PAINT IT…SOME OTHER COLOR
OFF THE BLACK WRITER-DIRECTOR JAMES PONSOLDT.
“Our film is sort of one of those perennial Sundance clichés of literally running to the festival with a dripping wet print.” Writer-director James Ponsoldt says of his first feature Off the Black now showing in limited theatrical release. He continued, “We premiered on a Friday at the Eccles, and I think that our first print we saw on a Tuesday of that week. And the color was way off and we still had to send it so that Sundance had something, but we were making the actual print that showed on Wednesday of that week and they were shipping it on that Thursday. So it was cutting into the very last second.”
“This is a lesson for me, I would say that ninety percent of the songs that were in the film—all songs from the late 60’s or 70’s: there was the Birds, there was a Roky Erickson song, a 13th Floor Elevators—and we had to change them.” Ponsoldt learned a lot about music licensing in this filmmaking endeavor.
Off the Black is an intimate sports film. Nick Nolte plays Ray an alcoholic high school baseball umpire whose relationship with his son is distant both emotionally and geographically. “I grew up in Athens, Georgia, and played baseball. Kinda from the time I could walk, I was throwing a baseball or a wiffle ball, I guess at that point,” says Ponsoldt of his inspiration for Off the Black. “I played little league from the time I was 8 through high school. A lot of my friends were on teams and lot of them had fathers who were baseball umpires. And umpiring wasn’t a full time job, you know, a lot of them ran lawn maintenance businesses or worked in gas stations or whatever. But they loved baseball and loved to ump baseball.”
In Black, Nolte’s Ray makes a questionable call in a critical game, and he finds himself the victim of vandals who TP his home and even break a window on his late model compact car. But Ray captures one of the miscreants, David (played by Trevor Morgan), and forces him to clean up the mess. The boy doesn't have the funds to pay for the broken car window, so Ray strikes an odd bargain with him: David is to attend Ray's 40th High School Reunion and pose as his son.
“One of my best friends from high school ended up getting into drugs really bad and he dropped out of school. And when I went off to college in Connecticut, I was back on my Christmas break, and I ran into this kid’s father at a grocery store, at a Kroger’s. And we ended up talking for about 25 minutes, and he was so excited for me, you know, saying, ‘How’s school up there? I know you’re making short films.’ And nowhere in the conversation did we talk about the fact that his son was a crack addict and homeless and really hadn’t been heard from in a while. And what really killed me about that conversation was that in addition to me knowing about it, I knew that he knew that I knew about it. But I didn’t have the basic decency or courage to ask, ‘How’s your son?’”
Off the Black boasts a great cast for a filmmaker’s first feature. While Ponsoldt’s experience may have been limited, the actors had a lifetime of know-how to offer. Ponsoldt savored his time with veteran actor Nick Nolte. He plays Ray as a very dyspeptic character. His wife and son have long since moved away, and he hasn't seen them in years. Instead of personally traveling to see his son, Ray sends videotapes chronicling his life as a high school baseball umpire. Nolte understands the personality of Ray intimately; every grunt means something. In one scene, he sloppily handles a beer that has been shaken, sucking it down as the fizzy contents run onto his neck and his chest. This scene is funny but most telling of Ray's state of mind and Nolte's experiences with the bottle. No doubt Ray is a role only Nolte could make real.
“The first time that I met him, sitting down, he very much disarms you when you are with him, because he works ego-lessly, and he’s a great listener. Sitting down and talking to him, he has this voice, this gravely, ‘I’ve been drinking whiskey, smoking Marlboros for 40 years’ voice. And his face, you know, you think this guys doesn’t have to do any work. But I asked him and started asking him about his process. And he was reluctant, because he doesn’t like to be pretentious or intellectual, but he showed me what he had done [to prepare for past films].”
As good as Nick Nolte is in Black, Timothy Hutton's understated performance is perhaps equally impressive. Hutton has a small role as the despondent and clearly depressed father of David, the young man who comes to begrudgingly befriend Nolte's character.
“Timothy was a dream casting choice. I remembered speaking with the casting director after we cast Nick and Trevor Morgan in those two parts, and she said, ‘Who do you like for the father?’ And I said, ‘This is a sort of pie-in-the-sky, geeky idea, but to me the ultimate angry petulant teenage performance is Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. What if 25 years later, that guy’s the father of an angry teenager? So we went with it.”
The film is slowly gaining momentum in its limited release, and it’s a testament to the fact that Ponsoldt’s future in film is anything from black.