“James White” might just be the total opposite of Amy Schumer’s summer fling, “Trainwreck”, yet it is very much about a trainwreck. Starring Christopher Abbott (of “Girls” fame) and a never better Cynthia Nixon, James White is about a man – or boy, if you will – who has to deal with so many issues, both physical and mental, that watching it we are just waiting for the moment when it all implodes and the breakdown occurs. I recently spoke to the film’s director, Josh Mond. His connection with the filmmakers at New York’s Borderline Films – Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos, and Josh Mond – is becoming a cinematic movement. These three guys write, direct and produce each other’s films. So far we’ve had Campos’ directorial debut “Afterschool”, and three years later a bigger splash, Durkin’s brilliant “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, which gained many awards for Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen. Campos followed up “Afterschool” with an ever better feature, “Simon Killer”. Josh Mond is up next; his directorial debut, “James White”, is the best of the lot so far.
“I really feel like we’ve set up a world where we get to work with our friends, not even just each other but so many others like for example our DP Mátyás [Erdély] (who also photographed Son of Saul) right down to our costume designer. We really just want to build and continue our relationship with people like we are with each other.” The shoot was short, but incredibly emotional: “We shot the film in December of 2013, a total of 22 days I think. We had 18 days in New York and 4 days in Mexico.” Mond and aforementioned cinematographer Mátyás Erdély give us a high-wire act, an impeccable artistic feat, with Erdély using his camera for abnormally efficient close-ups on his main character to enhance the claustrophobic feel of the movie. “I thought it was just right for the story we were telling. With the help of a handheld camera we could present the energy that this character experiences. As for my DP, Mátyás, I’m pretty sure his body is still hurting a little bit from carrying the camera around all the time. It really is arduous work what we tried to do, but we figured the movie can be powerful if shot this way.”
After having met and developed a friendship during the shoot for “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, Christopher Abbott and Josh made a short film together, “1009”, that served as sort of an experimental precursor to “James White”. “A lot of it was shot very close to the face, and later, when I was editing the short, it suddenly struck me only then and there in the editing room that he was doing stuff that I didn’t realize he was doing before. So I called him and I told him that I was writing that part for him now. After a while he just read a bunch of drafts and gave me some notes. He was then a part of it already. I can’t wait to work with him again.”
From the very first scene of “James White”, our main protagonist James is bouncing and dancing around drunk/high, mid-day in a dingy nightclub. It’s a hallucinatory scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The camera comes in and out of focus on an extreme handheld close-up, which puts you in the head of an immature, self-centered young man who gets one reality check after another from there on in. “We wanted to start the movie out like he’s high, at his highest moment, or really his lowest,” said Mond. From there James leaves the nightclub and ends up at a shiva for his estranged father at the house of his mother, played by Cynthia Nixon, who’s battling cancer. Nixon is a wonder to behold, as she delivers an awards-worthy performance of intense feeling. Nixon’s own mother died of similar circumstances only a few months before the shoot had begun, and Mond’s mother, Corinne, inspired “James White” as she too succumbed to cancer. “Things were really beginning to gel for the company, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was sold to Fox Searchlight, we had a great deal with them, and then I got a phone call to come home right away because she only had a few hours left. I got a chance to see her and then she passed away not too long after that.”
When asked about any filmmaker who might have had an influence on him, Mond right away mentions Michael Haneke, whose movies always deal with the uncomfortable, the taboo, the complications of humans. In light of his mother’s cancer, James White tries to cope with the whirlwind of emotions by continuing to go out, get drunk, get high, sleep with women, and exude violent behavior. It’s not a happy movie, and you might need a drink or two after having watched it, but the artistry is phenomenal. After its incredible bow at Sundance in January, where it was praised in every way, an experience that Mond calls “surreal”, the 28-year-old director’s film is about to get released to a public that might not be ready to deal with the many “heavy” issues at hand, but that would be a mistake. It’s a topic that one way or another we’ll have to all deal with in our lifetime. Mond says, “I realized that what makes you connect most to a movie are the things that you feel uncomfortable sharing.”
Mond talks about the first of many meetings he had with Nixon for the movie, the bond they built, and the connection they had with a disease that seems insufferably permanent in our world. He said about that meeting, “Cynthia was just very generous and truthful with what she shared; Chris and I met with her a couple times. It also helped me deal with the emotions I didn’t understand at the time. There was shame, guilt, sadness, anger, fear, all of the above.” Josh’s sister helped him heal as well: “she called and said, ‘you may think this is the worst thing that could ever happen, but you’re so lucky you got to spend that time with her and share (this) with her, because it’s a really beautiful thing.’”