Interview: Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos on Producing James White

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Director Josh Mond's James White is the latest project from Borderline Films. Made up of Mond, Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos, the trio uses a filmmaking method they picked up in film school at NYU, in which each person directs a film while the other two act as producers, securing funding and making sure the vision remains intact. Most recently, Campos directed the darkly romantic Simon Killer, and Durkin directed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which explored the emotional fallout (and subsequent paranoia) that comes from being part of a cult. Though each film is unique, there is something they share: a curiosity about the human condition. How do we cope when things get really bad? What are the repercussions? How do we change?

We spoke to Durkin and Campos, who acted as producers on James White—which stars Christopher Abbott, Scott Mescudi, and Cynthia Nixon—about the film.

Can you explain the way you guys work? How you contribute to each film? 

Sean Durkin: I guess it started because of the way that NYU structures its film class, Sight and Sound, which is what we were all taking when we met each other. There are four people in a group, one directs, one’s a cinematographer, one does sound, someone’s a camera assistant and you rotate. When we met each other that’s what we were doing in class. When I started i never thought I’d produce something. It was a necessity to do whatever it took to make each other’s films. It required us doing a lot of roles for each other. It was sort of basic and not really thought out.

Antonio Campos: I think the other thing is that we really didn’t know—once we came to the conclusion that we’d produce for each other, we didn’t really know what a producer did. it was kind of a blanket term. It was like, well you do everything else the director doesn’t do. We were all figuring it out at the same time. Basically the producer, for us, was someone that was like, "well we’ll just help you make the film and get you the things you need in order to make the film you want to make," and that’s still sort of the way we look at it. But the more you make movies, the more specific it gets, the more roles and people you have on crew. When we started out, coming out of NYU, where it was all hands on with everything, producing was almost like being on the crew.

Do you find that you’re able to do all these production tasks properly?

SD: I think it changes from film to film and our roles change on each film. Initially when we made After School, me and Josh were producing, and then on Martha, Antonio and Josh were producing, and then Josh and Tony went to Paris to shoot Simon Killer and I was editing Martha, and Melody [Roscher] came on board and produced with Josh, and then it was me and Antonio and Melody so every time there’s a film you obviously learn more and your role changes, but also the dynamic of our producing relationship changes based on whatever it needs to be for that film.

There’s a lot of trust that has to go into working this way. If one of you needs more budget, one of you will go do a commercial to fund that. It seems very collaborative.

SD: Yeah, for us it seems strange to produce for someone or direct a film and have people that are producing for you that you don’t trust. It makes it unpleasant. The whole idea is that you have to accept the vision of the person that is directing as the way to go, and you can disagree. We certainly do say when we disagree with the director, but we respect that if they stand strong on that path then that's the way it’s gotta go. That’s what the director is, the guy that takes responsibility for this vision, whether everybody else thinks they’re right or wrong. 

I think the trust goes all the way through, too. Everything about making a film is about setting up trust. For us a lot of it is that you go into it with trust and you trust everyone you hire, you trust your actors and you trust your crew. That’s why you hire them — because you believe in them. You trust them to do the best work. 

AC: It’s [that] phenomenon where certain actors are always better when they work with certain directors. When actors have that trust that the person they’re working with is not going to make them look bad or is going to make this film the right way, then they sort of free up and they are the best version of themselves. that same actor could be horrible in another movie and the trust is really what an actor needs from his director, everybody needs to be doing the best work they can do.

Once James White is done, do you guys start the process circle around and start at the beginning again?

SD: It happens very naturally. Antonio and I are both working on several scripts at the moment. We’re writing or other people are writing or are going to direct. There’s a lot of stuff going on, so there was never really an order. it sort of naturally happened that Antonio was going to go first, then we produced a film for somebody else, then Martha was ready, then Antonio was writing another film. It’s really about what projects are ready when. The only difference is now we’ve all directed a film, it feels like a new chapter in a way. We set out 10 years go to be directors and now we’ve done it and supported each other in doing it. That was the first step, and finishing James White will provide that. There’s no real plan other than focusing on the work ahead of us, focus on the projects we’re passionate about. You just know when one is ready to go, and we’ll just move forward with that project.

Let’s talk a bit about James White. can you outline what your roles were?

AC: We were producers, but in terms of James we were developing the script with Josh for a year and a half or so. We’re always involved in each other’s process—as much or as little as the person needs. it was no different on this in the sense that we’d be there throughout the whole production and pre-production and now post. We’re not in the edit room but we’ll be there when he needs us there.

So what is James White about?

AC: The "what’s it about" is always a tricky one.

SD: It’s especially tricky in editing because we’re really protective of it. You write a script that’s about something and it ends up being about that, but it can always change. When we’re in the edit we’re really protective of saying it is or isn’t about one thing. Part of the edit is finding what it’s truly about.

AC: It’s really amazing how it can shift. The script has a through line, and I don’t know how much or how little this will shift or become more important in the film, in its finished complete form. The edit is where the film is defined, and to try and define it before anyone sees it is what scares us. The funny thing about Kickstarter is, Kickstarter has made us be more open about our process, or the part of the process where we’re not so open. So little by little we’re becoming more comfortable with letting people into that. We’re inherently more private and protective in that way, we really nurture the thing before it goes out into the world and people have a sense of what it is. I can say it’s in line with everything we’ve done: it’s a character study, an unlikely kind of hero character study. I think that this film more than any other film we’ve made is incredibly human and has a warmth that our other films haven’t had. that’s what makes James its own thing.

In your previous films you guys were very good at creating relatable moments from pretty unrelatable scenarios.

SD: Yeah, I think that is essential for us. That’s what we’re most interested in. The way people interact and deal with themselves and others. We never set out to say what we’re interested in, what we’re not interested in, I think it happens very naturally looking at all the work.

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