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An old fashioned independent film success story; OFF THE BLACK director James Ponsoldt interview

James Ponsoldt is having a couple of years that most film school students dream of; his plan to make a low budget debut feature got improved upon with the addition of a famous actor (Nick Nolte) & a veteran indie producer (Scott Macaulay), & his film got selected to Sundance 06 & now the movie, Off the Black, will be opening theatrically thanks to the respected indie distributor THINKFilm. In spite of or just maybe even because of all the breaks, Off the Black is an excellent movie; fresh & unpredictable & a lot funnier than it looks in its promotional material - I will have a review of it here this week. I spent about 12 hours today (Sunday 12/3, starting with a 10:30 AM screening at The Avalon in DC that was attended by 300 - 400 people!) talking about, & first watching on screen, the world of Off the Black & the world of Ponsoldt. His quick rise to indie success has not been a 100% smooth ride & his current situation is not without frustrations, but those are comparatively smallish details to be re-visited & dissected & learned from at a later point in time. For now, it is time to celebrate - the movie is opening this coming Friday in NYC & LA, so I spoke with Ponsoldt to get an update on the project directly from its creator: * James Ponsoldt Interview *
Sujewa: Hey James, thanks a lot for taking the time out for this interview. I just saw your excellent off-beat drama Off The Black, but before we get to discussing the movie, let's go over some of the highlights of the production story & distribution story of this project so far: 1. how did you hook up with the veteran producer Scott Macaulay's company on this project, 2. how did this project land Nick Nolte for the lead role, and 3. how did the film get into Sundance and 4. how did the film end up with THINKFilm for distribution? I ask these biz questions because, for a typical indiewood film those are not anything too odd, but for a first time feature that was initially planned as a low budget DV movie, those are very interesting, & some would say impressive, achievements. I think for new filmmakers out there, how those things happened with this project - kind of home runs on some key fronts - will be a very interesting thing to hear about. *
James: I'd known of Scott for years because of the many films he's produced ("Raising Victor Vargas","Gummo", etc.) and from his position with Filmmaker magazine, but ultimately it took an agent to put us in touch. As soon as I sat down and met with Scott--as well as his producing partner at Forensic, Robin O'Hara--I knew I was in good company. Their taste, knowledge of the film industry, and integrity is impressive as hell. Also, Scott speaks faster than pretty much anyone I know. I talk fast, and yet Scott can talk laps around me. I'm not sure that this is helpful in any way whatsoever, but I certainly feel a kinship with people who open their mouths and a flood of ideas spills out.
We were very lucky to have a great casting director agree to work on the film (Avy Kaufman, who casts films for Ang Lee, Jim Sheridan, and Lars von Trier, among other directors), and she knew Nick and has cast him before. However, it was really Scott and Robin that helped the most in terms of getting the script to Nick. Forensic Films (Scott and Robin's company) co-produced a couple films from Oliver Assayas including "Demonlover" and "Clean", which Maggie Cheung starred in with Nick Nolte. So they were able to get the script directly to Nick. Also, Nick trusts them, so when he read the script and liked it, he assumed that Scott and Robin wouldn't work with a jerk. They were a seal of approval for me, because nobody knew who the hell I was. I still had to fly to L.A. to meet with Nick, but it was incredibly friendly and informal.
As for Sundance, we just applied like everybody else. We were lucky, because we didn't start shooting until September (2005), so what we sent them was a very, very rough cut. I think we cut 40 minutes from the version that we sent to Sundance. But we found out that we were in around Thanksgiving, and kept working on the film basically until the day before the film premiered (in the middle of January, 2006). It's a cliche, but the print of "Off the Black" was virtually dripping wet.
We had a sales rep for the film (Andrew Herwitz), and we spoke with different distributors, but THINKFilm seemed like the best match. When you talk about THINKFilm, in many ways you're talking about Mark Urman, who's a force of nature. Urman lives and breathes independent film, and his knowledge of the business is encyclopedic. Also, with a company who's recently distributed films like "Murderball","Born into Brothels","Half Nelson","Spellbound", and "Shortbus" (among many others), I feel like I'm in good company. There aren't many truly independent distributors out there--companies like Kino, Zeitgeist, or THINKFilm are few and far between. They're doing what October Films was doing in the early 90's, which is to intelligently bring smaller films to a specific audience, and sometimes they have cross-over hits. Their films might not be for everyone, but I feel like for real film lovers, they're essential.
Sujewa: Even though Nick Nolte is in it & it was shot on 35 MM, is your movie a low budget movie by Hollywood & Indiewood standards? A real low budget movie as in less than a million dollars or a few hundred thousand dollars for production?

James: Our film was pretty damn low budget by Hollywood standards. There's a number of "independent" films that come out that ultimately have major corporations behind them, and it completely calls into question what it means to be independent. Our film was 100% independently financed, we took it to Sundance, and sold it to an independent distributor. I loved my cast and crew (I was able to have the brilliant Tim Orr as my cinematographer and Sabine Hoffman as my editor!), but we felt the crunch in terms of time. I guess that's always the complaint on indie films--not enough time--but that's what I really wish we had more money for...shooting days.
I'm incredibly proud of the film, I put my heart into it, and I'm grateful I got to make it. The "Thank you" part of our end credits is massive because there's no way we could've made the film without calling in a million favors, our actors working for a fraction of what they deserve, and Scott and Robin being experts on how to make a low budget film look like it cost more than it actually did.
Sujewa: Can you describe the movie, the plot mainly.
James: In a nutshell: "Off the Black" is a funny-sad story about a middle-aged high school baseball umpire that convinces a screwed-up, lonely teenager to come to his 40th year high school reunion and pretend to be his son.

Sujewa: I usually shy away from heavy handed dramas because I've seen many of them and at this point I seriously doubt I would see a whole new take on that kind of storytelling; but, at first I though Off The Black was going to be a simple drama but then it turned out to be an off-beat, unpredictable movies with a lot of humor - not the impression I got from the poster & the trailer - and at this morning's screening a lot of people laughed - your movie, at points, reminded me of Jim Jarmusch moments and early Gus Van Sant moments - unpredictable and steers clear of cliches. Can you comment on the first impression that people (like myself) get about your movie & what they say about it after they've seen it?
James: I think there's certain terms that are used to refer to a lot of independent films...terms like "slow burning drama",or "coming of age" or "small town drama". They've become their own genres, like "action" or "sci-fi", except they're usually made by people like John Sayles, not Tony Scott. And labels are fine, I guess, because we like to classify things. But they also create certain expectations for an audience. And it's the job of a storyteller to subvert expectation and to surprise the audience, even if it's in low-key, subtle, human terms.
I think people expect "Off the Black" to be intense and an angry punch in the gut--perhaps in the vein of "Affliction". And it's not. I like humanistic tragicomedies--whether they were made by Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, and Paul Mazursky in the early 70's, or Ozu and Renoir 30 years earlier. Most of those films can't properly be called a drama or a comedy, and I gravitate towards stories like that because they resemble the world as I know it. Again, we like to label. We have a compulsive need to label. But life for me seems mostly funny-sad...I laugh a lot, and I mean well, but like everyone, I'm deeply flawed, and sometimes bad things happen to people I care about. And we all hope for the best and keep trying 'cause what else can you do? I guess I like stories about flawed people who mean well but fail a lot yet keep trying. And sometimes the stories end with them failing. But at least they're trying to be good.
Anyway, that was a bit of a digression, but most people that see "Off the Black" are surprised by how much they laughed. The humor is sometimes born out of awkward situations, sad situations, and the comedy is a relief. I think I could've told essentially the same story and had it be very, very depressing. But it's not. It's funny and surprisingly optimistic. I almost wish we could change the tagline on the poster to: "Don't worry--this movie won't make you feel like shit!"
Sujewa: You seem fascinated with small towns & factory towns - the world of Off The Black is certainly not cosmopolitan New York (kinda the Whit Stillman territory) nor downtown bohemian indie/art scene (kinda Mutual Appreciation territory) - yet you yourself are a young (late 20's) creative person who lives & works in the two major entertainment cities in the US (New York & LA), can you talk a little about why you set the story in a small town even though you probably could have told a story that takes place in a big city?
James: Well, I've lived in New York for the past five years, but I was born in Athens, Georgia, lived in the exact same house until I was 18, and go back to Georgia all the time. Right now I'm a bit itinerant, sometimes crashing in Brooklyn and sometimes in Los Feliz (on the east side of Los Angeles), but Athens is the only place that feels like home. And I'm acutely aware of the fact that I'm not a city person. I may live there at times, but it's not part of my DNA. And it comes across in the way I made "Off the Black". I grew up in the woods, and spent a lot of time looking at power lines and trains and abandoned factories and steadily became fascinated by the sound of crickets as well as the electric hum of power generators. That all being said, I'm much more interested in telling stories about the people that I grew up with--when my consciousness and sense of self was being formed--than stories about 20-something hipsters. And there's great films to be made about those 20-something hipsters, but I don't feel like I have a choice in the matter. I just want to tell the stories that seem compelling to me, and it's that simple. If and when I make a film that takes place in a metropolitan area, which I'd definitely like to at some point, I think it will be from the point of view of an outsider. *
Sujewa: Now to the question that probably every other person has asked - what was it like to work with Nick Nolte? Were you scared? By the way, I though Nolte did a magnificent job in Off The Black.
James: Thank you--I agree with you! And before I met Nick, yes, I was terrified. I thought he'd violate me. Ahem. That being said, after I met him I realized two things: 1) Public perceptions of celebrities rarely bare any relation to what they're really like (and those perceptions are cultivated by publications and TV shows that are trying to make money). And 2) Nick Nolte is a sweetheart. On set, he's a complete professional, unbelievably prepared, works without ego, and loves to play and imagine like a child. It's a gift to be able to work with an actor like Nick Nolte. He's so brutally honest to the point of being incapable of lying that it's sometimes painful...because the truth can be ugly. Unlike many actors, Nick doesn't mind being ugly in service of honesty. *
Sujewa: The lead character's (played by Trevor Morgan) sexuality & romantic life was oddly muted I thought - he does not seem to have a girlfriend, he seems straight. Did you leave out showing that aspect of the character's life because it was not very relevant to the main story that you were telling - which is these two strangers stumbling into a slightly odd but kind of important, healing platonic friendship for a brief period of time?
James: I think you said it perfectly. No, it's not that relevant to the main story. That being said, Dave (the character played by Trevor Morgan) has abandonment issues--stemming from an AWOL mother and a less-than-perfect father--that will probably make it really tough for him to trust other people and create intimate relationships. That includes sexual relationships as well as friendships. For that reason, the brief encounter he has with Ray (Nolte's character) becomes quite important to him (whether or not he realizes it).

Sujewa: Even though this was a first time feature, it looks, sounds & plays/feels like the work of an old pro. I am sure your cast & crew had a lot to do with it. Can you talk a little about the contributions made by your key crew members and your cast?
James: I think one of the biggest crimes on films is that the director and stars end up becoming the face of the film, when in fact it took so many people working their asses off to make it. So, here we go: Tim Orr (cinematographer) is a genius visual poet who is one of the greatest young DP's working today; Tony Gasparro (production designer) made the world feel real, lived in, and added tiny details that were inspired and memorable; Caroline Duncan (costume designer) created outfits that seemed honest and simple but were subtly defined and specific enough to enhance the personalities of the characters; Sabine Hoffman (editor) is a mother hen, and a collaborator, and simply a wonderful storyteller who helped me find the story; Avy Kaufman (casting director) loves great actors and is simply the best at what she does; Claire Campbell (composer) is a brilliant, soulful, haunting musician who, being from where I'm from in the south, understands the pulse and rhythm of the film I wanted to make. The main and supporting actors in the film--Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan, Timothy Hutton, Sonia Feigelson, Sally Kirkland, Rosemarie Dewitt, Michael Higgins, Jonathan Tchaikovsky, and Noah Fleiss--were so talented, imaginative, surprising, and honest that I can't imagine the film with another cast. They gave life to a paper document I and I consider them artists and collaborators. And I was unspeakably lucky to work with them all.

Sujewa: I know Off The Black is opening on December 8 in NYC & LA. What other cities will the movie play in & where can people find more info. about the project?
James: "Off the Black" is scheduled right now to also play in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Diego, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C, Charlotte, Honolulu, Denver, Salt Lake City, Athens, and Atlanta. How it does in New York and L.A. (as well as the other cities) will determine whether it goes into even wider release. I'm hoping for the best, but if you want to see it and it's playing near you, see it early (and often)! The best sites to go to for information are and

Thanks James!


Jacky Treehorn said…
Excellent interview SE.

The Sujewa said…
Thanks JB. Hanging out with James was fun & edumacational.

- Sujewa

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