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‘Cold in July’: Jim Mickle Details How He Directed and Co-Edited This Dark Thriller

Editor and director Jim Mickle details his first time working with an outside editor on 'Cold in July,' his 4th feature film.

Like so many others, Jim Mickle began his career as a freelance editor in New York, working on commercials and corporate videos. He became attracted to filmmaking and has gone on to direct four indie feature films, including his latest, Cold in July. Like his 2013 film We Are What We Are, Cold in July had a successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold In July is a noir crime drama set in 1980s East Texas. It stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Killing Them Softly) and Don Johnson (Django Unchained, Miami Vice). Awakened in the middle of the night, small town family man Richard Dane (Hall) kills a burglar in his house. Dane soon fears for his family’s safety when the burglar’s ex-con father, Ben (Shepard), comes to town, bent on revenge. The story then takes a turn into a world of corruption and violence. Add Jim Bob (Johnson) to this mix as a pig-farming private eye and you have an interesting trio of characters.

The script was optioned in 2007, but production didn’t start until 2013. According to Jim Mickle, Cold In July’s fast-track schedule included eight weeks of pre-production beginning in May, principal photography starting in July (for five weeks) and a wrap in September. The picture was locked shortly after Thanksgiving. John Paul Hortsmann (Killing Them Softly) shared editing duties with Mickle.

Director Jim Mickle and 1st AD Randall Ehrmann on the set. Photo by Bobby Boothe.

I asked Mickle how it was to work with another editor. He says, “I edited my last three films by myself, but with this schedule, post was wedged between promoting We Are What We Are and the Sundance deadline. I really didn’t have time to walk away from it and view it with fresh eyes. I decided to bring John Paul on board to help. This was the first time I’ve worked with another editor. John Paul was cutting while I was shooting and editing the initial assembly, which was finished about a week before the Sundance submission deadline. I got involved in the edit about mid-October. At that point, we went back to tighten and smooth out the film. We would each work on scenes and then switch and take a pass at each other’s work.”

Mickle continues, “The version that we submitted to Sundance was two and a half hours long. John Paul and I spent about three weeks polishing and then were ready to get feedback from the outside. We held a screening for 20 to 25 people and afterwards asked questions about whether the plot points were coherent to them. It’s always good for me, as the director, to see the film with an audience. You get to see it fresh—with new eyes—and that helps you to trim and condense sections of the film.”

The director-editor relationship always presents an interesting dynamic, since the editor can be objective in cutting out material that may have cost the director a lot of time and effort to shoot. Normally the editor has no emotional investment in the production of the footage. How did Jim Mickle the editor treat his own work as director? Mickle says, “As an editor, I’m more ruthless on myself as director. John Paul was less quick to give up on scenes than I. There are things I didn’t think twice about losing if they didn’t work, but he’d stay late to fix things and often have a solution the next day. I shoot with plenty of coverage these days, so I’ll build a scene and then rework it. I love the edit. It’s the first time you really feel comfortable and can craft the story. On the set, things happen so quickly that you always have to be reactive—working and thinking on your feet.”

Sam Shepard, Don Johnson and Michael C. Hall

Although Mickle had edited We Are What We Are with Adobe Premiere Pro, the team decided to shift back to Apple Final Cut Pro 7 for the edit of Cold In July. Mickle explains, “As a freelance editor in New York, I was very comfortable with Final Cut, but I’m also an [Adobe] After Effects user. When doing a lot of visual effects, it really feels tedious to go back and forth between Final Cut and After Effects. The previous film was shot with RED cameras and I used a raw workflow in post, cutting natively with Premiere Pro. I really loved the experience—working with raw files and Dynamic Link between Premiere and After Effects. When we hired John Paul as the primary editor on the film, we opted to go back to Final Cut because that is what he is most comfortable with. That would get the job done in the most expedient fashion, since he was handling the bulk of the editing.

“We shot with RED cameras again [on Cold in July], but the footage was transcoded to ProRes for the edit. I did find the process to be frustrating, though, because I really like the fluidity of using the raw files in Premiere. I like the editing process to live and breathe and not be delineated. Having access to the raw files lets me tweak the color correction, which helps me to get an idea of how a scene is shaping up. I get the composer involved early so we have a lot of the real music in place as a guide while we edit. This way your cutting style—and the post process in general—are more interactive. In any case, the ProRes files were only used to get us to the locked cut. Our final DI was handled by Light Iron in New York, and they conformed the film from the original RED files for a 2K finish.”

The final screening with mix, color correction and all visual effects occurred just before Sundance. There the producers struck a distribution deal with IFC Films. Cold In July started its domestic release in May of this year.