Sundance Preview: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson and Sam Shepard Form a Triangle of Violence in 'Cold in July'

3:32 PM PST 01/07/2014 by Matt Patches

After cooking the project for nearly six years, "We Are What We Are" director Jim Mickle is ready to unleash his adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale's bristly thriller.

The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch-up. So this year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a bit of prep work for you: Here's the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.

After his 2013 horror movie We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle could have parlayed his critical success into a career of big-budget studio movies. His careful technique and diligent attention to character earned him rave reviews in a genre overstuffed with cheap, lackluster imitators. But like the ambition that ran through We Are's veins, Mickle was steadfast in carving out a career that was identifiably his own. So he turned to source material that had picking at his brain for half a decade: Joe R. Lansdale's Cold in July.

A thriller chock full of twists and turns, Mickle's film pits Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard against one another in what the Sundance program guide refers to as a Southern-fried mystery “as muggy, oppressive, and hard to shake as an east Texas summer" (the polar opposite of We Are What We Are). It's set to premiere on Jan. 18 at Sundance's Library Theatre. We talked to Mickle about finally getting Cold in July off the ground and how he came to understand the tone of his wild competition film.

Background: Mickle is one of the few directors with genre sensibilities who sticks to the independent scene. An alumnus of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, he made his directorial debut in 2006 with the viral horror film Mulberry Street. He followed it with the vampire movie Stake Land, which won the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness award. Last year, he debuted a remake of the introspective cannibal drama We Are What We Are at Sundance's Midnight programming. The film went on to play the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival before being released.

Getting the Film Off the Ground: All the while, Mickle's script for Cold in July bubbled in the background. “For five years that was the movie we were going to do,” he says. “It was always going to be next. But it was hard to get off the ground because it wasn't a straight-up horror film. I think it's a lot easier to get straight-up horror films done on the independent level.” Mickle and his writing partner/go-to actor Nick Damici optioned the book after wrapping Mulberry Street at the end of 2006. They had a script by 2007; they just couldn't find any takers. “It's an ambitious thing, too. It's not one guy in one location. We needed a bigger budget but could never really bridge that gap to that next step up.”

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Cold wound up paving the road for Mickle's future. While he was developing the movie with Memento Films International, the production company suggested Mickle take a break and shoot We Are What We Are. The film acted as a catalyst that sent him back to his passion project. While screening the film at Sundance 2013, the filmmaker met Dexter's Hall. “He read the script and we had a quick conversation there,” Mickle recalls. “By the time we played Cannes, the movie was greenlit.”

When It All Seemed to Click: Tone was always going to be a question with Cold in July, and Mickle admits that nailing it might have been harder earlier in his career, when he was aching to shoot the movie. The director says Cold isn't your typical Sundance competition film (though he's elated by its inclusion in the category).“It's still dealing with genre, mainly thriller and action, and it has a very precise tone it's going for. Kind of an '80s throwback. Like Road House.” Mickle also cites the genre-bending films of Korean director Joon-ho Bong; 2003's Memories of Murder stands out as a huge influence. “That was the movie I sent around to the whole crew and the actors. This is the kind of film we're making here. The movie starts with one setup and it keeps going and turning. It doesn't try and hit the 17-minute mark and a 'first act' turn. It keeps changing and evolving,” he says.

Mickle's Mission for Cold in July: Mickle's enthusiasm while describing his latest film stems from swinging his stylistic pendulum in a completely opposite direction. “If We Are was a feminist horror story, this is a look at masculinity, being a contemporary man and what that means. [It's] dominated by dude themes. But pacing-wise it's totally different -- it starts with a bang and moves quickly. It was fun to come to something like this after coming from something so precise.”

Twitter: @misterpatches

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