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.
Do you think you are part of a generation consciously thinking about what it means to be a man and trying to change it?
I can only speak for myself, but I think, as a society, we still have a lot of backwards ideas about masculinity, and femininity and how we're supposed to conform to [constantly shifting] social norms. A bit tangential, but I do feel that, as someone who was a teenager throughout the '90s, I grew up in an incredibly, almost caustically cynical and ironic decade. And I think that mentality is corrosive to your soul. I feel like there has been a backlash in music and film towards a sort of new sincerity, which I think is an act of bravery, aesthetic defiance. I mean, I can't think of anything tougher in this age than writing a simple, straightforward love poem. Most people wouldn't dare. They'd laugh at it. It's not meta enough for a lot of folks. But I applaud anyone that creates something honest, from the heart, and makes me feel something, anything. I remember the first time I heard Daniel Johnston sing I started chuckling, thought it was a gag. And then five minutes later I was weeping.
Have you been disappointed by your relationships with the men in your life?
I love everyone that's a part of my life: men and women. We're all so damn fragile and confused, and everyone just wants to make a few connections in their life. Yeah, I've had people in my life that weren't always there for me, or perhaps weren't capable of giving me what I needed. But we're only human. People are all flawed but beautiful. There's not enough time to hold grudges.
You studied English at Yale on a football scholarship and received an MFA from Columbia's prestigious film program. How has that diverse education in English and film informed the kind of film work you do?
I think I learned more going to public schools in Athens, to be honest. But it all informs my point of view. I guess I've just been incredibly lucky to find myself in the company of some radically diverse people that grew up in every corner of the world, even though I spent the first 18 years of my life in North Georgia. But people are all the same, wherever you are. I'm obsessed with human behavior. Silence seems to terrify a lot of people. It took me a couple decades to realize that people are most beautiful when they're absolutely silent. And when people are quiet, it doesn't matter what language they speak.
Who were your fellow students in the film program at Columbia? Anyone working in film right now?
Well, I only graduated from Columbia in 2005. So a lot of my peers are just starting to make a name for themselves. But over a dozen of my former classmates have films [shorts and features] playing at Sundance this year. Ten percent of the short films at Sundance this year are Columbia thesis films, which is startling. Columbia's grad film program is incredibly diverse, so my classmates are making their films all over the globe, in their native countries [like Thailand, India, Romania, Brazil, Ireland and Palestine]. Two of the Mexican features at Sundance: Padre Nuestro and La Misma Luna [which was just bought by Fox Searchlight] are made by former classmates of mine.
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