Director Josh Mond and actor Christopher Abbott discuss how they collaborated to make the film. Mond also discusses developing the aesthetic for the film with his cinematographer. James White is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and to stream online.
Josh Mond’s directorial debut, James White, premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival to much acclaim. Christopher Abbott (Girls, Hello I Must Be Going) plays James, a self-absorbed twentysomething New Yorker who spends his time partying but can’t hold down a job. He lives with his mother (Cynthia Nixon), who is going through chemotherapy, in order to take care of her — or perhaps because he couldn’t survive on his own. Over the course of this taut film, James copes with his mother’s deteriorating state, forcing him to come to terms with growing up and sorting out his life.
The Seventh Row sat down with director Josh Mond and actor Christopher Abbott to discuss cinematography, aesthetic, and how their collaboration influenced the film.
7R: How did you get started on the film? I understand you were both collaborating as early as the script stage. What did that allow you to do?
Josh Mond (JM): I’ve known Chris for about five or six years. We started working together on Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. I was working on another project that led me into something more personal. My mother was sick with cancer when Chris and I started to become friends. She passed away about a year or two into that. That’s something that I wanted and needed to explore.
Chris and I had made this experimental short pre-cursor to James White. A lot of it was very close. When I got into the editing room, I saw a lot of the things that he was doing that I didn’t realize he was doing when I was on set. I realized that I had to write it for him. So I called him and told him that I was continuing to write the script for him.
Over the years, he read every draft. As we got closer to production, we would go through every scene and discuss it with our DP. Chris was on location scouts. Our close relationship allowed me to ask Chris to be involved in a lot more than an actor would be asked.
It also made me feel safe and comfortable in my anxiety and fears — all the stuff that comes along with your first feature. It was a very big journey to be vulnerable in. It allowed me to be vulnerable and to find confidence in that vulnerability.
I feel like I’ve been spoiled. I feel like I want to cast my next movie with multiple versions of Chris. Everybody on the film, all the actors and the crew members, put their heart into the film. It was personal to every one of them.
7R: What did you notice in the edit that Chris was doing on set?
JM: He was so subtle. In each take, there were different nuances. It was so subtle, but they really changed the energy of it. He had so much control and so much range and so much elegance. I was just blown away. He protects you from cliche and things becoming sentimental. He’s able to show a real soul without doing much. You know that Chris loves the character he’s playing no matter who he is.
One of the people I compare him to is someone like Paul Newman. Look at the characters that he’s played, especially someone like Hud. On paper, those characters are unattractive and hard to empathize with. But what I think Newman did, and what I think Chris has done, is he makes them human. People that are flawed are human. Nobody is the same. He makes a human being attractive to watch because you can see their soul.
7R: Did you take an inside-out approach or an outside-in approach to this role, or some combination?
CA: On this one, it was a bit of a mix. I don’t like to plan too much ahead of time. Outside-in definitely influences me. I like to start with how to dress. Shoes are one of the most important things. People are acting every day in how they present themselves to the world. Shoes and clothes are important because you’re dressing the part just like anyone would do. You’re establishing a look for the film. Everything from clothes to hair to facial hair to physique are all part of the job.
On the other side of it, inside-out was really worked on with Josh and I from a while before — being involved on the early side of the process, I got to read a few drafts. So I got to let the script soak in for quite a while without having too much time pressure to figure the character out. I got to read it slowly and let it simmer.
7R: I understand you think of the film as being in five parts, each with a distinctive look — whether it’s the closeups at the beginning or the wide shots in Mexico, a lot of two-shots near the end. How did you think about what you wanted the aesthetic to be for each of those sections and how to thread them together?
JM: It wasn’t until collaborating with Mátyás [Erdély, the director of photography] that we really found a language. He’s an extremely experienced DP who went way beyond his responsibility as a DP to help me learn more about storytelling.
He came over in New York for two months, and we broke down the script into beats and discussed it at length. We went through the script and changed the script together. He really challenged me to find a process together.
I’d grown up in New York, and there’s an energy to New York that I wanted to achieve. There’s also a deep anxiety that I wanted to achieve — that idea that you’re never able to run away from yourself. The rhythm of the movie and the intensity of the movie with the closeups is reflecting the anxiety and that there’s no time to reflect. It’s all reactionary. You just want to get away from all that and all the intensity.
You have everything you want, and you go to Mexico. It’s like a contradiction. It’s super wide, which is peaceful but also lonely. Then it starts getting closer and closer again once he falls into his own habits because he doesn’t have the tools or the confidence to really work at doing what was best for him. He just goes back to what was “normal”, which was self-destructive. And then, boom it’s in New York.
When the camera stops being with him and finally goes over to her, it’s when he’s thinking about her. She’s the only thing that matters. That’s the moment, at the end of that night of being sick, Cynthia did an amazing job of saying so many things without talking when James gets up to answer the door in the morning. We see on her face that she sees that he’s going to be okay. Everything that she believes about him is true. It’s inside of him. And he was able to use it.