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The Reeler Blog

Black Friday: Ponsoldt's Debut Opens at Last

I caught up with filmmaker James Ponsoldt last weekend in New York, mere days before before his feature debut Off the Black was scheduled to hit theaters. (It opens today at the Regal Union Square and AMC Empire.) I had stayed in touch with the Columbia Film School grad since just before Sundance, where Black premiered to generally favorable reviews and a particularly warm reception for Nick Nolte. The actor's blown-out performance as over-the-hill high school baseball umpire Ray Cook is easily one of his best, in part because it's exactly the right role at exactly the right time, not to mention the closely considered dynamics it evokes among his co-stars Trevor Morgan, Sally Kirkland and Timothy Hutton.

Between then and now, however, when not pinch hitting for yours truly, Ponsoldt has been carefully navigating the indie distribution minefield with ThinkFilm, which picked Black up a few months after its Park City bow. This is the stuff they don't teach you at Columbia.

"I thought that once we got the film to Sundance -- once we made it -- that we were kind of done with the work," half-joked Ponsoldt, whose characteristic ebullience belied a sort of marathon-level weariness. "It's been anything but that. I mean, there was so much work that had to be done on the film after that for legal reasons and financial reasons. The business of literally changing every single music cue in the film for different reasons. I'd made the choice that I wanted specific types of diagetic music cues, and they included having songs from people like Roky Erickson from 13th Floor Elevators -- basically crazy people, or paranoid schizophrenics whom I really like. That made the legal rights of getting their music in my movie (too hard to get). So I ended up replacing a Roky Erikson song with a Syd Barrett song. Which I wound up being able to do. And then for financial reasons we couldn't afford those songs, so we had to get new music cues. We had to re-color-time the sync."

Then there was the new world of marketing. "I wanted to be as involved as possible with the one-sheet and with the trailer, and it's tough, because making a film and selling a film are two very different things," he told me. "And you realize there's a reason why directors aren't necessarily always asked to market their films -- their ideas of how the film should be marketed are very different than the marketing people's ideas. So I've been dealing with that. And I've been traveling with the film since October. I think there's been a screening a week that I've been going to; just word-of-mouth screenings around the country. I've been in upstate New York, Western Massachusetts, down in Florida, San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, here in New York. There's still several more I'm going to. Pretty much doing everything I can to be in a room with people who have seen the film and talk to them and hopefully get them excited. Because with independent films, the rationale behind the marketing -- when you cant afford TV advertisements -- is that this will be word-of-mouth. And word-of-mouth is tough when other films can afford full-page ads in The New York Times."

Ponsoldt acknowledges these are great challenges to have; he knows his good fortune to have broken through with a solid first film featuring Oscar-caliber work by its lead actor. Not that he's sweating any of that. "For me, all the awards stuff is tough because it makes creative people competitive," he said. "I know this sounds so fucking political -- but I admire anyone who gets a film made. I'm such a fan of the film. I'm a fan of the films that I'm a fan of, and I'm so enthusiastic that I have peers who are making great films. I definitely want them to get accolades for them, but it suddenly creates this environment where you compare one film against the other; how much are they spending on marketing for this film versus that film. (NB: ThinkFilm is conspicuously pushing Ryan Gosling as an Oscar-worthy Best Actor candidate for his work in Half Nelson.) Basically, I couldn't give a rat's ass: I want as many people as possible to see Nick Nolte's and Trevor Morgan's great performances. That's what I care about. If you get any sort of buzz whatsoever, that's what makes people more likely to see their performances. Great -- that's what I would like."

I second that. Meanwhile, check out Eric Kohn's Reeler review to read more about the film, and have a look at the Off the Black trailer below. Give it a chance: Nolte really is unforgettable, and eventually you can say you knew Ponsoldt way back when. This guy's not going anywhere.

Posted at December 8, 2006 12:16 PM

Comments (1)

James was the TA for my Intro to Film class. He was perceptive and funny, and he helped to illuminate the material while remaining attentive to his students. I'm glad to hear his film is receiving such positive notice. Can't wait to see it. I wish James luck with this film and his future efforts.

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