“A Director Creates 'Ballast' in His Soul
By STEVE DOLLAR | September 24, 2008
Had circumstances broken another way, Lance Hammer might not have spent the past five years creating "Ballast," which opens next week at Film Forum. The film, set against the desolate yet stirring winter vistas of the Mississippi Delta, is a parable of loss and redemption that won top prizes for directing and cinematography at last year's Sundance Film Festival. It was born of an almost happenstance occasion of wanderlust and a foreseeable bout of frustration with the Hollywood machinery.
"It was 10 years ago in Mississippi in the wintertime," Mr. Hammer said, sitting in the garden behind his publicist's SoHo office. "I was in Memphis and decided to go see the Delta [for the first time]. I was really unprepared for this feeling I had. I felt such a sense of sorrow. But at the same time there were moments of intense beauty. I was feeling this very complicated emotion and realizing it was an energetic connection with the place. I wondered, 'How is it possible to make an artistic piece of music or film to express this?' It wasn't about a narrative. It was about a tonal phenomenon."
At the time, Mr. Hammer was an art director with high-end credits ("Batman Forever"), angling for his break as a writer-director. One of his projects ballooned from its scrappy intentions into a $5 million indie with an A-list actor attached. But then, as the lanky, 6-foot-4-inch filmmaker lamented, "I lost control. I realized I can't make a film that Robert Bresson would make. So I made the other one."
He went back to Mississippi. "Ballast," which the director began preparing in the summer of 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is a movie that doggedly insists on its own terms. Working with the brilliant British cinematographer Lol Crawley, a cast of mostly nonactors, and a script developed through workshops and improvisations, Mr. Hammer, who is white, came up with something rare and powerful. It's the story of how a black man named Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith), crippled by despair after his brother's drug overdose, comes back to life after a suicide attempt by taking on a greater challenge: saving his dangerously delinquent nephew, James (JimMyron Ross), and negotiating a family truce with the child's vengeful and desperate mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs).
"I'm of the belief that any great work of art comes from exploring very dark, melancholic regions of the soul," Mr. Hammer said. "Only when you're doing that can you truly evaluate what joy is."
Mr. Hammer found his performers through word of mouth. He went to churches, talked to local DJs, visited towns with names like Panther Burn, Midnight, and Hot Coffee. He staged casting calls.
"I had to cast people from the place to bring their own experience," he said. "It has to come from them. It's an impure goal because I'm going to have to introduce some artifice, a fictional structure. But people are good at role-playing. I realized I couldn't show the script to them because the language had to come from each person. No one could have acting experience because they would bring that artifice."
The process speaks eloquently for itself, perhaps more so in the elliptical stretches of stillness that pervade many scenes, shot with a handheld Super 35 mm camera and only in natural light. These are likely to consist of a purely visual moment, such as a ramshackle barn against the blue winter light, the landscape of flat infinity, or a flock of Canadian geese blackening the sky as they fly in formation, honking loudly as a boy gazes upward, isolated in a field.
"The Delta is all about driving," Mr. Hammer said. "We wanted to be able to respond at a moment's notice: Always have a camera ready, always have an actor with you, and if you see something, go out and make a scenario happen."
Given his approach to making the film, it only makes sense that Mr. Hammer is distributing "Ballast" himself. Having raised $250,000 for prints and advertising, the director will release the film through his own Alluvial Film Company and Steven Raphael's Required Viewing. The decision made news in independent film circles this summer, mostly because Mr. Hammer turned down an offer from IFC that was reportedly in the range of $50,000.
"It's not a fashion, it's a necessity," he said. "I didn't really have another intelligent choice. For the pennies being offered you have to give up ownership for 20 years and all creative control. I've put up all my money, all my time. It's my child. It's just ludicrous to give it away at the last moment for nothing. The alternative is â€” well, what's the alternative? The alternative is you do it yourself. But you don't do it yourself. You put together a team that rivals any distribution company, and that's possible these days. This film won't be accepted in the multiplex world. But there's a specific audience that can potentially really care about this film."
"Ballast" begins a two-week engagement October 1 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).”
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