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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Ponsoldt, Nolte and Co. Paint the Eccles 'Black'

After all that nuts-and-bolts talk this week about finishing his film on time, Brooklynite James Ponsoldt’s feature debut Off the Black enjoyed its world premiere this afternoon at Sundance. After a turbulent period waiting for admission outside the Eccles Theater–with none other than Reeler MVP Roger Friedman stomping through the cold, loudly asking anyone who would listen “where are the fucking tickets”–everybody found a seat and settled in for Ponsoldt’s story of a lonely high school baseball umpire’s who befriends a troubled young pitcher.

Black magicians (L-R) Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Trevor Morgan (over Hutton’s shoulder), Rosemarie DeWitt, Sonia Feigelson and filmmaker James Ponsoldt onstage at the Eccles (Photo: STV)

Shot in upstate New York, Black features a sublime lead performance from Nick Nolte, whose fearless tear through umpire Ray Cook’s slow, alcoholic disintegration will no doubt condemn him to at least a few more months of “playing against type” jokes. In reality, Nolte offers his least self-conscious work in years. Opposite Trevor Morgan, Nolte loses himself in a swamp of good intentions and suffers an outgrown paternal despair that recalls his filial anguish in Paul Schrader’s Affliction. His line-straddling between humanity and sociopathy–especially in Black‘s second act–ties with Tim Orr’s typically gorgeous lens work as the film’s most rewarding commodity.
And after he joined Ponsoldt and about 90 percent of Black‘s other cast and crew onstage for a post-screening discussion, Nolte credited the young filmmaker with writing the type of meaty, natural part he had been looking for. And he discredited any reservations about working with a rookie like Ponsoldt. “I don’t put much stock in that ‘first-time director’ thing,” Nolte told the crowd. “Usually, when you meet these people–the ‘first-time directors’–they’re not first-time directors. They’ve done shorts, they’ve done film, they’ve been shooting and shooting. They just haven’t done a major feature. And usually they come with such passion and such great ideas because they’ve thought it through so well. … I’ve worked with many, and it’s always been a good experience.”
For his part, Ponsoldt shared the backstory behind writing Off the Black. Part of his inspiration had come from a trip to see the Atlanta Braves in spring training, but he noted a more striking influence stemming from a long-lost school chum in his hometwon of Athens, Ga. “When we got to hgh school,” Ponsoldt said, “he ran into some trouble with drugs and he dropped out of school. When I went off to college, I remember coming home for Christmas break and I ran into his father at a grocery store. His father was a high school baseball umpire. And his father was so excited to see me; he was asking me how life was up north, was I making short films, all these such things. And nowhere in the conversation did we talk about his son, who was addicted to crack cocaine. And later on I felt awful–like a complete coward–for not asking this guy about this son.
“The guy kept being an umpire. I thought about how he would go to games every day for other people’s children, and no one would know really his own private life and love and pain. And it sort of inspired me to start writing.”
Which he said he did in while locked away in a cabin near Asheville, N.C., finishing the script in about one week. And now look at him, putting the Eccles back in Ecclesiastes: Maybe the race is always to the swift.

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One Response to “Ponsoldt, Nolte and Co. Paint the Eccles 'Black'”

  1. jim ponsoldt says:

    jamie–my son–may have finished writing the first draft of the film in a week, but the script went through 15 drafts over two years–he was working constantly on it,sometimes calling in the middle of the night agonizing over a word or a sentence. and he sought and received feedback from many supportive people, especially at columbia where he was getting his mfa while writing the script.
    thank you for the review. i still tear up every time i watch the film–after laughing out loud earlier in the film. and you’re right about the beautiful photography by tim orr. the boat basin scene by the hudson river at the end of the film is where i used to bring my girlfriend, now my wife, more than 40 years ago.
    jim ponsoldt

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon