“You could be forgiven for taking Lance Hammer for a bookstore clerk, grad student, or waiter of indeterminate age slouching around Davis Square waiting for something, anything, to happen.
Tall, slight, soft-spoken, and scruffy, Hammer looks like anything but what he is: an ideological bomb-thrower and someone who has dedicated the last several years of his life to producing a film.
"Ballast," which opens in Kendall Square Friday, is Hammer's feature film directorial debut, and it is a movie full of contradictions, which demands the audience's attention from the first frame to the last, toys with their emotions remorselessly, but delivers the goods in a big way. It is a movie filled with wrenching moments, starkly beautiful cinematography, and stunning performances. But "Ballast" is most remarkable for what it lacks: professional actors, written dialogue, or any nod, however slight, to the conventions of normal moviemaking.
Hammer, 41, spent two years writing the script, which details the effects of one man's suicide on his brother, his former lover, and their son, and then refused to show it to any of the actors. He preferred to have the actors - all of whom are natives of the Mississippi Delta locale where he shot the film and only one of whom had any previous acting experience - simply behave as they would in a given situation and not become bound to an outsider's view of how they should act. The resulting product is a critically acclaimed movie in which the viewers often feel as though they are peering through the curtains, eavesdropping on the characters' desperate lives.
"It was always about the place and very rarely about the people, until the last step in the writing process," said Hammer. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of an empty room at the Somerville Theatre following a screening of "Ballast" during the Boston Independent Film Festival in April, Hammer was at once nervous and relieved, flush with the standing ovation his film received. "I was very interested in having the actors say as little as possible. The language is all organic. It's all theirs. I never intended to follow the script."
Indeed, Hammer has never really followed a script. As an architecture student fascinated by language and storytelling, the California native spent much of his time in college bouncing from theater to theater, seeing as many movies as he possibly could and secretly dreaming of getting behind the camera himself at some point. Right after graduation he got a job as an art director on a big-budget studio film after one of the movie's principals saw some of his architectural work; he wound up spending nearly a decade in the studio system. It was there, on the inside of the sausage factory, that Hammer got a firsthand look at the compromises and cynicism that he says drive the Hollywood machinery.
"I slowly realized that I was losing my soul and devoting my life to something terrible," he said. "So I started to write to see if I had any capacity for that and slowly, over the years, I became convinced that I could make a film. I didn't know if it was going to be any good, but I was going to try. I always thought you had to be a Coppola or independently wealthy to make movies, but you don't. 'Ballast' is a reaction to that."
It's not just the major studios that are at fault for the state of American cinema at the moment, according to Hammer; he believes the independent film movement needs to shoulder some of the blame as well. "Independent filmmaking is failing. It's very difficult to make films in the US unless they're very formulaic," he said. "Filmmakers are complicit for giving in to that. People think the public is to blame for going to see these movies, but the taste of the public is dictated by distributors."
His disgust with what he saw as a paint-by-numbers way in which studio movies are written, cast, filmed, and marketed led Hammer to go in the opposite direction with "Ballast."
"What interests me is a singular voice," he said. "It's extremely difficult for me to conceive of using actors, but I feel that's my shortcoming. I just don't know how to do it. I'm very interested in authenticity."
But since that springtime conversation at the Boston Independent Film Festival, that "shortcoming" has earned Hammer's "Ballast" awards at four national and international film festivals this year, including two wins (one, a directing award for Hammer) and a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance Film Festival.
"I said at the start of this that I didn't care if no one comes to see this film, but I made the movie I wanted and I'm happy with that," he says.”
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