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
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
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
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.