Creative collectives are a funny thing. I don’t exactly know how prevalent they are in the film industry or how exactly they work, but I can tell you that I’ve interviewed quite a few young filmmakers who are a part of them, and as a result, they have made some pretty tremendous films. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is one example, and another is 2011’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, which was written and directed by Sean Durkin and produced by Josh Mond and Antonio Campos. As it turns out, the same collective of filmmaker types that got MMMM made also got Campos’s films AFTERSCHOOL and SIMON KILLER made (and are currently working on his new film, CHRISTINE), and were the producers of the new film JAMES WHITE, written and directed by Mond. (The team is also working on Durkin’s new film, JANIS, which begs the question, why are most of these films named after their lead characters?)
JAMES WHITE stars Christopher Abbott (from “Girls,” HELLO I MUST BE GOING, and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, who collaborated with Mond on the short 1009 two years ago) as a 20-something who has severe self-control issues to the point of being destructive, but is also a loving, caring son with his dying mother, played to perfection by Cynthia Nixon. Abbott’s version of split personality in James is rather astonishing to watch unfold, as his best friend (played by Scott Mescudi, also known as hip-hop artist Kid Cudi) and new girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) try to stabilize him as best they can and keep James from killing himself or someone else anytime he leaves the house.
Mond’s film is undoubtedly autobiographical, and at times, it’s even difficult to watch due to some truly raw and exposed moment between James and his mother. I really hope this incredible drama gets the recognition it absolutely deserves in the end-of-year barrage of bigger films, and you should keep a sharp eye out for it, if it opens anywhere near you—but you may have to prepare yourself for day-trip to a nearby town. I had the chance to speak with Mond and Abbott when they were in Chicago in October for the Chicago International Film Festival, and they were open and honest about emotional toll a film of this intensity takes. With that, please enjoy my talk with Josh Mond and Christopher Abbott…
Capone: The opening sequence really sets the tone for the rest of the film. We don’t know what’s really going on; you’re a little sweaty; you’re listening to some music. There’s other music around you. The sound design on that scene is amazing. Kudos to your sound guy.
Josh Mond: Thanks. That’s Coll Anderson.
Capone: What were you trying to do with that sequence? It felt like you want to put us in his head right away, and it’s pure chaos.
JM: My goal was to get you into his head, and by starting you there and then pulling you out, so that you know that you’re in his head. The movie for me is, I always wanted it to be like you’re on a ride with him. Sometimes subjective, sometimes objective. It’s like choose your own adventure based on your own background and what you connect to. For me, I wanted it to start at the highest point for him, both literally and figuratively. Basically, see when he crumbles down and then comes back up. So my objective was to get you inside his head, to set up the language for the rest of the film, where you can pick if it’s objective or subjective instinctively, and to be honest a little bit of seduction, to start it off with a real hit.
Capone: I love that James is this man of contrast. When he’s with his mother, he’s together for the most part, really helpful, really caring, and the minute he leaves that apartment, he completely goes to shit. I know this was born out of an experience you had. Was that how it was for you? Is it that hot and cold when you’re actually performing it? Can you line it up the way you shoot it that you can actually dive into something after being this wonderful, sweet young son?
Christopher Abbott: I will say that even on a technical level, we didn’t shoot completely sequentially, but we would group a lot of those scenes together. So a lot of the scenes of taking care of her in the apartment or the hospital, those are all done in one go. So there were four or five days of that stuff, then there was like four or five days of the other stuff. So it was easier to get in the headspace for the two different sides of him.
Capone: So was that your experience, that the minute you were out of there, you just have to let your head explode?
JM: I think naturally, like the way you just described shooting it, where it’s contained, taken care of her, logically there’s a release. You need to balance that intensity somehow, but also you don’t wan to think about it, because you don’t know how to think about what you just experienced. When there’s nobody walking you through it, or even if there is, you’re unable to hear it, and the only thing you can do is balance that intensity by going to the other side, especially when you’re in your adolescence.
For me, I don’t know, man. Again, it’s not my life story, because it wouldn’t be possible to do that. It’s a culmination of things. First of all, it’s your mother, so you don’t want your demons coming out. Second of all, she’s going through cancer, and you don't want her to worry about you, so you do your best to fake it. That’s something we discussed at one point. I don’t know if you remember, but we did say, no matter if you’re under the influence, when you're in front of her, you’re always clear eyed. Then logic is the only narrative or direction you have in your head as you’re walking through it. “She can't know. She can’t know.” You’re that good at it because you’ve been doing it for a while.
Capone: It’s really noticeable, too, because you’re not that together in any other part of the film, except in the beginning when he goes on vacation, he might as well be going to Mars, because it’s so strange compared to the rest of the film. I’ve never seen a film like this that has a sequence like that.
CA: I think the opening shot in Mexico, that really wide shot of me just sitting on a beach with no one else around. That could be a shot in THE MARTIAN [laughs]. We were just looking at water and having that feeling of having no idea what to do with yourself. He’s like, “This is going to be fun.” Then you get there, and you’re like, “This is terrible.”
Capone: But do you think that if he not had that trip interrupted that he might actually have gotten something out of it the way he thought he might initially? He met a lovely girl there. That seems pretty positive.
JM: He got to Mexico. Everything he thought he needed, he had, but he didn’t know how to deal with it.
CA: It was going to be a false distraction anyway.
JM: Yeah, it was because he didn’t have the tools to take advantage of the break, so he does the next step for him, which he would have done in New York anyway—go find a girl., go find drugs.
Capone: Chris, I know that you were involved in this for a while. But that being said, when you heard who this character was going to be and as the writing was happening, what was it about James that hooked you initially and made you say, “Yeah, I can build on this. I want to be this character”?
CA: Well, initially one thing I was definitely drawn to is, I like characters that are imperfect in a way—a character often acting out of character and then getting to see that in an hour-and-a-half span. I think we do that in life all the time. Yeah, he has demons and he’s a partier, but it’s not like he does that in every single scene. He’s a caretaker in the movie. He’s an anti-hero in that way. Just being able to play with the multi-motion gamut that was on the page was extremely exciting. And also just knowing that it’s Josh, and we have been friends for years and knowing that we can collaborate on something. We had only done a short film together as actor and director and that we can really collaborate on something and take our time with it was extremely appealing.
Capone: Was the raw emotional component scary to tap into?
CA: On the page, it’s there too, but it’s not until you’re doing it where you really feel what each scene is about in that way, and it starts to come to life. Josh does a good job of writing just sparsely enough to let there be room for the actors to play and fill in space. Even in early, early drafts, there was very little exposition. There was exposition for people who were just reading the script, but that was always going to go away.
Capone: Actually, that leads into my next question: Do you somehow convey on the page all the emotion, or was that something you make come to life while you’re shooting? I don’t know how you write that, exactly.
JM: I don’t remember the script. I don’t see it in my head at all. I started working on another project that my partner had brought to me, Antonio, and then I was encouraged to explore it where it was basically something into my own stuff. That was the only way I was going to get there, and to explore my relationship between myself and my mother and get an idea of it. So there were so many ups and downs emotionally while writing, depending on the scene I was feeling. I was feeling how he was feeling on the scene. Some things carry guilt, some carry shame, some are just so hard to confront, to remember.
So I hope in the script the way it was written in the description carried some emotion. I feel that just learning from this experience, that’s how I’m going to continue to make sure I convey the emotion on the page, and the dialogue is less important. It’s a well-balanced thing. There’s some emotion on the page, then you meet the actor, whether or not you know each other, you get to see if the other person is open to sharing that emotion with you and their personal stories. And then it becomes a very emotional relationship—it’s a starting point.
Capone: I’m still in awe that you took on something this heavy right out of the gate.
JM: I had no choice [laughs].
Capone: Why else would you do it? I want talk about the relationship James has with Nick—Kid Cudi’s character. I can’t think of another film where I’ve seen two men in a friendship like this. Everything is so dude-bro now, but that’s not what this is at all. These guys are like brothers. They’re closer than a lot of brothers. Did you have people like that in your life?
JM: Still do. Yeah, I have my childhood best friend; we are still like that, very much so. We had a core group of friends in high school. That’s our relationship. We were all raised by our mothers, no real fathers around, and we never wanted to go home and we became each others like father figures.
CA: The male figure in each other’s lives.
JM: Yeah. I think I have that in some of my friendships today to some extent with him, with Sean, with Antonio, but I think it’s much more mature. With my friends for me personally, they are my family. And the way I would describe my relationship with my best friend is that you wake up in the morning, and no matter what happened the night before, everything is fine. It’s pure love, and I can definitely say my best friend who I grew up with would die for me.
CA: Or dispose of a dead body.
Capone: The scene that made me laugh is right before the job interview, when Nick literally gives him the shirt off his back. It’s a little on the nose, but I get it. Did you get to spend time with Cudi? That level of friendship is a hard thing to fake with a guy you don’t know.
CA: Yeah, a little bit. Before we started shooting, he had a concert in Syracuse.
JM: Syracuse or Albany. One or the other.
CA: One of the two. We rode with him to the show, saw his concert, and rode back. We were working with very limited time to begin with, so without faking and rushing a get-to-know-you phase of a relationship, it happened pretty naturally. And Scott, I think he brings so much humanity to that role. He’s just good. He listens. He knew his part well. If he knew how to do his part well, which makes my job easier establishing that relationship with him. I think everyone has those relationships in their lives. Friends, even if you don’t see them for three years, after five minutes, you slide right back into old habits. I have a good friend, Tommy, growing up. Sometimes we don't see each other for a while, but then we just slide right back into it. You slide back into an adolescent friendship. I’m 29 right now, but you feel like you’re 14 sometimes when you’re hanging out with each other.
JM: Cudi comes from a similar world, I think. That’s what we connected on. At least that’s what I assumed. At the same time, he approached the role the way Nick’s character is, with that openness and dedication of “I’ll do whatever is needed for my friend.” He treated the film and me like I was James. I think that world’s very familiar to him.
Capone: Cynthia Nixon is an absolute gift to this film. Just as an actor, what do you learn from watching her work? Because I can’t imagine that there’s not something you pick up and just think, “Wow. That’s how it’s done.”
CA: Yeah. She’s just a pure actor in that way. She’s present for you, she gives you a lot of stuff to work with, to play with, to bounce off of. It’s all listening and responding. She does it so naturally and fluidly that you don’t even know. You can’t even pick up on it. She makes it feel real.
Capone: The stuff she’s saying when she’s delusional and saying random things, was that her or was that written?
JM: Yeah, that was scripted. I’m sure there was stuff here and there she added too.
Capone: How did she get involved?
JM: She had read the script. She had gotten it though her manager, and we met for breakfast. She really responded to the material and we just connected. She was from the Upper West Side, her mother had just recently passed from cancer, and that was it. We trusted each other based on our first meal together.
Capone: There’s a lot of physicality in some of these scenes. How much can you actually choreograph? And then on top of that, it feels like your DP is in the middle of those scenes sometimes.
JM: He’s part of those scenes.
Capone: Did you just throw everybody at each other and go, or did you have have some level of choreography?
JM: Mátyás [Erdély] had different relationships with each actor. Chris and him became friends right away. We would spend time together, just the three of us and had a natural rapport. Mátyás has so much experience as a DP, so I was learning from him a lot. He was extremely generous and welcoming to the actors. We would rehearse the scenes before shooting them. We’d block it, decide where the camera was going to go.
CA: And also just let some stuff happen naturally, like at the hotel. Mátyás would light for the whole space. You want that kind of organic0ness, especially stuff like the hotel scene it’s hard to be like, “Alright, I’m going to put my hand here. And then you throw me…” You just kind of let it happen. And all that stuff is supposed to be messy too. That’s the stuff we’re talking about.
JM: For the most part, the apartment stuff is what comes to mind, that was all pretty much lit, except the bedroom and you guys would really walk through it. With the bar scene, we worked with a fight choreographer, but you also made the scene much more real. Every scene was a different approach. I guess what the question is, yeah, is it was messy, but it was allowed to be messy because the world was controlled from the start.
Capone: The DP, was he there next to you? Did he have his hands on you?
CA: Exactly that. Here’s a perfect example: The first sequence that we shot, which was the opening sequence of the film in the bar, into the bathroom, out of the bar, out on the street. Me and Mátyás are doing a little waltz with each other. So under the camera, he’s pulling my shirt, I’m tapping him on his hip under the camera, because he didn’t want to jump any of my moves physically. He wanted it all to be really fluid. So we’re doing a little performance art piece, if there had been a camera on us. We didn’t do that for the whole film, but that opening scene, we needed to. We were doing this dance with each other. Everyone was touching [laughs]. Everyone’s hugging. There was a lot of touching. It was a very tactile set. Everyone was hugging at the end of the scenes, everyone was hugging at the end of the day. Everyone was touching each other. Luckily, there was no kissing…
Capone: Now see, I wasn’t even going to ask about that, but you just mentioned it. I heard about that.
JM: Heard what?
Capone: About a kissing scene between Nick and James?
JM: Yeah. It was a wonderful sequence in a cenote, and I loved it. It took me awhile to let go of it. The problem is, or what I learned, is it wasn’t important to the story, and I didn’t want it to be a focus of Nick as well. It doesn’t matter. I’ve said this before. He’s black as well, and it doesn’t matter [to the story], and I didn’t really want to deviate. But I loved the scene.
Capone: I read about the scene last night in another interview, and then I thought James probably already knows that Nick is gay or bisexual, if they’re that close. The only person that’s discovering it in that moment is us, and who cares what we think about it? This isn’t about us. It’s about them. So I can see why you let it go.
JM: Exactly. That was very well said.
Capone: You said before that this isn’t necessarily autobiographical. The parts that are less you, why did you change them? Do those scenes mean as much to you because they weren’t born out of this painful experience?
JM: It’s like one long scene, the movie. For me, it’s some of the stuff that I wish I had said, or maybe I have said but not as eloquently or maybe not even just at all. Yeah, I don’t know. Yes, it’s like a journal of feelings for me and fragmented memories. I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t real.
Capone: Did you want the film to feel like that—fragments rather than something a little more fluid?
JM: Yeah, I want it to feel like memories. I wanted it to feel like a journal. For me, showing it to people, it’s an overall journal. When you write stuff down, you write it down when you are pushed to the brink, whether it’s anger, in retrospect. It’s also the way your memory works. When you’re trying to push everything out of your mind, the things you can’t avoid thinking about are the highest or the lowest to you.
CA: There’s a purity to it, too. It’s like someone writing stuff down that is learning how to write stuff down in that way. It’s fragmented and it’s very guttural.
JM: It’s like you’re holding your breath all the way through, because, like you said, it’s learning to write it down. You’re not overthinking it. You’re just writing it down with so much energy. That’s what I want it to feel like.
Capone: The production collective you have with Sean and Antonio, where you all work together and bounce ideas off each other, how much did the experience of getting their films off the ground help you? Did it make your experience a little less daunting?
JM: There’s different questions to that in terms of financially, the confidence— it’s complicated. Yes, it gave me the opportunity to learn from watching them and gain the confidence to understand how movies are made and to figure out how we like to make them. So we perfected it through theirs, and we’re still doing that. In terms of people getting money, it’s not easy ever, but we at least set up an idea that people who were coming with money knew the types of films we were making and how we were making it. So it gave people confidence and also allowed us to bring in people that we wanted to work with.
So it gave us a ton of opportunities, even trust from actors and crew members we didn’t know who just opened their arms up to us. It helped tremendously on the production and getting the movie made, but also their experience from what they’ve learned they could teach me. They were heavily involved in encouraging me, teaching me in the writing process. They were very, very involved in the whole process. In the editing room, we locked picture together, we locked sound together. When you work with people this way and it’s your first film, or any film, to know that the people around you have good intentions, they just want the best for the film, is really incredibly.
Capone: It sounds a lot less terrifying to work that way.
JM: It’s less terrifying. I’m very lucky to have had them.
CA: Just more anxiety floating around the room. I was there for picture lock, too. I was like, “Jesus! I’m in it and I’m like just lock it! It’s fine. Just lock it. Lock it!”
Capone: Nearly all the films that you guys have made, the titles have all been names of the lead characters. Is that on purpose?
JM: No. The new one Antonio directed is called CHRISTINE. AFTERSCHOOL was our first film, and that wasn’t a name. That was our first feature. There are a couple answers to this. We’re definitely interested in people, a person’s story, a portrait, essentially. I can’t answer for them. For me, I think it’s best to focus on one story. You're still learning how to tell stories, so start with one, whether that’s conscious or subconscious, that’s how I wanted to do it. As you become more confident in storytelling, the next step is to focus on other characters.
CA: It’s just a coincidence, though. Right? It’s not a plan.
CA:“Who’s going to be your character’s name?”
JM: No, it was not a conscious decision. I guess that’s just how it is.
CA: The next one is going to be BOB.
Capone: You mentioned before that you guys have made this short film. Tell me about the importance of going through that experience together in advance of the feature, and what did you learn from that, in terms of economic filmmaking, then also trying out visual styles, etc.?
JM: For me, the experimental precursor to JAMES was very conceptual. That’s really what my work has been up until JAMES—very controlled, have to see it in my head, and very surreal. It was nice to shoot something that was fully realized for me, but I’ve learned that for this project for JAMES, it was a defense mechanism to hide behind—an idea of controlling everything and seeing it. It wasn’t appropriate for a raw feeling. I was encouraged by my partners to shed that. By making that, I felt satisfied because I’m extremely happy with it.
With Chris, it was the thing that pushed me over the edge where I’m like “I’m fucking crazy. This guy is one of my closest friends.” We were shooting a lot of [the short] really close, and until the editing room, I didn’t see all these things that he was doing. I was happy with it from set. No question, I’m excited to edit, but when I got to the editing room and I saw how much was being said and how many variations he was doing, it was like “Holy shit. This is great.” I called him when I went back to writing and I said, “I’m writing it for you. I hope that’s okay.”
CA: Yeah, I was like, “Nope. No thanks.” [laughs]
Capone: What did you get out of that experience making a short film together?
CA: Again, me and Josh have been friends for years, so we got to establish a working relationship, which was really beneficial to do a little something before jumping into the big thing. And now trusting that we can have a dialogue with each other and have a shorthand rapport with each other, and if he says something strange, like a strange direction, I get it. It’s good. There’s a shorthand that’s created. You don’t get that often. As an actor, it makes me feel free. It makes me feel completely free to have a say in something. In general, I’m not controlling in that way. I’d like to have, not just control over my performance, but I’d like to have a say in what goes on. So anyway, doing a short film was a nice way to establish a working relationship even past our friendship.
CA: Practice, yeah.
Capone: Alright. Best of luck with this. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.