***WARNING! The following contains mild spoilers for In the Shadow of the Moon!***
Ah yes, the classic detective story.
The genre of determined cops and private gumshoes has deep ties to the cities of New York and Los Angeles, but not so much with Philadelphia. So, why in the world did Netflix decide to set the genre-mashing, time-hopping In the Shadow of the Moon in the City of Brotherly Love? Like a sleuth tracking down a lead, I hopped on a phone call with the movie’s director, Jim Mickle (Cold in July, Hap and Leonard).
“I grew up just outside of Pottstown ... about an hour or so away [from the city],” he told me. “I read an early draft of the script, which I loved, but it was set in Chicago and I didn’t really know anything about Chicago and what was fun about the movie was seeing the time pass over decades and it felt like you wanted to see that in the city—sort of make the city a character, I guess. I fell in love with this idea of it being through my eyes of seeing the city change from the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s and all that to sort of track the movie through those changes.”
Kicking off in the late 1980s, the film follows Thomas Lockhart (Logan’s Boyd Holbrook), a Philly police officer, obsessed with catching a mysterious serial killer (Cleopatra Coleman) who enigmatically returns to the city every nine years.
Thanks to the retro time period, Mickle and his art department (led by his brother-in-law, production designer Russell Barnes) were able to indulge in some really specific imagery that any Philadelphia or East Coast resident would be able to immediately recognize such as the old school logos for Septa (Philly’s public transit system) and Wawa (a popular convenience store found up and down the Atlantic Seaboard). That “jawn” is even more magical when you realize that the project wasn’t actually filmed in the city itself, but more on that later.
“It’s kind of the magic of art department, is they’re able to get so specific about that kind of stuff. It was really beautiful, so some stuff we talked about early on, specifics and all that. Making sure we had the right time-appropriate Septa logo and colors and stuff like that,” continued Mickle. “Other times, you show up to set and it’s like, ‘Oh my god! Holy sh**, there’s that great old WaWa logo.’ Little stuff [like] the coffee cups that show up on set, so that was really exciting to see all those little tiny touches that I wouldn’t have completely thought about ... It’s the same with our costumes and wardrobes. We had to get NBA approval for the Sixers logo and jerseys and stuff like that. They were great about that, the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers. The NFL is really hard to get, so the most we could get was the Midnight Green color at some point, but we couldn’t actually get the [Eagles] logo.”
With so many films set in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, Mickle wanted to show some love for a metropolitan area that doesn’t get a lot of love outside of the Rocky franchise and the works of M. Night Shyamalan.
“I grew up seeing these iconic Philadelphia movies and it feels like outside of M. Night, there hasn’t really been a ton of that lately,” Mickle said, citing John Landis’s Trading Places and Brian De Palma’s Blowout as influences on In the Shadow of the Moon. “I think that was another reason to set the movie there, to give it sort of that specificity. With so many movies today shooting in Atlanta or generic cities, you wind up losing some of that specificity of individual city stories.”
As he gets closer to answering the mystery of the killer, Thomas begins to neglect his daughter (played by a variety of actresses given that the plot spans several decades) and brother-in-law (Michael C. Hall). In particular, Hall—who worked with Mickle on Cold in July—really nails the Philadelphia dialect that recalls the work of Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense, another Philly-based genre flick directed by Mr. Shyamalan.
“I love Michael because he’s such a chameleon and he’s able to slip into these characters so specifically,” explained Mickle, who also looked to The Hidden (1987), Black Rain (1989), and The Chaser (2008) for inspiration. “To me, Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense had such a spot-on sound to her voice, I thought that was really great and I think Michael did a play with her recently and had talked about how good she was. I almost kind of—not used it as a, ‘Hey, can you try to step into those shoes?’ But just as like a, ‘Hey, this is somebody that really got into the specificity of this and it would be fun to see what you could do with that, too.’ Thankfully, he really jumped on [that idea].”
From there, it was just a matter of studying the voices of famous Philadelphia figures like Sixers coach Jim Lynam, Mad Money host Jim Cramer, and MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews.
“It was pretty amazing. Every couple days, [Michael would] send me a little update,” added Jim. “Then all the sudden he was on set and it just clicked and I was like, ‘Oh my god. I feel like this is somebody I grew up with. This is kind of awesome.’”
In the end, Philadelphia (the birthplace of the United States) proved the right choice, as the time-jumping story deals with weighty concepts like the implications of grassroots political movements.
“I mean this in the best way,” Mickle opined, “the fact that [Philadelphia] is not a very glitzy city, it just feels very human in a great way and New York, I think, takes on this sort of big, iconic rich shiny massive scope kind of a city and I love it for that, but I think it loses a little bit of that grounded holiness that I think a city like Philadelphia has. It also looks beautiful because it’s got that great sense of history and obviously, with some of the themes and some of the ideas of beginnings of movements and political movements … to have that take place in Philadelphia had a little bit more resonance in terms of birth of a country and all that.”
Sadly, principal photography for In the Shadow of the Moon didn’t take place in Philadelphia beyond a few aerial establishing shots. Most of it was filmed in Toronto, but Jim is hopeful that he’ll be able to really film a movie in Philly one day.
“We did some early scouting through there and kind of identified what it was about the city that we liked and the architecture and the red brick and the narrow sidewalks,” he said. “Some of those things, just location-wise that we really wanted to make sure we maintained and then sought that out. It was a little bit heartbreaking when we couldn’t afford to shoot there, but fortunately, there are things about Toronto as a city that mirror Philadelphia in a lot of ways, especially historically and time period stuff, so we were able to jump in and connect some of those dots on the ground ... I’d love to shoot something there proper. It was the first time I got to do something in the city for a long time and that was really exciting—getting to change the palette a little bit, so yes, I would love to come back.”
Ironically, Mickle wasn’t referencing Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, despite the fact that both films are set in Philadelphia and deal with time travel being used to stop future tragedies.
“You know, it wasn’t an influence. It was on my mind [though],” Jim admitted. “I haven’t actually seen it in a very long time and I think when [our] movie came out, we started to talk about it, like ‘Oh, I gotta go back and watch that again.’ It was something that I saw early on and really dug, but fortunately, if I had watched [it] right before, I probably would have been trying to avoid things or lean into certain things, so no. But it is part of what I [feel] like is almost like a sub-genre of Philadelphia movies.”
To wrap up our interview, I got Mickle to weigh in on one of the biggest debates in the entire state of Pennsylvania: Wawa or Sheetz?
“Wawa,” said the director with a laugh. “By the time I moved away, I think Sheetz was just becoming a thing, so it’s nice when I come back and see it being around, but I think Wawa always has that sort of hometown flavor.”
In the Shadow of the Moon is now streaming on Netflix. Bokeem Woodbine, Rudi Dharmalingam, and Rachel Keller co-star.