Writer/ director/ editor/ producer of Ballast
Nov 01, 2008 Web Exclusive
Ballast, a meditative and visually eloquent film about death and renewal, is an unlikely work from a Los Angeles filmmaker. Shot on 35mm film in the Mississippi Delta while using only available light, Ballast has been linked to the films of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, not only because writer-director Lance Hammer employed handheld camera, jump cuts and nonprofessional actors, but also for the naturalistic way the film depicts the emotional and psychological effects of impoverished living. At the center ofBallast’s story is James [JimMyron Ross], a 12-year-old African American with a child’s sense of curiosity, but also a developing drug habit that incites a menacing temperament. His father, who has not seen him in years because of a court order, has just died of a suicidal overdose. James’ mother, Marlee [Tarra Riggs], is a former addict who supports him with an unsteady custodial job. Lawrence [Micheal J. Smith, Sr.], the twin brother of James’ father, has turned suicidal in grief, but regrettable circumstances bring James and Marlee into his life.
Comparisons could be made to other art films with African American characters, such as Charles Burnett’sKiller of Sheep or David Gordon Green’s George Washington, but in those cases, the filmmakers were not outsiders to the settings of their films. Although Hammer has fallen in love with the Delta during his frequent time there over the last eight years, he was born in Ventura, California, and currently resides in Los Angeles. Hammer graduated from USC with a degree in architecture, and he’s worked as an art director in Hollywood-produced films, but his appreciation for art-house cinema began in his late teens. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and the works of French auteur Robert Bresson have been an inspiration. Photographed by English cinematographer Lol Crawley, Ballast is imbued with lyricism, opening to spectacular images of James watching geese take flight against a dim blue sky. In January, Hammer won the Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance for Ballast, his first feature, and Crawley won the Excellence in Cinematography Award.
Lance Hammer met with Under the Radar in October while doing press for Ballast. www.ballastfilm.com
Can you tell me a little about how the casting process worked? The actors you chose, did they audition with each other?
I think Tarra Riggs, who plays Marlee, was the first person I cast in one of the major roles. Then I cast Mike Smith, who plays Lawrence, and they had to have a particular chemistry. There were many people that I liked that didn’t work with Tarra. And so it was really trying to figure out the synergistic relationship between these people, and ultimately what would make a believable, insular family unit. The last person cast was JimMyron Ross, who plays James, the boy. And that was extremely difficult to cast because he had to be not only excellent, but he had to appear to be the offspring of these two people. [Lawrence] wasn’t his actual father, but his actual father was genetically identical to him. So when I was auditioning, I put people in rooms together and had them work some scenes out to see if they had a dynamic that was believable, that seemed like they were in the same family, and that this kind of history of conflict was authentic. Especially with the boy, there were a couple candidates that I really loved, but they just didn’t work with the two parents I’d already cast. So, thankfully, I waited, and then I found JimMyron Ross at the very last moment, like the eleventh hour, at the Boys and Girls Club in Canton, Mississippi. And he totally transformed the movie. The script wasn’t as much about him. He was a major character, but it was really more focused on Lawrence. When I started working with JimMyron, it became clear that the film had shifted direction, and he was the focus.
Do you think JimMyron had a good sense of the kind of film you were making? Was he surprised by the finished film?
I think he did emotionally. I think all the actors did emotionally. They had a very strong sense of where we were going with this. I don’t think they knew what the visual product was gonna be, but they knew what the emotional core of it was gonna be. So when they saw it, it resonated with them very deeply. They had so much authorship in the process. They had so much commitment to this, and it was as much their child as it was my child. It’s like we had a child together. And it really resonated with them when they saw it, but I think they were very surprised by the form, because an art film with an African American cast is atypical; it doesn’t happen very often. They live in Delta, so art films never play there. They have Netflix and IFC, but they don’t have a lot of exposure to this type of film. They don’t know what Killer of Sheep is. They don’t know what Daughters of the Dust is. They would if [these films were] made available. So, it was surprising to them. They didn’t get it at first. I showed a rough cut to JimMyron Ross and to Mike Smith. I went back to do some field ADR with them—went back to the houses and brought a recorder, and we went into the same spaces and recorded a couple lines that were not reading properly—and I showed them the film. And they were just very confused. And this was before I knew anything about Sundance. It was like, “Uh, shit.” Mike fell asleep when he was watching it, and JimMyron was looking at football magazines. I said, “Well, that’s very sad. Maybe it’s horrible.” But then they all came up to Sundance and watched it in front of 600 people in the Racquet Club, and they watched how everybody was engaged with what they were doing, and it was such a magical moment. And they were riveted then. The context was completely different, and it transformed the experience.
What kind of movies did you love when you were JimMyron’s age?
Hmm, JimMyron’s age, 12. Cartoons, like him. [laughs] I loved Star Wars. I grew up in a small town, Ventura, California. There wasn’t art house available. When I was 19, my life transformed when I discovered the art house. When I was JimMyron’s age, it was just what every other kid was watching, and I wasn’t really that big of a fan of the movies. It wasn’t that important in my life. JimMyron’s life is more like my life; it’s roaming, solitary, in the landscape. That’s what I did as a child. But when I became 19, everything changed and I became a total cinephile. And I wasn’t interested in Hollywood, and I really haven’t been since. Although I worked as an art director for many years in the studio system. But it was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of thing. My personal life was inspired by a totally different kind of filmmaking. That’s very common for a lot of people in Hollywood. Mark Johnson, who’s an executive producer on this project, is a total cinephile, but he makes big studio films. But it’s amazing, his sensibilities are really acute. I pale in comparison in my filmic education.
Did you complete a traditional script for the film, and if so, how long was it?
I’ll answer two questions. It was two years, and it was about 100 pages. I think it was 101 or something. But it stopped with me. It was a traditional script in that I used screenwriting software to write it, even though that was kind of a joke. I’m never gonna do that again. I always knew I was never gonna show it to the actors. It was only a structural thing. It was a document for myself that gave structure to a process. So it’s maybe a skeleton, and then the flesh and tissue were gonna have to be provided by the actors, and they would not have the benefit of reading the script. Instead we would talk about everything verbally, and I would give them only what they needed on a day-by-day basis, so they didn’t know what was happening next. The attempt was to not say, “Here’s something that’s prescribed and we’re gonna try to mimic this.” But, we’re gonna talk about character relationships.
The first thing we did was, we talked about everything that happened before page one of the script, ‘cause I’d written all that. My writing process is writing in 30, 40 notebooks, thousands of pages of hand-written stuff, and then gradually it’s pared down to something that will resemble about 100 pages. But what’s come to that is a complete world. The first step for the making of this film, when I got out to Mississippi and finally cast the people, is we talked about the world. And that was for at least a month. We just workshopped conflict and past relationships. And they had no idea what the script was about at this point, only the worlds of these people’s lives. And then we began page one of the script. I said, “OK, so here’s the scenario. Let’s go to this location. Here’s what happens in this scenario, the way I see it. It’s not fixed. If you don’t think it’s reading honestly to you, tell me, and we’ll change it. We’ll try everything. And at all times, you provide the language. And I’ll steer you a little bit, but I want you to use your own language. I want everything to come through your own emotion. And the only thing I’m going to do is introduce something that’s slightly artificial, and it’s a scenario that’s not actually part of your life. But imagine if it were part of your life. Respond the way you would.” So we did about a month of this kind of— Really, it was psychotherapy sessions between two people in a room, and I’d sit with them and fight it out. Then we got into about three months of rehearsal all the way through the script. And we started shooting actually. We rehearsed about half the script, or a third of the script, and we started shooting. And then the photography caught up. Toward the end of the film, what we were rehearsing on Monday was gonna be shot on Tuesday. And they had no idea how the film was gonna end. So yeah, there was a script, but I wrote it for myself. I wrote it for Lol Crawley, the cinematographer, so he knew what we were trying to do. We talked about it extensively. But the actors didn’t have any sense of it.
At 100 pages, it must have had a lot of description, because there’s not a whole lot of dialogue in the film.
Oh, you know, it’s interesting because there’s a lot more in the script that we actually shot. I cut. The writing process to me is about starting with the field of all possibility and then cutting it down to only what’s essential. That, to me, was 100 pages worth of material. Then I got there, we shot it, and then the editorial process—which, by the way, took two years as well for me—was about paring it down to truly what’s essential to communicate the story. Anything that’s not entirely essential has to be removed. I just did this continuity draft of the script recently—where I removed all the parts that weren’t in the film and added the parts that were new, that were improvised, and gave them a slot on the page—and it was 60 pages. So, what you see in the film is 60 pages worth of written word.
There’s a sequence when Marlee asks James about box of groceries, and a second later she’s about 100 feet away walking toward Lawrence, and before she even gets there, her conversation with him has begun on the soundtrack. Sometimes things move very fast in the film.
Oh yeah. In fact, most of the material was shot as long, roving master shots. I always tried to shoot a scene in its entirety many times, like at least three times. And coverage for us wasn’t shot-reverse-shot. It was more like, “OK, let’s do three quarters of the shot now instead of the whole thing. And let’s favor this actor a little bit more this time. And let’s try another new lens. But let’s try to get as much of the scene as possible every time because maybe I’ll use some of those in their entirety as long shots unedited.” But more than likely, what I was imagining I was going to do when I cut it—back when I was shooting it—was: I was going to take this expression of take one juxtaposed to this expression to take five and just jump-cut them together, because this expression from take one is so much better than it was in take five, and this expression in take five was so much better. So I always knew it was going to be a lot of discontinuous— Continuity editing wasn’t that important to me. The ability to fragment time and remove these steps in between that aren’t necessary— If the person is gonna walk through the space, it’s gonna take them four seconds or 100 feet of film to do that. We don’t need to show it.
Is it Christmastime in the film?
Yeah, the winter break of school.
The clues are pretty subtle, aren’t they?
There was a little bit more of that, but I didn’t want to overdo it. Christmas can be very sentimental, can’t it? So, I wanted it to be more harrowing and not sentimental.
Being white and from Southern California, were there concerns about authenticity, or perception of authenticity, in telling this story?
Yeah, that was a very important thing. I had to ask myself early on, “Am I capable of doing this? Is a white man capable of telling this story in the Delta with African American characters?” And my conclusion was, yes, if you’re talking about universals, if you’re talking about grieving, if you’re talking about hope, if you’re talking about persevering in the face of sorrow, and the dignity of doing that. These are things that transcend gender, they transcend race, they transcend class. I wrote a screenplay called Alluvial, which was in the Delta, and I shot some scenes from it, and this was after maybe five years of going back to the Delta. I’d researched, academically, everything I could of the place, its history. I spent months at a time there for five years. I met millions of people. It became a passion. So, I became, for a white guy from California, somewhat of an authority on the place. Yet, the more I learned, the more I realized how complicated it really is there, and how little authority I have to speak about anything with specificity. So, I threw that screenplay away, I threw the material away, and I started over. I said, “I love this place. I love the people I’ve met. I love this history. What I can do is, I can speak about grief. I can speak about the beauty of this landscape. I can speak about hope and dignity and perseverance. That’s what I’ll bring to it. I’ll craft a script that’s structural, and then I will recruit people from the place to bring their own specific experiences. They will give the language to the project, and they will change the scenes as they see fit. And together, collaboratively, we will make this project this way. So, potentially, it can be firmly rooted in the place, and we can speak with great specificity about the issues of race. But I can’t be the one doing it. My collaborators have to.” This was the approach, and I really believed in that approach. And I was also very upset with this concept that a white filmmaker can only make films about white subjects, a black filmmaker can only make films about black subjects, an Asian artist can only make a painting about Asians. It’s segregation. We’re all trying to transcend that. We should be able to have dialog with each other, and talk about each other, and talk with each other. I really believe that, so I had a lot of courage and a belief to proceed. But I was very careful the whole way through.
The first thing that I did when I had a script that was shoot-able was, I went to the churches, and it was a scary moment for me, because I’m a white guy. I walk into these Baptist churches in these small local towns and I talked to the pastors, and I talked about the project. I said, “We’re planning on making a film. It’s about this subject, and here’s how we’re thinking bout doing it. What do you think?” I was seeking their support. And if they weren’t going to give me their support, I had to really reconsider what I was doing. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do. And, as it turns out, they were very supportive, so much so that they invited me into their services, they made announcements in the announcement section that I was there and I’m looking to make a film with people from the town, with their own voices. I’m seeking the voices of people that live here to get their unique perspective on these issues. And they would co-author this project with me. And I also think they were very supportive of the idea [that] this is really a film about the salvation of a child. And the churches, that’s a big thing for them. Mike Smith, who plays Lawrence, he’s the son of one of those preachers. That’s where I found him. So yeah, I was very passionate about the desire to make a film there with— a collaboration of people that live there. It removed my fear to a certain degree.
The first two shots of the film, how did you get them, and was that your original idea for an opening?
I knew about the geese very well from being there so many years, and they’re just migrating from Mexico to the Delta, and then they’re on their way to Canada every winter. I knew that I was gonna try to find something to do out there with the geese. [laughs] And JimMyron was my muse. He was, in a very classical way, my muse. He would always travel with me, in a car, between sets. We’d always have a camera, and sound, and JimMyron ready to do something. We would respond to anything happening in a field or something happening in the sky, or we’d just be talking, and we’d think of something. We’d jump out and just do it. And so much of the process was based upon the structure that was created. The whole purpose of the structure is to give a foundation for improvisation and spontaneity, responding intuitively to things that were seen—without thinking, just responding. So, that shot was one of those things. We showed up to a location, we were supposed to shoot something else where Marlee’s trailer was. This field was fairly nearby. We’d already attempted to shoot some things with the geese, in different parts of the Delta, and we were too clumsy and loud. They’re very delicate, those creatures, they take off quickly. That was just one of those moments. There’s a whole bunch of that with JimMyron. I just asked him to go wander and be himself, and do whatever he felt. Sometimes we’d follow him, and sometimes we’d be shooting, sometimes we wouldn’t be, but he never knew when we were shooting or not. And Lol Crawley, who shot the film, has got the camera on his shoulder chasing JimMyron across the cotton furrows, which are like 10 inches deep, with his eye on the viewfinder, not knowing where his feet are. I cut that scene into a different part of the film originally, and my friend Chris Gorak told me to put it at the head of the film. And it was obviously the right thing. I didn’t quite get that right away, but he corrected me.
I read that a distribution deal with IFC was available to you but that you decided to distribute the film yourself. Is that correct?
Is that something that you had planned on doing before Sundance?
In a way. I thought, “OK, I’m making a film. The odds of getting into Sundance or an A-list festival are very low. Let’s be practical and consider the real possibility that we’re just gonna have a film nobody cares about. And so, if that’s the case, to be responsible, I better look into self-distribution to try to recoup some of the production cost.” So I’d given that a lot of thought, but that wasn’t a very attractive situation. I was hoping that we’d get into a festival, specifically Sundance, and we got in, lo and behold, a miracle of miracles. And I thought, “Shit, we might get distribution. I guess it depends on how well we do.” And we ended up doing a lot better there than I imagined. And I started believing, “There’s a really good chance that we’ll have an offer here.” And we did. We had a number of offers, but this was the year that it all fell apart. And all the offers were meager, they were just pennies on the dollar, and we were lucky to have that, compared to other films. In the end, it didn’t make any sense. Basically, I have to give away the film for free and give up 20 years of ownership and, by contract, sign away my ability to have any control of any decisions made. So, it’s a breakdown of logic. Why would anybody give away that kind of control, and ownership of something you spent so much time on, for $25-50,000? So, the only other option was to put together a team myself.
Are you developing any new projects?
Yeah, I have one that’s been done for a while, which I was actually gonna shoot before this, a bigger scale kind of thing. But it’s very similar in approach. And I’ve been writing a couple other things, I’m not sure what I’m gonna pursue first. This whole experience, completing the film, the festivals, the distribution situation, the breakdown of the independent film marketplace, has radically affected the way I’m going to approach the next work. It’s made me even more interested in complete ownership. There’s nobody offering money for production. There’s nobody offering money for distribution. So it’s just not an option, which to me is very liberating. It’s like, you can rule that out, you don’t have to think about that anymore. So, what are you left with? Well, you’re left to your own devices. The great benefit of that is that you can do whatever you want. Nobody’s telling you what to do. You can follow your instincts, but the downside is, you have to figure out how to finance that. So it benefits the creative process. It affects the way I’m approaching the writing. And frankly, I’m in a very confused state that way. I have some ideas that I never thought I would have had before, based upon that. It’s the way John Cassavetes worked. And it’s kind of liberating to me. Possibilities are starting to present themselves I never imagined. It’s great to be off the tip. [laughs]