Catching Up With... Lance Hammer

Movies Features Lance Hammer
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Catching up with Lance HammerLance Hammer's quiet debut film Ballast continues to defy expectations. When we saw it at Sundance earlier this year we felt that it marked a new direction for independent American film, a lightly traveled path that's more commonly associated with European masters than with guys who shoot in the Mississippi delta.Catching up with Lance HammerSince then, the commercial prospects for such a film have only grown dimmer as one independent film distributor after another has shuttered its doors—including Picturehouse, Warner Independent, Tartan, and ThinkFilm—but Hammer has forged ahead anyway, orchestrating his own limited release that began in New York and has since moved out across the country. Just as the film's New York run was coming to a close, Ballast picked up four Gotham Indie Award nominationsthe company of Charlie Kaufman and Darren Aronofsky and lending the film a stabilizing weight that may help as it sails into rough waters.
Paste: You have a background in film production, but not as a director, is that right?Hammer: As an art director, yeah. I was trained as an architect, so that's the design process I took to this project, basically an architectural design process.
Paste: You'd think that an art director directing his first film would come up with a flashier, more artificial look than Ballast has.Hammer:in Hollywood on big stuff [Batman Forever, Practical Magic], and the craftsmen and artisans in Hollywood are brilliant. They're truly the top of the field in all aspects, in every field. But the films suck.
Paste: [laughs]Hammer: They're just absolute utter shit. This film in a lot of ways was a reaction to that. I wanted to make something as humble and realistic and unadorned as possible. As art director, my eye was constantly thinking of production design, but there's nothing more beautiful than existing locations in Mississippi. We found two existing houses that were not being lived in, and we did some work to them just to make them look as if they were being lived in. But at all times it was just taking elements from other houses that we'd found and transporting them to this one...
The store, we just walked into, you know? And we added some potato chips that were some product placement things that we got for free, and that was it. And that's beautiful. I mean, there's nothing more beautiful than that, in my opinion, and simple. And inexpensive, by the way, which is a factor. [laughs]
Paste: How did you find the actors? They're not professionals, are they?Hammer:acting or in Hollywood or any sort of entertainment business—from the exact locations that we were shooting in.
You know, I'm not from there. I can only take something so far. We could collaborate, [and] the truth would come emotionally from the story that I obviously created but ultimately from the natures of these people. I don't understand the delta. I've been traveling there for 10 years, and racial relations in that place are notorious and historical and complicated as hell. And they understand it because they were born there, so I wanted them to carry all that information, largely in their physical portrayals.
Paste: So in some ways this is an exploration for you, as well.Hammer: Yeah, I think that's a really fair statement.
I had an interest to make a story about the physical phenomenon of the delta in the winter and particularly about my response emotionally to a sense of sadness that has descended upon that place for many generations. I was interested in responding to the tonal sensation of that, not speaking intellectually about racial relations in that place.
And I knew that film was the way to capture that because it includes the visual and aural, you know the audible component, which is essentially silence in the delta in the winter.
Paste: Were you ever tempted to add music?Hammer: I was, I confess. [laughs] I wrote the script, and went all through production knowing I was not going to use music and having a lot of faith in it but being very worried about it... And then I cut it, and it's such a lonely process, it's so... I mean, I'm very prone to self doubt and self criticism, and music is your crutch. So I fought to not have it, and then I tried it. I put in a brilliant band, A Silver Mt. Zion, they're from Canada. Talked to them about doing the score, they were into it. And then I started cutting it in a little bit, and it was powerful, but it overwhelmed the silence. And this film had to be silent, it had to be about the silence of the delta, and the emotion had to be conveyed by the characters and nothing else, in silence.
And, you know, I owe obviously a big debt to the Dardennes [The Son, L'Enfant] and a lot of European filmmakers, Erick Zonca [The Dreamlife of Angels]. There's so many people that have the bravery to say, "This is about these people; music has nothing to do with these people." And I'm a musician, you know, music is extremely important to me, so in the end I hope it worked. It could bore people, I don't know...
I'm not interested in being derivative, but [the Dardennes] are so masterful and I've learned so much from them. I've learned to be courageous through them, because thankfully they are so courageous. That's the debt I owe them.

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