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Director James Ponsoldt of OFF THE BLACK Interview
by Tony Farinella

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James Ponsoldt

James Ponsoldt
James is a writer and director from Athens, GA who currently divides his time between NY and LA. His first feature film, OFF THE BLACK premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was picked up for wide distribution by ThinkFilm. The film is now out on DVD. It features a fantastic performance by Nick Nolte. I highly recommend you seek out this film. It's one of the best films I've seen so far this year. I hope you enjoy my interview with James. It's a revealing interview about life, movies, and relationships.

TONY: Upon doing research for this interview, I discovered that you had a very unique education. How did your educational experience help shape you as a filmmaker?

JAMES: I was fortune that I grew up with two parents who exposed me to books. We always had a lot of books in our house. They would always read to me. They exposed me to a lot of films. We were always watching movies. My parents loved Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and The Marx Brothers. There was nothing snobbish about the films that they liked. We would really watch anything. I really connected the idea of films with family and community. We would go to the movies with friends or as a family. I loved the experience of sitting in a dark theater with a bunch of people. It was a collective experience together. As far as education, that was just something that was there. I was always curious because of my parents. They installed that curiosity in me to always ask "why?" The filmmakers, actors, and artists that I like are the ones who always ask questions. They don't really give answers. They just ask a lot of questions. I think it's important as a storyteller to ask questions. When you ask your audience to answer a question, you are engaging them. You are not just telling them what to think.

TONY: What about the art of film making made you want to become a filmmaker?

JAMES: It brings together all these different things that I like. From a very young age, I wanted to be a cartoonist. That was the first thing that I wanted to be. I like to write little stories and sketch them. I also like to write short stories. I also like to do photography. I also acted. There were all these different things that I liked. It wasn't until high school that I used a video camera for the first time. I made my first short film. It was really like a key going into a lock. It incorporated everything that I loved. I loved music, acting, camera work, writing, editing, and all these different things. I felt like I had a purpose when I did it. It used all the parts of my brain that I wanted to use all at once.

TONY: Do you recommend film school?

JAMES: I think it completely depends on the person. I think you can learn everything that you learn in film school in the real world. At the end of the day, you might save yourself some money. If you're able to get help with financial aid and not go deep into debt, film school is a great thing. It buys you time to make a lot of bad films. That's the most invaluable thing. While you are in film school, you are able to make mistakes. You learn best by making mistakes. You have really great people who are giving you advice on what direction to go in. A lot of times I'll tell people that you can learn the exact same thing in the real world or in film school. It might just take two or three times as long. Along the way, you have to bust your ass doing whatever. I have a lot of friends who came straight to Los Angeles out of high school or college to become writers or directors. They got a job as someone's assistant getting coffee. They were close to the industry, but they were working for jerks. After three years of doing it, they were sick of it. They gave up. They lost their passion. That just breaks your heart. A lot of my friends were great writers, but they got turned off because they had to deal with some really nasty people. They had to do some really degrading things. I think it depends. As long as you have focus and you know what you want to do, you'll be fine. You have to keep writing and making films. It doesn't matter if it's just on your cell phone. You just have to keep making stuff. I think you can learn it either way. I loved going to film school and had a great experience. That being said, it might be not for everyone.

TONY: When was the exact moment that you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker?

JAMES: It was in high school in my economics class. We had to create and market a fictional product. My group made a product called "The Purple Stuff." If you remember the Sunny Delight commercials, they would come home from playing basketball and look for something to drink. There would be Cola, The Purple Stuff, and Sunny Delight. The Purple Stuff was always the stand-in for generic Kool-Aid. We decided to make a commercial for The Purple Stuff. It was going to be a spoof. Someone needed to direct the commercial and none of us had any idea how to do it. My dad had a video camera, so I decided to do it. I had to think about what to do as a director. I had to figure out how to tell my friends what to do in the film. I had to figure out where to put the camera. I had to think about all of these

things for the first time. It just felt so natural to me. It made me so happy to do it. It was like nothing I'd ever done. Prior to that, I had no clue what I wanted to do. Following this, I knew I'd be happy if I could do this for the rest of my life.

TONY: How long did it take you to write OFF THE BLACK?

JAMES: Before I actually sat down to write it, I probably spent about six or seven months just brainstorming it. I was outlining it and thinking about the characters. I would go out to bars with friends and tell people the story. I wouldn't even tell them that it was an idea for a film script. I would tell them it was about my crazy uncle. I would start telling them the story of the script. I would look at them as I was telling the story to see where they were interested and where they were bored. That really helped me develop it. I really felt like I could tell the story of the movie. After that, I think I wrote the entire script in about seven to ten days. I rewrote it a lot after that. That's how I wrote it.

TONY: Sports play a prominent part in OFF THE BLACK. Tell me the importance of sports in your life.

JAMES: I played sports for my entire life. I played baseball before I could even write. I played football as well. I went to college as a football player. Football and baseball were big where I grew up. They were huge. That's what you did on a Friday night. The entire community would come out to watch you. There's a sense of community about it. People really rally behind a team. There's something symbolic about a baseball team or a football team. Men are able to talk about sports. With that said, they are not able to talk about emotions. They could talk all day about Glavine's ERA, but they could never talk about being afraid. I think sports become this replacement for real conversation. Even if we are talking about sports, it's our way of communicating about other things. It's our way of communicating our emotions with other people. I'm always interested in telling stories about what we're not able to talk about. It's not only a movie about baseball, but it's also about the way men connect and talk about serious things without realizing they are talking about it.

TONY: Do you think men have opened up more since you were a child?

JAMES: I think it's a problem and always will be. I think it was tougher on men of my father's generation. He's sixty right now, so he's a baby boomer. For men of his generation and his father's generation before that, it was actually worse. You had men who were coming home from the war. They were being taught to be tough and not to talk about your emotions. They were being taught you have to be a man and not talk about it. To go through that and not talk about it, how do you do it? It sounds like hell to me. I think men communicate more now. I think we are realizing that we need to talk about these things. It's still a problem and it always will be. There's a notion in society about being a man and what it means to be a man. I think it's silly. We all need to learn to talk and communicate. I really think it's vital. It terrifies me to think of being a father or a grandfather and not knowing how to talk to my kids. I certainly don't want that to be my life.

TONY: Since you were a first time director, how did you get such great actors for your film? Did you envision each actor for their particular character?

JAMES: I got lucky in a lot of ways. I know how fortunate I am to have been able to work with such great actors. I wrote a script that I thought could be done for not that much money, but have really good parts. I hoped that it would attract actors like Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan, or Timothy Hutton. I was lucky that it did. It really took other people who were older and had a longer resume. Once they agreed to work on it, things fell into place. They supported me a lot. My producers have produced over twenty films. My casting director was responsible for so many great movies. She was responsible for SYRIANA, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and CAPOTE. When people like that agree to work on it, it seems real. It makes other people want to work with you. It validates you. As far as the actors, I've read some reviews on the film, and people talk about how no other actor could possible play the part but Nick Nolte. I think it's such a great compliment to the performance that he gives, which is a great performance. I like the idea that I wrote the part just for him. I didn't write it knowing that Nick Nolte would play it. I never dreamed that I would get an actor that great. He played the part really well. Once it become a real film and we had money, he was my top choice. The rest of the cast were my top choices as well. They were all my top choices. I was very lucky that I got them all.

TONY: Since you were a first time director working with such a talented cast, was that intimidating for you?

JAMES: It could have been. To the credit of Nick Nolte, he works without an ego. He's so giving and nice. He's very low key and unassuming. He's sort of like a child on set. He wants to use his imagination and create. When he was working
Trevor Morgan and Nick Nolte

Trevor Morgan and Nick Nolte
with me, he told me that he needed me to direct him. He never went on a power trip. He respected me as the director. He was a wonderful person to collaborate with. It's very inspiring to work with famous people who want to create something that's worthwhile.

TONY: Since you had such a great experience with Nick Nolte, what's the biggest misconception about Nick Nolte?

JAMES: I think the common misconception is the same one that I had before I knew him. I had read that he was a great intense actor, which is what you get from watching him in movies like THE THIN RED LINE. I had also seen that awful photo on the Internet. You would hear these stories about how he was a madman and a complete drunk. Before I met him, I was afraid of him. He was someone that I wouldn't want to be in a room with. Once I met him, I just thought it was ridiculous. It made me realize that the public perception of people is so different than who they are in real life. I had all of my friends down in Georgia, who have nothing to do with the film business, telling me to watch out for him. Nick Nolte is one of the sweetest and funniest people I've ever met. He's a blast to work with. On my set, he was a complete professional. He was nice and kind to everyone that he worked with.

TONY: What's your most vivid memory from shooting OFF THE BLACK?

JAMES: There is one scene in the film that includes all of the actors in one scene. It includes Timothy Hutton, Nick Nolte, and Trevor Morgan. It's the scene where Nick Nolte comes to pick up Trevor Morgan for the reunion. It was amazing having those three actors together in the same frame. To be able to sit by the camera and watch it, it was the one moment on set when I was blown away. I could die right now and be happy. I was always grateful for the experience, but there's so much to focus on when you are the director. You don't get to really step back and take in what you have done. It's sort of like a sprint for twenty days. I was in awe of how good these actors were. I couldn't believe they were reading my lines.

TONY: Do you read reviews from film critics? If so, how much stock do you take in what they have to say?

JAMES: It's a mixed bag. I write for Filmmaker Magazine when I have time. Also, I used to be a music critic when I was younger. I've been on both sides of it. I think it's very important. I think criticism is super important and vital. I just think it's sad sometimes when I read different reviews from critics. I often wonder if that critic even likes movies. I think criticism is wonderful when the writer is sincere. With that said, I think it's wonderful that you are able to read so many different opinions. It's wonderful. I will be able to read your interview on the Internet as quickly as I could read something in the newspaper. It gives so much power to so many people. I have nothing but respect for people who really love film. I do read some of the reviews. It's worth looking at as a filmmaker. I think filmmakers can learn a lot from reading reviews of their film. You might also drive yourself nuts if you read every review of your film. If you read every post on the Internet, you will go crazy. I've learned a lot from certain reviews. I actually love hearing from someone who is intelligent and really cares. I don't mind if someone tells me that they have a problem with my film. That's fine with me as long as they mean it from the heart. It's better than someone who gives a vague reason for why they liked my film.

TONY: As an Indy director, is it hard to get people to notice your film?

JAMES: It's strange. It's both harder and easier in some ways. It's hard for genuinely independent films to find distribution. All of the distributors are being bought by studios, which are owned by corporations. It's very hard to find distributors who are supporting truly independent films. If you make an American Independent film and want it show in movie theaters, it's important that you show it at a place like The Sundance Film Festival. I was so lucky that my film was able to shown at Sundance. I was one of the lucky ones. While it's tough, more and more people are able to make films cheaply. You can even find distribution on the Internet. You can be seen all over the world on YouTube.com. It's an exciting time to be making films. It's tough to get your films out there. If you really want to be seen and get out there, there are many ways. The Internet is at the center of it. I think it's the future of distribution.

TONY: Finally, what do you have planned for the future?

JAMES: I'm finishing a script right now called REFRESH, REFRESH, which is an adaptation of a really wonderful short story. I'm taking it to the Sundance Lab this summer. We should hopefully be shooting it in the Winter. The story takes place in the middle of Winter in Oregon. I'm working about fifteen hours a day on that. I'm rewriting it and trying to make it great. My goal is to make that. I've already got the next three films that I'd like to make after that. Sadly, you can only do one thing at a time. That's what I'm doing right now. I'm also trying to see as many films as possible.

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Tony Farinella
Tony is an Oak Lawn, IL based film reviewer and columnist looking to have fun and share his unique views on film with everyone. Tony also has an unhealthy obsession with Vanessa Lengies, but that is neither here nor there.

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