Former 'Girls' Star Christopher Abbott On His Visceral New Film
Three floors above the rainy pavement in Midtown Manhattan, Christopher Abbott and Josh Mond sit huddled around a conference room table debating the merits of jam and butter filled bagels. Their charismatic rapport is more akin to best friends than it is to the star and the writer/director of one of the year’s most visceral new films. Based on the struggles that Mond went through when his mother battled cancer, James White centers around the the titular character (Abott), a self-destructive and troubled twenty-something trying to stay afloat in New York City while taking care of his ailing mother—played to perfection by Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon.
The supporting cast is rounded out by a superb performance from Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, who also produced the score for the film, out on November 13th. Reviews have been rapturous since the White’s Sundance debut; the New York Times said that the film “grabs you by the throat.” It’s a devastating, deeply felt movie.
Before James White’s theatrical release, we sat down with Abbott and Mond to talk True Romance, the origins of the film, coping with grief, and how the fuck they got Kid Cudi involved in this.
Mescudi appears in the film and also composed its score. What was it like working with him?
JM: I was a fan of his music first, and listened to it a lot when I wrote the script. I was even putting his songs and lyrics into the film, so when he agreed to do the film it was kind of surreal. When we met him, I felt that he really understood the world I came from and was trying to create. He was so eager and down for it when we were filming. He was so connected with the material, and it was such a pleasure to work with him as an actor. To be honest, he nailed it. The energy he produced was authentic to my friends growing up for sure.
When it came to doing the score, we wanted to create a superhero kind of theme. We wanted it to be his anthem or the type of music he listens to, but he really went a step further with it. He designed what’s inside of him. You feel that anxiety and aggression and even seduction. I mean, if I can just step outside of everything for a second—Kid Cudi did the fucking score for my film.
The film is semi-autobiographical and deals with the real emotion and trauma you went through when you lost your mom to cancer. Was it cathartic to write and direct this particular project as your debut film?
JM: I started working on another project while my mother was sick and, through that, I was encouraged to get to the heart of it. It’s not completely autobiographical, but it explores issues that I really needed to explore. How did it feel? It was very much like the film in terms of the up-and-down nature of it. At the same time, I had the guidance and support of my partners, who taught me and coached me throughout the whole process. While I felt extremely vulnerable and crazy, I was protected and encouraged by them. I’m very lucky. I feel the love, but while going through it, I was a maniac.
Do you have any projects you’re writing that you want to work on next?
JM: I want to make movies that I would go see. I like all kinds of movies so whatever I can connect to, I’ll do. There’s something personal I’m working on again as a director. My favorite movies are True Romance and The Goonies, so it’s a wide spectrum. I’m also reading a lot of scripts, so I’m interested in all types of films.
This is your second time working with Josh. How’d you get together on this project?
CA: I met Josh and Sean and Antonio from Borderline Films a year before we filmed Martha Marcy May Marlene. I did a reading for it, and Sean asked me to do it, so that’s how I met all of them. I’ve been friends with them since then. After that, Josh and I did a precursor to James White. It’s not a short film with the same story; it’s a visual piece we did.
That was the first time I worked with him as a director rather than as a producer. Not too long after that when he was working on the script he said that he had started writing it for me to do after a few drafts. I was reading drafts and was involved in the project for a while before we started. This was all a year before we filmed it.
Most of the shots are on a hand-held camera and are very in your face all the time to reflect your character’s emotional trauma. What was it like working with such an intimate style and what drew you to that as a director?
CA: Since I was involved so early on, I met our Director of Photography Matyas Erdely a few months before we started shooting. I would go to the meetings with them where they narrowed down how they were going to shoot it in this kind of style with a lot of close-ups. I knew what I was getting into in that way and I was kind of prepared for it. Weirdly, it didn’t feel invasive at all despite him being that close to me. I feel like he broke the line of a close-up because in some weird way it started feeling like an extension of my body. It was so close in a way that I didn’t even notice it.
JM: Matyas and I came up with a language that I think really captured the anxiety and claustrophobic nature of his situation and also of New York. I say this a lot but there’s a really cheesy saying that no matter where you run, you’re always with yourself. I think it did a lot for the film.
The ending and closing shots both deal with death and loss in a really profound way and, stylistically, seem to unintentionally create this endless loop of alcoholism and addiction. What do you think is the underlying message in these pivotal scenes?
CA: I think the ending is ambiguous enough to leave the audience with a feeling of “what’s next.” It’s kind of the struggle of knowing that there’s tomorrow to deal with. It’s not wrapped up in a bow. There are parts of it where you feel like he’ll be ok, but then sometimes you don’t think so—it’s meant to evoke a feeling that death and loss take time to deal with and maybe you have to repeat the same mistake over and over before you get over it. I think it’s very heartfelt and human in those scenes.
JM: When you’re dealing with something that’s outside of your experience and have nobody to talk to about it and the intensity is so heightened, sometimes the only way to balance that is to be taken somewhere else by drugs and alcohol. There’s that cheesy saying that the solution becomes the problem. It is his only way of knowing how to deal with it—it’s his coping mechanism.
It does work in the beginning and you’re always chasing that at first. You don’t want to completely feel like you’re obsessing over something that you cannot control and you can’t control your obsession so the only way to deal with it is to check out. Well, it’s not the right way or the only way, but it’s the easiest way.
James White is in theaters now.
Original photography by Andrew Boyle. Film stills courtesy of The Film Arcade.