By Brian Darr
Lance Hammer began his filmmaking career working with the art department, designing the architecture of Gotham buildings used in Joel Schumacher's Batman films. His feature film debut as a writer and director might be seen as an aesthetic laying down of a gauntlet: art thrives best when developed far from any Hollywood departments. Written, cast, set and shot in a wintery Mississippi Delta locale, Ballast emerged from its premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival with top awards for Hammer's direction and Lol Crawley's cinematography. Armed with a pack of critical notices confirming an overall consensus that it was perhaps the strongest debut at the festival, it then toured on the international film festival circuit in anticipation of its projected distribution by IFC Films. However, in July the director announced his decision to self-distribute Ballast, explaining that he felt his "sustainability as a filmmaker" was at stake. The film began a run at the Film Forum in Manhattan on October 1st, and it will expand to more U.S. locations starting October 17th.
Ballast is anchored by three terrific lead performers, each inexperienced in film acting before Hammer cast them. Michael J. Smith Sr., whom Manohla Dargis called a "magnificently solemn newcomer", plays Lawrence, a soft-spoken former disc jockey who, at the start of the film, has just found his twin brother dead. JimMyron Ross plays Lawrence's estranged nephew James, who, in the absence of a father figure, has turned to the lawbreaking older teens in the community for guidance. And perhaps most impressive of all is Tarra Riggs, who plays James's mother Marlee. Wesley Morris called her portrayal of a busy and beleaguered single mom "a true force of nature - volatile, acutely sensitive, industrious."
I spoke to Hammer in May while he was attending the San Francisco International Film Festival, where Ballast won the FIPRESCI jury prize.
The weight of personal history bears down on the characters in Ballast. Do you feel this film has something to say about the history of the Delta?
I think it does, definitely, inasmuch as you turn a camera on in the Delta and you cannot avoid that subject. I was very aware of that when I was creating this project. I wrote a screenplay before this, that dealt with it in a very overt way. And then threw it away. For about ten years, I've been working on this project. Which is mostly down-time, trying to let it steep. But the more I've become familiar with the place, the friendships I've made, the research I've done, the time I've spent there, the more of an authority I become, the more I realize how little I know of the place, and how little authority I have to speak about something as complicated as racial relationships in the South, being somebody from California.
What I ultimately decided to do is make a film about very universal and fundamental existential concerns like grief, sorrow, hope. I designed a process that would recruit people that live in these places that we were gonna shoot, that would bring the specifics, either in more subtle ways like their physical comportment and choices of words - I think that's a more direct way, the actual things that are said - and hopefully the very complicated subtleties of place that deal with race, deal with the brutal history of this place would be communicated through people who have the authority to communicate that. That's not me. But I think, obviously when you do turn a camera on there you have to tackle the subject. And I'm white and the characters are black, so a lot of thought has to be given to how you pursue a process like that. Accuracy was very important to me. I relied upon the collaborative process with the actors and the people from the region to bring their own experience to the film as much as possible.
Is that why you chose to work with non-professionals?
That's the main reason. I could shoot another film in New York City or another urban center which tends to have more homogeneity. I'd still be interested in using real individuals, because I'm interested in having emotional truth coming from the actual people in the cast. I don't want them to "act"; I don't want them to do what I'm trying to impart. I want the scenario, which is artificial, to be filtered through the emotions of a real human being. With an actor, that's what they do, they act. It's not themselves. Not to say that you couldn't use an actor and ask them not to act. I'm interested in Daniel Day-Lewis to be Daniel Day-Lewis. That's possible. Using real actors, too, there's the baggage that comes up. You know Daniel Day-Lewis and all of his other roles. He's a tremendous actor, tremendously capable of doing something like that, but it's hard not to think of him as he is in There Will Be Blood now. You spend the first twenty minutes of a film trying to accept an actor that's professional as this person rather than the previous film they were in. That's a big liability to be hamstrung with.
Is that a challenge you'd like to try out at some point?
Honestly, I've given a lot of thought to that. I would, but I don't know how. It's a gargantuan undertaking. I'm scared of it, to be honest. Because filmmaking's hard, and you can't start with any handicaps. There's obviously really wonderful filmmakers who do a great job at that - Paul Thomas Anderson being one. Lars von Trier does that phenomenally well; he works with known actors and that guy's brilliant. Mike Leigh and David Thewlis have some pretty great collaborations. Bernardo Bertolucci did that with David Thewlis in Besieged. They're masters. It can be done; I just don't know how to do it yet.
Critics have noted Ballast's realist aesthetic. What does it mean to you to be a realist filmmaker?
What it means to me is what I was attempting, which was to achieve an emotional truth. I wanted these feelings to resonate with people. There's nothing that's more moving than speaking to someone on the sidewalk about what they've suffered. To see it on film, from actors, it doesn't resonate the same way. I have a desire to try to achieve that in film, along with a lot of other filmmakers. I think the easiest way to do that is to use real people and to ask them to respond with their real emotions.
Do you have any interest in doing documentary filmmaking?
It's interesting. I don't. It seems like a contradiction, and it probably is, because I'm interested in achieving truth as closely as possible, but I guess with some forced artifice: the scenario. I'm more interested in emotional truth than narrative truth. I don't know what it is - it's hard for me to describe. I don't have a lot of interest in documentaries - making them. Maybe it's because I don't know if I could. I respect documentaries tremendously, and I think it's very complicated to take something from reality and make it supremely interesting. It's very challenging. I'm not sure if I'd be any good at it. I'm focusing on what I think I can do, right now. Maybe one day.
I've heard you mention the Dardennes before in interviews. Do you have other cinematic models to point you in this direction that you're interested in?
I think, without a doubt, the most important influence on me is Robert Bresson. It really stems from what he has said. His Notes on the Cinematographer says it all. That's a manual that should be studied by every filmmaker that's interested in finding truth in the simplest, most economical ways. I mentioned Lars von Trier, and he's been very influential. The courage that he has is very inspiring.
He's certainly something of a provocacateur as well.
I really respect that in him. I don't think I'm that person, but I respond to that. He's seen as a provacateur, but he's a very sensitive soul. He might hate me for saying that; maybe not. There's a tenderness to him and a desire to show parts of humanity that can only be described as humanistic. Yet it's couched in this very authentic defiance, and this almost aggression to be argumentative and contrarian, which I respect. [laughs] So he's a complicated person, and I think that's why he's so interesting. His films are pretty brilliant. His last one, which was a comedy, just blew me away.
The Boss of It All - I missed that one.
There's nothing he can't do.
He made that transformation from being much less of a realist filmmaker in his early films - Element of a Crime...
Very formal, like all that stuff about screen direction. But a beautiful film.
Unlike somebody like Béla Tarr who has gone in just the opposite trajectory of Lars, where he went from Cassavetes realism to these very elegant, formalist studies.
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