Director and Producer Josh Mond (Borderline Films) discusses his debut feature as a director, James White, starring Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon, and is in Toronto theatres now. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival on September 5th, 2015.
Josh Mond: …To me, TV is the way to be – I shouldn’t say that, but I like being able to sit with something for a long time, you know?
The Seventh Art: I like reading a lot and I think the older I get the more I realize I like novels more than anything and I think it’s because – especially long ones, I really drag my heels, but I like them more than short stories, because I lose those in my memory more quickly.
I was raised by an English teacher so I, for whatever reason, whether it’s self-destructive or rebellion, I didn’t read as much as I should have.
I liked reading as a kid, but when I got older I felt I didn’t need the things I had when I was kid, but now I realize it’s what I’ve always liked.
I hear you, but there’s too much to read. And I like to read everything at once because I used to get to the ends of books in junior high school and I wouldn’t finish them for some reason, do you know what I mean?
Because you don’t want that world to close?
I don’t know, I don’t know how conscious it was, or maybe it was my own thing about finishing something.
I’m the opposite, where I’ll keep with something even if I don’t like it so I can at least say I finished it…
Yeah, I know, with movies I’m with you, but there’s a lot of good stuff. Because of the new TV shows, it’s easier not to read for me. I should be reading way more.
Do those shows impact how you write?
I don’t know. My script was… Law & Order was a huge thing for me, that’s what I grew up watching, that’s my comfort zone. Especially the first three seasons, they’re real cinema. I was already hooked, so I watched everything multiple times, but the first three seasons, the pacing, the procedural, the grittiness, the authenticity of everything for me was so entertaining, so it was definitely an influence on me for James, for sure. I don’t know, this is only my second time around writing something on my own. I had a lot of help on James from Tony [Antonio Campos] and Sean [Durkin], a lot of help, they’re kind of like my teachers. Now it’s a bit different. It’s hard to get myself back into the seat to write, because my connection with James was so personal and with the one I’m trying to do now, that I’m writing, I’m trying to mix it up a little bit while still getting to the heart of what’s personal about it. So when I turn to TV, I don’t know how it relates. I’m still interested in procedurals, I like to see the mechanics of it.
But you want to keep it personal, as well?
I like to keep everything personal. I want to be able to make movies and become better after I make them. Maybe that will change in a couple of years, but for right now, I want to explore something that I don’t have patience to explore on my own, you know?
Was there anything in James that you took away, something you would change or double-down on moving forward?
I remember while I was editing or writing it or shooting it, there were times where I was like, “I’m never doing this again. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Am I sadist? Am I a masochist?” I look to music a lot and the literary heroes, Fitzgerald, fuckin’ Bukowski, Kerouac and Hemingway, and they all – whether or not they admitted it – were writing about themselves. Music, I looked a lot at first albums and I noticed every second piece, third piece, was an extension of themselves. While doing it, I thought this was insane and I always kept telling myself that the only way you can tell someone else’s story is if you can explore your own. Because you’ll always be trying to figure shit out, if you don’t figure it out… The answer is that you never figure anything out, so you’re always exploring. That’s part of life. Anything worth doing isn’t easy. I’m still figuring it out.
Are you now looking at the sophomore records? How does that analogy play out? Are you worried because you had your time to really get this film and now the clock’s ticking a bit…
Well there’s a mixture of all that stuff, but I remember when I started becoming friendly with [Kid] Cudi, I was like, “Yo man, how do you do that? How did you decide the second album? The first one was so personal.” And he was like, “Man, I just explored a different part of myself.” And I was like, “Wow, that is brilliant.” In that regard, I look up to him and how he’s been able to keep growing as an artist, but in terms of movies, it’s a struggle. Do you do something completely different or do you perfect the style that you’ve already created? I think it’s just whatever works out, whichever project you’re working on. So there’s a couple of things now, one that I’d like to have a lot of time to work on and to keep to me, and then there’s other things that I have personal connection to that I want to explore. Things that I’m interested in, it doesn’t necessarily have to be so close.
You’ve done some interviews where you’ve said writing this one, you had a bunch of drafts and with Tony and Sean you were able to go through it. How did you come up with the structure of the film, how you mark the months?
The months weren’t in the script, it was the last few months of that experience of her life. But when we were editing, we needed some sort of breath and punch and logic with time, and my editor and I talked about throwing it in there and they worked. I really like it like that.
Do you think it gives people… because you just said it was the “last few months” and I never thought about it that way, but you’re coming from the perspective of knowing where it goes, whereas the viewer doesn’t. Do the months give it a timeline, does it provoke the knowledge that there will be a final duration
Yeah, I like the idea the idea that ‘March’ means two things, but that’s my own shit. Logically, when we were doing it, it made sense to me: five months. I can’t articulate it well because I haven’t said it in a while, but it’s: this is who he is, this is him running away, this is him finding out, this is him reacting or rebelling, and this is her dying. It’s very simple for me to compartmentalize it.
When you were talking about your style earlier, whether you refine it or switch it up, what do you think your style is at this point? You were talking about your collaboration with [your editor] Matt Hannam and you’ve said that you had a close collaboration with your DP, Mátyás [Erdély]. What is the style that this adds up to for you?
Working with Mátyás and Matt, we didn’t really know each other. Mátyás had worked with Sean and knew our stuff and I knew his stuff, and Matt was a similar thing. So we were getting to know each other as we were making the film, which is really interesting because Sean, Tony and I started to get to know one another as friends and business partners at the same time, so they intermixed. Through that, Mátyás got to understand my relationship with New York and how I speak, through that we developed a language that felt reflective of what would be my voice – or the voice of this character. With Matt, we were getting to know each other. Our first set-up, we were living in two separate apartments and we edited for two months, and then we moved somewhere else and lived in a house in the middle of the woods – in the same house together. So we were forced to be with each other after that dating period, know what I mean? So there was this real reflection on digging into what their interpretations of my voice was. With Sean and Antonio coming in to steer the ship, to direct us. They’ve known me for so long, so they can rein things in. In relation to the next project, I love Tony Scott movies, True Romance is my favourite movie and I love an underrated movie called Spy Game. I like Body of Lies, but I like that rhythm of just moving, you know? If there’s a subject, the content warrants it, I would like to be able to make something where I have more time. I shot this movie in New York for 17-18 days, all long shots, but if I could do another movie where I had more time, I would do a lot of oners, but from different angles. But then again, the subject, the story and the emotions of it might not call for this one style. I can at least start on another style. I’m not trying to repeat anything, but we’ll see what happens. Hopefully my voice changes. It also depends on the people I work with, I hope to continue to work with the people I’ve worked with already.
A lot of the things you’ve mentioned seem to relate to New York, constantly moving or the extreme close-ups, they all tend to convey that place to the viewer. How important is New York to the story, outside of the whole ‘the city is another character’ angle, as something included in the germ of every scene as opposed to just the setting or background?
I’m really proud of the way that New York is shown in the movie, because it’s shown through James. I like that it’s not something that’s focused on, it’s the environment that’s another reason that he is who he is. The movie’s not about New York, it’s about James and if you can see New York through him that’s great.
At what point in the process did you make the decision to shoot so close up on Christopher Abbott? Was that an idea you had from the beginning or was it something you figured out while working with Mátyás?
It’s a mixture. In the script there were sequences where it’s written like this, but I had seen all the scenes different. There were moments or sequences that were like this and I made a precursor experimental short film to James , and in that I was a lot like this. There was some interest there, so with Mátyás, he came to New York two months before the shooting. Again, he’s got a lot of experience and he really taught me a lot about storytelling, how to break it down, and we broke the movie into beats – eighteen beats. We discussed every beat, the point of it, and we broke down the scenes, how we saw them visually. It just organically came, to just fucking commit to this, it made sense. It was through working with him that we came to that.
Did you have that kind of collaborative relationship with the actors? With Christopher or Kid Cudi, what were the conversations you had with them?
I think my relationship with every key on the movie was kind of the same. So Chris and I have known each other for a very long time. Chris is a ridiculous actor, he’s brilliant. He really is. We went through scenes similar to how I did with Mátyás and we discussed them, he said what he had problems with and what felt like movie moments, how to change them. I told him my ideas, he told me his. He took liberties on the day. It was very similar, but with each one of them it was really – for this movie in particular – how I become friends with people. I share everything with you, you share everything, so that we can be friends with each other. Cynthia [Nixon] and I, when we met after she read the script, we just started to get to know each other – her background, the similarities between our backgrounds, she lost her mother to cancer a couple months before the film, I had lost my mom. We just connect on what we can connect on and Cudi was the same. Cudi was great. He lost his dad when he was 11, we’ve got similar relationships with our best friends, we kind of speak the same language. But they all brought their interpretation to it and also, like Mátyás, some of them had way more experience than others. They all had charisma and intelligence, so they all did their jobs just like Mátyás, Matt and my production designer, my costume designer… I was working with collaborators.
The sound design is pretty prominent in the film, was that also in the script that it would be so insular – literally with the headphones – but how that creates this space?
In the short film there was a lot of that in there, I wanted to create a very visceral experience and every space to feel different. Our sound designer, Coll Anderson, who did Simon Killer, Martha Marcy May Marlene, he’s doing Tony’s new movie now, he’s also a collaborator. It was always the idea to have it feel very rich and my editor, Matt, does a lot of stuff, as well.
Now that they are your friends or have become your friends, how does that affect their interpretation of you that you mention them bringing? It seems like what they bring starts with them, but then starts to include what they think of you.
Yes, exactly. I was a raw nerve around everybody, so there’s no facade, or very little of it. With making movies, especially from the script, you hand it off and that’s what it means to make a movie is to make it your own. The DP makes it his own and the production designer… It’s all their movie and I think we’re all closer because of it. Everyone hopes that you work on something with somebody and you become better friends because of it. I made movies with people I either wanted to become closer to or people I wanted to get to know.
Going forward, what would be a dream collaborator?
As a director, that’s a hard one. I’m such a fan of movies, it’s hard to meet people and continue watching those movies. Like Brady [Corbet] and Chris I can watch do anything as actors, it’s crazy. I separate completely when I watch them, which is pretty cool, but in terms of… I don’t know, the guy jumping out in my head is Tom Hardy, of course.
Would that be a police procedural?
I don’t know – a father-son thing or yeah, a police procedural. He’s pretty amazing.
What symbolic character in the Law & Order spectrum would he be?
It’s not really Law & Order, you ever see that movie Pride and Glory? It’s Gavin O’Connor and it’s with Colin Farrell, whose character was the antagonist. I would make him the protagonist because he’s a corrupt cop, but… why? I would be more interested in understanding the criminal. I like to humanize someone who makes bad choices, not Serpico. The people that Serpico… It doesn’t even need to be about money. People are human, people get addicted to that lifestyle, blurring the line. There are no rules for a new wave of drugs, like when crack or heroin came in, no one had anticipated that before. So my long-winded answer is to basically say, it’s more Tom Hardy writing his own rule-book, as cliché as that sounds. Like Prince of the City, sort of… You’ve messed up my whole day, because now all I’m going to be thinking about is Tom Hardy… as a cop in the eighties.