Retired MTSU Professor Pondillo talks Death, Meaning of Existence in New Film

Retired Professor Robert Pondillo talks about his new short film "Happy New Year, Mr. Kates." (Max Smith/MTSU Sidelines)

Bob Pondillo is a generous, warm-hearted man, nestling into the laid-back cool of his retirement in a hoodie and jeans, a salt-and-pepper beard framing an eternally youthful face and a worn ball cap with the Human Rights Campaign logo stitched in, looking very happy, after all – everyone wants a happy retirement.

So, when he talks about directing short films, it isn’t all that surprising that he doesn’t care for yelling.

“I know some directors who will just go crazy and yell at you and point at you and stuff, because the stress is very high,” said Robert Pondillo, Professor Emeritus in Mass Communication and Culture at MTSU, who retired last year after 15 years of teaching that capped off a wide-ranging career in broadcasting. “You’re trying to get things done in a very limited amount of time, and you’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle … magical performances.”

Retired Professor Bob Pondillo will premier his short film “Happy New Years, Mr. Kates” at the Murfreesboro Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. on Saturday. (Submitted/MTSU Sidelines)

Pondillo is looking forward to the Murfreesboro premiere of his latest film, the 30-minute “Happy New Year, Mr. Kates!” this Saturday at the Murfreesboro Center for the Arts. It’s the sixth film he’s written and directed with the help of what he calls an “MTSU Mafia” of students and faculty.

“I think I’m slowly getting the hang of it now,” he said. “I don’t think you ever really learn how to do it. There are too many variables … You just do what you can with that particular moment and hope for the best.”

So it’s not surprising to hear that a call for a cathartic, zen expiration of breath begins the motivational “spiel” Pondillo gave his crew during the “battlefield conditions” under which “Kates” was filmed.

“Center, be calm, and let’s get this done. When we need a little energy shot, we’ll do it, and we’ll make something we’re proud of,” he says. “There’s so much crap in the world, why do we want to make some more? Let’s make something good.”

Pondillo, now 63, has been in the mass media business since he was 13.

“I got this radio job in a little station in Ohio—Niles, Ohio. I couldn’t even drive yet, so my grandma would pick me up after school and take me to this job where I would play records.”

It was what those in the business called “Middle of the Road” music. Easy Listening. But he kept getting radio work as “a disc jockey or news guy or something—whatever they needed” and mastered the “nuts and bolts” of broadcasting before he entered college at Ohio University in Athens.

“You need to have a bag full of tricks, or you won’t stay in the business long,” Pondillo said.

Naturally, Pondillo majored in Mass Communication, simultanously with Political Science, which was then called “Government.” He graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science and a cum laude distinction.

“Overachiever,” he said with a dry chuckle.

He went on to get his Masters in 1998 from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 2003, all in Mass Comm.

All of this happened around a career as a producer and on-air talent at over 20 outlets around the country, including NBC’s flagship station in New York and Entertainment Tonight in Los Angeles.

In 2002 he was inducted into the Radio and Television Broadcasters Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, about 50 miles west of Niles.

“I did that for a little while,” Pondillo says with a classically Midwestern sense of reserved understatement. “Then [I] got out and decided I was going into the professoring business.”

Broadcasting was what Pondillo called “a young man’s game,” and in his studies he had greatly enjoyed learning the theory that underpinned what he had been learning practically since the mid-60s.

“Here at MTSU, if you’re a professor, they want you to teach a class, or classes, and they also expect you to do a ‘creative activity.’ Write a book, write an article, write a song … make something” he said.

So he did a book on censorship in American TV and contributed to an Encyclopedia of American Journalism.

“But what I really liked to do was work with students—production students in the [Electronic Media Communication] area—and make little movies,” Pondillo says. “So in 2005 I started making short films.”

It started with an adaptation of a play he had written for a “Festival of Ten-Minute Plays” in Milwaukee. Written during what Pondillo described as a “dark period,” it was called “Would You Cry if I Died?”

Next he got in contact with David Lawrence in Los Angeles, the kind of nose-to-the-grindstone, pavement-pounding character actor who never gets any name recognition, but who, if you were to Google them, you’d get that hard-to-place feeling of recognizing them from something somewhere. Probably the NBC superhero drama “Heroes,” where he played a mind-controlling “puppetmaster.”

Lawrence and Pondillo made two films together, the first being “My Name is Wallace” about a solitary, socially impaired man who calls a phone-sex operator after taking an ad asking if he’s “lonely” and “needs love” too literally. “Wallace” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France.

The second, “Wait,” Pondillo’s shortest film, takes place in the moments after a man learns his son has died in a overseas war, and asks the question “What do you do when all hope is gone?”

After that was a musical, “The New, True, Charlie Wu.” Pondillo says he wrote all the lyrics with “When the Saints Go Marching In” looping through his mind, then handed them off to a “real songwriter.”

Pondillo ruffled feathers with his fifth film, 2012’s “The Miracles on Honeybee Hill,” after a student complained about the film’s subject matter: gay marriage. The Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee State Legislature weren’t worried about that in itself, but rather that “Honeybee Hill” was a film about gay marriage that starred two ten-year-old girls.

“I felt like I was being called into the principal’s office everywhere I turned,” Pondillo said about ensuing the TBR investigation. But Pondillo can’t really blame anyone for raising their hackles over potential child exploitation.

The film, he explained, uses children to bring a sense of “innocence” to the conversation. It’s a love story, he said, not a sex story.

“The legislators thought, we cannot not do anything about this,” Pondillo said.

Now, Pondillo is premiering “Happy New Year, Mr. Kates!” to the city where it, like all of his movies, was filmed, to raise money to shop it around to film festivals. Its world premiere was in November at Nashville’s ARTLightenment Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award. Pat Reilly, who plays the titular Mr. Kates, won an acting award, and Bob Wood, the director of the Recording Arts and Techniques MFA at MTSU, won an award for his musical score.

15 percent of ticket sales from Saturday’s screening will go to the Center for the Arts, and the rest will go to Pondillo and crew to pay festival entry fees, which, he pointed out, you don’t get back if you don’t make it in.

Imagine “It’s a Wonderful Life” meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: “Kates” follows character Albert Kates, a “nasty old fart” who wiles away his final days making endless escape attempts from his nursing home, until he succeeds one night, New Year’s Eve, and meets a mysterious tuxedo’ed stranger, David Cummings, who presents Kates with a cosmic proposition.

“Well, I wouldn’t even say ‘nasty’,” Pondillo corrects himself sympathetically. “It’s the story of a frustrated old man.”

However, Pondillo says there’s much more depth to the story.

“The idea is to really think about … how we spend our lives, the regrets we may have in our lives,” Pondillo said. “If you look at the film objectively, there’s a lot of death-talk in it.”

The idea for “Kates” had been “rattling around” in Pondillo’s head for some time before his father grew ill. Visiting him at his assisted living home regularly, Pondillo observed the other old people who lived there, and saw “how these older folks are almost like children now. Nasty little angry children.”

“And they are angry, and they’re frustrated, and they have to stay in one place,” Pondillo said. “You know, I tell ya, it’s tough being old … I understand grumpy old people!”

Pondillo said that he hopes the audience sees themselves, or someone they know, in the film.

“I see my dad in it, even though the guy that plays Mr. Kates is nothing like my dad.”

“Other people have got to see their mothers or their fathers or their uncles or their aunts or grandmas and grandpas in it to really understand it,” he says. “And to know that we’re all heading down that same road, you know…What am I leaving behind? How am I making this world a better place?”

“Kates” was shot with a crew of, Pondillo estimates, 30 undergraduates, four graduate students and four or more professors. Mary Nichols, an MTSU Professor who also recently retired, helped secure a “Synergy Grant” of $22,000. Bob Wood provided music, and the students in the theater program did makeup.

“We had an interdisciplinary project we were working on,” Pondillo said.

The “battlefield conditions” mentioned earlier—the ones combatted with breathing exercises—involved a six-day shoot over Spring Break three years ago, from 4 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning, at Murfreesboro Senior Center, Addams Place and the Pittard School.

“Boy was it cold,” Pondillo said. “They really gave it everything they got.”

Pondillo said he is “uncomfortable” with the Hollywood standard of stamping the director’s name at the top of a film, when he doesn’t look at his films as “my movies.” Instead, he sees directing as management.

“I always consider myself part of the crew anyway, just trying to get it done,” Pondillo said. “And it gets done.”

That invaluable contribution from his students has been a constant in all six films, he said.

“I couldn’t have done it without everyone helping me,” he said. “Usually it takes a couple people to make something great.”

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