Jim Mickle and Nick Damici have rat plague to thank for their thriving movie careers. Mickle, a writer-director, and Damici, a writer-actor, collaborated on three horror features before making the shaggy-dog neo-noir Cold in July. It all started with Mulberry St (06), in which rat-bitten New Yorkers turn into blood-hungry zombie hordes. Shot on a shoestring in a Lower East Side apartment block, it became the calling card for the resourceful and historically minded genre duo, who went on to film the terrifying survivalist vampire yarn Stake Land (10) and the slow burn cannibal creeper We Are What We Are (13). Damici and Mickle approach genre with humility and respect, eschewing self-aware yuks for a return to old-fashioned thrills.

Gifted with a game and grizzled cast, Cold in July shifts away from horror but remains true to their blood-spattering roots. Adapted from the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, it follows mild-mannered East Texas picture-framer Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), who accidentally shoots and kills a home intruder. The dead thief’s father (Sam Shepard) seeks vengeance against Dane, but both men stumble into a larger mystery, necessitating the aid of P.I. Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson).

FILM COMMENT spoke with Mickle about adaptation, Korean revenge movies, and the changing color of moonlight in American movies.

Cold in July

How did you get into the work of Joe R. Lansdale?

I had seen Bubba Ho-Tep [adapted from a Lansdale novella] when it was doing its theater rounds in 2002. It played at the Angelika and Bruce Campbell did a Q&A. I am a huge Bruce Campbell and Evil Dead fan, and I was really blown away by how original it was. It was different, but not craziness for craziness’s sake. It had a real heart to it. So I started reading Joe R. Lansdale’s books and short stories, and I fell in love with those also. I guess it was 2006 that I read Cold in July.

What attracts you to his writing? Is it the plotting? The story in Cold in July is pretty intricate, with a bold mixing of genres.

Even in his other stuff he mixes science fiction and historical fiction, and there’s an element of horror to all his stuff. An element of pulp . . . noir as well. He just follows where the story takes him, and they wind up organically moving through different genres. But it’s also his characters that appeal to me. He does some tricky storytelling, but as in Cold in July, it’s motivated by this very real person who is stumbling his way through this world. That is one thing I really connected to. I loved that character. It could by my dad solving a mystery.

In your previous films you’ve approached the horror genre from a variety of different directions. But in this one it feels like you’re trying to break free of horror, especially the way in which it starts out almost like a slasher movie, and then goes in a very different direction after that. Did that appeal to you, moving into different genres?

Yeah, definitely. When we adapted it first we were hoping it would be our second movie, after Mulberry St. That was the original goal, but it got harder and harder to make. But that was a big part of why I wanted to do it. We’ve done three different horror movies, doing three different sides of it, playing with different looks and feels. So the idea of playing with something that is the most genre of the bunch, that embraces its genre elements the most, was attractive. We Are What We Are, because it had such a dark topic, we dressed it up a bit in a feminine, delicate frame. Cold in July is four different stories in one, and it was fun to play with all those feels and tones.

Cold in July

You and Nick Damici have been writing partners and collaborators for a long time. How did you two meet?

I met him on a student film, and he was the lead in it. I was floored by his acting. He had this great Seventies tough-guy thing happening that was so authentic. We were there for a couple of weeks, and we hit it off. I was a grip on it, and we started talking about movies, and we had similar tastes. I was planning my senior film and was hoping he would star in that. We started throwing ideas around, and at some point we got back to New York, and he started sending me these scripts, taking place in this world that I loved. I was having difficulty writing, trying to be really clever. I was all about the structure—it didn’t have any heart. I started sending him notes on his things, and we started playing with stuff, which led to Mulberry St, something we could shoot quickly.

With Cold, I gave a copy of the book to our producer and Nick. The first idea was that I would maintain the voiceover from the book. Nick would write a version and I would write a version, and then we’d combine the elements that worked. That was the goal. Then about a week later I called him and he said, “I’m almost done,” and I was on chapter three. I was 40 pages in—it was going to be a 2,000-page screenplay [laughs]. So at that point we went with what he was going with. As the years went by, we kept condensing it down—a lot of things that work in first-person narrative in the book we had to learn how to externalize, and translate it into cinema.

Nick is older than I am, another generation. He’s had a crazy life. He worked at UPS for a while. His dad ran a bar in Hell’s Kitchen—he did that for a long time. He had a completely different life, I think, and then at some point he left Jersey, quit his job at UPS, and moved back into the city and started a new life. He was kickboxing, and also wanted to act. He’s also a voracious reader, and an amazingly disciplined and fast writer. He’s in his fifties now, so he’s informed by all the Westerns, stuff he grew up with. Most people now, that’s not something that inspired them. He has this great old-fashioned feel for simplicity in storytelling. He’s a writer first and foremost and comes at it from the character’s point of view. As the director, I’m constantly thinking about what the visual is going to be, already over-thinking things, what are they going to be wearing. He’s writing for the characters, which results in roles that actors really love and will want to have fun with.

I’ll constantly refer to movies from the last 20 years, and he’ll spout off about movies from the Forties and Fifties, where he just watched them last night. We fill each other in very well. At the same time, when it comes to structure, he doesn’t care as much. I have a background in editing, so I really come at that stuff strongly. It’s a very cool pairing.

Let’s continue talking about your end of the job—the visuals in Cold in July. There are very saturated colors, playing off the red and green of the stoplight. Can you talk about the color scheme you were going for?

We definitely wanted to play with saturated colors. Especially from coming off of We Are What We Are, which needed an icy blue feel for the whole thing. What we were able to do for Cold in July, there was a lot of fun to be had. It’s the exact opposite, sweaty and driven. We wanted it to have it look like it was lit by a lot of neon lights. Blue moonlight was a big thing for me. Movies in the Eighties and Nineties had that blue moonlight, and at some point in the early 2000s it transitioned to the silver moonlight look that most DPs have adopted. I love that old-fashioned royal-blue moonlight, so we had to find the perfect shade of that. And then all those fun, pulpy, red-and-blue police lights, following the brake light. I love all that stuff.

Also a big part of that was trying to make the world sexy. Dane’s original life is not boring, but there’s a plainness to it. He has a great moment in a phone booth where it looks like Suspiria—primary yellow, blue, red. Standing on the corner, all of a sudden all these things come at him and shake him up. By the time Don Johnson gets there, we wanted to have a ton of neon: purples, oranges. I wanted to give it an old-school, Technicolor feel.

Cold in July

You mentioned referencing a look from the Eighties and Nineties. What were your specific references?

We pull elements from a lot of stuff. The opening, when he walks down the hallway, is almost shot-for-shot M. Emmet Walsh walking down the hallway with a gun in Blood Simple. There’s some Lost Highway. Other big ones were these Korean films Memories of Murder, The Host, and The Chaser. They jump around stylistically and tonally, especially Memories of Murder, which can be funny in one pan, and the next scene is terrifying. And you get the fun of the detective thing. Those and Mother I sent around early to everybody, just to let them know this what we’re going for, and we can pull it off. That it can be funny, heartbreaking, and intensely violent in the same movie.

Who did you send the Korean revenge thrillers to?

Especially Wyatt Russell [who plays a smarmy snuff filmmaker]. From The Chaser to The Yellow Sea, I love how protagonists of one turned into the villains in the other. We have fun with Wyatt Russell in this one, taking the boy next door from We Are What We Are and bringing him back as the exact opposite of that.

In the editing phase, and while we were promoting We Are What We Are on the road, we were listening to a lot of Seventies and Eighties soundtracks. Getting into the mood to start editing. We had a lot of Tangerine Dream soundtracks. Our composer Jeff Grace did mock-up versions, his versions of these Eighties sounds. When we dropped it into the graveyard scene, the music declared itself as a character, and declared the movie it was going to be.

How did you get this intimidating cast together?

For the lead, I always want to discover somebody, want them to be anonymous. When you get as far as the sales team trying to cast, it becomes: “OK, Mark Wahlberg.” And then “Mark Wahlberg and Mark Wahlberg.” For all three parts [laughs]. When you have an everyman with a gun, everyone wants to cast Mark Wahlberg. It’s a game. I had all these character actors in mind that nobody would want to cast. We went through many variations of financing over the course of development. And they always wanted whoever was the Marvel superhero that weekend. And that was the exact wrong idea. I wanted a guy who looked like he’d never held a gun. At some point, through some agent-y thing the script got to Michael C. Hall. And I love him, but I never would have thought of him for this. He’s made a career out of playing men with dark, twisted insides. There’s something cool about him playing an everyman. We got Michael to do something he had not been able to play for a very long time: a regular guy, the guy next door. He read the script and liked it, right at the time I thought the movie was falling apart. I heard he liked it, and ran into him at a Sundance party. He said: “I love the script. Let’s do it. See you on the set.”

The rest of the cast happened very quickly. Sam Shepard was the first person we sent it to, the first draft, and as far as I know he never read it. For all I know, he may have never received it. We heard he was not really interested in acting at this point. Then he was on a roll with Mud and Out of the Furnace. He was back into it, finding his mojo. He read it and got it right away. After a lot of time, the financiers were getting nervous because he never talked or had long chunks of dialogue, and they couldn’t get inside his head. Damici kept saying: “He’s going to find it in the moment. And all these worries that people have are going to go away.” That’s exactly what Sam did.

Then with Don Johnson, we needed a really charming, larger-than-life, overly cocky (but gets away with it), kind of used-car salesman, who can do it all. Very few actors can do that.

Cold in July

That sounds like you’re describing his character from Eastbound & Down.

Exactly. We had seen that and Django Unchained, and then our producer Linda went through ideas for that. She threw out Don Johnson, and that was it. We did not change our minds at all. We sent it to him, and luckily he was in town in New York. He and Sam had known each other back in the day and wanted to work together. Both of them really liked that idea, working with Michael too. It was weird. After this long, long, long journey, all of a sudden it got cast in two weeks.

What was cool was how someone like Don, and all three of them, knew very clever ways of how to get out of certain jams. It’s something you learn from doing movies that long. Those spots where you’re like, “This line feels just like exposition.” We usually try to bury this, hide it away somewhere, but they’re like, “No, let’s do it like this.” That kind of stuff really helps us.