The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
The last thing director Josh Mond and actor Christopher Abbott want audiences to expect from their new film, “James White,” is a dreary dirge. “It’s not a cancer movie,” Mond insists. “It’s a mother/son movie.” Abbott says that the film is fun too, and has several amusing scenes. He’s right, though in terms of sheer emotional impact, few films this year pack the visceral wallop of this assured debut feature. In one of the year’s finest performances, Abbott plays the titular young New Yorker whose own advancement in life has been stalled indefinitely by his mother’s cancer diagnosis. The caregiver role that he takes on is an all-consuming one, and many viewers will find the portrayal of his predicament profoundly relatable. Cynthia Nixon is equally impressive as his mother, and the ensemble includes Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. Kid Cudi), Makenzie Leigh (as potential girlfriend Jayne) and a never-better Ron Livingston.
During their visit to the Windy City for screenings of their movie at the Chicago International Film Festival, Mond and Abbott spoke with RogerEbert.com about the film’s personal origins, the importance of creating a safe place onset and the crucial lessons they learned during production.
What inspired you to tell this story?
Josh Mond (JM): My mom passed away from cancer four-and-a-half years ago, and she was diagnosed four to five years before that. I had made four movies during the time when she was sick, and my partners encouraged me to create a project that would help me work through what I was feeling. Cynthia says something in the film that my mom had always told me: “If you don’t want to talk about it, write it down.” Movies were my medication as a kid, and they still are now, maybe too much. It’s the only thing that I really wanted to do or thought that I could do. In order to make a film, you have to find the strength to keep going when you’re doubting yourself. What better way to do that than by telling a story that is the most important to you and to your life? It came from a place of wanting to understand, and then at the end of the process, I realized that it was coming from a place of wanting to connect with others as well.
Christopher Abbott (CA): Initially, I was just excited to be working with a dear friend of mine. Josh and I have known each other for years. Onset, we would always talk about the motivation behind each decision James makes in the film. None of his actions were chosen just for the sake of making him appear angsty—there was always a reason behind them, whether they are justified for the audience or not. It doesn’t mean that what he’s doing is right by any means, but it was always important for us to know where he was coming from.
JM: Chris and I met while making “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and that’s where our friendship began to develop. We made a short film together, “1009,” that served as sort of an experimental precursor to “James.”
How did you go about developing the film’s visual approach with “Son of Saul” cinematographer Mátyás Erdély?
JM: There were a few sequences in the script that framed James’s face in an extreme close-up, starting from the top of his eyebrows and ending at the bottom of his lips. I explored that approach in the short, and it was kind of all over the place. Mátyás came to New York two months before shooting, and he’s obviously very talented. He kind of became a teacher to me, and went far beyond his responsibilities as a DP. We broke down each scene into beats, and then decided on the visual language. We came up with the idea of committing to a more claustrophobic approach for the entire film, based on the energy that he was pulling off of me. There’s an anxiety shared by many New Yorkers that I felt was similar to the anxiety experienced by caregivers. You can’t run away from yourself or the situation.
CA: Because of Josh and because of Mátyás, the camera was never invasive. The first sequence of the film is the first thing that we shot. Stylistically, as far as close-ups go, I think that sequence has the most aggressive instance of it in the film, so we kind of started on the high note in that sense. I would hang out and have chats with Josh and Mátyás for a while before shooting, so I knew that it was coming. I didn’t show up onset and was like, “What? What are we doing?” [Laughs] So I was very prepared for it. It almost broke the line of being too close. There’s a wide shot and there’s a close-up, and he was even closer, so in a weird way, it felt like a strange extension of my body or something like that.
JM: Or like a hug.
CA: Yeah. [Laughs] I got used to it very quickly.
Even longtime fans of “Girls” and “Sex and the City” will feel as if they are seeing these actors for the first time.
JM: I didn’t really think about what anyone else had done. Chris was the only person I knew who could play the role. To be honest with you, I never watched “Girls” even when we were friends. I became addicted to the show only after we started making “James White.” What’s important was that we had a relationship as friends. I felt safe with him and could trust him. His humanity is what makes him a great actor. I’ve seen all of his plays, and went to his most recent show twice. It was Lucy Thurber’s “Where We’re Born,” and everyone from the film went to go see it.
I was a fan of Cudi’s music in how he explores himself and has the courage to do that. The fact that he was even an option for this role was insane to me. Cynthia was generous enough to share her personal experiences. She had lost her mom a couple months before making the film, and she was from the same neighborhood that I was from. Her mother and my mother sounded like they would’ve been friends—they were both liberal, bohemian and very strong women. Ron Livingston is someone I have known for years. His wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, has done a lot of our short films, and she was someone who was giving us opportunities and chances when we were just starting out.
It just felt like everybody was really invested and was there for the right reasons. My point is that it is all about the relationships you have with each other. Obviously it’s important to cast good actors, but I think beyond that, your job is to create a safe space so that everybody will bring their own stuff and be open with it. Fortunately, all the people I connected with were also extremely well-respected. Cynthia has worked with everyone from Sidney Lumet to Mike Nichols to Robert Altman. That’s crazy and intimidating.
Was there any time for Cynthia and Chris to work on creating their mother/son dynamic prior to production?
CA: No, there wasn’t. Like Josh was saying, there was a trust involved. We had hung out a few times before we started shooting, but you can get a gauge on anybody in a few seconds. There was an initial positive reaction just from meeting her and the same was true of my interactions with Scott, Ron and everyone in the film. The “get to know you” phase was pretty quick but it occurred in a very natural way. Everyone was just so prepared and knew what they had to do. When you’re on a time constraint like we were, it makes that process a lot easier.
What sort of research went into preparing for the role?
CA: Though I wasn’t born and bred in New York like James was, I’ve lived there for almost ten years now. I’ve met some of Josh’s friends and know many people who have grown up in New York. As an actor, you’re always picking up traits off of people, so in a way, I was doing research long before I knew I was doing the film. There’s a certain energy to people who were born and bred in New York, and there’s a pride they have that is, in fact, a really specific character trait. There’s a scene on the beach where [Jayne] is like, “I’m from New York,” and James goes, “What school did you go to?” He’s interested, but it’s also a test. Did she really grow up in New York, or is she one of those people who says they grew up in New York, but only really lived there for a few years? That’s something that everyone I know who has grown up in New York does, and I learned that a while before the movie. All of a sudden, you read a script and all those things are in there, and you know why he’s asking that. All those little things come to light in that way.
One of the most moving scenes I’ve witnessed in a film this year occurs when James is helping his mom to the bathroom, and she rests her head on his shoulder, as he shares his fantasy of a better future for them.
JM: I had an experience like that when my mom had to go into hospice. We only had a nurse that came in during the day for a little while, and it was my first experience with a hospice situation. There was a night that I went through where she had a high temperature, and all I could give her was Tylenol. My mom’s friend came in the early morning to help because I couldn’t do a lot of the stuff that needed to be done, and her temperature finally did go down. It was an awful experience. I remember my sister saying to me, “I’m very proud of you. It may seem very difficult right now, but you’re really lucky to have had this experience with her.”
In retrospect, that scene is one of the most powerful things for me to watch in the film. As corny as it sounds, it feels like I’m having a continued conversation with my mom because I’m always in a different place with my perspective, and I read the scene differently every time. I do remember writing a rough draft of the last act of the film on a plane. The scene itself was shot in two set-ups. He wakes up in bed and then it cuts to her bedroom, and then we follow them into the bathroom. It was great that we didn’t cut it because we wanted it to feel as pure as possible. I remember that Chris wanted to make subtle changes to the dialogue.
CA: Keep in mind with any question we answer that the whole experience was kind of a blur.
JM: We shot the film in December of 2013. We had 18 days in New York and 4 days in Mexico. I do remember Chris saying to me, “Does he have to say ‘love’ so many times?” And I was like, “No, let’s try not to.”
CA: Limiting the number of times he says “I love you” to his mom makes it pop more. It doesn’t dilute the word as much.
What have you taken from the experience of making this film?
CA: I feel spoiled that I got to work with a director who was a good friend right off the bat. I’ve worked with other directors who have eventually become good friends, but during the first days of shooting, you’re still figuring each other out. “Can I say this or should I say this or maybe I’ll wait and pick my battle here.” I felt so comfortable and free while making this film. As actors, we’re so often at the whim of other people. I don’t mean in a demeaning way, but we often take on a subservient quality when we’re on a film set. You’ve got to remind yourself that you’re there to do your job, and everyone else has their own job to do. It’s a collaboration. You’re not working for the director. Making “James White” did teach me that sometimes it’s fine to be vocal about an issue or idea that you may have. I’ve learned that if it’s a good idea, people will accept it, and other directors like that kind of collaboration.
JM: You learn your instincts about what to say and when to say it, rather than just share every idea that you have. I’m still figuring out the stories that I want to tell. Like Chris said, I’m spoiled because I’m continuing to do challenging work with my friends. Going around talking about the film is a pleasure to do with someone that I feel comfortable with. For me, filmmaking is a pure collaboration from every department. That’s how I like to work.
Have you received many reactions from audience members who saw their own lives reflected in the film?
CA: There’s a lot of people who have shared their own experiences, which feels nice. It’s more gratifying than just having a bunch of people go, “Hey, great movie!” The film becomes a topic of conversation, and it grapples with issues that everybody has to deal with at some point in their lives. If we haven’t had to face death ourselves, we all know someone who has. It’s so universal in that way. That theme hasn’t been untouched.
JM: There’s an unspoken conversation that occurs when I meet somebody who has lost a loved one or is going through a similar caregiver situation. I get them, and they get me. This film has been furthering that conversation, which has been really nice for me. It feels like I’m not alone.
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