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CIFF 2015: Interview with Josh Mond and Christopher Abbott

October 22, 2015

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Last Saturday night I attended the after-party at the Chicago Internation Film Festival (CIFF) following a screening of  “James White”. It  was a packed and lively gathering, that followed an audience that openly received Josh Mond’s directorial debut.  I spoke with both Mond and lead actor Christopher Abbott at the party and then I was told that I’d have an opportunity to talk to both of them closer to the film’s Chicago release date next month. Well, that opportunity came sooner than I thought.  What you’ll find below is a phone conversation I had a couple days ago with both Josh and Chris about their film – and about grief and what inspires them creatively, among other things.

Josh Mond is one of three members of Borderline Films, a production company consisting of two other talents, Antonio Campos (director of “After School” and “Simon Killer”) and Sean Durkin (director of “Martha Marcy May Marlene”). When one of them steps behind the camera, the other two serve as producers. That’s what happened with “James White”, when it was Mond’s turn to step up to the plate. The film stars Christopher Abbott (who was in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” as well as last year’s “A Most Violent Year”) as an aimless, twenty something New Yorker  struggling to come out of a reckless downward spiral while being there for his mother (Cynthia Nixon) who experiences  a relapse of a serious illness. The film also stars Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi (“Need for Speed”) and Ron Livingston (“Drinking Buddies”), David Call (“Tiny Furniture”) and Mackenzie Leigh (“The Good Wife”).

The film was well-received at Sundance Film Festival back in January and since then has been making its rounds on the festival circuit. The film was picked up by Film Brigade and will be receive a limited release in New York on November 13th and then in Chicago a couple weeks later.

I feel “James White” is a powerful and important film and I look forward to seeing what Josh and Christopher are up to next. Without further ado, below you can read an interview I thoroughly enjoyed….

 

 

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DJF: Hey guys. This is David, in Chicago. 

Josh: Hey David. How’s it going?

Christopher: Hey, How are ya, man?

DJF: Doing good, thanks. I want to thank you both for circling back and taking the opportunity to talk about your film. What was it like this past weekend promoting the film at the festival?

Josh: Well,  it was – well first off, it was really the first time spending time in Chicago, as an adult. It was an interesting feeling; very similar to New York. We didn’t get much time to explore, but in terms of the festival – everybody was extremely helpful and welcoming. It was an honor to be acknowledged for our work on the film by such an amazing festival – at the very least, it’s encouraging to keep up what we’ve been doing. And the audience reaction was great, from young filmmakers to people who weren’t even in the film industry. It was nice to know it connected in that way. It was an inspiring trip, to say the least.

Christopher: Yeah, I feel exactly the same. I had the same experience. And I was sad to not have gotten to have seen any other movies, because there were a lot of movies I would’ve like to have seen.

DJF: As I mentioned when we talked before when I talked to you guys individually, I feel like you made a tremendously honest film that will connect with many viewers, as you probably already found out over the weekend. One thing I noticed right away was the storytelling approach – as a viewer, I felt immediately invited and involved, right from the start. Not just because of camera placement, but it’s also how we’re placed in a story that’s already begun. Can you talk about that exposition free, up-close-and-personal approach?   

Josh: Yeah, sure. Well, the idea for it started with the concept of being a story about one character. So, being up in front of his face and the period he’s going through – it was, it not only (a.) showed the anxiety and (b.) the purpose of the story – but, the idea that he can’t run away from himself and that it mirrors his emotional experience during this time in the story. I prefer to watch a movie that has that kind of appearance where you’re dropped in somebody else’s life – where it feels more like a film instead of a movie…you know what I mean?

DJF: I hear ya.

Josh: It feels real. So, when we drop into somebody’s life, that is the closest I can get into the experience I want to have with that subject matter. It’s the best way to get it across, for it to feel real.  You know?

DJF: Yeah, it definitely felt that way.

Josh: I feel like it doesn’t treat the audience like idiots either….

DJF: ….which is always helpful. You definitely captured the stress, frustration and the helplessness of being there for a loved one, when your own life is messed up. Can you talk about that point of view and how important that was?

Josh: Yeah, you know, I think that’s human. I think it’s real. I think no matter what – life is complicated for everybody, it just depends to what degree. And, you know, for me….that’s something I can identify with. You know, it’s not like we’re prepared when we have a tragedy come into our life. Actually, sometimes, to us, our own drama – the drama happening around us becomes more heightened because of the tragedy.

DJF: Right.

Josh: I think I said this before when we talked, but it feels very much like that – when your other tragedies come into the mix – I felt like, that, leading back to your earlier question, makes it much more real.

DJF: Right:

Christopher: And it’d be such a completely different movie if the protagonist was winning in that way. You know? It would just be a very different story. I think all the hardships that he’s kind of going through on his own, whether it’s self-induced or not. It just kind of creates a heavier weight on his shoulder that he’s gotta fix himself – for himself and for other people.

DJF: For sure.  Josh, you and Chris were already friends before filming “James White”, did you always have him in mind for James?

Josh: When I first started writing the script, I wasn’t really sure about who anybody was and I wanted to work with Chris in some capacity. So, we did a short film together, which was a kind of experimental short film and a lot of it was very close and when I got to the editing of it I was seeing things that he was doing on set that I didn’t know he was doing. And I got to see how – well, I already knew he was talented – but I just got the feeling how brilliant he was and how much he added to what we were doing. I was in the middle of writing this script at that point and I called him and I just said I was writing a script for him.

DJF: And Chris, when you first read the script, what were your thoughts?

Christopher: Yeah, I mean, I said this before but he sent it to me right when he got it and I thought that it was good and so well thought out and heartfelt. I feel like Josh really worked hard and completing the script in a good way. I just felt it was total honest and as an actor, more than a friend, I felt that character was dynamic and there was a lot of shapes to play. There wasn’t one-not throughout and for me, as an actor, that’s always something to look forward to.

 

 

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DJF: Definitely. How did the rest of the actors get cast in the film? 

Josh: Well, Cynthia had read the script and we just met for breakfast and we just got to know each other. And she recently lost her mother to cancer a couple months before and, based on our conversation, we both saw that we could trust each other enough to jump in. And with Scott Mescudi – I was a huge fan of his and he actually was a source of inspiration for me while writing the script, for his music. My partner had reached out to a friend of ours that had worked with him, Mark Weber – and Mark had put us in touch and he read the script and we connected. Ron Livingston is, well we worked with his wife a bunch, Rosemary DeWitt, and we’ve known him for a few years and he was kind enough to agree to do the film. And Mackenzie Leigh, we met her from auditioning. So, that’s pretty much how it all went down.

DJF: The characters seem so close on-screen, can you talk about how much time did the actors spent together before shooting?  

Josh: We didn’t really – you know, it’s a small movie and we didn’t really get rehearsal time. Chris had been reading the script for about a year and we’d been talking about at some capacity, but only had a lengthy discussion in the last two months before shooting. But, in terms of working with the other actors, it was more like one or two experiences with each actor where they were just getting to know each other. We went on Cudi’s tour bus to a couple shows, Syracuse and Albany. Had a couple meals with Cynthia and myself. It was really just being on set and being able to block the scene was kind of like a rehearsal.

DJF: That definitely comes across and I feel that a lot of it has to do with the script. Going back to the writing process – how did you know the amount of other characters to involve in the story?

Josh: For me, it was the father character and the mother character, the family friends – there’s the girlfriend and then the best friend. And I think that’s kind of, for me, what it is in life. It’s pulled from all of my experiences and the important people in my life.

 

 

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DJF: Well, one thing I want to touch on is something we talked about individually a couple days ago and that is the subject of grief. I think so often people associate grief  a loss – as in, past tense – but, we rarely consider that there is grief happening in our everyday life or something we (or someone with a serious illness) is experiencing now. What do you make of that line of thought?

Josh: When we first discussed that, I actually thought – I wasn’t able to articulate it, but I think you’re experiencing grief before the loss and you’re grieving after the person dies. And I think it’s such a nice way to articulate the trauma we experience before leaving that person or dying ourselves. It’s like, grief is how your processing your mortality before you lose it.

Christopher: I’ll add to that quickly – I think the movie does something really interesting – where, you know, when you’re dealing with something that is inevitable, like when you’re with a loved one who doesn’t have much time left – I think once that person goes – I think the movie touches on the feeling that you get, which is a bag of mixed feelings, I mean, one of sadness but also a strange feeling of relief in a way because of having to have watched someone that you love suffer a lot. So, I think it touches on it very subtlety, but I feel like that’s not often seen or discussed that much.

DJF: Yeah. Grief just isn’t  something we’re taught how to deal with or we’re told how to talk about. It definitely hit home, I’m thinking about the eventual conversation that I would have with a loved one who has a terminal condition and, you know – what do you say? And this film kind of helped me formulate some of my own feelings and thoughts, so I appreciate that.

Josh: Well, you’re welcome and thank you for responding that a way, for seeing that. There used to be a line in the movie that’s obviously no longer, it was changed, but it was James saying to his friend, “Is it okay that I want her to die?” And the responds with, “Yes. Of course. That’s normal.”

DJF: Right.

Josh: And I didn’t need it in the film. I felt it didn’t work in the pacing of it and felt it was a bit too literal, but that idea for me is really important. Sometimes it helps to know that those thoughts are normal.

DJF: Do you think it comes from a two-fold reasoning, like – I don’t want her to suffer anymore, but I also don’t want to experience this myself anymore?

Josh: Yeah. Yes, there’s multiple justifications for it, but if you were to pin it down – like, I don’t want to see her in this pain anymore and I don’t wanna be in this pain anymore and I want an end to it.

DJF: Right.

Josh: It’s just torture for both of them.

Christopher: When you’re told by doctor’s that it’s, you know, that this is just what’s gonna happen – then there’s that feeling of no hope, I think that’s definitely a though that crosses your mind.

DJF: Man, for sure. Wow. Okay, let’s switch it up a little bit here. I wanted to know – what keeps your creative gears going? Is there anything in particular, like artistically, that helps keep you guys moving forward in what you do?

Josh: It’s funny that you ask that. Like, right now I’m at a kid’s house in New York, someone who used to work for me and I’m helping him work on his first movie. And it’s nice to be around fresh creativity and around people who are doing it for the right reasons. It’s a world that I know. So, helping others is one way. Being around people who I can give back to and be creative with. To continue to work with my friends and explore things that mean something to me and hopefully to them.

DJF: Well, that makes sense. I like that. Chris, any thoughts on that?

Christopher: I guess. Yeah. One thing – well, it’s not a direct answer – but, one thing I always try to do is never do the same thing twice. You know?

DJF: Right. 

Christopher: And that’s hard, of course. I don’t always get to accomplish that, but it’s a bit of a motto I try to follow as much as I can. But, it’s hard to do that. And then putting myself in situations where I sometimes feel safe to fail a little bit. You know, whether that’s doing a bunch of readings of plays here in New York or doing readings in front of people. Putting myself into positions where I can – well, of course I have failed before and it’s been documented (laughs) – but, just making sure it’s okay to be bad sometimes and constantly try to get out of my comfort zone.

DJF: Great answers. Have there been any recent movies that have inspired or moved you in some way or are there any upcoming movies you’re specifically looking forward to – either of you?

Josh: Well, I really liked “Inside Out” was one of my favorites of this year….

DJF: Wow. That’s funny you said that. That was one of mine too. 

Josh. Yeah and then “Cartel Land” and then, I really liked….

Christopher: “Sicario” was inspiring.

Josh: Yeah, me too. I really enjoyed “Sicario”, “Cartel Land” and “Inside Out”.

DJF: For sure. 

Josh: And then I saw a movie recently called “Saint Laurent”….

DJF: What’s it called?

Josh: “St. Laurent”….

Christopher: “St. Laurent” – a French film. I agree that movie’s really great.

DJF: Okay. I think “Sicario” and “Cartel Land” would make a good double feature.

Josh: Yeah (laughs). And “Inside Out” for a triple.

DJF: “Inside Out”….”Ex Machina”…. 

Josh: I enjoyed that.

DJF: Yeah. Well, listen guys. I want to thanks again for giving me your time today. And “James White” will be released next month here in Chicago, right?

Josh: Yeah, I believe November 27th.

Chrisyopher: Yeah.

DJF: Well, you guys have a great afternoon and thank you for taking the time out to talk to me. 

Josh: Thank you.

Christopher: Thank you, man.

 

 

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