Interview: 'Hap And Leonard' Co-Creator Jim Mickle On His Burgeoning Joe R. Lansdale Universe

Jim Mickle's movie Cold in July brought Joe R. Lansdale's writing back to the big screen. The only previous movie adaptation was the horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep, but Mickle, along with cowriter Nick Damici, captured Lansdale's hard boiled southern crime thriller. Now that team is bringing Lansdale to series television with Sundance Channel's Hap and Leonard.

James Purefoy plays Hap Collins and Michael K. Williams plays Leonard Pine, two out-of-work men in the '80s. When Hap's ex Trudy (Christina Hendricks) brings them the location to a sunken stash, Hap and Leonard agree to help her find it. And everything goes according to plan and they part as friends, right? We sat down with Mickle before Hap and Leonard's panel for the Television Critics Association to discuss the new show, which premieres this week on SundanceTV. 

You've done a hard boiled crime story with Cold in July. Had you been thinking about what you might be able to do in television for a while?

Definitely television. I didn't know it would be sort of grown out of what we'd already done with the Lansdale thing, but definitely. Movies get harder and harder to make and harder and harder to find the right audience for. When you're doing character-driven genre, that can be really tough. I think television can be really attractive when you want to spend a little more time on a story I guess.

Did you discover Hap and Leonard through Cold in July?

No, Hap and Leonard was one of the first Lansdale things I read, so maybe 10 years ago. I knew about Lansdale through Bubba Ho-Tep, remember that film? I saw that. That kind of blew me away. I was like, "Whoever did this, I want to read everything they've done." So I tracked down a lot of Joe's stuff, one of the first of which was I think Two-Bear Mambo, the third book in the Hap and Leonard series. Cold in July came after that but there's some overlaps too. The Don Johnson character in Cold in July is in the Hap and Leonard universe so there's cool overlaps.

Is it possible to see those overlaps in the series?

Not the Don Johnson part yet.

But would you hold out for Johnson rather than cast someone else as Jim Bob?

I would love to. Knock on wood, I hope the show goes well but I also hope he becomes available at some point.

What surprised you about the process of developing television?

I don't think anything was that surprising. Everyone sort of preps you going in. You hear a lot of times, "In TV it's done this way, in TV it's done this way." So you're prepped. The voices, there's a lot of voices. There's a lot of network oversight, and even though I think we had the best version of that, there's still a lot of that which I wasn't used to because we've only done independent things in our own little bubble I guess.

How have you found the process of having six episodes to tell the story?

Great. What was the most fun I think was the beginning, the puzzle piece-ness of it and putting stuff together and knowing that you have act breaks and ends of episodes. I thought it was so fun. So the structuring of it I thought was really rewarding. I don't know, there's something about my mind that really got off on that.

Are the episodes like chapters of a book?

I mean, they could be. They're not literally. We bring other things in, we jostle things around, we combine elements from different books and characters. So it's not literally like chapters but one of the fun things about Joe's writing style is that they're page turners. You're always like, "Oh, I'll just finish a chapter and go to bed." Then you're like, "Oh no, I've got to read more." So we try to do that version of that in the show.

Jim Mickle Hap and Leonard

Christina Hendricks is credited as a special guest star. What should we read into that?

I think it's more contract things than anything. I don't know if there's anything narratively to read into it.

Is she in every episode?

No spoilers, but yeah. She's in every episode.

Were James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams your first choices for Hap and Leonard?

Michael, yes, definitely. He popped up and it was instantly like oh my God, he'd be amazing. We heard that he wasn't available so that quickly disappeared. At that point, James wasn't even on our radar because The Following was still going strong. It wasn't until Michael actually told us, hint hint, ahead of time, his character in The Following was going away. We'd just cast Michael and he texted me or called me up at some point and said, "In real life, me and James are like Hap and Leonard. That's the real life Hap and Leonard. If you can get James, that would be amazing." Then all of a sudden he mysteriously became available.

Is the line "Why don't I just leave the room so you can put your dicks on the table" in the book?

No, no. That was ours. That was [Hap and Leonard co-creator] Nick Damici's line actually.

What are some of the juicy Lansdale lines you got to fit in the show?

The whole conversation when they're packing the van in the first episode, there's some really funny stuff. The line about "seals ain't got no bills to pay." A lot of the funny Leonard stuff, but it's weird because you get to the end and it's a big stew. I find it hard to remember in some cases what came from where, which I think is good. "Surprisingly big dick" I think that was us in episode two.

Is it something where once you're writing these characters, you can't help but fit in that style?

Yes, I think so. I think so. Joe, the biggest part is his dialogue and you wind up doing a lot of piecemeal stuff and you wind up, as you go back and you're reading more of the books, you're like, "Oh my God, here's a great line but we're not doing that scene. Where else can we pull that line in?" That can be really fun and Joe's on set the whole time too, so he's also throwing stuff out off the top of his head. The shit that comes out of his mouth off the top of his head would take us an entire day to think of.

You get fresh, unedited Lansdale.

Yeah, exactly. Unfiltered and he's sitting right next to the monitor. James and Michael are free to come up at any point. That immediacy is pretty great.

What's an example of something Lansdale threw out on the set?

Good question. What I think of specifically is actually some martial arts moves that he showed James that come up in a later episode. He doesn't look like a martial artist at all, but if you want to see an amazing video, YouTube "Funky Werepig" and there's a demonstration of his that's unbelievable. Anyway, he showed us some moves on set that saved us a lot of stunts.

Is the whole first season the first book?

Yes, it is the first book but it's not just the first book I would say. There's a lot of combining elements.

What would you want the second season to be?

I'd love it to be the essence of the second book. I think that's my favorite book. That's the one that I think everyone really remembers, and it's a completely different world. What I hope will happen is that each season of the show will be its own genre in a way. This is sort of a sunken treasure drama. The next genre is almost their version of a murder mystery. Even by the third one, there's a western. The way we pitched it was that each season is going to be its own universe to explore. It won't just be sitting with this world.

But the second book couldn't be the first season?

I think this one lent itself. Savage Season is the first book but I think this one lent itself more towards the smaller, contained thing. The setup also, what's nice about the second book is that you know who these guys are already. I think that'll fit better, but what's really nice is it's a white guy's view of an inner city black neighborhood in the '80s which I think would be such a cool follow-up to this season, since this season is so rural, swampy and boggy.

Hap and Leonard (3)

I had a bit of a revelation watching the pilot. As much as I enjoy these perfect crimes gone wrong stories, I sort of want to tell the characters at the beginning it's not going to work out. But the revelation was that no one contemplates a crazy idea unless they're desperate. Did you really focus on the desperation?

Yeah, I think so. I think that's one of the best parts of the series is that they're not slick. I think a lot of thriller stuff, a lot of genre stuff, it's always the slickest, most polished, most seasoned criminals performing stuff which I think is so uninteresting. What's great is if you or I were in these situations. I think that's what makes the stuff human and relatable and much more interesting. I think these are guys that are on the bottom of the economic ladder at a time when that ladder was getting harder and harder to climb. Late '80s Reaganomics, trickle-down, these guys are stuck at the bottom and this is the only way they're going to get out of it.

How much of Hap and Trudy's relationship is defined in the books?

A lot of it but Joe writes in a style I think that leaves a lot open to the imagination, visually. Like when he describes these characters, everybody has a different idea. It was actually fun in casting it. Everyone has a different idea of what that's going to be. I remember people being like, "Leonard, I always pictured him as like 6'6", 300 lbs." and other guys being like, "No, I always pictured him a little scrawny, wiry guy." You realize when you go back that he describes it just enough to set up an image in your mind and lets your mind run wild. So the Hap and Trudy relationship, I think he does the same thing. He touches on things that have happened in the past. We, especially by the middle of the season, actually go back and start to explore those things and see those scenes firsthand. So that was using what he set up as a springboard.

Cold in July was a period piece too. Is it tricky doing a period piece in a period you lived through?

Yeah, but what's interesting is it's when the decade starts to get its own identity. By the '70s, by the time I was aware of pop culture, the '70s had already defined itself as what the '70s is. I think that late '80s, almost 1990 thing is funny because at the time, you don't know what it's going to be defined by but in retrospect, as you start going back and looking at pictures, looking at references, looking at styles, it all starts to come back. I think that's what's interesting. It's almost exploring your own life in a way. 10 years from now, 20 years from now, when people do a story that's set in 2016, I don't know what that's going to look like.

Any difficulties shooting on the water?

Yes. Luckily a lot of it wasn't in my middle section but it's really hard. We had pools mixed with ponds mixed with rivers in reality. Water's never the same color, it's hard to reset. Yeah, it was difficult. We did a lot of difficult stuff. We shot in a lot of very small cars which is really a pain in the ass.

How so?

There's some stuff that'll come up in one of the episodes where I think we have eight characters in the hippie van for a ten-minute-long dialogue scene while it's moving. That was never a good idea. A lot of things are great on paper until you get there. It looks great. It's a great setting but it's tough.

Did Sundance Channel come from your connection to the Sundance Film Festival?

Yes. I mean, it wasn't like the festival hands you off to the channel, but at some point I met with Christian Vesper and Jordan Hellman from Sundance while we were doing the meet and great. You do a lot of meetings when you're film's at a festival. I remember we met with them and talked about something else before Cold in July. They said, "We're looking for smart genre stuff." It wound up all coming together very organically but it wasn't like a direct pipeline.

Do you have movie projects in the works?

A couple. I have a film called Esperanza, wildland firefighters. I've been working on that for a little bit. A monster movie that Nick and I had written years ago that we're finally starting to jump back into. And really just now getting to open back up to life outside of this. I love the idea of being able to continue doing the show and doing movies at the same time.

Could you imagine having more than one show going on like some show runners do?

Not the way that we did this. This is literally every beat of every stage of everything. I don't know how anyone would multitask that much. You'd have to have a really big team. We don't have a big team. I tend to get obsessive. I don't know if I could spread out that thin.

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Hap and Leonard premieres Wednesday, March 2 at 10/9c on SundanceTV.