Ray (Nick Nolte) is a lonely, hard-drinking fiftysomething who works at a junkyard but lives for his moonlighting gig as a baseball umpire. He forms an unlikely friendship with a high school player, Dave (Trevor Morgan), whose mother has abandoned him and whose own father has descended into an inchoate depression. The pair forms an unlikely friendship in Athens, Ga.-born writer/director James Ponsoldt's charming feature-film debut, Off the Black -- featured at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Though Ponsoldt attended Yale on a football scholarship and the prestigious Columbia University's graduate film school, his quirky, homegrown soundtrack featuring Athens band Hope for Agoldensummer and an element of mellow sincerity shows telltale signs of Ponsoldt's hip college-town upbringing and evidence of a below-the-radar breed of indie filmmaker making subtle, human stories.
I found the Nick Nolte character fascinating. Is his character based on anyone you know?
Nick's character [Ray Cook] isn't based on anyone specific. I'd say he's more an amalgam of numerous men that have figured prominently in my life: teachers, coaches, relatives, strangers I had rambling conversations with in airports, etc.
Like Sideways and Old Joy, an offbeat male friendship is at the heart of your film. What did you want to convey about the way men deal with each other in your film?
I'm fascinated with the way men, especially men of my father's generation, seem to have problems, sometimes to a crippling degree, speaking honestly about their emotions. I grew up with a lot of tough old dudes who could talk your ear off about the Braves, or Zell Miller, or soil acidity but didn't know how to express their fears, hopes, longings and secret desires. And that kind of emotional prison seems like hell to me.
What do you think drew Nick Nolte to the script? Do you think there were things in his own relationships with the men in his life that influenced his decision to be in the film?
Sure. He has a teenage son the same age as the kid in the script. Nick's also dealt firsthand with divorce and loss and death. I think the script hit a raw nerve. I don't believe in judging characters, even if their behavior can be ugly. In fact, I think the truth is generally a little bit ugly. Certainly not airbrushed. Nick feels the same way.
You have a very notable cast and crew in a relatively little film: a group of editors and producers who worked on some really notable indie films like Gummo and Personal Velocity. Your film seems like a classic indie in an age when the indie has become pretty bloated and Hollywood. Does the fact that your film made it into Sundance and found a distributor give you hope that true indie cinema is not dead?
I'm not even sure what indie means. Does it refer to the source of financing? The sensibility of the storyteller? I just like good, honest stories that make me feel something. I could care less who made it if it has something to say and a beating heart. Unfortunately, most films feel incredibly insincere to me, like they're pandering, aiming to be a big hit. And they seem to think the audiences are really stupid. That's too bad. We're all losing out.
Care to share your thoughts on what you see as the current state of independent film?
Well, everybody can shoot something on DV and get it up on YouTube. That's inspiring. I love YouTube. It's the most democratic thing to happen to entertainment in a long time. I mean, most things up there aren't very good, but occasionally you find gems, or pure insanity -- look for the interview of Richard Pryor on cocaine, or old Os Mutantes concerts, or the Cramps playing shows in a mental institution. Also, with Netflix, you can see most anything, from anywhere in the world, and that's incredible. It's just as easy to order a film made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul as it is to order The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
You've said, "Athens is the only place that feels like home." How did growing up in Athens inform your worldview, do you think?
Well, it's the best small city in America. Growing up in a college town is an incredible luxury. It's laid-back. There's constantly cultural events going on, and I go to concerts two or three nights a week, so growing up in Athens was heaven. I wrote for publications starting when I was 15, reviewing shows, CDs, interviewing bands, etc. But I also appreciate that my high school was racially diverse and that I grew up in an area with a lot of natural beauty. My house was in the woods with a creek behind it. Can you beat that?