When the lights came up after the first screening of Ballast at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, an audible murmur of surprise rolled through the crowd upon the discovery that the soulful, moody movie they’d just seen about a black single mother and her teenage son eking out a meager existence in the Mississippi Delta was directed by a 41-year-old native Angeleno with an architecture degree (from USC) and a background as a Hollywood art director. That, and the fact that Lance Hammer is white.
Barack Obama notwithstanding, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that most white Americans don’t have a clue about the black experience in this country, particularly as it applies to the millions of blacks living in Third World poverty in inner cities and time-forgotten rural backwaters. Not that this stops the major movie studios from pandering to black and white moviegoers alike with slices of dime-store inspirationalism (usually rooted in the popular myth that the only ways out of the ghetto are through sports or rap), fear-mongering portraits of gang violence run amok, or glorified minstrel shows cast with the requisite assortment of hos, playas, low-riding gangstas and white-acting Uncle Toms. But with Ballast, Hammer avoids those potential pitfalls, as well as an even bigger one — that of the well-intentioned, socially responsible filmmaker who ennobles his poor, minority characters simply because they’re poor and minority. It is but one of the many remarkable qualities of Ballast that its characters possess their quiet, unassailable dignity from the start rather than having it revealed (or, worse, bestowed upon them) by the filmmaker.
“I have a very restless spirit,” says Hammer over coffee at the boutique Chamberlain Hotel in West Hollywood. “I like to move and I like to see things. I like to experience different cultures. I like to know that Los Angeles is not the center of the world.”
It was that wanderlust that first led Hammer to the Delta, which, with its “strange combination of beauty and sadness,” quickly seduced him. Like most of his answers to my questions, those words roll off Hammer’s tongue with a disarming, matter-of-fact sincerity that has the effect of making everything he says sound as though it were obvious. When I suggest that the impoverished Delta isn’t a destination to which most white Americans would willingly set their compass, Hammer seems downright perplexed. “I guess I assume that being an American, growing up in this country that perpetuated slavery, you would be very sensitive to that, especially if you’re white,” he says. “You would be aware that this is your country and this is what it has done, and the long fingers of that institution are still very present. It’s a significant problem, the kind of institutionalized poverty there. Americans, I think, are aware of that, aren’t they?”
As he explored the Delta region, Hammer took photographs, recorded sound and gradually began to work on a screenplay that he hoped would speak “indirectly about slavery, about this continual state of class hierarchy, this continued racism that exists, and this unique way of dealing with this racism.”
But after Hammer shot some scenes from the script he thought he wanted to make, with an eye toward securing the financing for the feature version, he was crushed by the results. “When I finally cut it together in a way that I could show people, I hated it,” he says of the aborted project. “I thought: What this is is a very enthusiastic person in love with a place trying to say everything they know about a place. So I said, ‘I have to start over.’ I’d learned so much about this place, and the biggest thing I’d learned is that I have no authority to speak about it. The more you learn about a place, the more you realize how little you know.”
Like any good architect, Hammer returned to the drawing board, determined this time “to speak only about the things I know, that are universals — grieving, the dignity of perseverance, hope” and “to be extremely collaborative. I needed the help of the people from this place to speak specifically about the experience of living in Mississippi.” Above all, says Hammer, “If there was going to be any issue of race discussed, it couldn’t come from me, or else it would be just another film about the Delta or civil rights or the blues, brought to you by some white director.”
With that in mind, Hammer spent several months on the ground in towns with names like Yazoo City, attending church services and otherwise ingratiating himself into the community. When the time seemed right, he would mention his film and the creative partnership he was seeking with the locals. It was thus that Hammer came to meet Michael J. Smith, the son of a Yazoo City pastor, who stars in Ballast as Lawrence, the solemn, towering figure who re-enters the lives of James (Jimmyron Ross) and James’ mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) following the death of his twin brother, who was James’ father. Together with his co-stars, Smith became, in Hammer’s words, one of the “authors” of the film, which was developed improvisationally in a manner reminiscent of Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. “Because he was an author, he became very passionately involved in this thing he was authoring, and his family and his community became very supportive, and then the word spread,” Hammer says. “I think people started to understand that we were trying to make a document of accuracy, and we weren’t trying to make a statement about a place as outsiders.”
Even then, the filmmaking process was very much a case of trial and error. Inspired in part by Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Hammer and cinematographer Lol Crawley (a Brit who Hammer met for the first time when he showed up on set) shot Ballast largely in long, hand-held master shots with little if any regard for continuity. “I wasn’t interested in traditional coverage, with shots and countershots, that kind of thing,” Hammer says. “Instead, we were basically going to shoot nine takes of something and do it all the way through each time, or at least do three-quarters of a scene. The way the process worked, the actors were saying different things and going to different places in the room from one take to the next. So I was beginning to understand that these long, roving masters would either be used in their entirety or I would have to radically fragment them.”
Hammer then spent two years in an editing room, by himself, doing exactly that. He put together a 147-minute rough cut (nearly an hour longer than the final version of Ballast) he thought about submitting to Sundance for the 2007 festival, “but it just wasn’t there. So I said, ‘I can’t submit it. You have to submit only the very best thing you can, or wait.’ I figured, [waiting] gives me another full year to cut, so I’m going to try every permutation imaginable. And I did.”
The result is a film of a strange and hallucinatory beauty, in which we seem to enter a narrative already in motion, only gradually gleaning important details about the characters and their situations, much in the way the Delta slowly came into focus for Hammer himself. “I’m interested in reducing something to its essence, and removing anything that’s not part of the essence,” Hammer says of the film’s fast-moving, fragmented editing style (which has been curiously mischaracterized by some critics as slow and contemplative). “In getting to that place, I’m thinking of everything … the field of all possibility is how you begin to write, and then you cut, cut, cut until you have only this left, this one little thing. But it was the field of all possibility that created that thing. And still, the field of all possibility is contained in that one piece, the world in a grain of sand.”
Yet, for all Ballast’s success at Sundance (where it won the directing and cinematography awards of the dramatic competition) and rapturous critical praise, the film’s road to theaters has been a long and winding one. Shortly after it was acquired for distribution by the venerable IFC Films, Hammer canceled the modest deal, realizing he had as much to gain or lose by releasing the film himself (through the aptly named Alluvial Film Company). For the past two months (itopened in New York in October, and Los Angeles a week ago), he has been doing exactly that, complete with in-person appearances at many screenings — a less costly form of publicity than the thumbnail-size newspaper ads that can cost nearly as much as Ballast’s entire budget. “All the money goes out now. There’s nothing coming in,” says Hammer, who has come a long way from designing CGI cityscapes for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and feeling like he was losing his soul to the Hollywood machine. Now, he says, “I’m happy … I don’t know. The decisions make you; you don’t make the decisions. It all happened for a reason.”