car behind him. But the point of what he was saying resonated and should resonate to anyone starting out. As time passed, we were presented with the opportunity to remake Jorge Michel Grau’s amazing film We Are What We Are. Nick Damici wisely went into our screenplay wanting to create something completely new and different with it; something that was uniquely ours. We had the very good fortune to make this film with Memento Films International in a scenario in which foreign presales worked beautifully. We were helped by a sharp horror genre concept and a pre-existing intellectual property which creates its own value in this type of financing. We were graciously accepted to Sundance and Director’s Fortnight with a film that stood on its own and became very much its own beast.
Suddenly, Cold in July got a lot easier to make. Financiers came out of the woodwork and actors and reps were suddenly much more interested in what we had to say. And the crazy reality was that we were able to get that dream cast, an amazing trio of Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, three actors I count myself impossibly lucky to work with and who also gave us the freedom we needed on the financing end. With them involved, we were now able to make the odd, indescribable, hard-to-comp, character driven genre mash up that we had set out to make back in 2006. Two movies in between helped to raise all of our profiles and also gave us the maturity and confidence to handle a film like Cold in July. The reality is, had we made the film when we first optioned it, it probably would have been a safer, more traditional, less interesting movie. And it would have starred that guy you never heard of who is huge in Germany. In the end, I’ve learned (just a little bit) to trust the process, to trust time a little bit, and also to trust Nic Refn’s advice. MM