Hollywood on the L Train

From left: Antonio Campos, Josh Mond, and Sean Durkin.Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath. Grooming by Bryan Lynde.

When best friends and indie filmmakers Sean Durkin, 29, Antonio Campos, 28, and Josh Mond, 28, first touched down at the Sundance Film Festival in January, they figured they’d handle it like they handle making movies: all together and on the cheap. They’d rented a five-bedroom condo. It would be home to fifteen-odd friends, family, and cast and crew members who helped them make their latest collaboration, the cults-and-country-homes psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, for around $600,000.

“We went there thinking, ‘Holy fuck! We’re going to Sundance! Who has to sleep on the couch?’ ” says Campos. That would be him. He shared “an awful pullout” in the living room with one of the film’s actors, Brady Corbet, who was 22. Others in the room crashed on La-Z-Boys.

Since meeting eight years ago at NYU, the trio have stuck close. They all live in Williamsburg within blocks of each other. None of them is tall, they all have facial hair, and Durkin and Campos wear thick-framed glasses typical of the L-train rider. They’re essentially a collective, or maybe a band. One directs while the other two produce, and then they rotate. If one of them needs time to write a script, the other two will make commercials and music videos and split the money three ways. They named their company Borderline Films: “It’s the line between art and commerce, and we’re living it,” says Mond (plus they all secretly love that Madonna song). The idea is to be completely self-sustaining, three amigos against the world.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, which Durkin directed, wasn’t their first time at the festivals: Campos’s short Buy It Now, about a teenage girl selling her virginity on eBay, won first prize in the student competition at Cannes in 2005, when he was 21, and his first feature, Afterschool, about the ripple effects of a prep-school drug overdose, debuted there in 2008 and was then nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. But Martha, which was shot at Campos’s family’s farm in the Catskills, is another matter entirely: Since nobody can seem to remember its full name, it quickly became known as “the Lizzie Olsen movie,” after its 22-year-old star, Elizabeth Olsen. She’s the younger sister to the acting-and-fashion-designing Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. And while she was technically an unknown actress and is still studying at NYU, she walked into Sundance with a publicist and a write-up in the fashion magazine V.

Martha debuted the first Friday of the festival. Small distributors bid right away, then bigger distributors; it sold to Fox Searchlight that Sunday for around $1.6 million. “I’ll never forget when Sean walked into the living room at 4:30 in the morning and I was like, ‘So what’s the deal, yo?’ And he just started laughing. I think his eyes bugged out of his head,” says Corbet. “We didn’t think we were going to sell the movie for that much money or to a company like that.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” says Durkin. “We’d run out of alcohol in the house. I think we tried to go to a bar to celebrate and it closed after twenty minutes, so we just went to bed.”

A movie about the post-traumatic-stress disorder of a woman (Martha, played by Olsen) who escapes a sexually abusive back-to-the-land cult full of attractive Bushwick types isn’t likely to be the next Transformers. But Durkin left Sundance with the top prize for a U.S. director. When Martha played at Cannes, they noticed an increase in their social status, says Mond over steak and liquor at Walter Foods in Williamsburg. “It’s the first time we’ve been on Paul Allen’s yacht. I was always trying to figure out how to get on that boat.”

“You just eat a lot and walk around and go, ‘I can’t believe it’s real!’ ” says Durkin.

“If you smoke, it’s awesome, because there’s any kind of cigarette you want all the time,” says Campos.

“I stole four packs,” says Mond.

Thanks to Olsen and her nuanced performance, the film is getting the sort of press—W, Vanity Fair,and Elle—they’ve never gotten before. Even if the stories are all about her. (Olsen did not stay in the condo in Park City with the rest of them.) Over the phone, she laughs about the media’s breathless “discovery” of her. “The whole thing where it was like ‘Another Olsen exists!’ was just silly to me,” she says. “There are lots of us in my family. I’ve been around.”

Martha opens October 21, shortly before Borderline will be settling into their first real work space, which will be nice because it means Durkin’s wife, Melinda Gananian, who does photography postproduction, no longer has to print out drafts of his scripts at her job.The new office is just off Bedford Avenue, near where they—and many of their friends and collaborators—live. They’re finally not living month to month. “It does feel like the light at the end of a very long, dark, narrow, shallow tunnel,” says Durkin. “And it’s the first time I’ve felt that way. Not rich, but that I can pay for things. Like dinner.”

They all play their roles. “I’m definitely the stable one,” says Durkin, the only non-single one of the three; the other two have roommates. He wakes up at 6 a.m. every day to write. “Sean is always working,” says Olsen. “He always likes to make sure everything is going to get done. He doesn’t give himself a break.”

He went to the all-boys Allen-­Stevenson School on the Upper East Side until his parents moved upstate (where his mother ran a horse farm; his dad is a businessman). He finished at Kent, a boarding school. Though the film pointedly cuts between the cult’s rustic ­locavore-gone-mad commune and a posh lake house, Durkin says it’s in no way a critique of materialism. “I’m not a political person,” he says. “I’ve never been extreme. It’s not like I’m not passionate, but I’m able to see both sides of things very equally in life. And, you know, I love my furniture, I love my things. For me it’s about the characters and presenting them for who they are and what their background is without judging them.”

As a director, he’s quiet, bashful, polite; he was intensely embarrassed while shooting the movie’s brief group sex scene.

Mond is the big-dreaming romantic hustler (“the fire,” the others call him). “He’s the one going, ‘No, no, no. We have to do this,’ ” says Campos. He’s the only one of them who grew up with a single mother, Corinne, an English teacher; he got his early education in cinema curling up with her and watching foreign filmswhen they both couldn’t sleep. He describes his Upper West Side youth as “a bunch of kids without fathers running around,” and for a while attended the private Dwight School on a partial scholarship. He acted in commercials as a child, and unlike the other two, he knows how to drive. He ended up graduating from City-As-School, the arty, alternative public high school whose alumni include Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“The whole thing where it was like ‘Another Olsen exists!’ There are lots of us.”

When he was 14, he met an NYU student, Brandon David, who was making DIY films for which they “stole” locations, i.e., shot without permits. At 18, Mond co-produced David’s feature Bristol Boys, the story of the suburban pot dealers David had grown up with in Connecticut. “A lot of the actors and crew were drug dealers and had been in and out of jail,” says Mond. He learned that a good producer never stops and never takes no for an answer. “Brandon would be like, ‘We need an active gym to shoot in. You have twenty minutes. Go get it.’ ” He shamelessly works connections, and nearly every story he tells involves some ex-girlfriend helping him out.

Most recently, he applied those skills to Simon Killer, Campos’s second feature, written on the set of Martha and starring Corbet as a guy who moves to Paris after a breakup and has an affair with a prostitute. Mond befriended the person who signs shooting permits. They shot in the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. He worked with a fixer who could take Campos and Corbet around to “hostess” bars, where they’d meet prostitutes whose stories wound up in the movie.*

Campos is the provocateur film nerd who can’t seem to stop talking. He and Mond knew each other from Dwight but weren’t, they say, friends. Get him going, and you get spontaneous impressions of Scorsese and Tarantino, whom he once prank-called at home. He’s dabbled in stand-up comedy. His father, Lucas Mendes, makes a living saying “inappropriate things” on a round-table show on Brazilian TV; his mother, Rose Ganguzza, managed Brazilian celebrities like Pelé when they came to the U.S. and today is a producer of movies, including theirs.

He grew up in the Village in a family “where we could talk about sex in a very open way,” and recalls discovering at age 10, “before I knew how to masturbate,” public access channel 35, home of Robin Byrd and Al Goldstein and porn chat-line ads. He’s had facial hair since he was 13, which was when he shot his first black-and-white short, Puberty, while in a summer program at the New York Film Academy, where the beard allowed him to pass as 16. It’s dedicated to “Mother, Father, and … Stanley Kubrick.” A Clockwork Orange is, he says, the film that changed his life. So perhaps unsurprisingly, his film Afterschool begins with the main character masturbating to a porno of a woman being strangled.

Mond met Durkin the first week of NYU in a “Sight and Sound” class. They’d both transferred in as sophomores, Mond from the University of Buffalo, Durkin from Hobart College. Each week they’d do projects that played off each other’s. Mond ran into Campos on the street a month later, and the triumvirate was set. “We had the same idea,” says Durkin, “that we wanted to use NYU to, like, find our crew.”

*This article has been corrected to reflect that Josh Mond worked with but did not find the fixer for Simon Killer. The fixer was found by another producer, Matt Palmieri.

That semester, they decided they’d make a feature together. It was a dark comedy called Laid that Mond had written about the last day of high school; Campos would direct, and Durkin and Mond would produce. They needed a casting director, and Mond remembered Susan Shopmaker—or “Mom,” as she calls herself in relation to them—from his days as a child actor.

“I didn’t remember him,” she says. “But he kept showing up in my office every other day saying, ‘I used to be a child actor and I want you to be our casting director.’ And I would send him away, and then one night they invited me out and I had a martini and they were drinking Coca-Cola because they were under 21, and they were so delightful and charming that I was like, ‘Okay, you beat me down and you bought me a cocktail; I’m yours.’ ”

Shopmaker’s connections and deft casting eye have proved critical to their success, down to eventually finding Olsen. For Laid, Shopmaker brought in Jonah Hill; it was to be his first movie. Then, two weeks before shooting, says Durkin, “it turned out that the money wasn’t real.” Their investors had been a group of putatively rich guys they didn’t know. “I remember sitting at lunch with this one guy who was like”—Durkin puts on a goon accent—“ ‘I could write you a check right now. Why should I write you a check?’ ” Another said he wanted to start shooting a reality show of them right then, in his office. “I’m so glad it didn’t happen,” Durkin goes on. “Because we sort of learned from this process what we didn’t want to do.” They decided to do things on their own terms.

It was during a post-Laid “depression” filled with buying stuff on eBay and bingeing on Fassbinder that Campos conceived of Buy It Now. His high-school girlfriend Chelsea Logan starred as the girl who auctions her virginity online, with Shopmaker’s husband, Chris McCann, playing the creep who buys it. They shot the short in Logan’s mother’s apartment. Shopmaker brought in Rosemarie DeWitt, then a theater actress with little film experience, to play the auctionee’s mother.

Buy It Now’s Cannes win, says Campos, “really changed the direction of all three of our lives.” Mond, ever the hustler, used that credibility to get them music-video and commercial jobs.

DeWitt also played a teacher in Afterschool; the only time she’s shown in focus is in a close-up of her crotch and rear end. That’s because the movie is told through the eyes of the film’s hero,played by then-14-year-old Ezra Miller, whose character accidentally films twin sisters overdosing on cocaine. The movie, Campos says, is an allegory for the way technology can distance us from experiencing emotion; it was inspired by his experience of 9/11 when he was a high-school senior. To get the performance he wanted out of Miller, Campos filmed him watching a video of jumpers off the Twin Towers.

Miller remains profoundly attached to them. “Sean is a huge-hearted, sharp-brained leprechaun; Antonio is a fire-breathing, ax-wielding dwarf; Josh is the devilishly goateed gangster. They form, like, this complementary trinity where all three of them can at any time step into the necessary shoes of the hard-ass producer; the kind, emotional coach to whoever is having a crisis; the very severe, disconnected-from-reality, connected-to-the-artwork director. Borderline is almost like one man that is three. Biblical shit.”

Despite all of their good fortune, it has also been a year shadowed by sadness. In March, between Sundance and Cannes, Mond’s mother, Corinne, succumbed to cancer of the blood at age 58. She’d been sick for seven years, almost the entirety of Borderline’s existence.

Corinne’s illness is in the background of all of their projects. And it’s why Mond has a tattoo for every film, as well as a tattoo for every important person in his life, to remind him of everything they’ve done for him. The word MOM is inked on the inside of his right ring finger. He doesn’t know why, but he thinks that’s his weakest finger, and he rubs the tattoo whenever he feels like he needs strength.

During the Martha shoot, Corinne was in and out of the hospital, and Mond drove back every week from upstate.* She deteriorated rapidly while he was on that chaotic, thrilling trip to Sundance. Mond’s sister, Julie, an actress, chose not to worry him while he was away; the day he got back to New York, he found out that there was no more treatment. “I love her for keeping it private until I needed to know,” he says. He started sleeping on his mother’s couch. Not long afterward, he was out in L.A. having a productive series of meetings with Fox Searchlight about future projects when he got the phone call to come home.

*This article has been corrected to reflect that Josh Mond visited his mother every week, rather than every weekend, during the Martha Marcy May Marlene shoot.

Durkin and Campos came with him to his mother’s apartment. “My mom waited until I got home, and I kicked everybody out of the room and got to tell her all the good things that were happening with Fox, and I told her she could go and she looked up and she died.”

The three continue to stick together. “We’re brothers, we’re family,” says Mond, who’s adapting a graphic novel “about loss.” Durkin is already fretting about his next script. Campos is spending sleepless nights editing Simon Killer, which he and Mond shot shortly after Martha wrapped.

Durkin’s accolades for Martha have made him the star for now, but he says he’s not going to break up the band. “It’s not like we haven’t been through this for years,” he says. “After Afterschool, Antonio had an offer to go on the roster for one of the best production companies for making commercials, and he said no because they didn’t want to sign us as a group. I mean, we’ve turned down some really good stuff because we had to be like, ‘Well, we don’t work that way. We work together.’ And what’s been great this time around is, now when we talk to companies, they’re like, ‘So if you direct, the other two are producers? Okay, that’s great! That’s no problem.’ People are starting to get it, and that’s what we’ve been fighting for.”

See Also:
David Edelstein on Martha Marcy May Marlene

Mond, Durkin, and Campos with the cast of Campos’s 2008 feature Afterschool. Photo: Courtesy of Borderline Films

Elizabeth Olsen and Durkin the first day of shooting Martha Marcy May Marlene upstate. Photo: Drew Innis

Actor Brady Corbet, center, and Durkin filming Martha. Photo: Drew Innis

Campos, left, and Mond at Cannes this year. Photo: Melinda Gananian

Hollywood on the L Train