Cancer Isn't Hilarious: Josh Mond and Christopher Abbott Talk James White

Art mirrors life for Josh Mond, the Martha Marcy May Marlene producer who makes his directorial debut with the gritty feature James White. Opening Dec. 4, Sundance's “Best of Next” Audience Award winner follows troubled title character James White (Girls' Christopher Abbott)'s transformation from carefree party boy to supportive caregiver as his mother (Cynthia Nixon) struggles against cancer. Also starring Kid Cudi and Ron Livingston (Sex and the City, The Conjuring), the heart-wrenching film is loosely based on the loss of Mond's own mother.

SF Weekly spoke to Josh Mond and Christopher Abbott about the throat noises heard around the set, the onset Sex and the City reunion and why this film isn't a cancer movie.

Between Josh Mond, Cynthia Nixon and Kid Cudi, cancer has touched several people attached to this project. Christopher, has it impacted anyone close to you?

Christopher Abbott: Not in my immediate family. Just in my extended family and some friends.

Aside from working together, the two of you are friends. How did you meet?

Josh Mond: The casting director who we worked with — she's family to us and has always introduced us to talented actors who are good people. So we met Chris through auditioning him for Martha Marcy May Marlene. My Borderline Films partner Sean Durkin asked me to do a reading, and at the reading we were like, 'He's incredible.' I think Sean basically offered him the part. Then Chris and I became very close during Martha. We’ve been friends ever since. 

Isn't working with friends challenging?

JM: My partners, Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos and I became partners the same day we became best friends. And that is like a marriage in its own right. It takes work. But for me, with Chris, it's just being honest and vulnerable and not taking things too personally and patience and knowing the other person has your back with only the best intentions and their only agenda is to create the best thing you can make. And no matter if someone’s irritating you, at the end of the day, you remember that the person is here for you.

CA: Being good friends and working together can easily create frustrations, but the great part about it is you wind up covering all bases and nothing's left unsaid. Whereas if you don't have that kind of rapport with someone, a lot of things could go unsaid on a working level, because one could be too trepidatious to speak their mind. But this way, there are no filters or barriers. So I’m not easily offended and neither is Josh. Or maybe we are? We're extremely sensitive [laughs], but we also know how to say sorry.

Speaking of friends, you had quite the Sex and the City reunion on set between Cynthia Nixon and Ron Livingston. 

JM: I met Cynthia and she read the script and she shared with me that she lost her mother to cancer a few months before meeting. She was from the Upper West Side and liberal, and it seemed like her mother and my mother would have been friends. We lived in the same world. Because she was so honest and open with me, I felt like I could trust her. And she was so familiar with the narrative and the circumstances that it felt like it was supposed to happen.

Ron, I’ve known for years. His wife was in a lot of our short films. Ron is one of those guys, that when you see him, you want him to hug you. You know what i mean? He can access warmth and wisdom and like everything's going to be all right. He was nice enough to play that role, which was very important to me.

They’re both extremely experienced, and even though they were both there, dedicated and patient with me being that it was my first time directing, I was definitely intimidated, because of how fluid and comfortable they were in experimenting. They’ve worked with everyone. They’re so comfortable and so good that I learned the whole time. As far as Sex and the City, yeah, I watched that with my mother, so it was interesting to see them interact.

Did Cynthia Nixon give you advice on how to play cancer scenes?

JM: I remember doing the first setup in the bedroom when she was sick, and she made these noises with her throat. I couldn't believe what I was seeing or hearing because my mother sounded exactly like that, and I thought that was specific to her. I immediately ran into the room and said, 'How did you know she sounded like that?' She said, 'Sweetheart, my mom sounded exactly the same.' She came not only prepared, but with so much experience and care for what she was doing that even the small nuances were authentic to me. In regards to the cancer stuff, we just shared our experiences and really pulled from them as well.

Christopher and Josh, you both seem drawn to darker subject matter. I can't imagine either of you attached to a slapstick comedy.

CA: I don't know, but I’d do an Adam Sandler movie — not that I’m against that.

JM: Right now I’m trying to make things I’d go see. I like to think I’m making films that I can walk away from and feel something emotionally different about my own self. I would like to see something where the ugliness is there, and we're watching someone's secrets. We make and see movies to connect, and what better way to connect than by showing the stuff that we protect others from seeing? And what I said about Cynthia's making those noises, it was an 'it wasn't just me' moment. It’s about feeling connected around things we can't articulate. So for me it inspires.

Josh, you've said the film was partially autobiographical, but if you had made an entire movie about your experience, it couldn't have fit into the timeframe. Could you elaborate?

JM: My mom had a larger support system when she was sick. What I wanted to make was a singular story about a young man that can't see anything except what's in front of him. And I lost my mother four and a half years ago. She was diagnosed eight or nine years ago. I was raised by my mother. She was a single mother and one of my best friends. So it was extremely painful to go through it and watch her go through it. It was something I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about or even want to talk about. I made it to understand what I was processing. It really comes from understanding what went on between my mother and myself.

Were you as troubled as the title character?

JM: Yeah, not in the same way. I’ve made four movies in the time she's been sick. I was productive. But I definitely had my struggles processing, you know what I mean? When you're in those things, you have to be strong for the person in the room, so all that stuff inside gets repressed. So was I as messed up as James? I don't think so. Maybe at times, but I shared his inner turmoil as well.

What do you want viewers to take away from James White?

CA: Even though it's not a cancer movie — I think it's more about a mother and son — it's not like you have to relate to having someone you lost to cancer or some other illness. But it's an overall feeling of acceptance, that death is part of life and the themes are extremely universal. Whether it's something cathartic for someone who maybe has gone through something like James White or not, hopefully they walk away with a feeling of not being alone.

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