Every now and then a film comes along and gets at a certain universal truth in an obscure time and place. The Mississippi Delta isn’t really what comes to mind when picturing the mid-west: it’s dreary, rainy and the racial clash is extremely tight. But Lance Hammer’s directorial debut manages achieve a level of humanity that’s both touching and warm. It’s easy for films to be overly comic or dramatic, but films that get at the truth of human existence are rare.
Ballast was filmed throughout the Mississippi Delta utilizing non-actors and natural light. The film was picked up after smashing reviews from Sundance by IFC. But recently Hammer bought his film back and is distributing it himself.
The film is about the effect of suicide on an already broken family and how a mother, son and uncle all come together under extreme circumstances. I was really excited to meet director Lance Hammer, who has worked in the Hollywood art department for many years, to discuss his film.
Benjamin Crossley-Marra: The opening shot of Ballast is just beautiful, one of the best opening shots of any film. Did you plan that shot or did you find it while filming?
Lance Hammer: We found that shot. Unfortunately, I had put it in another place in the film and a good friend (fortunately) pointed out the appropriate place for it to be. I’d say about 30% of the film is “found imagery.” A lot of time I’d just travel with the camera and young actor JimMyron Ross and we would respond to things we found throughout this beautiful landscape. The geese in the opening were very scared and that shot was as close as we were able to get to them.
BCM: What was the location process like?
LH: Well there are no film permits in Mississippi. It’s not like shooting in New York or Los Angeles, it’s not even like America in that regard. It’s like being on the moon. Some of the houses we made an agreement with the property owners and other buildings were unoccupied. For the landscape shots we would go out and film in the fields. No one bothered us.
BCM: What methods did you use to get such strong performances out of non-professional actors?
LH: I can’t compare it really to any other filmmaker. I’m familiar with the ways filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Wong Kar-Wai work and I like to think I’ve adopted that a bit. I also really respond to the philosophy of Robert Bresson. I think especially his methodology of using “image” actors, meaning non-professional actors who the audience responds to from their physical presence and not the way they can perform: it’s non-drama, it’s anti-drama. Professional actors would feel false in a film like this that is trying to expose the truth of a certain place and time. I wrote a script for Ballast but I never showed it to any of the cast because I wanted them to contribute their own language and idioms. As I was giving each performer their character’s back-story I purposely threw in contradictions so one character believed one thing happened one way verses another. Because that’s how life is isn’t it? There is never really one “truth,” just different versions events. I encouraged the actors to deviate from the script if they felt so inspired. This even included the camera. Cinematographer Lol Crawley and I developed a way to shoot with the actors not being bound to marks.
BCM: You used all natural light?
LH: There are one or two instances where we used a Kino because Lol was getting nothing on the light meter. But I wound up cutting those scenes from the final edit because the light really interfered with this dogmatic approach I was trying to take. I really tried to be as uninvolved and unobtrusive as possible. My involvement was really trying to make good choices and sticking with them.
BCM: How did you happen to come across the Delta area and why did you feel that it would make a good film location?
LH: I traveled there for the first time about ten years ago, it was winter, I was traveling in Memphis and I thought I would go check out the Delta. I was writing a story at the time that I was hoping to shoot in Tennessee, but I was not prepared for the emotional response that I had to the Delta landscape. It had to do with a sense of sadness more than anything. It was a sorrowful place, gray and rainy. The trees had no leaves and the fields were fallow. I had an irrational response that although the land was so drab, there was this incredible beauty. Language can’t really describe it. At the same time I was thinking: I want to make a film that captures this feeling that I’m feeling right now. That was the whole purpose of this film: to convey that feeling. Then throughout the years I kept going back to the Delta and wound up writing a lot of the screenplay there. I met a lot of great people in the bars and in the streets. They were always interested in travelers and I can’t tell you what nice and generous people they are. I’d go whole days traveling around the Delta with random people. I also dove in academically to the culture researching everything I could find about the history of the area. I originally wrote the screenplay to deal with much more of the history and the race clash, but then went back and realized that to convey that feeling I felt, it needed to be something much more ambiguous.
BCM: How did the local community react to you shooting a film there?
LH: They were unbelievable. I went to the churches first because I sought the corroboration of the locals and in their patriarchal society, the church is the center of the town. I discussed the project with them and asked for their support because if they didn’t give it to me I was going to seriously reconsider shooting this film at all. They were not only supportive, but also incredibly generous. They saw it as a virtuous film because it’s about a child being saved and they saw it as important because it used African American characters. I would go to different church services and the pastor would discuss that I was there and what I was doing. I wound up casting a lot of the film from churches. Michael Smith, the lead actor, is the son of a local minister. The south is so different, there’s such a kindness and an acceptance of people from the outside, once you breakthrough a little bit. But once you’ve gained their trust you’ll swear you’ve never experienced such kindness.
BCM: Is that opposed to “coldness” of most metropolitan areas?
LH: Yeah, I mean, it’s a different kind of warmth. I feel warmth in New York but it’s more fleeting. In the south it’s the warmth of being accepted into a house and being allowed to stay there as long as you want. With cities it’s more ephemeral. You experience some warmth on the sidewalk and then you’re off to the next task at hand.
BCM: Do you think you would make a film in the city?
LH: I have a screenplay that takes place in New York, which deals with alienation, a search for warmth and the difficulty of finding it in a city like this.
BCM: You recently took your film back from IFC and are now distributing it yourself. What are the advantages in doing that?
LH: I felt like it was unavoidable, like I had no other choice. It really wasn’t about advantages or disadvantages at that point. The big advantage is that you own your own film. Normally, when you sign a distribution deal you sign away your property. Then by contract they have the right to do what they want with it and you do not. So during the distribution phase they act like they’re doing you a favor and I have a fundamental issue with that. I mean it took me ten years to make this, it’s a very personal project and I feel that artists should be in control of their work. It’s wrong for people to spend so much time and energy and then have to sell their work for pennies. That’s the state of the industry these days. The artist should be in control of how their work is presented to the world. I designed the poster, cut the trailer etc. There are a lot of disadvantages too. You have to work against an established system, you have to put up more money and you have to deal with the theater monopoly.
BCM: Do you think you’ll ever make films on a larger budgetary scale?
LH: Not if it means giving up creative freedom. I would rather not make films. I mean, I have to be honest with myself that if I want to continue to make films the way I do I will never be given a large budget, but at the same time I don’t really care. I did something with Ballast that I’m proud of in some respects. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s good or not. But I feel like it was a good start and I hope to do better work at this budget level. Film budgets are so obscene these days and I have to say that it really contaminates the creative process.
BCM: With all the budget scares how do you view the future of independent film?
LH: I’m very optimistic about the future. I think there will be fewer films made of higher quality. I think the companies over extended themselves and now were beginning to see what works and what does not.
Ballast opens October 1st at the Film Forum.