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How Philadelphia plays a starring role in Netflix’s sci-fi serial-killer movie ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’

Philly plays a key role Netflix's new movie from local Jim Mickles, even though it wasn't shot here.

Michael C. Hall from Netflix's 'In the Shadow of the Moon'
Michael C. Hall from Netflix's 'In the Shadow of the Moon'Read moreNetflix

One of the first things you see in the new Netflix movie In The Shadow of the Moon is a woman wearing a T-shirt that says Pottstown.

For this we can thank the NFL, sort of, because when director and Pottstown native Jim Mickle asked for permission to use an Eagles jersey for the set-in-Philadelphia film, the league said no.

So he went with the Pottstown shirt.

As he looked for ways to make Shadow, which was actually filmed in Toronto, more Philly-centric, he found the NBA more accommodating. The movie follows a detective (Boyd Holbrook) on the trail of a mysterious woman who kills every nine years, a narrative that spans several decades, providing Mickle with the challenge of finding a way to mark time in a specific way. And this is where the Sixers were helpful.

As the detective drives around looking for clues — in 1988, 1997, and 2006 — we often hear Sixers radio play-by-play man Tom McGinnis, who started in the ’90s, in the background, giving game descriptions of the Charles Barkley team, or the Allen Iverson-Chris Webber team, or some later incarnation of talent, and in this way we get a sense of the movie’s place in time.

“It’s not archival [audio], but it’s based off the actual games of those eras. We reached out for Tom and he was happy to do it. We also asked Ed Rendell to come out [to provide some audio], but to be totally honest I was more excited about Tom,” said Mickle, laughing.

He likes to give his movies (Cold in July, We Are What We Are, Stake Land) a vivid sense of place, and when he initially read the Shadow script, he wasn’t feeling it.

» READ MORE: 'We Are What We Are' serves up brilliant, disturbing horror

“The first draft I read was set in Chicago, and I’ve never been there and it felt foreign to me. I was mostly connecting with the characters, who are blue-collar guys who eventually got into law enforcement, guys like [the ones] I grew up with in Berks County,” he said. “I wanted the city to be a character, too, and Philadelphia was a city I knew.”

Mickle remembers traveling to Philadelphia as a teen film buff to see movies like Lost Highway at the Ritz (“I was a David Lynch nut”), and though he wanted to shoot in Philadelphia, saying that was the goal early on, it didn’t work out for tax and budget reasons.

Even small increases in marginal costs can shorten a shooting schedule, he said, leaving filmmakers with less creative elbow room. Still, he found ways to pay homage to the city — there is a lot of exterior second-unit photography in the movie, the city’s skyline is featured prominently, and the view from City Hall actually plays a pivotal role in the plot and the chronological framing of the movie.

“With the whole tax-credit thing that is now such a part of how a movie gets made, you get a lot of movies that feel sort of generic, and that’s a bummer, and that’s something I wanted to avoid,” said Mickle, who, Pottstown T-shirt aside, is actually from the nearby town of Douglassville.

He attended Daniel Boone Area High School, by which time he was already a budding filmmaker. He was the kind of kid who read Fangoria and wanted to make his own gory special effects, and eventually film them, which he did with the help of his sister Beth.

He was also a regular at the local video store, A to Z, where he got hooked on the work of Sam Raimi. especially Army of Darkness. It was Raimi’s work that got Mickle thinking about the process of putting movies together.

“I started to think about the idea that someone was making all of the decisions that go into making a movie, and the light bulb just sort of went off.” he said.

He also got input from his stepmother, Cynthia Baughman, a film professor who taught screenwriting for several years at Temple. The love of film rubbed off. His sister, Beth Mickle, is now a major Hollywood production designer whose credits include Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. She’s currently working with James Gunn on Suicide Squad II.

Beth designed Mickle’s student films while he was at New York University and she was at Columbia, and both have worked their way up the Hollywood ladder. After his early horror movies, Mickle made the thriller Cold in July with Don Johnson and Sam Shepard, in what turned out to be one of the actor/playwright’s last major film roles.

» READ MORE: 'Cold in July': Absurdist, hardboiled American nightmare

One of Mickle’s most cherished possessions is a single typed page of a script rewrite — framed and hanging on his office wall for inspiration — that Shepard contributed for his character. It was a scene that Mickle and cowriter Nick Damici had wrestled with for years, and that Shepard spotted right away when he reviewed the script. He asked if he could take a crack at it, and Mickle of course said yes.

“His room was right next to ours, and we could hear him typing that night,” said Mickle, who wasn’t surprised that Shepard made the scene better, but was touched that he did it by changing only his own dialogue, leaving the other actors’ lines intact.

“That shows what a sweet guy he was, and how deferential he was to our work, and to the other actors,” he said.

Mickle recently had the chance to visit the homeland of another idol, Peter Jackson, filming a TV pilot in New Zealand called Sweet Tooth, and is waiting to see if it gets picked up.

“It’s different for me, which is good. It’s a dark kids’ fairy tale with a lot of puppetry, a lot of magical realism. It’s super-cool.”