One-third of Borderline Films, comprised of his writing/producing/directing partners and general best friends Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin, Josh Mond has been a understated yet essential collaborator in some of the most effective dramas and independent films in recent memory. Lending his producing talents to Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and Campos’ “Simon Killer” among many others, the trio’s directorial role rotation has landed on him at last with “James White,” a personal stunner of a film starring Christopher Abbott (“Girls”) that feels visceral and confidently realized (our review).
It’s far from Mond’s first turn behind the camera — he’s directed commercials; music videos; and short films including “1009,” which starred Abbott and sampled a number of visual motifs that would later play into his feature debut. One of those is an intimate handheld style that sticks close to the actor’s face, following his aimless and emotional character James as he chases girls, tries to start a writing career, and — in one swift turn — cares for his ailing mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon), whose cancer has returned.
After a screening of “James White,” which also stars Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Ron Livingston, and Makenzie Leigh, at AFI Fest this year (where it won an Audience Award), we spoke with Mond about the film, starting with how he developed it from autobiographical roots (Mond’s mother passed away from cancer in 2011).
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Josh Mond: I was working on another project and I was encouraged from that to do something more personal. But I wasn’t gonna sit down and write “my story” — I kind of needed a way in but didn’t know it. I had my partners, Sean and Tony, as my teachers, and my coaches. When my mom passed, it was six to eight months later that I was pushed to make what became “James White.” It came from a number of personal places, but it’s a culmination from working with people who had their own experiences — Cynthia, or my DP (Mátyás Erdély). I had the best people to collaborate with.
The Playlist: How close does the film stick to your own experience?
It’s not my life, for sure. I didn’t give that speech that Chris gives to Cynthia. And also I have a sister who’s great, and aunts. And then my mom had a great support group of friends. I was very fortunate to have them. There’s a lot of stuff that’s out. And once I started working with other people, it became theirs, too. It became a collaboration, and about being open and welcoming everyone’s input.
What came from that collaboration?
The reason I expressed was because I didn’t know how to process it, and now hopefully I have some perspective. It’s why I watch movies, listen to music, read books. I don’t want to feel alone. I was listening to Cudi’s music while I was writing, putting multiple tracks of his in the film, lyric by lyric. He wasn’t in the movie then, I didn’t know him, but I would listen to his melodies and it would just change my mood. I noticed the lyrics finally, and realized, “He’s singing about himself.” I realized if this guy can do it, I can do it, and I used it as encouragement. So then we reached out to an actor friend, Mark Webber [who directed Mescudi in the film “The Ever After”], and he connected us. Everything kind of worked out. With Cudi, I met his friends that he grew up with, he met mine, and I just felt he understood my world.
What was your world growing up, and how did you slide into writing and filmmaking?
For me, both my parents weren’t professional writers. One was a schoolteacher, but they both really loved the arts and wrote about stuff that they personally wanted to explore. That’s kind of how, in retrospect, it was instilled in me. I think that’s what art is, is everybody exploring something close to them. Depends how literal it is, though.
My mother, we used to sculpt and paint after school, until I was about five. I also remember coming downstairs one time and she was watching “Ran.” It was magical, and I remember her looking over to see if I was following, and her being excited when I was. I got introduced to foreign films that way. When I was a kid my friends and I would watch Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, like “Hard To Kill,” “Lionheart,” “Bloodsport.” Movies were my medication. And then when I got to film school Antonio, Sean and I all discovered Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont. For me right now, I’m a huge fan of Joachim Trier. I got to meet him before seeing his movies, and then after seeing his movies I couldn’t speak to him anymore. I was literally starstruck after seeing “Reprise” at New Directors/New Films. I couldn’t even look at him; he’s, like, my hero.
After “James White,” who’s next on the rotation between you, Antonio, and Sean?
Well Antonio just finished his new film “Christine,” which stars Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, and Sean and I exec-produced it with Melody Roscher producing and Craig Shilowich writing. And we’re all trying to direct at the same time while being producers on each other’s movies — the same things that we usually do. We’re there if we need each other, we talk casting, we watch cuts. We all want to be directors, but we all want to stay together. So Tony has three projects after this that are pretty far along, Sean’s got a bunch of stuff, and I’m starting work on my new one.
What’s the style and tone for your new one, at the moment?
It’s still a fragment, but I think I know where it’s going. I wanna make movies that I want to go see, and I think with “James White” I did that. It starts out like, “Oh, this dude’s crazy, and sort of fun.” And then in the middle, it flips, it’s like, “Oh, what?” And then at the end you’re just like, “Oh, fuck.” [laughs] I like movies like that where I’m excited, and then at the end you just take a deep breath. It was hard making this movie, really hard, and after it I was like, “Oh, I don’t wanna do this again.” But you saw tonight [at the AFI screening], people are feeling something. And that’s what I want as a viewer.
“James White” opens in Los Angeles at the ArcLight Hollywood this Friday, November 20th, and is currently playing in New York.