'Hap and Leonard' EP on Adapting Joe R. Lansdale and Making Brits into Texans

Jim Mickle discusses his SundanceTV drama starring Michael K. Williams and James Purefoy.
James Minchin/SundanceTV
'Hap and Leonard'

In my review of SundanceTV's Hap and Leonard, I wrote that adapting Joe R. Lansdale's series was a challenge because, "Character, setting and atmospherics are front and center, but the stories don't quite fit into any easily embraceable commercial genre."

Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams) are two buddies working the rose fields of 1980s Texas. When Hap's ex (Christina Hendricks) enters their life with an offer that seems too good to be true, they get involved with a lot of money and a lot of violence, but they're neither criminals nor crime-fighters. They're wisecracking friends in an extreme situation.

Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who also adapted Lansdale's Cold in July as a feature, have brought Lansdale's LaBorde, Texas world to SundanceTV intact thanks to impressive casting and ample respect for the source material, which is what happens if the author and his whole family are on set nearly every day. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Mickle, who also directed the six-episode series' opening installments, about Lansdale's work, why sometimes you have to go to England to cast a Texas alpha male and hopes for future Hap and Leonard seasons.

Joe's writing is so very cinematic, but it's sometimes difficult to crack. I mean, Bill Paxton's been trying to get The Bottoms made for years.  What do you think that you're tapping into in his writing that makes it, I don't want to say "easy for you," but...

It isn't easy.

But you seem to get it.

Thank you, I appreciate that. I think we got lucky, really. Honestly, because it took us seven years to get Cold In July made, and I think what he gets away with in books, that we all love about his books, I'm assuming, you sound like a fan.

There are lots of different versions of Joe R. Lansdale and I'm a fan of some of them.

Yeah, me too. There's portions of his stuff that I really love. Then sometimes I'm like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I know you," and some of that shit.

I think what helped this is that Cold In July broke through and people were terrified of Cold In July because it was always like "This isn't one movie, this is like three movies in one," and "This isn't something I can advertise easily," or "I don't know how to do this," or "It's only going to work if you have Mark Wahlberg and Mark Wahlberg and Mark Wahlberg," that kind of shit, and then we were like, "No, I think people will like this. When you read the book that's what you love, that you never quite know where it's going to go, and I think if you just let us make this movie, you'll see that it kind of works," and I think that kind of happened in a way. I think people really enjoyed Cold In July for what it was, so I think that paved the way a little bit for this. In fact, when we originally pitched this, it was right before the premiere of Cold In July at Sundance, and they were kind of on the fence about it. They were like, "I still don't know what this is. I like the characters, I like that you're doing this sort of thing. I still don't know what this is," and they came to the party after the premiere, and I remember them being like, "Oh yeah, this will make a cool..." I think it was also a little bit of demonstrating that it could be done.

This one is a hard thing, because it's very much a genre piece, but it isn't a genre piece.

Exactly.

They kind of stumble into solving crimes but they're not detectives, so it's not the kind of crime story we understand easily. How do you pitch what this is?

With the studio and I think with the audience, it's the characters really. They're the straight men, really, and the genres are almost the things that change up. They're the things they are constantly bouncing off of. I think that's what works really well in a television show is that you actually get time to play with those characters as opposed to the 90-minute "Oh, I'm doing a character-heavy genre thing." You're always up against that thing in a 90-minute movie of "How much time do I really get to spend with these characters? Not enough time," that ultimately, we're just going to try to make them not cardboard cutouts. Or everyone's going to say the movie is too long. You're always dealing with that when you're making character-driven thrillers. Here you get to do both of that. You get to do the thriller aspect, you get to do the genre, the pulp, but you also get to spend time and get to know who they are.

Did you know that after you did Cold In July, you wanted to transition into this?

I didn't, no. This actually popped up. It was the first movie I did where at the end I was like, usually I'd say, "I need to do something very different now. I need to get away from this. I've spent too long in this world," and as we were wrapping up Cold In July, I'm already thinking "No, actually I could do this again. This is fun, I like this world, I like the tone." Especially Joe's universe, as you know, it's giant, so there's a lot of different ways you can go. Like the fact that someone like Jim Bob could pop up in the series and get Don [Johnson] back would be amazing. That sort of thing is really exciting.

All of that popped up at the same time, almost by chance, actually. We had met with SundanceTV, we knew that they were interested in maybe doing something with us, maybe. At the same time we also heard they were also very interested in a Hap and Leonard series. It kind of came together in a nice way.

What books do you guys have the rights to?

I believe all the books. Everything, I think.

I wasn't sure because Dexter of course famously only had the rights to one book in that series. So did you know you wanted to be seeding Mucho Mojo already in the first season?

I think we did because the original pitch to them was maybe that we were going to put both of those into one season, because we didn't know how many episodes we were going to get. We always said, "Joe's writing these things one at a time." He doesn't necessarily know, especially with the first one, he doesn't necessarily know if he's going to come back to Hap and Leonard again. So I think in hindsight, we have the ability to plant some of these seeds a lot earlier. Early on we knew we wanted to do that.

Now, Michael K. Williams seems like obvious casting as Leonard. Was he?

Oh yeah. Totally. It popped up at first when we were like, "Who would be an amazing Leonard? Well, Michael K. Williams, but you're not going to get Michael because he's never going to want to do this." Then we had heard that he wouldn't be interested in playing another gay character on television, so instantly you're like, "Yeah, that makes sense. All right, who's next?" While you're in the 'who's next' search, all of a sudden we get a call saying, "No, he actually might be interested in doing that, and he's heard about it and he would be interested in reading it." We sent it and very quickly we heard, "Oh, he really likes it. He's coming to New York tomorrow, he'd like to meet." So it was just like, "F--!" Sometimes these things fall into your lap, and this was one of them.

Okay, so Michael is obvious, but James Purefoy isn't.

Yeah, totally. Totally un-obvious.

How much convincing did James have to do to show you that he could be this Texas guy?

Well, he was completely off our radar because he was in The Following at that point, and that's the depressing thing when when you're through something you're like, "Now here's everybody who's on a show for the next three years," and you're like, "Yeah, okay," and then "These guys are also on a movie for a year," so all of a sudden, you're like, "Jesus." Your list is automatically cut to a fraction of what it is. So James is already off that list very early in the dance. Pretty quickly after talking to Michael, he said, "James Purefoy," and we're like, "No, he's on The Following." He said, "Hint hint, he might not be." This is only like a week or two before they killed his character off. We're like, "Oh, do you know him?" And in real life, Michael and James are the real life Hap and Leonard. I was like, "Oh my god."

The whole time we had been trying to build with our cast characters, we had to make sure that there's an obvious chemistry. That worked with Cold In July. Don Johnson and Sam Shepard have known each other for decades, so the fact that they got to play these guys who knew each other for decades, it made my job so much easier. We knew we wanted chemistry and when he said that, really that's their relationship, it was instant.

You probably don't know this because you don't have to watch everything coming out this spring, we have at least three different shows coming out with either Brits or Aussies as kind of Texas alpha males, with Dominic Cooper on Preacher and David Lyons on Game of Silence. Why is it you can't find an actual American alpha male who seems like he's from Texas?

Well, the ones who are really good are already found. We talk about this with James a lot. Where James comes from, you start off and you do a lot of training and you learn, and by the time you're however old James is, he's so f–ing good. He's done so much training. And I think here we just do it the opposite way because it's built more on fame and less on the work. It's built more on, "I'm a good-looking 18-year-old and I'm going to coast on that, and ride even though I'm not that great," and then I think by the time they get to their 40s, their 50s, they've run out of being interesting. I think that's why you see James. That's why you see Andrew Lincoln.

I remember as soon as we opened, as soon as we started casting, they were like, "Okay, we're opening up the casting room here in New York, Ellen Chenoweth in New York, at the same time we're opening up in London, we're opening up in Australia." I was like, "Why?" And they said, "That's where you get leading men." I can see why, because they're better. (Laughs.) I hate to say it, they're better. I mean there's great ones here, but they've already been taken.

The key to the relationship between Hap and Leonard is their frankness when discussing race, when discussing class, when discussing sexuality. Did you ever worry that things that play on the page between them would suddenly start sounding tinnier when people said them out loud?

Yes, and that happened. What was nice was when we were doing some early reads on stuff, you could see it was also enough to put it up on its feet a little bit and see. And yeah, it is. That was one of the things that was frustrating as a fan of Joe's stuff, there's so many of the most amazing conversations, and I hate to say, but in some cases the ones that are most memorable, when you put them up you're like, "Oooh, that sounds preachy," whereas what makes it nice in the book that it's the least preachy thing in the world. So that was difficult and we had to find ways around that.

James was conscious of it. A lot of times he would say, "You know, I know this works on the page as I'm imagining this, as I'm doing this, I think we have to sort of steer it this way." So that had to happen sometimes and it's frustrating because Joe's going, "Don't mess with my stuff," and I'm like, "As a fan, I don't want mess with your stuff, and to other fans, I don't want to mess with your stuff, but we also have to make it work."

What is your relationship with Joe at this point?

It's funny, he calls me his nephew or his son-he-never-had, although he has a son. I wouldn't put those words in his mouth, but he's called me his nephew at some point. It is great because we met him in 2006. I made Mulberry Street with Nick Damici and we were all [saying], "I don't know if anyone's going to like this." We went to the SXSW Film Festival and we met him there. I had reached out to him about Cold In July and instantly he really liked that movie. He was the first person who was like, "I really like your movie," which is so cool.

Certainly if he'd told you he hadn't liked it...

It would have sucked. Especially because it's the first. It's one thing when it's someone you really like when it's the first dude you're really showing it to outside of your own little circle. From then, we said we want to make Cold In July, and we spent seven years and every time something didn't happen, I'd have to reach out to him, let him know. But he read every draft, he was involved, he came to set. When it finally happened, I think he had faith in us. He had to re-option something like five times, he came to set. He was there all the time.

He's very family-centric. He brings Kasey and Keith, his kids, and Karen, his wife. Even his niece, some of his cousins, his son's girlfriend, everybody, they all travel everywhere, so when we go somewhere like Cannes, they all come. When you go to Sundance, they all come. When you go to shoot, they all come. It's nice because I think he has that sort of attitude that he includes you into that, and that's really cool.

He reads every draft, he reads everything that comes out, he gives really great ideas. If there is a line and he's saying, "Why you guys changing it?", it's like, "Here's why, can you help us with that?" He'll help us with some of that stuff, and other times he'll say, "This is on you guys. You guys take it," so it's a good, healthy relationship. He was on set literally every day that we shot. Yeah, every day. It's me, here's the monitor, here's Joe Lansdale, yeah. Which at times can be (he makes a nervous face) but it's great.

With the seeding in place, I assume that Mucho Mojo is clearly the next season, if you get to that, right?

That would be the hope, yes.

Would you have aspirations to do your own original arc in the season? Or do you like actually working with the books? Actually, would Joe let you? 

All those questions are a "maybe"? Joe letting us, "Maybe not"? Part of it's going to be the reception, honestly. Someone earlier was like, "What if this is a huge success?" Like, whatever, I hope that it is. If it is, I don't want it to be the sort of thing where people will go on Twitter and be like, "What's going to happen next week?" and some knucklehead who read the book will be like, "Well, next week, such and such." You don't want that to happen, so I think we have to find our own version of it that satisfies what we all love about it, but also allows for enough curve balls to know that it can change at any point.

Hap & Leonard premieres on Wednesday at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.

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