Previously working as a producer on darkly realized indies like “Afterschool,” “Simon Killer” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with his Borderline Production partners Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin, Josh Mond’s first directorial effort “James White” stands apart from his previous work as a dreamy and devastating look at illness and loss.
Starring the immensely talented Christopher Abbott, “James White” centers on a young man whose collective vices keep him locked in a pattern of pathological lies and personal failures. The drama also stars Cynthia Nixon as his ailing mother, whose health begins a steady decline after her previously eradicated cancer returns. What follows is a slow and devastating look at his mother’s disintegration and James’ attempts to stay together in the wake of destruction. The film also stars Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) as James’ close friend Nick and Makenzie Leigh as his young lover, Jayne.
“James White” played earlier this week as the opening film for MoMA’s “The Contenders” series. Indiewire was there on the red carpet and at the post-screening Q&A with Mond, Leigh, Abbott and Nixon. Below are some of the highlights
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“James White” is as Personal as Filmmaking Gets
A film supported largely on the shoulders of Abbott’s considerable talents, “James White” became a loving collaboration between long-time friends Abbott and Mond. “We met a year before ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ on another movie,” Mond explained. “Sean [Durkin] cast him in ‘Martha’ and we’ve become family since then. I felt safe with Chris, to be vulnerable. We had a shorthand, and it made it easier for me to learn.” Never one to take all of the credit, Mond continued, “It was intimate with everyone on the film, the movie was a pure collaboration between everybody.”
“It’s been nice to work with him,” added Abbott. “To really dive into a film together that we feel is very heartfelt. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s personal to Josh. So it felt appropriate to work on it with him.”
Due to the disease’s unfortunate prevalence, many people whose paths and histories seem unrelated may find themselves brought together by a struggle with cancer. This was certainly the case for Nixon and Mond, who initially connected over the loss of their mothers. “I was really taken with the script,” Nixon told Indiewire. “We talked about our childhoods, we talked about our moms, we talked about their cancer, and on paper [Josh and I] don’t have a lot in common, but I think that we’re more alike than you might think.”
Mond was quiet about his loss. “My mom was sick and a lot of stuff that was in the film. It was 5 years when she was sick, and it was tough for her…and it was tough for me,” he confided. “I needed to explore something I didn’t understand. [The film] is no way autobiographical, because I had a sister and my mother had an amazing support group. There are elements of it that come from an extremely personal place. I was taught by my mother: If you don’t understand it, write it down,” Mond said, echoing a sentiment that Nixon’s character passes on to her son James in the film. “Art is a place to express those things, and I think that’s what I tried to do.”
Complication Can Be Exciting
When asked why he was drawn to such a challenging character, Abbot told Indiewire, “Just that in itself, that the character is kind of complicated. Sometimes you root for him, sometimes you hate him, that’s the joy of that, to teeter on that line.”
Further expounding on the contradictory and continually frustrating James, Abbott explained, “He puts a lot of pressure on the people around him, whether it’s the friends he’s had his whole life or the girl that he met two weeks ago, he puts the same amount of expectations on them. Whether or not that’s a ‘bad’ trait, where it comes from is always a good place, whether it’s right or wrong, it always comes from a place of love. His character is very animalistic in that way, what’s right is right, nothing is too cerebral in his approach to his life.”
When asked how he structured the character, Mond explained, “I made this movie thinking a lot about the people that I grew up with, I wanted to make a movie that I would go want to see. This movie is kind of like this, ‘Oh, this guy’s crazy, but I like him’ at the beginning, and then in the middle of the film, you’re like ‘Oh, there’s something going on there.’ And I feel like I would have been seduced by this. We wanted this to be a double-edged sword where he can be right and he can be wrong.”
Mond’s Script Held the Project Together
Speaking on the physically grueling shooting experience, Nixon was rather lighthearted. “Every film is challenging in its own ways,” she said. “I think there was a lot in this film to connect with and I think what’s really hard when there isn’t a lot to connect with. When there are holes in the script you have to wallpaper over with your performance, it’s really hard. But when you have an insightful script, you just have to adhere to it and it won’t let you down.”
Further lauding Mond’s script was Abbott, who shared his intimate relationship with the material. “When Josh was writing the script, I was lucky enough to be brought on early on. Being good friends with him, I was able to call him up and chat about new drafts, so I had it floating around my head for quite a while. Even if it was a piece of shit, I still would have done it,” he laughed. “It was just kind of icing that the script was so fleshed out and heartfelt and beautiful. All of his emotions and vulnerability were on the page.”
Kid Cudi Wasn’t Just a Co-Star
The film stars Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) as Chris Abbott’s childhood best friend, Nick. When asked about how Mescudi was brought on to the film, Mond explained that his relationship with Cudi began as a fan. “I wrote to his music,” he said. “I listened to the melody first and then I started listening to the lyrics, and I realized he was singing about himself…My partner Antonio reached out to get Cudi and I sent him the script and he said, ‘I’m in.'”
As Mond got to know Cudi, he realized that they had even more in common than originally thought: “We all went on this tour bus and I got to meet him and his friends, and I realized his friends were his support group too. As we got to know each other, [Cudi] told me he lost his dad to cancer, and we just connected. As an actor, he was super hungry, very professional, and it was a pleasure to collaborate with him.”
Besides starring in the film, Mescudi also provided original music for the film’s pulsing soundtrack. “At the end of the shoot, I asked him [if he would do the soundtrack] and he said ‘of course.’ We talked about creating a theme song for [James], something that a represented him and was like his hero music. What Cudi came back with, you could hear the anxiety and the aggression, I think it was a more honest portrayal of his insides.”
Watching With an Audience is Crucial
At times bleak, and always wrenching, the experience of watching “James White” is a unique one. But neither Abbott nor Nixon watch the film with anything but admiration. “I love watching it,” confessed Nixon. “The first time I saw it, I just saw it on my iPad, but it’s so great to see it with an audience. To see them piecing the film together, because it’s not like there’s a tour guide for this movie. There’s no exposition for it, he just drops you into it.”
For Abbott, a longtime friend of Mond’s, his experience of seeing the film was an unconventional one. “I was there for some of the editing, so I’d seen the movie quite a few times on my own with the crew in the room,” he said. But he made sure to explain that seeing the film in a crowd was distinctly different than amongst the dark walls of the edit room. “Most actors are their own worst critic,” Abbott explained. “I was able to sort of get over that when they locked picture because I was there for that, and I got over it pretty quickly, so I just was able to get excited to see it with an audience, especially at Sundance. That was a beautiful thing.”
“James White” is now playing in select theaters.