Lance Hammer interview, part I

Wim Wenders’s great 1987 film “Wings of Desire” inspired Lance Hammer to consider a career in moviemaking, but it took a stint at a studio doing set design for blockbusters like “Batman and Robin” to convince him to make films his way. His “Ballast” took years to bring to the screen and involved spending several winters soaking up the ambience of the Mississippi Delta where the film is set and casting non-professional local people and devising a story with dialogue and events that were true to the reality and people with whom he worked. So he doesn’t cotton to those who say that a white filmmaker can’t make a film about black people. Otherwise, he’s a very nice guy, humble, idealistic and committed to his art, or such was the impression I got during the following interview. 

PK: Were you here for the Independent Film Festival of Boston ?

Lance Hammer: I was, yeah. We won the grand prize.

PK: And you won at Sundance also. Were you surprised yourself that this film that you’ve toiled on for ten years is setting the world on fire?

LH: It was extremely surprising. I think its very difficult for any artist to have any concept of whether their film is any good or not, .or their poem or their song or their novel, you know, and that’s definitely the case with me. When I finally locked picture, when I looked at the answer print, I just kinda looked at it and thought, all I saw was its flaws, you know, and I was just kind of hopeful that Sundance would see past the flaws. 

PK: You’ve worked on fine tuning it for a period of time..

LH: Yeah, like five years. I often think everything I do is pretty bad, you know, so this is no exception.

Pk: so this must be difficult for you to talk about it over and over again with journalists and audiences and so forth

LH: It’s stressful because I’m kind of private, so. There’s about a years worth of time where you have to be very open to everybody, but it’s very important for the film, and I believe in supporting the film and I’m very thankful that people care. The fact that you’re here, and you’ve watched the film...

PK: Twice.

LH: Twice, I mean I cant even fathom why you would do that. I just really appreciate that you’ve watched my film twice, it kind of staggers me, you know.

PK: Part of the reason is the first run through is, not all of it is immediately clear, and even on the second viewing some of the dialogue is intelligible. Is that intentional?

LH: Yeah I mean I think that’s the way it works when you’re in the field. It took a lot of time to figure how much I should leave unintelligible or quiet, either unintelligible because, for example, JimMyron [Ross, who plays the character James, a troubled teenager] doesn’t enunciate a word very clearly, or he’s talking very quietly. But I think holistically, a film is about communicating something through many different ways -- images, sound, words -- words in this particular film are kind of minimal, of minimal importance in many ways

PK: It’s sort of like ambient sound.

LH: Exactly. But then there is some narrative that has to be communicated with words, so its important to make sure that comes through. And I went back a year later to the same houses and brought JimMyron with me, and Mike and we did some ADR in the field in the same places again, for some words that were really critical and had to be understood and weren’t, you know. So it was a careful modulation to figure out how much to show and how much just not to care about.

PK: When people review the movie, are there certain spoilers you hope they don’t reveal?

LH: No, I think it’s basically fair game. You put a film out there to the world and in doing that, you sign an unwritten agreement that people can do whatever they want and say whatever they want. It becomes public property. I get upset when I saw the first reviewers at Sundance giving away the spoilers because I think everything’s a spoiler. To say that there’s geese that fly into the air in the opening scene of the film, is like, ‘oh, don’t say that!’ I don’t mind, I don’t want to be part of that process, it’s your own writing process.

PK: I’ve read a lot of interviews that you’ve conducted about the movie and nobody has asked this question: what does the title mean?

LH: Oh no, that’s the most popular question. Number one question. Do you know what ballast is on a ship?

PK: It’s supposed to give it stability.

LH: It’s also the rock bed that rails lay on, for the same purpose. It’s a word that popped into my head one day when I was writing, I remember when it happened, it was kind of out of reach, and I thought it felt right. Its about people in a state of chaos in their lives, seeking more than anything else, just stability, just looking for grounding. To be more specific, I think they find it in each other, in a relationship with each other. Even more specifically, they find it in being selfless. Lawrence’s [the protagonist] chaos, his un-tethering, is corrected by his realization that he can be of use to a child. And being of use to a child is a purpose to live and that purpose gives grounding. Probably the boy is the ballast for everybody.

PK People have compared your movie to Bresson.

LH: Yeah, He’s my big influence, yeah.

PK: However, you got your filmmaking start working on “Batman and Robin.” Was it the nipples on the batsuit that drove you to make your own movies?

LH: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that. The truth is that when I was 19 years old I became a cinephile. I went away from my childhood house for the first time to live somewhere else in Tucson, Arizona, and a newfound independence was expressed by venturing to the arthouse cinema I discovered and I saw “Wings of Desire” and was overwhelmed with joy and sadness and I couldn’t believe that film could move somebody in this way, and you could be so poetic and say something important about the human psyche and the existential longing for something you can’t have. And so, at that point I wanted to make films, but I didn’t think it was a realizable goal, so I studied architecture instead, and that kind of led me into art directing. But, all this time I’ve been a cinephile you know. You’re right, as I begin to be fearful for my soul as an art director, working on these industrial films that are totally empty of meaning. I came from watching Bresson and Godard and Pasolini...and they contribute to society in a very important way, in the same that you know, TC Williams’s poetry contributes something, I’m sure its not very profitable for him, but its hugely profitable for the world and that’s meaningful to me. So I started to write, I said “if you really feel this way you better see if you have it in you to make something. If you have anything to say, anything to express.” So I began writing, a lot, for years.

PK: So what happened to the all the writing?

LH: Most of its in the toilet. I had a complete screenplay and I shot some scenes from it even.

PK: Was that that short film that you made?

LH: Its not really a short film, its excerpted scenes from a feature script. I did cut them together in a way that could be somewhat cohesive. It was a device to try to raise money for the future script. That’s why I did it.

PK: In that version of the story, were the characters from a white family?

LH: In that  first version? It’s a white family and a black family.

PK: Ok. In the finished version, many of the characters are African-American. Did you feel uneasy that a white man from California probably isn’t supposedly that qualified to make a movie about black people from the Mississippi Delta?

LH: Yeah, I mean, having gone to the Delta now for about ten years, I learned quite a bit, and I became obsessed with learning everything I could, reading everything I could, meeting as many people as I could, spending as much time as possible there. Over a long period of time. I know a lot about this place, but there’s nothing that will change the fact that I wasn’t born there and that I’m white. The reason why I started over, threw away the first script and started over was because at a certain point I realized that more I’ve learned about this place the more I’ve learned how little authority I have to speak about this place. Specifically the most important issue being the African-American and white relationship, which is extremely complicated and nuanced, and steeped in generation upon generation of, you thing that’s clear is there’s a tremendous brutality of whites against blacks.

PK: But in this movie the whites seem very genteel.

LH: Yeah, because this is something that’s also true. All these things exist at the same time. It’s complicated, it’s paradoxical and when you’re from there, you get it. When you’re not, it’s just confusing. So when I realized that, I realized I can’t be another outsider coming in to make a film about the blues, or civil rights, you’re just an outsider trying to say they know how the Delta works. I’m doing the opposite thing. I’m going to take a camera and document the place, as it exists and have no judgment, as much as possible. Most importantly, I’m not contribute the words, I’m going to cast people from the place, we’re going to work together, they’re gonna develop the language themselves, they’re going to choose the words, if the scene structure isn’t working, they’re going to tell me what is ringing false with them. They’re gonna tell me what they would do, and that’s what the script will be. The camera will be detached. I will never be the POV. I don’t know if you noticed this watching the film, but there’s no POV shots. We’re never looking through the eyes of a character. If the character’s watching something, we’re watching them watch something. There’s a dispassionate, objective, detachment.

PK: Like the angels in “Wings of Desire?”

LH: Yeah, I mean it probably comes from that, honestly. But of course that’s complicated too, because I wrote the script, I wrote the narrative. That’s based upon a lot of my experience there. A lot of its based on locations I had found through the years, and they influenced me in such a way that I would write narrative around them, you know, or the manor house, which is across the street from the two tenant houses, that’s part of the architectural history of the Delta and it speaks of..In the final film you don’t really see the geographical arrangement. The white guys house is this 1700s or 1800s manor house and it used to know it’s the farmer’s house.

PK: So it used to be his plantation.

LH: This exists all over the south still, all these tenant houses, which are first, where slaves lived, and then they became tenant farmers and it’s the same system. Its basically the white power structure suppresses, and requires the working force of the black families.

PK: But they own their property in this movie

LH: Yeah and this is a common thing too. I’ve spoken to so many people, and I’ve basically clinched together the scenarios from real stories that I’ve heard from people I’ve met. And the things that I’ve seen there. I brought that script with some of that stuff intact, to these people that actually live here now, and said ‘you are going to be the human beings that populate this landscape. Tell me if this works’. And it took a long time. We edited all of these things out in the rehearsal process, in the discovery process. You know, is this true? Like, the whole thing with the drug scenario thing..

PK: Does that actually happen in that part of the country?

LH: Yeah, and I knew that, so I wrote it that way, and then I went there, and I talked to the narcotics agent of the Delta and then I also brought in a bunch of teenagers, like 20 of them in, and we all sat down together for like a week and talked about the whole situation, the whole drug element in the script, because I don’t really know how it works, you know. And we brought drug dealers in..

PK: Those were actually drug dealers in that scene?

LH: One of them in the film has done that, and I won’t tell you who it is, but the other ones weren’t, but we brought a lot of other teenagers that were, in to talk about it. And the narcotics agent said, ok, I wont be a narcotics agent, I won’t bust anybody, because we’re interested in communicating something truthfully in this film about the way this really works. There was an agreement that there wouldn’t be any of that. All of the language, all of the dynamics of those deals were explained to me by this group.

PK: Never trust a narc.

LH: Right, well that’s what all of the kids told me. Its funny, they all wanted to make a film so they all resolved their differences for a moment. With them, we would turn the camera on when they didn’t know we were shooting. They knew we were going to do that, but we would always be rehearsing with the camera.  Half of that was kind of a loose script that we all created together and half was completely candid.


NEXT: Enter the contrarian.

| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Outside The Frame Archives