“LEAVING HOLLYWOOD, HEADING SOUTH, BOUND FOR INDIE
By DENNIS LIM
Published: September 26, 2008
MOST movies set out to tell a story. Lance Hammer was after something more amorphous. He wanted to depict a tone, an atmosphere, how a place feels and how that affects the people who live there.
A native Californian, Mr. Hammer was driving through Tennessee one winter about 10 years ago, he said, kicking around ideas for a film. Recalling the oft-repeated assertion that the lobby of Memphisâ€™s Peabody Hotel is the northernmost point of the Mississippi Delta, he decided to head south to see the heart of that fabled alluvial plain. What he discovered when he got there â€” a desolate gray-scale landscape with low skies and endless horizons â€” became both the setting and the subject of his first feature, â€œBallast.â€
â€œIt was beautiful like the moon,â€ Mr. Hammer said. â€œEverything was barren and fallow and muddy. I knew then I wanted to make a film to capture that beauty and sorrow. The challenge was to make something with a fraction of the emotional experience I was having.â€
â€œBallast,â€ which won the directing and cinematography awards at the Sundance Film Festival and opens Wednesday in New York, is shaping up as one of the most acclaimed independent films of the year, and perhaps the most emblematic. With American indie cinema suffering both an identity and an economic crisis, almost everything about â€œBallast,â€ from its expressive minimalism to its regional specificity to Mr. Hammerâ€™s choice to distribute the film himself, stands as a forward-looking alternative.
Mr. Hammer, 41, has done time in Hollywood, where he worked as an art director on studio movies. He had developed a feature to direct within the system. It was the frustrating collapse of that project a few years ago that spurred him to return to the South. He said, â€œI thought to myself, â€˜Iâ€™ll make a film invisibly and not use actors and not think about its commercial viability.â€™â€
He wrote a screenplay, a period piece set in the delta, and shot some of it, but the more he learned about the region, the less qualified he felt to make a film there. â€œI realized how complicated everything is: the social structures, the racial relationships, the engagement of the present with history,â€ he said. â€œI had no authority to speak of that, so I started over.â€
He decided to write about grief, which he called â€œthe great uniter, something that makes people drop their differences for a moment.â€ A friend of his girlfriend had lost an identical twin to suicide. A surviving twin â€œsuffers in a way no other survivor suffers,â€ he said. (His mother, he added, is an identical twin.) â€œBallastâ€ is set in the aftermath of a suicide, tracing the triangle of need and resentment that forms among Lawrence, the surviving twin; Marlee, the dead manâ€™s ex-wife; and James, her 12-year-old son.
Mr. Hammer was at first acutely aware of being an interloper, an outsider shooting in a predominantly black area. â€œThere was a little skepticism,â€ he said. â€œPeople assumed that a white filmmaker in the South would just be talking about civil rights or the blues.â€
To gain the trust of the residents Mr. Hammer discussed the project with church leaders, who helped put out the word. Looking to use local nonprofessional actors, Mr. Hammer held casting calls and approached people who matched his physical impressions of the characters.
â€œMy faith in nonactors comes from Bresson,â€ Mr. Hammer said, referring to Robert Bresson, the French director who insisted on working with untrained actors. â€œIf theyâ€™re a blank canvas, you can believe them from Frame 1.â€ He also drew inspiration from other filmmakersâ€™ improvisatory methods: Mike Leighâ€™s actor-driven workshops, Wong Kar-waiâ€™s on-the-spot screenwriting.
While Bresson viewed his actors as models, pure vessels delivering scripted lines, Mr. Hammer encouraged his actors to take ownership of their characters. He never gave them a script and let them read a page only once or twice, so they could grasp the thrust of a scene but not memorize the lines.
He also filmed in sequence, keeping the actors in the dark about the progression of the story. â€œIt was like reading a good book,â€ said Tarra Riggs, who plays Marlee, a struggling single mother. â€œI never knew what kind of drama Marlee would be going through next.â€ Mr. Hammer even misled Ms. Riggs and Micheal J. Smith, who plays Lawrence, about their charactersâ€™ relationship. â€œThey came in with a built-in bias,â€ he said. â€œI had them fight it out while I mediated. It was almost like psychotherapy.â€
The filmâ€™s intimate visual style is rooted in its commitment to capturing moment-to-moment experience. Mr. Hammer and his cinematographer, Lol Crawley, shot handheld and used available light, so they could respond to shifts in the weather and avoid constraints on the movements of the actors.
Mr. Hammer went to architecture school at the University of Southern California, which he said was perhaps better training than film school: â€œArchitectureâ€™s about having faith in something unformed which you then have to manifest materially.â€
He has one building to his credit, an advertising agency in Redondo Beach, Calif., but was sidetracked into the movie business. His thesis work dealt with digital space, and Warner Brothers hired him to help design Gotham City in â€œBatman Foreverâ€ (1995).
Mr. Hammer, who calls himself an idealist, speaks of his time in Hollywood almost as a period of captivity. â€œI had tremendous frustration at the end of my art-directing career justifying what I was doing,â€ he said. â€œFilmmakers are from a privileged class and tend to make films about themselves. Thatâ€™s decadent and in my opinion worthless.â€
Still, his Hollywood stint led to some useful alliances. On â€œBatman Foreverâ€ he befriended Andrew Adamson, then a visual effects artist and later the director of â€œShrekâ€ and â€œThe Chronicles of Narnia.â€ Mr. Adamson introduced Mr. Hammer to the longtime producer Mark Johnson, whose recent credits include the â€œNarniaâ€ movies. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Adamson helped Mr. Hammer find crew members and secure deals on film stock (and are credited as executive producers).
Mr. Johnson, who usually manages budgets many times larger than what Mr. Hammer had to work with, said of â€œBallast,â€ â€œItâ€™s a reminder that you need so very little to make a good film.â€ He added, â€œHis commitment was so total you had to believe in him. Thereâ€™s no halfway with Lance.â€
Mr. Hammerâ€™s approach has now carried over to distribution. Shortly after Sundance â€œBallastâ€ was acquired by IFC Films, the most active player in the increasingly bleak indie landscape. But Mr. Hammer, who made â€œBallastâ€ with his own money, pulled out of the deal a few months later, opting to release the film himself.
â€œThe state of the marketplace means that filmmakers now give up their film for free, and give up control over it, which is completely illogical,â€ Mr. Hammer said recently. He has had to raise money for prints and advertising â€” a worthwhile trade-off, he said, to retain ownership and oversee every aspect of the release. He designed the poster and edited the trailer, and, with the help of consultants and publicists, has devised a release and outreach strategy, focusing on colleges, film societies and, most important to him, Southern audiences.
â€œI think weâ€™re doing a decent job, but thatâ€™s not the point,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s about following through. The film was made in a particular way. Weâ€™re presenting it to the world in a similar way.â€
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