Steadied by 'Ballast': Lance Hammer self-distributes his award-winning film featuring (left to right) Jim Myron Ross and Micheal J. Smith Sr. (Photo by Lol Crawley/courtesy Alluvial Film Company)

Lance Hammer on Beauty and 'Ballast'

Michael Guillen October 17, 2008

Lance Hammer’s debut feature, Ballast —now playing in San Francisco—premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival to resounding critical fanfare, winning prizes for best director and cinematography. It followed with awards in Buenos Aires, Boston and the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, where I had the opportunity to sit down with producer-director-writer Hammer to discuss the film’s impressive structure. Since our conversation, Hammer’s film has been navigating the hazardous waters of distribution and has—as indieWIRE states it—"steadied its course" by opting out of a distribution deal with IFC Films in order to self-distribute through the film’s production entity, Alluvial Film Company, along with Steven Raphael’s Required Viewing. This brave maneuver places Hammer in the vanguard of independent filmmakers strategizing new models for theatrical self-distribution.

SF360: What does the film’s title, Ballast, signify?

Lance Hammer: I’d written most of the story and worked out its dynamics before the title came to me so the story itself informed the title instead of the reverse, which I’m told is how some people work. Ballast is a direct metaphor. There is the ballast in a ship; the water that gives the ship weight and stability, which is then dumped once you have safe harbor. There’s also ballast with regard to railroads; the rock bed that the train rail ties lay upon to give a train stability in transport. With regard to the story, the metaphor is that people’s souls or spirits are in transport seeking stability and these particular characters are in need of stability more than anything else.

SF360: Are we talking about weight as grief?

Hammer: The weight is just fucking life. It’s just everything, isn’t it? Life is weight and accumulates as we age, in my experience.

SF360: My initial association was the ship’s ballast, which in turn reminded me of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado who said that mankind owns four things that are no good at sea: rudder, anchor, oars, and the fear of going down.

Hammer: That’s excellent. I love that.

SF360: Your film has the feeling of going down. And Machado’s poetic reference to the worthlessness of rudders, oars, and anchors are equally serviceable as potential narrative devices in film, in the sense that most filmmakers are afraid to do without these narrative devices; they’re afraid to go down. But you wanted the tone of your film to be one of going down. Your tonal emphasis reveals a preference for film as a poetic medium and—as you indicated in your
Cinema Scope interview with Tom Charity—though film is an expensive way to express tone, you feel several masters have done so before you. Who specifically were you referencing?

Hammer: I think of the people who have come before us with visual tone poems in many ways, procedurally, people like Mike Leigh who have a working process that is brilliant and yields emotional truth in a way unlike anybody else, unlike any of his peers. There are filmmakers that are using similar methods who are achieving that kind of emotional truth; but—talking specifically of a visual tonal poetry—honestly the first person who keeps jumping to my mind is a contemporary, Carlos Reygadas. Silent Light is one of the most beautiful pieces of work I’ve seen in decades. Robert Bresson is probably the person I look to the most in every way. I’m more interested in his working process than I am in his films to a certain degree because I feel that he’s fearless, he’s guided by intuition, he’s uncompromising in his desire to seek emotional truth from real human beings and he will never contaminate that process. That kind of fearlessness—to the point of fanaticism—is very important for any artist. Bresson’s insistence upon using the most minimal devices to communicate huge concepts that are articulated through emotion, very simple things that you watch without any words, that’s true artistry. He’s using the medium of film in the way great painters and great poets use their mediums. His films are deceptively simple—even boring to most people—but they’re packed with these staggering sadnesses and truisms that nobody have yet fully matched. Godard has recently done that in some of his films. He’s approaching a kind of visual mastery in such films as In Praise of Love and Notre Musique by commenting in an abstracted and ephemeral way on the fundamentals of human nature.

SF360: I’m intrigued by your creative meander towards
Ballast, which in a way strikes me as moving backwards, if not sideways. Usually an indie filmmaker starts small and strives forward toward studio work.

Hammer: That’s not my desire.

SF360: Clearly! You progressed from information architecture—‘the semiotic analysis of built form and digital space‘—to art direction on blockbuster superhero films, grew weary of the soulessness of that work, and moved towards becoming an award-winning first-time indie filmmaker averse to returning to the studio system. In that respect, your silhouette is unique and singular among filmmakers. I’d say, in fact, that you have set the bar in years to come for integral filmmaking; i.e., filmmaking with integrity. I love the integrity in a statement you made to Charity: ‘Intuition tells me that emotional authenticity will always have a place.’ And yet it’s an integrity that has been hard-won over a long time, 10 years I believe?

Hammer: I wasn’t working full-time on it for 10 years. I was interested in a place and I didn’t know how to communicate what I wanted to communicate. I didn’t have the skills to do it, first of all. I wrote a different script and I even shot scenes from it in the Delta and realized I had totally missed the mark. I started over. I didn’t just start over immediately. I let it brood for several years. I worked on other projects. I’d written several other things. During that time I became a human that’s 10 years older on this planet. Things changed. People mature in 10 years. They suffer. [Laughs.] Through the suffering, you gain a measure of wisdom. Specifically, I learned to let go of trying to speak about the specifics of a place, particularly of race, class—these specifics that are temptations to discuss in the Mississippi Delta. Hollywood tends to dwell on the clichés of the Delta whenever they deal with it. It’s going to be Mississippi Burning or some other theme through the viewpoint of white eyes. I didn’t want to do that. But I didn’t know how to do otherwise. It took a long time to figure it out, I guess, by just letting it sit with me.

SF360: My question—though it’s really more a concern—is whether it’s going to take another 10 years for you to make another film?

Hammer: No, no, no. A lot of that 10 years was spent pursuing other projects. I struggled in a more traditional way with agents, A-list actors, getting financing. I had another project that was ready to go that I was approaching in a more traditional way; but, I didn’t want to make a traditional project and, therefore, I was butting heads with everybody that I was confronting. To make Ballast, no studio or no independent production company would give me money to do that in this country. They simply will not do it. It’s not possible to make films like Ballast in the U.S. unless you finance them yourself.

SF360: That being said, though
Ballast isn’t really a studio film and has been created in reaction to the sterility of the studio system, it has, at the same time, been privileged with studio clout through the efforts of your ‘spies from the other side of the wall:’ Andrew Adamson, Mark Johnson, and Aimee Shieh. Can you speak to whether it’s a trend for executive producers to take a risk on such personal projects?

Hammer: I would say yes. People are people, right? My friends, Andrew, Mark and Aimee, the executive producers, yes they’re ‘spies from the other side of the wall,’ but you know what they are first? They’re good friends of mine. Andrew and I have been very close friends for many years. We met on a Batman film, which is incidental. What matters is that we’re close friends and we respect each other as humans. He directed both the Narnia films and the first two Shrek films and he’s had this stellar trajectory at the highest level of success within the studio system. Yet, he and I see very similarly on a lot of things in life. He has an extremely good film sensibility and respects the same films that I do. He respected the fact that I wanted to pursue a different kind of film at the smallest scale and wanted to offer his assistance in any way he could. And did. Mark Johnson is his producer; I met Mark through Andrew. Mark is actually producing another project of mine with Aimee Shieh and Aimee and Mark just liked the project. It was a risky, small film. Mark has also had success at the highest levels. He doesn’t need to prove himself that way. He’s financially stable. He’s interested in the art form at any scale. He’s recently become a champion of people who are pursuing particular kinds of projects and, therefore, don’t have the support system that they need to pursue that kind of work. He’s offering it. He’s severely connected in the industry. [Laughs.] He is very generous and diplomatic and he helped me in so many ways to break through these walls that I encountered along the way. It’s happening this way because there’s a kind of disgust with what the studios are offering to independent filmmakers as the only option. The people who are in the studio systems that are creating work don’t want to make this work; they want to do other stuff too. Some of these people have the power to make that so. I do think it’s a trend.

SF360: You were speaking of how life experience alters vision and goals. In the last 10 years or so my psyche has been caught up in a distinction—which I felt was expressed in your film—between the certainty of suicide and the uncertainty of suicidal ideation, which is a sort of gravitational field around the event of death, the death horizon if you will, which many people—survivors especially—are bound to as if to a gravitational field. I appreciated that your film fearlessly ventured into that horizon.

Hammer: It’s a very interesting territory to live in that death horizon, to exist in it, to camp out there for a while. It’s an exciting place.

SF360: It’s exciting and—often what many don’t comprehend—it shapes a life. Returning to Machado’s poem, if you’re no longer afraid to go down, you navigate life differently. I don’t see enough film that addresses these concerns. I need to commend you for that.

Hammer: Thank you.

SF360: Pedro Costa recently told me that the psychology of the filmmaker enters at the editing table. Until then it’s more about the technology of film production. To achieve
Ballast’s psychological tone, reduction became essential. Sundance’s Caroline Libresco extolled your ‘aesthetic of understatement.’ Can you speak to how you used reduction to shape the meaning of your film?

Hammer: Writing and editing are symmetrical. They’re the same thing essentially. At the beginning and at the end of the project there’s a kind of symmetry and I approach them the same way by using my intuition. For example, when I write I don’t want to have any idea about what I’m doing. I want to use intuition to record everything that comes to my mind about a certain—usually—an emotion. I keep volumes of handwritten notes that are just horrifically horrible writing. But there’s something to it eventually. So I work in tremendous volume and reduce to the essences of things. It requires a great deal of time to work that way. It’s very common amongst writers and, I think, probably editors as well. When you shape something and you start seeing something emerging out of this field of all possibility, and you start making choices to remove something that’s no longer appropriate, and honing in on the core, the essence, the essence contains everything you remove. The core contains in its genetics everything that you’ve taken away. It can be something very simple, a gesture even, but a very carefully-chosen gesture that in the right context with the right person delivered in the right way can speak volumes and be extremely complex.

Editorially, I shot a lot. We shot for 45 days and a lot of it was just ripping. It was an important part of the process to respond intuitively to whatever happened. The actors were encouraged to work this way, the photographer was encouraged to work this way and I certainly worked this way. We recorded a lot of stuff that just wasn’t a part of the script that had to do with what was happening at the moment at that site and we responded. I had, again, notebooks full of celluloid essentially in which I had to find the story, in which I had to find the core. I’m only interested in speaking in the simplest of terms but trying to pack it with as much emotional complexity as possible. That process requires removing all the other distractions.

Ballast succeeds precisely for being reduced to pure, authentic images that amplify into complex resonance. What is especially heartening for me is that the film has done so well critically and that audiences have responded to these images of the Mississippi Delta that you’ve created, to what is—in effect—the soul of the place. Do you think audiences are hungry for that?

Hammer: I definitely think a certain small audience is. We’re working against a lot here. We’re working against the programming of industrial filmmaking. The public taste is dictated by who’s controlling the distribution and exhibition of films. As films have progressed into this particular place and they’ve taken on a particular form, the public has learned to like them. I’m talking about the masses. I think there’s been some rebellion by the masses against industrialized filmmaking, certain rejections of commercial products, but I’m not expecting this film to be accepted by a wide audience, by the masses. I know it has a chance of appealing to niche audiences. It’s appropriately scaled in its production budget and everything else that it will find its audience. It’s done well on the festival circuit. I had no idea how people would respond to it and I’ve been involved with enough festivals now that I can see a commonality in how it’s accepted at each festival more or less. This leads me to believe that when Ballast goes into the theatrical marketplace, and then goes onto a permanent record on DVD, there will be an audience that responds to Ballast in the way that they respond to—I don’t know—David Gordon Greene’s first films or The Band’s Visit. That was well-received, that film. I don’t think it was at your multiplex but I think that’s irrelevant for a film of this scale.

SF360: I predict
Ballast will have a long life. Because it’s authentic, because it’s real, people will keep discovering it and coming back to it. I frequently try to imagine films outside of their initial commercial thrust.

Hammer: It doesn’t matter, does it?

SF360: It matters, commercially, financially; but, what truly concerns me—as someone who loves film—is will the film continue to live, to breathe? Does it have a shelf life? Do its themes extend past their particular moment to be of importance to future audiences? To me that’s what really matters about a film. That being said, I want to know what you think is going to happen with
Ballast? You’ve put it out on the festival circuit where it was represented by the William Morris Agency, you’ve been wooed by IFC for theatrical distribution, the film is in essence done; but, the life of the film still has you engaged, precisely because it’s small scale, precisely because it needs you to continue helping it along. You are, in effect, giving it its legs to walk out into the world. Is there something at this stage of the process that you’re learning that is creative to you, exciting, depressing?

Hammer: Yeah, there’s a lot, because I’m the film’s producer, as well as its financier. Whether I like it or not, I’m engaged in the crass, financial aspects of putting a film into the world. It’s extremely spirit-depleting. But, by the same token as I don’t see this distinction between writing and editing, I don’t see the distinction between writing, directing, editing, and distributing the film. The distribution of the film is just an extension of the creative process. I’m not done yet. You make a product and you want people to see it. The filmmaker logically should be involved in every single step. Self-distribution is something that I think is happening now because the industry is falling apart. The independent film in this financial climate is in an extreme state of crisis. It makes a lot of sense for artists to distribute their own films and scale the distribution effort to their particular subject and approach their particular market. Instead of applying a cookie-cutter approach of a Miramax or an IFC that just treats every title the same way, it’s becoming the reality and part of the filmmaking process, I would argue, that P&A budgets should be budgeted into the production budgets of films. I don’t see why filmmakers give up when they finish the festival circuit. The film hasn’t hit the world yet. As a filmmaker, you are the person who has created the film and have been in charge of seeing it through every step up to this point, and the very most important part—I would argue—is presenting it to the public. That’s the home stretch. That’s the sprint to win the race. Who is better than the filmmaker to steer that process? It’s not about the money—though money’s part of it—often the best choices to make in the last stage are to go with a particular DVD company over another one that will offer less money because they will put it into the world in a more meaningful way. The filmmaker should not divorce himself from that process. Filmmakers who stop at the festival thinking someone’s going to magically sweep in and offer them a million dollars do not recognize the reality of filmmaking. It’s not like that anymore. In fact, it’s getting worse and worse. It’s at the point where filmmakers—even though a named distributor is offering to distribute and buy their film—they’re not actually buying it; they’re offering pennies on the dollar. The reality is that filmmakers lose all of their money and that system can’t exist for too much longer. These films will no longer be sustainable. You can’t continue to make films like Ballast. No one will pay for it again.

SF360: Have you learned these truths through trial and error or have you had some experience beforehand?

Hammer: I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve spoken to a lot of people; but, mostly a filmmaker learns from having to walk into the flames yourself and there’s no substitute for that. I encourage more filmmakers to actually walk into the flames so that they can have a life beyond this particular film that they’re concerned with at the moment. If they want to do it again, they better know how to see it through to the end and, hopefully, recoup the money so that people will, therefore, want to invest in them again.

SF360: So to wrap up here, one of my real pleasures is researching someone in preparation to interview them. With regard to you, one of the true gems was being exposed to the work of
Todd Hido, who I knew nothing about before you.

Hammer: [Laughs.] Oh good. So you looked at all of his work? He’s local.

SF360: I didn’t realize that.

Hammer: He lives in the San Francisco area. Oakland, I think.

SF360: In your conversation with James Rocchi for
Cinematical you described your collaboration with British cinematographer Lol Crawley . . .

Hammer: Lol turned me on to Todd.

SF360: Oh? I liked how you described your collaboration with Lol as entwined like ‘braids in a little girl’s hair.’ Could you detail that entanglement a little bit and what it was about the work of Todd Hido that you both responded to and felt would work for

Hammer: I was introduced to Lol via telephone in Newcastle, England, where he lives. I saw his work on a short film called "Love Me Or Leave Me Alone" by a talented director by the name of Duane Hopkins. As a side note, Duane has made a feature called Better Things, which has just been accepted into Critics Week at Cannes and Lol shot that. It’s excellent and I highly recommend Duane’s film. So I saw Lol’s work through one of Duane’s shorts and—when I was in Berlin—I called Lol and I said, ‘Hey, this is really brilliant work. It’s exactly the way I want to work photographically on this project.’ We began a discussion. I didn’t have the money to fly him out to meet him in person so I just went on intuition again and said, ‘I think this is the guy.’ He got on a plane and I met him at the Jackson airport. I had storyboards and all this stuff set up. We went through the rehearsal process with the actors together and he started to shoot the rehearsals with the video camera. The rehearsal process was as much about developing performances in the narrative that I worked out with the actors as it was with developing a relationship with Lol. Somehow by a stroke of luck it just so happened that he and I saw similarly. To the point that his moods were mine and vice versa. I quickly threw away all the storyboards and we would discuss things through gestures. We had a cryptic communication technique, which wasn’t language-based in a lot of ways. I gave a tremendous amount of trust to him because he operated the camera and he responded to the way the actors moved through space, instantly. I would sometimes direct him by pushing him; sometimes he would push me out of the way. [Laughs.] It was just a stroke of luck. We were people who saw the same thing. We really were entwined like braids. I would argue that was the way it was with the actors as well. There was a special relationship between the four actors and myself and Lol. Sometimes that relationship would include our sound guy Sam Watson. But that was our crew. That was it. We were very insular and we operated as one. It began in the rehearsal process and we stopped using language altogether and reacted physically. I’m lucky that happened on my first project. I don’t know if that happens for everybody.

SF360: And Hido?

Hammer: Lol introduced me to Todd Hido. That was part of the language. We spoke in terms of photographs. Instead of trying to articulate something, he would say, ‘Look at this. What is this saying to you?’ And I would take another photograph and answer, ‘It’s saying this to me.’ [Laughs.] Lol’s vocabulary started with some Todd Hido images. We printed out everything we found on his website.

SF360: There’s a sheen to his work; a luminosity. I especially like his night photography.

Hammer: Yes, he uses very long exposures. His photographs are like they’re inhabited by phantoms. They’re phantom desolate spaces.

SF360: One of the qualities that first caught my eye in
Ballast was the beautiful, metallic sheen to the look of the film. It has a kind of shiny, leaden look.

Hammer: Todd’s photographs are these miraculous things that have to do with long exposures and we can’t accomplish that with film cameras that are using 1/48th of a second to capture an image every frame. Technically we couldn’t achieve what he was doing and honestly didn’t want to because I’m not interested in copying somebody’s work; but his images spoke to us emotionally—especially those that have to do with desolation—and a kind of detached gaze on something, spending a lot of time watching it. His photographs represent a lot of time watching something, literally, opening up the lens for a long period of time to observe something and that’s probably the affinity that we have with Todd.

SF360: That reminds me also of what you were saying in your
Filmlot interview about David Bowie’s performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth being the guiding technical principal of Ballast; the notion of an alien observer.

Hammer: Exactly. Very much so. As an interesting side note, Julia Shirar at Skywalker—who did all the sound editorial work for Ballast, along with Kent Sparling—was very good friends with Todd and I discovered that when I came up here to do the sound. I’m glad you know about his work now.

SF360: Thank you for the exposure. And thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Ballast is a stunning project and I’m really glad to hear that it won’t be another 10 years before you make another film.

Hammer: I don’t know. It’s really hard to make films now. And I keep talking about it like this and I’m alienating myself from the industry. I guess I’m trying to protect myself from them by doing it; but, it might be really hard to get the money to make the next one.