Interviewing Josh Mond is like talking to three people at once. It’s rare for him to talk about himself and his work as the writer-director of his debut feature, James White, in the first person. Instead, he constantly refers to the enigmatic “we,” ostensibly in reference to his two co-producers on the film, Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin. With his two “brothers,” he founded Borderline Films, which has been responsible for such dark and disturbing indie gems as Simon Killer, Afterschool, and, most prominently, Martha Marcy May Marlene. James White tells the turbulent story of a young man coping with grief in the wake of his father’s death and the resurgence of his mother’s cancer, and his struggle to go on against all odds. I sat down with Mond earlier this year in Toronto to discuss the film’s origins, stars Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon’s involvement, and his future projects.
Did you feel as if you had a leg up directing your debut feature with so much experience producing? Was there anything that particularly surprised you about the process?
Sure, some things were new. The main difference is that, as a producer, you don’t have to physically be present during the whole shoot. You can go away for the day, do something else. I think that, after this adventure directing a feature, I have a better understanding of what writing and editing really mean. I know now that first drafts or cuts cannot be good. And I have a lot more patience for all that.
How long after you finished directing the film did you feel the film was ready to be presented at Sundance?
We shot James White in late 2013. Afterward we took a couple of months off. The break was necessary, because the editor I usually work with, Zac Stuart–Pontier, wasn’t available for us, as he was busy doing The Jinx for HBO. But, fortunately, I was really eager to work with Matt Hannam, who’s from Toronto and previously did Enemy with Denis Villeneuve. He, too, was on another job, but we decided to wait for about two months for him. Meanwhile, I kept myself busy watching all the footage we had.
Was this break a welcome gift from fate? Did you have time to think it all through again or were you impatient to finish the film?
I thought it was necessary, and I still do. We waited for two or three months and then we edited James White for about four-to-five months.
James White is shot with a handheld camera, which gives the film its rough edge, its rawness and intensity. Can you speak to that?
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, being a New Yorker, like myself, should have. As for my DP, Mátyás Erdély, I can only assume that his body still aches a little bit from carrying the camera around all the time. [laughs]
How did Christopher Abbott join the project?
We met him when he auditioned for Two Gates of Sleep, though we had Brady Corbet already attached. It just wasn’t right, but we remembered him, and he then joined Martha Marcy May Marlene, after which we were all like brothers. He’s part of our family now. He’s even one of the groomsmen in Antonio Campos’s wedding in November. When I was working on the script for James White, Chris and I did a short experimental film together. Later, when I was editing the short, it suddenly struck me: “How did I not think of Chris while writing James White?” He was perfect for it. It’s really crazy when I think about it now. Only then and there in the editing room did I see the things he was doing that I didn’t realize he was doing before. So I called him up a little later when I was in the process of writing James White and I simply stated that I was writing it 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.
How about the rest of your exceptional cast?
Cynthia Nixon read the script, after which we spent a lot of time together discussing how similar our lives are to what happens in the movie. Cynthia intuitively knew where I was coming from, so we just instantly connected. And Kid Cudi, well, I’ve always been a fan of his music. He makes things so very personal, and I find that particularly appealing.
You make it sound so effortless, like it was natural. But things aren’t so easy and pleasant on screen. The film shows people attempting to find their way in extreme, life-changing situations, broken by sickness and death.
It’s very difficult not to mythologize things, but really, everything was hard. And it’s also hard having to wait for people’s reactions. We just came back from Deauville, and I didn’t sit down for the whole time that the film screened. I only came in at the end. It was the first time since Sundance that I watched a part of it, the last 20 minutes or so, and it struck me that, no matter if I see it five months or a year from now, it will always have a different effect on me, because of where I am as a person. The bathroom scene is extremely sad, and very hard to watch, but also really rewarding. After all this time, I think I can finally say: “I’m okay…I’m okay.”
In the film, right before going to Mexico, James says that he’ll be “ready for life” after he comes back. It seems that he needs to postpone making some meaningful, maybe life-changing decisions, needs some “alone time.” That way, he somehow delays growing up.
Yes, I do think that too. I also think that James uses things to his advantage. Like when he runs in at the Shiva for his dead father and kicks everybody out. He’s coming in there feeling guilty. He’s been acting like a piece of shit the past two days, has a black eye, but at the same time there’s some justification for him doing this. Anyway, I do think that people can get it together after going away for some time. No matter how far we run, we still are with ourselves all the time. It just depends on what point in your life you’re at.
The story you tell, the life choices of the protagonists, are extremely well illustrated with music. How did you put it all together? In the Shiva scene you just mentioned, there was a song by Billie Holiday playing…
“Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.”
Precisely. And you assembled the music like each piece was there to complement a different stage of James’s life.
Sure, we also put A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, M.O.P., and others there. We had the best music supervisors in the business: Randall Poster and Meghan Currier. They really do everything, from The Wolf of Wall Street to The Hangover. They graced us with their time despite us having little money.
Are there any other stories that you’re eager to tell soon?
There are a few things I’m working on now, and one that I’m currently writing. It’s a father-son thing this time around. It’s still most important for me to tell personal stories, but also to explore things I don’t understand or know well enough. I’m 32 now, still learning and eager to continue doing that. I asked Cudi once when we just met about how it was for him to make his second album, since seconds are always the most difficult, as they say. And what he said was: “I just explored a different part of me.” That’s brilliant, isn’t it?