Lance Hammer's Ballast is a docile film that has made quite a name for itself in the festival circuit. His first film uses the Mississippi Delta to explore an "underlying sadness," as he calls it, involving three human beings who are affected by a suicide. The subtle and moving film won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and is currently nominated four times for the Gotham Independent Film Awards. It was an honor to discuss the film and the general process of filmmaking with Hammer in a cozy conference room on Michigan Avenue. Though he was not particularly enthusiastic about his days working on Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, he had to discuss involving making films that are true to one's vision. If you're a fan of films that tell so much while saying so little, Ballast would be a rewarding hour and a half at the art house cinema.
You have a degree in architecture and then in the 90's you did work on Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Did you always want to direct?
I basically did. When I was 19 I saw Wings of Desire. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and we didn't have an art house. I went to college at the University of Arizona to study English - it was the first time I lived away from my childhood home and I discovered the art house cinema. I became an addict, and have been since. I saw that film and was just moved to tears - the poetry of that film, and the tenderness and compassion in that film. I wanted to make films ever since that day. But I thought you had to be part of the Coppola family, because I didn't know anything about the film industry at all. So I studied architecture instead, and just by a stroke of luck when I graduated I was offered a job designing architecture of Gotham City for Batman Forever. And I had computer graphics skills at the point; they were trying to do a CGI version of Gotham and so I thought that would be one step closer to making my own work, not knowing that there really is no connection between independent filmmaking and the studio world - there's no crossover. I really enjoyed a major part of that, people especially. But it was kind of just soulless work, without substance and no contribution to mankind at all. They're very selfish endeavors, its a company trying to make a f***load of money and just use it in anyway possible to maximize profit. So I had to leave. As I began to feel that way more and more, I realized that the only way out was through my own stuff. I had been writing for many years, maybe a decade before I finally got this off the ground.
You had a short film before this, was there anything before that?
Yeah, but it wasn't really a short. I wrote a feature script that I had excerpted some scenes from. I gave it a name, Issaquena, and shot it with intention of raising money for a feature script. And then I started over and it became Ballast. Issaquena was also shot in Mississippi, but it wasn't the film I ultimately wanted to make.
Is there a similarity between the short and Ballast?
Not really. Except for location and the intention of making something about an underlying sadness to something, and the beauty of the landscape in relation to the sadness. They were both very tonal films.
At the very end of the film, there is a dedication to Glenda Hammer.
That's my mother.
How did this person influence the story of Ballast?
She's an identical twin, and she's been struggling with ovarian cancer. She has suffered a lot, and there's been some dark times in my life, and certainly hers. Anything that I've been able to do in my life has been a direct result of my mother and my father. It was an acknowledgement of how much of a contribution she has made to this film and everything else I've done in my life.
Was any part of your family in the story?
Yeah, kind of. My mom is an identical twin, so I've been privy to the twin's plight. It's a very particular plight - the strange psychic cord that connects a sibling. I have a lot of insight that a lot of people don't from being the child of a twin. I don't know a mother any different than that.
Was your mother very close with her sister?
Yeah. Until they were about sixty-five they lived in the same city. They were inseparable. Up until college they dressed the same. It's a strange thing, because there's such a connection but a desire to have a separate identity, but it's basically impossible to have that. This film dealt with that subject, this issue of grief. The very unique kind of grief that is more substantial than a mere mortal would experience. The grief that I would feel losing someone close to me pales in comparison to the grief an identical twin feels.
Was the original idea to shoot Ballast with handheld cameras? Is that the style you prefer?
Yes. But that short thing was originally shot with dolly tracks and all of that. My experience of doing that was so horrific - this was a reaction to that. Having an hour and a half between lighting setups was the killer of spontaneity. I always intended to make this with natural light and handheld so we could follow nonprofessional actors. We didn't have a script, we could follow them. The actors couldn't have marks, they couldn't have prescribed places and things they had to do. A lot of it they did know what they were supposed to do, and they could do whatever else they wanted. The camera had to follow them. You can't really do cinematography like that with a dolly track or a tripod.
Tell us about the first shot of the film, which has the camera marching through the delta with character Tyrone.
That was difficult for our assistant cameraman, Lol Crawley. He carries the camera on his shoulder up against his eye, and he's walking through cotton furrows that are ten inches deep, and he's running across the grain. It's amazing he stood on his feet. It was a shot we only had one chance with, because of the many geese in the shot. They are very flighty, you get one shot at it.
Was the shot improvised?
I was always interested in improvising some scenario with the geese. They descend on a field somewhere, and there's thousands of them. It's like snow. You never know where they're going to be. They're in the sky, constantly. So we always had to be prepared. JaMyron always came with us in the car traveling between locations. I'd always have him and the other actors with me, along with camera and sound. The script was designed to be a structural foundation where improvisation or spontaneity can occur, and respond to the landscape. And that's why the handheld camera gives that kind of immediacy, to be up and shooting within 15 seconds.
How big was the crew for Ballast?
We had a lot of people on the crew, but it was always revolving. We shot for a long time, but at any given time we had 10, 15 people. The real unit though was the actors in the scene, Lol shooting, his first and second AC, and Sam Watson who did the sound, and myself. A lot of the time we tried to keep the assistant cameras away from the scene because Lol was really intimate and up in their faces, literally. To crowd the actors was something that we tried to prevent. It was really Lol and the actors and a long boom. That was our core unit.
Was a lot of the sound taken on site?
All of it. I went back another winter later and we recorded a bunch of photography of just landscapes and a lot more sound. We didn't have enough stereo recordings of ambient sounds, so I went back to the same locations with a stereo mic and recorded everything that we already had in mono. But it was all from the place, and all the dialogue comes sync sound.
In the film, the Mississippi Delta is very gray. Was it always like that or did you do something in post-production?
No, it was just choosing which days to shoot on. Thats why we shot over forty-five days. I was interested in shooting under only cloud cover and rain. My experience the beauty of the Delta had to do with overcast rain, muddy fields. A sorrow comes from that emptiness. It's very fallow. It's the opposite of what people think of Mississippi. In the summer it's very full of life, and abundance, cotton that's six feet tall etc. The winter is the opposite. So we hid from the sun. When it was sunny, we wouldn't shoot. There is some sun in the film, but not a lot.
With that being said, did you shoot indoor scenes on a sunny day?
I got really particular about that. The diffused light that comes from cloud coverage into a space is very different than when its sunlight coming into a space, or even reflected skylight into a space. There's a couple scenes in the film that are like that, where we'd close all the curtains and do everything we could to deny the sun. We exclusively used natural lighting. We did use practical lamps - anything you could buy at Home Depot, that you could put into a lamp fixture. That was Lol's lighting kit. I said, "Here's my credit card, you can buy anything you want as long you put them into a real lamp." And he was upset with me.
How did you do the casting for this film?
It was important that no one had acting experience. I am from California, for about ten years though I've been extensively studying the Delta, I've spent a great deal of time there. The longer that I've spent there though, the more I've learned how little I know. This is why I abandoned the other screenplay. This was an attempt at my enthusiasm with this place I love so much and trying to say too much about it. I decided that I couldn't say anything about it, I could only speak with universal concepts like grief. This film could exist in Poland, it could exist in the Ukraine, in Argentina. At least, I had to make a film that could exist in any part of the world. It had to transcend race, it had to transcend everything. But I do love this particular place, so I didn't want to give up on the idea of making a film with a specificity of the place, the experience of being there and the racial relationships. But I realized it had to come from people that were born there. It was never a question. I had to shoot with people that never had acting experience and never showed them the script. They had to bring their own language. We'd talk about scenes, as many months as it took to work through the script that I had written for myself. All the dialogue, all the expression all the idiom had to come from the actual person. When they were having problems with actual scenario, they had to change it and explain to me why. They would tell me how they would do it. That was very important to me--to take the script to a certain place and then let go of it.
Was the silence of character Lawrence his idea? It's very distinctive.
Mike was a quiet guy. I had written a character pretty close to that in temperament. My contribution as a director, in the casting process, was to find someone as close to that character in temperament. Which is impossible, you can't find that person. So Mike was pretty close to that character. He's a quiet, gentle, intelligent person. He's actually a very funny person, but you don't see that in the film. But he has a profound sadness that I identified with the first time he walked into the room. The script required very little dialogue from this character. So when he did speak, it was his own language, but most of the time he wasn't supposed to talk. He communicated through physical expression. But that's him. What you see through the camera - that's Mike. To me, it was just recording a real human being in quietiude.
Of the writing, directing and editing, which do you like the most? Which do you think allows you to realize your vision the most?
I don't see any distinction between the three. I don't mean to sound flip, but all three inform each other. The writing and the editing are mirror images of each other. They're the same process. The production is just the means to give flesh and corporeal tissue to the script as a concept. And then you actually manifest it with something that's corporeal, that's not what you wrote, it shouldn't be. Hopefully, it should take on new life. It should have real dynamics between people. And the editorial is re-writing. I don't know. Probably the editing. It was the most rewarding and the most frustrating.
With all of the frustrations, why do you find editing to be rewarding?
Because that's where you find the real story. Like you have a plan, which is the script, you execute it and it becomes something different. And then you have to find the story, the line, and you have to be receptive like an antenna, letting the story find you. You have to be open to that. The editing is where the magic happens. I really believe that film is written in the editing stage. I honestly don't see how you could separate the three. I know that some people do it very well. Like the Coen Brothers, who I feel in line with. I was actually an art director on The Man Who Wasn't There. And I watched their process, and was probably influenced by them. They're true gentlemen, they're truly masters. Their working process is beautiful to behold. They're the best. They had complete creative control over their work. I love their films, I think they're beautiful. They're truly singular voices un-compromised at all. And that's what we need.
Quick Questions with Lance Hammer:
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
A cup of coffee at the Billygoat Tavern
Favorite piece of fruit?
Last CD you bought?
Who would you be for 24 hours?
If you could have a super power, what would it be?
Book you wish you had written?
Light in August by William Faulkner
If you couldn't fail, what would you do?