PRINT October 2008


ONLINE ONLY: Interview with Lance Hammer

Lance Hammer, Ballast, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Production still. Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.). Photo: Lol Crawley.

Director Lance Hammer’s debut feature film, Ballast, won awards for dramatic directing and excellence in cinematography at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It opens on October 1 at Film Forum in New York and on October 17 in selected theaters nationwide.

Prior to making Ballast, I wrote another feature script that was called Alluvial. It was a Delta story as well, and my first attempt to write a story in the place I had grown to love. I shot short scenes excerpted from the script in order to raise financing, and that loosely cohesive presentation was akin to a short. It taught me two things. First, that Alluvial was not the story I wanted to tell. I loved the Delta region so much that I tried to speak with too much specificity about the place; the work proved to be too obvious for my taste. The second lesson was technical—I received my education as a filmmaker working on Alluvial. I didn’t go to film school; I was an architect by training. Exploring the mechanics of filmmaking—working with lights, using a dolly—gave me the confidence to discover that I actually hated them and could abandon them when I made Ballast. And I did; in Ballast, I had a completely different approach to recording both images and sound. What the two have in common, though, is the fact that they deal with mortality. Freud said he thought everything was about sex and only eventually discovered it was all about death.

I’m of the belief that if you can use one note to communicate something, why use three? One note resonating over the space where three notes should have occurred has more power, and that is how I now would approach any work. It appears particularly suited to the Mississippi Delta, where the pace of life is so different from New York or Los Angeles. More than anything else, I tried in Ballast to communicate with as much accuracy as possible what it feels like to be in the Delta during winter. Narrative was always secondary to that. In fact, I don’t like dialogue in films—or, rather, it’s tough to do really well. I’m not the Coen brothers; I don’t think I can write as well as they can. I’m much more interested in image, sound, and conveying tone, communicating something uncommunicable. Music and language would intrude on what is uncommunicable about the Delta.

I understand that to some extent this is an aesthetic construct, but I also believe that one’s personal aesthetic is a reflection of one’s life experience. I believe that life is very difficult—which has been my experience, certainly. I value persistence and think that one of the only avenues of hope in the darkest moments of life comes when you are making art. I’ve struggled with a sense of futility—not least with trying to get films off the ground. But nothing dims my strong desire to make them, and in a sense, the writing of the script for Ballast manifested hope. I think the story reflects this.

The interesting thing, then, was to give up on following the script closely once we were shooting. I’m a control freak; I confess to that readily, and I was expecting problems with not giving my actors dialogue to follow. But I wanted to bring real people’s words to the project and to watch those words be elevated and hopefully transformed through the process of filming them. In the rehearsal process, when I first saw that happen, I knew nearly immediately that there was a lot of power in giving parameters or instructions and letting the actors respond. I provided skeletons; they provided living tissue. When I saw them do that, there were magic moments for me. I admit to having no authorship and am satisfied by that as an artist. I realized I was incapable of doing what I wanted to do alone. The actors, and also Lol Crowley, my cinematographer, completed the work. It was a joy to behold.

When we were done shooting, I spent two years cutting the film. I tried everything—every iteration of every scene. I tried to turn my intellect off and use my intuition. The geese at the opening of the film, for example: I was unconsciously aware of a desire to start from chaos, to have a reflection of that in the form itself, and then have a slow progress toward stability. I’d like to say it was a conscious way of thinking about the film, but it was actually a filmmaker friend, Chris Gorak, who suggested I open with that shot. In a way, though, broad questions about intentionality are unanswerable.

Now that the film is done and has been seen by audiences, I can understand why people have grouped it with other recent films as offering a kind of “new American realism” or an “American regionalism.” I’ve seen Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, and it is certainly a joy to watch. There are affinities between the works—a reverence for subtlety, an appreciation of the power of small and ambiguous moments. But as much as anything else, perhaps this is a reaction to Hollywood. Speaking only for myself, I had a difficult time existing in the Hollywood system toward the end of my time there because I can’t stand its dominant narrative forms. The assumption in Hollywood is that audiences are stupid or need to have everything hammered into their heads. I think art is ambiguous. If we were still in the days when you could sell a film and make a lot of money for it, then perhaps that would tempt me. But for now I have nothing to lose. The only thing to be gained is from making something I can believe in.

—As told to Brian Sholis