Lance Hammer’s debut feature, Ballast, involves the spiritual and economic struggles of three African Americans in the Mississippi Delta: a suicidal store owner named Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), his late brother’s fiercely determined widow Marlee (Tarra Riggs), and her preteen son James (JimMyron Ross). Hammer, 40, spoke to Film Comment by phone from his house in L.A.
What’s your relationship to the Mississippi Delta?
I’m from Los Angeles, I’m white, I’m definitely an outsider in Mississippi. I fully accepted that before I started to make a film there. But I love the place. I lived there intermittently over the course of eight years, for weeks or months at a time. I would drive around and talk to people. There’s no rush in the Delta, and people took their time telling me stories. Making the movie, I wanted to capture the way time works down there. And the way the geography speaks of history—the relationship between the tenant houses and the older manors that are vestiges of a system that’s dead now, but still has long fingers. It’s the history of white brutality against black. When you visit there, it’s like landing on the moon. There’s an overwhelming sense of sorrow, of a longing for something you can never have. It’s painful, but it’s also a place of intense beauty.
Your visual fidelity to the environment is interesting in part for how it represents the polar opposite of your previous work in Hollywood as an art director. Was that shift as deliberate as it appears?
Yes. I wanted to make a film that was antithetical to the experience I had working in Hollywood. It’s a soulless content that they create [in Hollywood]; it has no social meaning. It has a lot of commercial meaning. And it means a lot culturally. What Hollywood says about us as human beings is immense. These things are fascinating. But in terms of art? It’s nothing. It’s empty.
Did you begin your tenure in Hollywood with some optimism about the potential to make art?
I guess so. What happened to me in Hollywood was a discovery process. It started when I was 19 years old and saw Wings of Desire in Tucson, Arizona. I had just ventured away from home to go to college, studying English, and I went to see every film I could. I discovered I was in love with cinema. And when I saw Wings of Desire, it was a sea change for me—the only moment like that I’ve ever had in my life. I’m very skeptical of people when they say they’ve had life-changing moments, but I had one watching this Wim Wenders thing. I think it’s a beautiful piece of poetry. I realized that [Wenders] doesn’t even know the impact it was having on me, sitting there in Tucson and being moved to tears. That’s a powerful thing. I thought, “I want to do that, too.” I didn’t know how to do it. I thought you had to be a Coppola, in one of the families. So I ended up at USC studying architecture, and out of that I moved to Warner Bros., designing architecture for a Batman film. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world—one step closer to what I wanted to do.
And you were watching films, too?
Yeah. I developed an appreciation for German and French and Asian cinema. And I became very much a cinephile—at the same time I was becoming very good at what I was doing as an architect in Hollywood, on big projects, doing these photorealistic things with computers. At first it was tremendously exciting, because they pay you a lot of money, and the people I worked with were wonderful—extremely intelligent, enthusiastic people, very kind, like a tribe. Life was great. But you can never make a deal with the devil like that and not have to pay something in return. It’s a Faustian deal. You’re devoting your life to these final products that are just shit. I started fearing for my soul. Life is very, very short. I thought, “I’m on the road to becoming a production designer on these gigantic films, and is that what I want to do with my life?” When that thought crept in, it was over and I knew it. My conscience got in the way.
Is there an article you could recommend to people like me who want to know more about you?
Not really. I’m a little shy. In the press kit [for Ballast] I’ve kept it as minimal as possible. I feel like I made a film, and hopefully the film can speak for itself and I’m unimportant in that process. It should be about watching a film. Yet I have to admit that I’m fixated on learning everything I can about every filmmaker I respect. I understand that people are curious.
Which filmmakers are you fixated on?
Well, there’s Robert Bresson, first and foremost—for his conviction and austerity, for his courage to remove everything that’s not absolutely essential. That’s always been very powerful to me. I’m really influenced by Bresson’s writings. I kept Notes to a Cinematographer in my pocket while shooting Ballast. It’s funny, some reviewer wrote that I had probably kept Notes to a Cinematographer in my back pocket on the set. And in fact I did.
The approach to the screenplay was Bressonian, too?
Somewhat, yeah. It’s such a simple, stupid screenplay, but it took two years. For me, every word is a symbol of something visual. That’s why it took so long. I was always constructing a visual film in my head and trying to commit that to the page. What I was trying to capture wasn’t really something I could put into words. It was about capturing an emotion that human beings have when they’re in a place. It was essential not to present a document—a screenplay—to the actors. I wanted them to rely on their own ways of engaging with the world, to respond to these artificial scenarios that I would present. I had to accept a certain level of artifice from the beginning—the scenario that is not true. Imagine if it were true: how would you respond? Without the benefit or curse of acting experience or a printed document, people just respond as if it were really happening to them. More accurately perhaps: they respond the way they did when they were children, who know how to role-play really well, with true emotion.
Would you say that your use of nonprofessional actors is the greatest of all influences you’ve taken from Bresson?
Bresson talks about his “models” not having the ability to act—therefore they can access something more truthful because it’s the only way they know how to present themselves. They don’t filter it. That was very important to me. So when it came to casting, I looked for people who naturally had that unfiltered quality—which took time. The auditions were basically trial-by-fire rehearsal sessions where I’d say, “Here’s a scene, let’s talk about it, and let’s do it.” The people who could just naturally do it, I knew they could do it again. Some people just can’t do it at all. By far the best parts in the film, when I look at it now, are the parts where the actors just completely owned or invented something that wasn’t in the script. When someone begins to own their own words and begins to think their own way, and has the courage and the freedom to do what they want, really good and unexpected things can happen. People like Mike Leigh and Wong Kar Wai have been doing this kind of thing for decades.
Was it important to you that the performers came from similar places as the characters did—that there would be some similarities in their backgrounds?
That was very important to me, yes. And it’s funny because when you start a project like this, people are strangers. I don’t know anything about their lives. They’re guarded; they don’t tell you the things that I really want to know about them. I want to know the conflict and the nasty shit in their lives, because that’s what makes for a complex human being. Our manifesto on the set was basically “We have to have a lot of faith in our intuition. We have to trust that intuition and be brave. We have to jump and the net will appear.” In the casting process, I decided I was going to turn off my mind, and engage energetically with people and get a sense of who they were by looking at their temperaments, at the way they moved within a space, the way they walked into a room.
You were struck by how [actor] Micheal Smith moved?
Micheal Smith came into the room, after months of my looking for a lead actor, and I could sense a genuine sorrow in him—from somewhere very deep in his spirit. He carries a deep wound somewhere; maybe it’s psychic and old, this wound. I don’t know. He’s the sweetest human being I’ve ever met. He’s a quiet man, very gentle and funny, and very complicated. To this day, Mike generally insists he doesn’t have that sorrow, that he’s not the person he seems to me. But it’s funny because as we began to know each other and as he played the role, as he became open to accessing those sorrowful parts of himself, he discovered that sorrow really is there for him in a significant way. He was surprised by that. But I had seen it in his flesh. I had seen it in the way he walks.
How about Tarra Riggs?
I was looking for a very explosive woman when I was writing—because the film is so much about the strength of this woman who has her back to the wall and who won’t give up. She’ll do whatever it takes to protect her child and not fail. And this is Tarra Riggs. The woman you see on screen in Ballast is Tara—there’s no filtering. And it’s the same with young JimMyron Ross: The boy he plays in the film is him. Everybody is completely naked.
Would you ever work with a movie star?
Yes. I’m working with a movie star right now, as a matter of fact—a really huge actor, a bankable star who I happen to respect tremendously. Both of us want to make a film in a nontraditional way—for very little money, a million and a half [dollars] tops. He and I would maintain complete ownership of the film, and we’d distribute it as well. I think there’s a chance that such a film could be modestly profitable—largely because of the actor’s bankability and because of his support of my approach to the project. The thing is, I don’t want to compromise artistically on a film, not at all. If I have to do that, I’ll quit. If the choice is between making a film where you have to compromise—on the outline of the script, on the casting, and all that other shit—and not making a film, then I won’t make a film. It’s a difficult time to tow that line because the realities of the independent film landscape right now are horrific. In the United States, these [small, independent] films simply cannot make profit.
Is there anything more you want to say about your recent break with IFC Films [which had agreed to distribute Ballast]?
The people at IFC are the greatest people, really. They wanted to release the movie in the South, but they really didn’t know how to do it. And I thought that to not show the film to African-American audiences would border on racism. IFC is certainly not racist in any way, but they didn’t think the movie was going to make any money in the South. And they’re a company that has to make money in order to survive. The only way to attack something like that is to be in a position to say, “Well, I guess I don’t have to make money.” I think it’s really important. And maybe it is possible for filmmakers to make that kind of approach work now that the box office has become so poor for small films in conventional release.
So you decided to take the film out on your own?
I decided to say, “Fuck it.” With a traditional release, through a distributor, the gross at a chain theater like Landmark, if you’re lucky, is $3,000 a week. So I’d make a third of that—$1,000—and less in a second week, if there is one. There’s overhead: regional publicity and ridiculously expensive ads, which don’t really do any good because no one reads the newspaper anymore. The movie opens and nobody comes, because nobody cares. On the other hand, there are still rep theaters, calendar houses, film societies, museums, film schools, et cetera, and their audiences are rabid for film. They come in droves to a special event because people trust the curators in those places. So I’m setting up a tour, like a band, traveling with the film for single screenings, as many as 70 over the next year. For one screening, you can get as much money as you could in an entire week in a city like Seattle. More important, I feel like I’m accessing the core audience in a way that wasn’t possible with a distributor.
Does this feel to you like it could be a model for others—maybe even the start of a movement?
Well, if the studios don’t care [about specialty films] anymore, then that’s great, because we can do what we want. Maybe we’ll die because we can’t find food. But at least we’re not gonna get our knuckles rapped. The mini-majors knocked the edges off of everything until it was boring and vanilla, lacking risk. Which is okay, I suppose—I mean, it’s their right to do that. But the problem was that it influenced every other young, independent filmmaker, consciously or otherwise, to the point where young writers and directors felt like they had to make films that would speak the “independent” language that the public would understand in order to get the films into Sundance or get distribution or whatever. Now our language is Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. But the studios have decided there’s not enough money in it. They’ve decided to pull the ripcord, and I’m happy that the whole thing is falling apart. Call me totally delusional, but every time another [distribution] company goes out of business, I get a little smile on my face. It just feels like another weight has been lifted.
Do you see the movie as hopeful, too?
I think so, yeah. When I wrote the screenplay, I was going through a long period of depression. I was very hopeless in my life. So it’s important to me that this film talks about hopelessness, futility. At the same time, in terms of my own nature, I know I’m never prepared to give up. It’s simple in a way—survival of the species, I guess. No matter what happens in your life, you can still think that in the future something might be okay—that you can make it better somehow. You don’t know the solution today, but tomorrow maybe you can figure it out. On the most simplistic level, I just wanted to communicate something about human resilience. When all is hopeless, people still find some glimmer of optimism.
Do you see this hope in activist terms?
Well, I’m a very concerned person. And certainly I was drawn to Mississippi because of the tremendous injustice that occurs there and continues to occur today. The legacy of violence and racism is directly present in the poverty and in the callous disregard for it. So yeah—I’m angry. And I’m white, so it’s weird—to be a white filmmaker and go down [south] and try to talk about that. You have to be extremely careful, because even with the best intentions, if you try to say too much about a place where you’re an outsider, you can really do damage, even when your intentions were to do as much good as you could. I had to modulate my anger and my enthusiasm to make a project that shines a light on some of this stuff. In the end, my decision was not to talk about race at all. The only thing I know as a human being is the range of universal emotions. I know about grief. I know about hopelessness. I know about intractability and the refusal to give up in the face of great adversity. These things are meaningful to every human being. So I realized that was how I had to approach the story.
The Delta speaks for itself, as you said—speaks of its history, right?
Screams of it, yeah. In a certain way, by simply turning a camera on the Delta, you’re doing all you need to do. As I learned more [about the history of region], I realized how little authority I have to speak about anything—how little I understand about an extremely complicated situation between whites and blacks in Mississippi. I was aware that I can’t even talk about it. More than being sensitive, I wanted to be authentic. I wasn’t going to be the one to bring that authenticity to the film—it would be the people I chose. And if I had cast, say, Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker, he wouldn’t have been able to bring it either. Those actors are black, but they’re not from Mississippi. The specificity had to come from what the camera would capture on its negative and from what the actors would convey. Hopefully the viewer is watching the film with race issues in mind, seeing that the film is critical of white oppression. Hopefully it encourages you to be critical of white people who keep poverty in existence because it’s convenient. I hope that encouragement is present in the film, but I honestly don’t think I can claim any credit for it. I think the credit belongs to the actors. And to the viewer.