Filmmaker James Ponsoldt gives us Off the Black as his feature film debut, a look at an aging umpire, played by Nick Nolte, who finds his life going straight down the toilet. But before he hits rock bottom, he latches onto a troubled teen pitcher for help, attempting to form a relationship with the boy that he wishes he had with his own son.
We spoke with James about “Off the Black.”
What inspired you to make Off the Black? ^ “Off the Black,” my first feature, was inspired by a confluence of ideas. But they all had to do with fathers and sons and baseball.
A few years ago, I was down in Florida, watching spring training for the Atlanta Braves with my father (as a native of Athens, Georgia, I’m a lifelong Braves fan). I’ve gone to spring training for years, because my grandparents retired to southern Florida, and throughout my childhood we would visit them in the springtime.
Watching one of these games, I realized how closely scrutinized the players on the field were, yet the home plate umpire was someone who seemed nameless, unnoticed–who literally wore a mask. And who isn’t made curious by a mask? I began to wonder about the umpire’s personal life–What were his wife and children like? Did he have a happy childhood? Did he have a clean or messy garage? What had he lost in his life?–and less about the actual game being played. The secret life of this umpire became endlessly fascinating to me.
While spending time with my father at games in towns like Orlando and Port St. Lucie, I realized how much our conversations had to do with “stuff”–sports, politics, school, etc. Yet he was unable to talk about emotions. He couldn’t ask me something as simple as: “How are you feeling? Are you happy? Do you look forward to getting up in the morning?” Like so many men my father’s age (he was born in 1946), he was taught to repress emotions, to appear strong, and the way he talked to me was the way his father had spoken to him. It’s mind-boggling, but my father–and his father before him–must have so many secret hopes and fears that he doesn’t know how to share with the world. And the thought of that as my fate terrifies me.
Soon after spring training, I returned to my parents’ home in Georgia, where I ran into the father of an old friend of mine from childhood. The father was a high school baseball umpire. He and I saw each other at a grocery store, and he enthusiastically asked me about college, life in New York City, etc., as well as telling me about his high school umpiring job. Never once during the conversation did either of us mention that his son had become addicted to crack cocaine. He’d been in and out of rehab for several years. Later on, I felt like a coward for never expressing…anything. I should have said something, but I couldn’t. And I was haunted by the idea that this man would go about his high school umpiring job–for other people’s children–and nobody would ever realize that he had his own private life, his own private love, his own private pain. There would always be a mask. It broke my heart.
“Off the Black” is a love story–a platonic love story between two men (forty years apart in age). I feel that I don’t often see this type of story. A completely sincere love story, based on friendship and not sex, seems to be very hard to tell in our current climate (that, to me, seems incredibly cynical and fearful). I like stories that manage to stay gentle, innocent, humorous, humane, and non-judgmental–despite the harshness of the subject matter. In making “Off the Black,” I tried to tell a story that offers hints of hope and redemption–in the face of the realities of life (which include loneliness, loss, sickness, and death). It was a balancing act, certainly a challenge, but it is a glimpse of the world as I’d like to see it.
How did you get the ball rolling on production? ^ It wasn’t an easy process. It took a couple years. After I wrote a few drafts of the script and was ready to show it to people, I began trying to get in the room with anybody who might be interested in helping me make it. I think it helped that as I was taking the script around. I also had short films playing the festival circuit—so I met a lot of people that way. Finally, I had the good fortune to meet four people—Avy Kaufman (my casting director), Robert Hariri (my executive producer), and Scott Macaulay and Robin O’ Hara (my producers). Those four people helped legitimize the film and give it the momentum it needed to get made. I owe them all more than I can possibly express.
How did you assemble your cast? ^ I was lucky to have an amazing casting director—Avy Kaufman—agree to cast my little film. She helped me find amazing actors, from Timothy Hutton (who I’ve always loved) to Sonia Feigelson (who is only 12, and had never been in a film before). Avy is, well, brilliant.
Had you always imagined Nick Nolte as playing Ray? ^ I’d dreamed about him playing the part, but I didn’t think it was a real possibility. When Scott Macaulay and Robin O’Hara threw his name out as an idea (they had worked with him on “Clean,” the Olivier Assayas film he co-starred in with Maggie Cheung), I jumped at it. After Nick read the script and wanted to meet with me, I was sort of in disbelief. But Nick’s a really sweet guy and driven by material he finds challenging. Basically, I lucked out.
How long was the actual shoot? ^ 23 1/2 days.
What were some of the biggest challenges in getting this film made? ^ Simply getting it done with such little time and money. And I didn’t feel worthy to be surrounded by such fantastic people. They did so much for so little! I was incredibly lucky to have such amazing people work on the film, from our cinematographer (Tim Orr, who shot “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls”), to our casting director (Avy Kaufman, who casts for Ang Lee, Lars von Trier, and Jim Sheridan), to our producers (Scott Macaulay and Robin O’Hara, who produced “Gummo” and “Raising Victor Vargas”), our production designer (Tony Gasparo, who did “Tadpole”), our editor (Sabine Hoffman, who edited “Personal Velocity” and “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”), and our actors (Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Trevor Morgan, Sally Kirkland, and a stellar group of actors in supporting roles). In a nutshell, I think the biggest challenge was believing in my film (when it was only a script), and being able to articulate my energy and vision to other people enough so that they would want to work with me. When you’re making your first feature, everyone around you is (usually) much, much more experienced. They’re taking a leap of faith on you. I had to get over my insecurities and believe that I was worth taking a chance on. Hmmm…maybe, in actuality, the biggest challenge was just overcoming my insecurities and doubt?
Any major lessons learned in making this film? ^ Yes—the greatest asset you can have in making a film is the benefit of time. And we didn’t have enough of it. Our cast and crew was ridiculously talented, but every day was a sprint to try to get everything finished. If I could do it again with a budget that was four times as large (which still wouldn’t be that much—we had very little money), I wouldn’t change a thing about the cast or crew or locations—I would only insist on having a week more to film. Time is priceless.