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Josh Mond on Tapping Into the Personal for ‘James White’

Josh Mond on Tapping Into the Personal for 'James White'

James White,” the heartbreaking drama starring Cynthia Nixon, Christopher Abbott and Kid Cudi, is Josh Mond’s directorial debut, but he’s far from a first-time filmmaker. For years, he’s been part of Borderline Films, a filmmaking collaborative that includes Antonio (a.k.a. Tony) Campos (“Afterschool”) and Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”). More than just business partners, the three filmmakers are true collaborators: their company structure allows them to rotate between each other’s projects. As a result, Mond is already a veteran, having produced “Afterschool,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and other projects and occupied various roles on crews.

Mond tackles a semi-autobiographical subject with “James White,” which premiered at Sundance 2015 where it won the Best of Next Award. The film, which hits select theaters on November 13, follows a destructive young man (Abbott) who must pull himself together to cope with his mother’s (Nixon) illness. There’s considerable awards buzz around the film; Mond was recently nominated for the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award at the Gotham Awards. 

Indiewire recently chatted with Mond about the award-winning film and his involvement in Borderline Films.

READ MORE: Watch: Debut ‘James White’ Trailer is a Devastating, Disorienting Heartbreaker

Congratulations on the film. I’m sure it was somewhat bittersweet for you on a personal level.

Right.

I know some of it was inspired by your own relationship with your mother. How much would you say was autobiographical?

I did lose my mom four-and-a-half years ago and I grew up in New York. A lot of it’s personal. I started out working on something else that allowed me to get into the stuff that needed to be explored personally. It’s hard for me to say it, but I think the truth is that it’s very personal.

Tell me a little bit about Borderline Films, the production company you formed with Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin. What was the original intention?

Sean, Antonio and I all became friends at the same time that we became partners, so we were learning from each other on both sides at the same time. It’s hard to work with friends that you’ve been friends with for a long time and then get into business with them.

Sean and I met at school at NYU. We both grew up in New York and we both saw NYU as a place to find people to work with, to create stuff, people who we can also learn from. And Antonio and I had gone to high school together, but we weren’t really friends. We knew of each other, that both of us had been working in film since we were really young. And so we all connected at NYU, and the goal was for the three of us to be directors and to help each other do that and to learn with each other and to fight for each other and to protect each other. We’re brothers and we’re partners.
It’s amazing because, as you probably know, so many people have tried to do a similar sort of thing, but of course, the reality is people tend to be competitive or put their own goals first. How do you manage to be so supportive, and is there ever an element of competition?

I think we’ve been lucky enough not to experience that competition yet. But for me, I wasn’t ready to direct a movie, and I wanted to be a part of movies and continue to learn, and my strength was as a producer. And Sean started out shooting Antonio’s short films as a DP, and he shot my short film. That’s how we worked together. So it was like, when we were each ready, it happened naturally. Antonio was definitely the first one that was gonna go. And then Sean became ready. It was a natural progression. A good thing for one of us is a good thing for all of us.

With “James White,” at what point did you bring Sean and Antonio in on the process? Did you talk about this as a project you were going to work on next or did you go and write the script and then bring it to them?

No. Antonio came to me with a piece of material that he thought was right for me. And that was it for a while. And then I worked on it, and that led to me taking the movie away from that and more about the relationship between my mother and me. The subject matter that was brought to me was the same kind of issues that I needed to get to, that I needed to work through personally. So I went away and I wrote that, and I sent them both drafts when I thought they were ready, and then we would talk about it. That happened for a while, but I was working sporadically. 

Then about a year into it, Antonio and I went up to the farmhouse that we shot “Martha Marcy May Marlene” at and we brought an intern with us who was working on his short film, and we were helping him with that. So he would drive us around, and we would all get food together, and Antonio would work on his script, and I’d work on mine. It was just like that for a month or two. And he’d come downstairs and read what I writing. And sometimes I’d turn the computer to him for him to write stuff because I couldn’t do it. We would talk scenes out, we would talk all night. And then we would send the scripts to Sean — he was in London — to read. And then we would have a long conversation. 

Before Sean could come back from London, we had actors come upstate, two actors to read through the script with us, to hear it out loud. And then Sean came back to New York, and then we sat down for days going through every scene and discussing his problems and what he’d have ideas about. And then Sean and Tony cut down the script. So that was the development for this script. It’s not like that for every one, but I think the personal nature of this one and it being my first, it was like an intensive grad school program. 
In addition to dividing responsibilities such as who’s going to direct, who’s going to shoot it, who’s producing, do you feel like you each play a different, unofficial role in terms of your personalities? Who’s the jokester? Who plays the fatherly role?

I think we’re all trying to grow to be all of those things, but inherently I’m like the trigger man: getting the movie started, saying it’s going to happen, running from the beginning. Antonio, as a producer, he can do all of it. He can trigger it now. At the beginning, he was developing the material and developing with the director the story and the atmosphere. He was very creative with the material and in the production and especially in post, in the editing. And Sean I think is extremely consistent in carrying everything through until the end, keeping the door open, and as well as being, just like Tony, developmentally involved in the creative.

We all started in one place, and then as we went on, we all had to overlap. I’m still catching up to them with that. I’m learning how to be better with notes or changing my notes on the assemblies or on the dailies or on the script. I think that comes with experience.

So are you literally taking turns about who will direct next?

We did this so that all three of us could be directors. Like I said before, that was the whole point of the company. And now what we’re doing is, we’re trying to all direct whenever we’re ready. But we work in the same way that we have for each other in terms of being there or looking at the scripts for development, if we’re needed on set, to be on set, to look at the editing, to be there in post. We’re there to protect each other and to be like an executive producer, so that we can all continue to direct our movies while still being involved in each other’s movies.

Would you theoretically be interested in working on bigger budget projects? Is it just a matter of financing, or is it an artistic decision to work on more intimate character dramas?

I think we’re all open to everything. As long as it’s something that speaks to me and there’s a reason for me to do it, then I’ll do it. I’m interested in anything that’s exciting.

So what do you have in the works? I know that this is all recent, but have you decided what your next project will be?

Well, to backtrack, Antonio is finishing his new movie “Christine,” which is in post, starring Rebecca Hall and Michael C. Hall. And we’re supporting two younger filmmakers as of right now. We’re doing this new thing where we’re supporting first and second-time filmmakers, like mentoring. So we have two movies that are in post. And then for me personally as a director, it’s in the early stages. There’s something I’m working on that’s personal, and then there’s something else as of right now that I’m working on with another writer, but it’s in the early stages.

Getting back to “James White,” how did you find such an amazing cast? Did you have them in mind from the beginning?

Chris [Abbott] and I have been really good friends for about five years. And we made an experimental precursor to “James White.” And that was in the middle of writing, and I wasn’t sure who I wanted. And then when we shot the thing, a lot of it was in close-ups. And when I went to the editing room, I was seeing things I didn’t even know he was doing while we were on set. And I was just like, “Am I crazy? I’m writing this for Chris.”

I called Chris and I shared drafts with him and we talked about it for a year, so it couldn’t have been anybody else. In terms of Cudi, I had been writing to Cudi’s music. I never really listened to the words, but I would always listen to it to write, and I even put a lot of the songs in my script. And what ended up happening was I started listening to the lyrics, and I was like, this guy is exploring himself. It became an inspiration.

I always assumed we had a similar world growing up. And luckily Marc Webber, who was in my thesis in college, had worked with him and was able to reach out to him. And he read the script and we connected. It was a dream to have that happening because one minute I’m writing to his music and the next minute he’s in my movie. Cynthia had read the script and we had met and we shared a lot about where we both came from and what we both went through. And that was it. Everyone put so much love into the film. Everything happened for a reason.

READ MORE: Sundance Review: Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon Triumph in Devastating ‘James White’

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