“I look at the movie like it’s an album,” said Josh Mond, whose directorial debut, James White, plays like a musical melody.
The film stars Christopher Abbott as James, a 21-year-old New Yorker who must care for his beloved mother (Cynthia Nixon) as she battles cancer for a second time. His turmoil ignites a binge of self-destructive behavior, characterized by bar fights and fits of rage.
Mond’s highly personal portrait of love between a mother and son pulsates with a rhythm that parallels the emotional turns of its protagonist—and its creator, who himself lost his mother four and a half years ago to cancer. With widescreen camerawork emphasizing close-ups and an overall sense of claustrophobia, the film swings up and down with each beat, thrusting the viewer into a traumatized headspace. Suitably, Mond was inspired by music while writing the film—specifically, the sounds of musician-actor Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, who not only provided James White‘s score but also stars as James’ best friend.
While this is his first feature at the helm, Mond is already an indie veteran. In 2003, he teamed up with his friends, Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos, to found Borderline Films, an independent production company based in New York. Over a filmography of stylistic and original films, the Tisch alums rotate the roles of director, writer and producer. Mond built his reputation as a producer for his work on Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and Campos’ Afterschool and Simon Killer, but took his time to find the right story to tell himself.
James White premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January, where it won the Best of Next Award. After a sterling tour on the circuit, the film also screened at AFI FEST, where MovieMaker spoke to Mond.
Conor Soules, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): As a producer, what are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a collective? Are there the same pros and cons when you’re a director?
Josh Mond (JM): It was a great opportunity to learn by watching [Durkin and Campos], to understand the production aspect, to be over their shoulder, watching them as they experiment, and to have them as my teachers as I was making my first film, from the writing process to editing—everything. It was like going to film school. We were learning together, always learning—still learning together. As for disadvantages, I don’t really know. I’m really lucky to have my partners be my brothers, knowing that no matter what, we would never let our films out into the world unless we were all proud of them. Our agendas are the purest, just wanting the best for each other. They wanted the best for me.
MM: You’ve been a successful indie producer, but this was your first experience with crowdfunding [James White had a Kickstarter campaign]. What was that like?
JM: To be honest with you, when Sean and Antonio said that they were going to do it and that we needed to do it, I was really nervous. I don’t have social media and never connected with that. I didn’t want to do it. We worked with some younger producers, associate producers, who really understood that world. And in retrospect I’m so happy that we did it because it brought an audience to the film. At the same time, it allowed us to continue making the film we wanted to make. It allowed us to figure it out. We were very lucky. It’s not easy to raise money for a movie.
MM: Besides crowdfunding, how did you raise the rest of the budget? Was it a challenge getting people to back a project like this: contained and angry and highly personal?
JM: The budget wasn’t high at all. A couple of our producers really hustled to raise the money. Obviously Sean and Antonio were banging on every door, but we had a producer from Relic Pictures, Eric Schultz, who is a fucking hustler. He really went to bat for us and he didn’t even really know us. He responded to the material and to our other films and pulled off pretty much the impossible. This other producer Max Born as well, they were really knocking on every door, raising money.
MM: James White is autobiographical but it’s also fictional. Where does one start and the other end?
JM: I started working on another project before I did this. That project encouraged me to make James White more personal and explore the things that I was really secretly exploring. I lost my mother four and a half years ago to cancer. I was raised by a single mother. It was not something I understood how to process. Whether I knew it or not, both of my parents were writers, but not as their profession. They both explored stuff in their material that was personal to them, so that was my relationship with art. My partners really encouraged me to go there. And then I finally got to a place where it was so personal that I had to pull back.
The only reason I had to pull back was when I started to work with my DP [Matyas Erderly] and my costume designer and my actors. You’re bringing those people to your film because they connect to it and they have their own perspectives, so you have to collaborate with them. So at that point that character becomes theirs. That’s when it becomes a film, not just your story.You’re handing it over and it becomes a character because they’re bringing their personal experiences to creating something together. Yet it has to start in a place inside of you. Obviously in the writing it’s a mixture of things you wished you said, you wished you did, or exaggerated things you did, or things left out that were too crazy. It becomes this weird kind of fantasy. It’s a mixture. Everybody I worked with was there for the right reasons; they obviously weren’t there for the money. They made me a better filmmaker and they made the movie better.
MM: What camera did you use to shoot the film?
JM: Alexa. The whole movie was handheld and Matyas operated the whole time, every shot.
MM: Were there challenges to doing it handheld?
JM: I’m sure for him there were physical challenges. He makes everything look so easy, though.
MM: What was the process by which you developed the film’s distinct visual style?
JM: Matyas had worked with Sean on a mini-series called Southcliffe and so we were talking to DPs and he was one of the most exciting ones that we got to talk to. We just connected. In the beginning, he was very vocal about his concerns about the script. But through the guidance of Sean and Antonio I was able to embrace that. You want to work with people who are challenging you, that do have problems because they’re going to help figure them out, they’re aware of them. He came over from Hungary two months before and I made a short precursor to James where a lot of it was explored through close-up. Through the process of working with Matyas and breaking down the script into beats, discussing it, looking at photo books, showing him all of my references, and him talking to me and understanding the way that I speak and my relationship with New York and my energy, we developed a language of simplification. It showed the claustrophobia, it showed the anxiety, and it showed New York, which for me can be this reactionary place with no opportunity to reflect. He’s fucking super experienced. I think he went way beyond the responsibilities of a DP. He taught me about storytelling.
MM: Did you shot list?
JM: Yeah. We actually broke the script down into 18 beats and then color-coordinated each beat with what was going on, emotionally—ups and downs. The opening set-up [in close-up] was like a prologue for us that we could copy and paste for shots throughout the film. We would discuss the whole arc of the character, where he was in each scene. We shot-listed the entire film. On certain days where we would do blocking, he would watch from a certain place and I would watch from another and we would discuss each shot. Like, that shot of [Nixon] in bed when she’s sick, that was a reference to a painting that he loves. That wasn’t how we were going to shoot it but then it became a theme that we reused later. It was also just being open to ideas on the spot and hearing everyone’s ideas.
MM: How did you work with Christopher and the other actors to develop their performance?
JM: Each one was different. Chris and I had been friends for about five to six years. His first movie was Martha Marcy May Marlene. We had met a little bit before that during another movie through casting and we just became really close on Martha, so close that he was one of the groomsmen in Antonio’s wedding. He was there when my mom was sick and when she passed. We talked thoughout and we got to practice and get a working relationship on the experimental short film. We just talked a lot. I feel safe to be vulnerable with him. We just went through the script. He and Matyas got to know each other really well—it was super important that they had good chemistry because they were kind of dancing the whole movie. He was on location scouts. I just wanted him extremely involved in the process. He was in the editing room. I locked picture with him. He was very involved.
And then Cudi, I was writing to his music. I even put his music in the movie because I loved the melody and it would change my mood all of the time. He would inspire me and once I started listening to the words, it was inspirational because he was singing about himself. As corny as it sounds, I look at the movie like it’s an album. Cudi’s new album is amazing—it comes out December 4, 2015. I was like, “I connect with this dude; I’m from his world.” My buddy Mark Webber got him a script because Mark had worked with him. So he read it and then we met. I went to his house and he liked the script and I showed him the experimental short. I could feel the energy in the room at his house. He was digging it. And I was like, “You want to make a movie with me?” He was like, “Hell yeah.”
The next day, my best friend Chris and I were on Cudi’s tour bus to Syracuse for a show and I got to meet his friends. He keeps a lot of his friends around. I felt like we had a similar relationship with our friends and our family and that he understood the world of James. It was a constant conversation. For this movie, I tried to be as open as possible with people and hoped they gave it to me back. And that’s what happened with everybody—it was kind of faithful.
With Cynthia, it was similar. She read the script. She responded. We met for lunch. She shared with me that she lost her mother from cancer and she was from the same neighborhood that I was from, the Upper West Side. She was super close with her mom and they were very liberal—strong women. I thought that my mother would have been friends with Cynthia or her mom, or both. Cynthia has worked with everybody from Mike Nichols to Sidney Lumet to fucking Robert Altman, so I just felt safe with her.
MM: What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers on how to direct actors?
JM: I’ll rattle some off: Don’t cast people just because they’re famous—cast who’s right. Try and not to over explain. Admit that you don’t know and be open to other people’s ideas.
MM: The film filters New York City through James’ eyes. How did you develop this character-landscape relationship?
JM: His energy, for me at least, breathes New York because there is a rhythm that is coming out of him that I think is created or partly created by New York. He didn’t fight it. He went with it. You can constantly be moving in New York, reacting and not reflecting. There is no time to breathe. You can hold your breath all day. Also, the locations were all authentic. We shot at places that I knew. One of the things I hate the most is in movies or TV shows, when they’re in New York, and they are hanging out at places that the characters would never hang out at. Kids who are poor go to [upscale New York restaurants] Cafeteria or Avenue. No, if I’m going to be in that neighborhood, I’m going to go to that bar because I know that bar is quiet or I can do what I want there.
MM: How was shooting on location in New York?
JM: It was tough because it was the first time that we shot in a city with multiple locations in our movies. Simon Killer was Paris, but it was very different. In New York it was cool because there was a constant authenticity and nostalgia that I was using for myself and I hope the actors and the crew were, too. It made it feel realer. MM
James White opens in theaters starting November 13, 2015, courtesy of The Film Arcade.