- An Interview with the cast of KILLCAM: LIVE
February 16, 2012
- Interview with director Michelle ChenMiao of SON OF THE STARS
November 16, 2011
- An Interview with Moniqua Plante and John Wynn of PILLOW TALK
November 15, 2011
- Interview: Joshua Leonard of HIGHER GROUND
August 25, 2011
- February 2012
- November 2011
- May 2011
- February 2011
- December 2010
- August 2010
- January 2010
- November 2009
- October 2009
- August 2009
- December 2007
- November 2007
- October 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- April 2007
- March 2007
- February 2007
- January 2007
- December 2006
- September 2006
- August 2006
- July 2006
- June 2006
- April 2006
- February 2006
- January 2006
- November 2005
- September 2005
- January 2005
- January 2003
An Interview with OFF THE BLACK director James Ponsoldt
When/Where did your interest in film originate?
My grandfather was a surrealist artist, but made his living by painting covers for Agatha Christie’s book covers. Growing up, I spent a lot of time around him, and I thought it was cool?he’d always have models posing as Ms. Marple or Hercule Poirot, and random neighbors dressed up like murder victims. He taught me how to draw, and I was sort of a morbid kid (I think the fact that my mother’s a hospice nurse—and a short story writer?also shaped my worldview), so I wanted to draw cartoons like Edward Gorey and Charles Adams.
However, my mother is also a big fan of old comedies?Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello?as well as Sturges, Lubitsch, Tati and early Woody Allen films.
I guess I’ve always enjoyed movies, and I was lucky enough to have people around me who supported the idea of a creative life. Those people, though, all seem to have a similar, deadpan, black sense of humor.
What are some films that inspired you?
“Harry & Tonto,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Scarecrow,” “Cisco Pike,” “Minnie & Moskowitz,” “Killer of Sheep,” “Blue,” “Melvin and Howard,” “California Split,” “The River,” “What Time is it There?,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “La Strada,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “Tootsie,” “The Last Detail,” “Vagabond,” “Small Change,” “After Hours,” “Cooley High,” “The Apartment,” “Tokyo Story,” “Before Sunset,” “The Stunt Man,” “Life is Sweet,” “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” “Afterlife,” “Seven Beauties,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Withnail & I,” “The Two of Us,” “Enlightenment Guaranteed,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Together.”
When did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
In high school. For an economics class we had to create commercials for fictional products. My group made a commercial for “the Purple Stuff” (a Kool-Aid knockoff), and I was nominated to direct it. Suddenly, while having to make decisions that involved a script, where to place the camera, working with actors, production design, music, and editing, I realized that film directing was a synthesis of all my interests. It was like a key in a lock?there was no more question about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d never felt as fully alive and engaged, and basically, I hoped that I’d get to keep directing forever.
How did OFF THE BLACK come about?
After college I found myself in New York at Columbia University’s Graduate Film School. I made a couple short films that played in festivals all over the world?“Coming Down the Mountain,” which was about a family grappling with OxyContin addiction in rural Kentucky, and “Junebug and Hurricane,” which starred Janeane Garofalo, and is about a perfect, fun Saturday with a mother and daughter in the middle of winter in Coney Island?though it slowly becomes clear that they’re using fake names and that the mother kidnapped the daughter.
I met a number of folks at films festivals who liked my shorts and said they wanted to help me make a feature if I had something I wanted to make. As it happened, I’d written a feature script called “Off the Black.”
What inspired you to do this film?
I played baseball from the time I was a little kid through high school, and a number of my friends had fathers that were high school baseball umpires. One of my best friends got into drugs when we were in high school?he stopped playing baseball, dropped out of school. His dad was an ump. During winter vacation of my freshman year in college, I found myself back home (in Athens, Georgia). I ran into my friend’s father. We talked for half an hour, and he was so genuinely excited for me that I was doing well at college. Yet nowhere during the conversation did we talk about the fact that his son was living on the streets and addicted to crack cocaine. But I know he knew that I knew. But I didn’t ask about his son, and I’ve never forgiven myself for that. I walked away feeling like a coward. And it killed me that this man?who’d been like a father to me?was still an umpire for other people’s teenage sons. But nobody probably realized that this guy wearing a mask had an entire family, an entire life full of love, pain, and loss. I couldn’t let it go. I had to start writing?perhaps I was driven by guilt.
How did you garner financing?
It was really tough?I was lucky to have an agent who sent the script around, and I met a bunch of people who really liked it?but thought it’d be hard to make without the right casting. ‘Cause it’s an intimate, quiet film that’s basically about two people. It’s what they call, in the film business, “execution dependent.” Finally, though, like with most things, it took people who were older, more experienced, and had reputations they were willing to risk to sign on and legitimize the project.
How did you go about casting?
It was a combination of an amazing casting director (Avy Kaufman, who casts movies for Ang Lee, Lars von Trier, and Jim Sheridan, amongst others) and great producers (Scott Macaulay and Robin O’Hara at Forensic Films). Avy knew Nick Nolte, but Scott and Robin had worked with him pretty recently on a nice French film by Oliver Assayas called “Clean” (that also starred Maggie Cheung). They got him the script. Avy helped me assemble the rest of my cast, including Trevor Morgan (who I loved in “Mean Creek”) and Timothy Hutton.
What was the biggest challenge in getting the film made? screened?
Not enough time to shoot. We made the film in 23 days, which was a crunch. But having so few days made us really plan out the production, which was a good thing. Studio films can afford to figure things out as they go; indie films can’t. Maybe that’s why my favorite films are made independently?
We were lucky?we shot in September, 2005, sent in a really rough-cut to Sundance, got accepted around Thanksgiving, and premiered in January at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It was dizzying.
Again, we were lucky that THINKFilm, who’ve released films like “Born into Brothels,” “Half Nelson,” “Murderball,” “Spellbound,” and “Shortbus,” are distributing the film. They’re a genuinely independent distributor?not a subsidiary of a major studio. So they specialize in smaller films, perhaps more challenging films, and they seem to know their audience.
What is next for you?
1) A documentary about geriatric radicals (Studs Terkel, Pete Seeger, Grandmothers Against the War, etc.) that I’m co-directing with a great documentarian named Astra Taylor.
2) An original script?an insane comedy about trauma and recovery—called “Everything All At Once” ?it takes place around New York City and in New Jersey.
3) I’m adapting an incredible short story set in rural Oregon called “Refresh, Refresh.” It was originally in the “Paris Review,” then it won a Pushcart Prize and is included in “Best American Short Stories 2006.”
Don’t miss OFF THE BLACK playing at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles click here for more information and read Kevin Crust’s Los Angeles Times review.