I had the opportunity to sit down with writer/director Josh Mond and star Christopher Abbott of JAMES WHITE this week. We chat this volatile and spectacular film and how it effected everyone involved.
Liz: Congratulations. I love everything from the structure of the film to how in your face it is from absolute go. There is no moment of downtime, which I appreciate as a viewer… who sees a lot of movies.
Josh: Well, thank you.
Liz: I also really liked that you used Mátyás (Erdély), and I just saw Son of Saul at the NYFF, and I hadn’t known you used him initially, and I thought, “Well, that makes so much more sense.” So for you (Chris), how was that having someone in your face the whole time?
Chris: It never felt invasive. In a strange way, I got used to it pretty quick. I was involved in the process early on so, I was prepared for it. I would go and meet with Josh and Mátyás and talk about it, so I knew going into the movie the style in which it would be shot. I loved it, just for experimental reasons, too, of working that way. I loved working with Mátyás and Josh in that sense. The opening sequence, when we were shooting it, it almost felt like a little performance art piece. Under the camera, Mátyás is holding onto my shirt and I’m tapping him on the hip when I’m gonna move left or right, I’m kind of directing him a little bit under the camera and he’s moving with me, so just in terms of working in that kind of waltzy way, I found it kind of exciting.
Liz: It’s really, really impactful because it’s this great balance of throwing the audience off kilter because you’re right there, but also feeling like you’re inside your skin, so to speak, so it’s a really interesting way, like “fly-on-the-wall” but also ” point of view”. It’s very effective.
(To Josh) Where is the line between truth and fiction for you when you wrote this?
Josh: It’s not autobiographical, but I did lose my mother four and a half years ago to cancer, and I was raised by a single mother. I grew up on the UWS and I wanted to explore something that I didn’t understand. And explore things I wanted to understand better and while doing it I realized I was desperate to connect. So, yeah, it’s coming from a personal place.
Liz: So many of us have lost people that are close (with cancer) but people don’t talk about it. It was amazing to delve right into it and be completely raw. And with Cynthia, how was working with her, for both of you?
Josh: I mean, it was amazing. She was so generous and patient with me, being my first film. Also, she connected with the material and was nice enough to open up about her personal experiences in losing her mother to cancer just a coupe months prior to meeting. I mean, she’s worked with everyone from Altman to Mike Nichols to Sidney Lumet, and uh, it was amazing. I got to watch the two of them play off each other. I was very lucky to have both of them.
Chris: She’s such a professional in that way. She showed up the picture completely painted. It made my job easier. Again, she’s a professional, so she knows how to do it, so she listens well and delivers well. It makes playing those kinds of scenes extremely fulfilling. She gives you so much to work toward.
Liz: How long was the shooting?
Josh: We shot in NY for 18 days. And then Mexico in 4.
Liz: Was Scott (Kid Cudi) Mescudi in your brain while writing? Was he playing in the background?
Josh: Yeah, I wrote a lot of the film while listening to his music. I would put on the music to change mood or to encourage me. I started listening to the lyrics, so I found motivation not only through what he was doing but also how it sounded. I connected to him. I’m first a fan. So it was a fantasy when [ he got the script ].
Liz: “Here, read this. What do you think? Also, would you like to be in it?”
Josh: Yeah, and I feel very lucky because I now consider him a close friend. Having him do the score for the film was surreal.
Liz: Did he score after or during the filming?
Josh: I asked him towards the end of the shoot if he would be interested in doing it. During the editing and post-production process we just started discussing ideas.
Liz: You don’t really know what people are capable of until you give them that platform. The chemistry between everybody is shockingly real. It’s just really comfortable, something about it.
When you first read the script, did you get James immediately or was it something that you got once you two started to discuss?
Chris: I was lucky enough to be involved pretty early on so I got to read quite a few different variations of different drafts. I mean, it was both, I felt like the character was pretty fleshed out immediately and I felt like a knew the kind of guy he was. Whatever kind of conflicts he had, I understood the reasoning behind it. Even in his worst moments, why he was acting in the way he was. It was a mix of that and being lucky enough to having been friends with Josh, it was very easy to get together and talk about it. And just get coffees for a while before we even started shooting.
Liz: There is so much going on in this film all the time. Did you guys take breaks emotionally from shooting? It’s so heavy. Did you ever get overwhelmed and just say, “Can we take 5 minutes?”
Chris: Not until the end really. At least not until Mexico.
Josh: I was overwhelmed a lot.
Chris: We shot 6 day weeks. It’s a bit of a blur, the whole thing, by now, but I think that served the movie. The lack of rest in that way, I think it served the anxiety for me at least. I never really got a break emotionally but that’s another reason I really liked it. It was equally tiring and thrilling.
Liz: Did you have an intention of tackling hospice care issues?
Josh: No. I am extremely grateful for hospice care. I can only speak for my experience. The point of hospice is there’s no more treatment. So it’s now about the quality of life. You couldn’t go back to the hospital because then you’ll lose hospice care and then you’ll have to reapply. We had a wonderful, wonderful nurse who was there when my mom passed and was very informative of how to say goodbye and just was really very loving. They also provide grief counseling, you get the opportunity to get counseling from a hospice person, and not a therapist, for a year. I did some of that. If you feel like you just need some sort of help. I am absolutely nothing but grateful for hospice care and I hope that’s how it comes across.
JAMES WHITE in in theaters today!