A Sundance sensation rolls up his sleeves
starring Micheal J. Smith, Sr., Tarra Riggs, JimMyron Ross, Johnny McPhail
A man kills himself somewhere in the Mississippi Delta; his twin brother Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.) tries to do the same but fails. After a brief stay in hospital, Lawrence is sent home to contemplate the direction his life has gone. Meanwhile, Lawrence's sister-in-law (Tarra Riggs) and nephew (JimMyron Ross) struggle to survive on a minimum-wage income. At first glance, this scenario feels almost hopelessly generic--though the long, meditative shots across empty landscapes and drained performances from non-actors serve to remind of a Bresson film. What finally makes Ballast so uniquely fascinating is how it seems to take place in a post-apocalyptic land, with the initial suicide the atomic bomb that transforms its inhabitants into defeated shells given to moments of hatred and violence without ever really understanding their own motives. (Scenes in which Lawrence raids a grocery store certainly make end-of-the-world comparisons inevitable.) Drugs and attempted suicide are not exactly ways to pass the time in Ballast, nor are they even treated as logical escapes from such hellish surroundings. They are simply the only constants in a world from which there doesn't appear to be any escape.
Ballast is well worth a look for its dignified portrayal of poverty and desperation, and of how their attendant problems tend to form a vicious cycle of silent, festering madness--but, ironically (or appropriately) enough, it starts to sputter around the hour mark, once its characters begin picking up the pieces to rebuild their lives. The film certainly leaves plenty for the viewer to figure out on his own, complete with the dichotomy of journeys vs. destinations in the elusive search for better tomorrows. Yet for a movie that thrives on such an ambiguous setting, Ballast is curiously compelled to provide concrete answers to questions it should leave a little more open-ended. And its continued reliance on defeated, contemplative stares comes across as fatuous and proselytizing in a Sullivan's Travels kind of way. While Ballast is quite obviously a labour of love and the work of a preternatural talent, a more judicious hand in the editing room, particularly as applied to its last fifteen minutes, would have helped immensely.-IP
November 2, 2008|Ballast director/producer Lance Hammer isn't really the scruffy outsider that photos out of Sundance had led me to believe--at least, not in demeanour. Indeed, sporting a clean-shaven face and a soft, folksy tone of voice, he's a very polite fellow who just happens to have given the studio system a pass in favour of self-distributing his fascinating directorial debut. Hammer occasionally borders on a somewhat distracting formality, but that's only because he has very specific ideas about his film and wants to make sure that you understand them in their totality. (He expresses genuine regret upon confirming that I had watched the film on a DVD screener instead of on the big screen.) His quiet manner belies a fierce stubbornness, an admirable quality in an artist of his budding stature; here's a man who knows exactly what he wants from his cinematic career and is more than eager to expound on the present and future of distribution, not to mention his place in it. (The corners cut and chances taken in the promotion of Ballast are readily apparent--the film's advertising budget is, apparently, so low that this interview was conducted at my local ad agency's very own offices in downtown Boston instead of the Four Seasons Hotel, where movie press tours are traditionally hosted.) Near the end of our discussion, I threw a few intentional curveballs to better assess his opinion the overall quality of independent film in the United States, but in retrospect, I wish I had challenged him a little more on his rather bleak views of the mainstream market and, moreover, the very future of cinema itself.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I was particularly struck by a certain post-apocalyptic feel to Ballast. Was that intentional?
LANCE HAMMER: I think so. I think the landscape, when you go there in the wintertime, it feels like that. There are a couple of areas in the film where the trees have been felled, and they're burned--and there's an area that I call the Fields of Nephilim because it felt like it was an apocalypse. But it's flat, there [are] no leaves on the trees, everything's muddy...it rains a lot, the skies are grey--and this is the way it often is in the Delta in the winter. And sometimes it's not, it's sunny. But still, it's barren and cold and crisp. I did steer it that way, y'know, I was only interested in the cloud-cover and rain conditions that were very bleak, because I was trying to isolate a particular emotion, which was sorrow, and this is the way I wanted to frame it. The Delta is full of joy, it's full of sorrow, it's full of every human emotion, and I could have made an omnibus film, perhaps, that captured all those emotions, but since we only had ninety minutes, I was really interested in sorrow. That's why the choice of landscapes, the choice of particular locations, was informed that was somewhat desperate and barren.
Would you like to make an omnibus film sometime in the future?
Yeah, those are great. I mean, I'd like to participate in one, and... I don't know if I'd want to curate one or not, but somewhere down the line that sounds like, if that were an opportunity, that would be great.
I saw that your last film, your short film, was made about the Delta as well.
Yeah, that was not really a short film--what that was, was another screenplay I'd written that was the prelude to this one, actually. Kind of the dress rehearsal. And I excerpted some scenes from that script I'd shot, and having done that--which became my technical education, it was my first work behind the camera instead of art directing--but I didn't like the product, so I threw it away, started over.
Any particular reason why?
The writing, my writing. It was just too obvious. I had been spending ten years in the Delta--or I have been spending ten years, so far, in the Delta, trying to make this project, and that was when I first became enamoured of the place, and I had a desire to write everything I knew--[to] get very specific about the issues of race, the history of farming, the history of slavery, all of these things. And the more I learned, the more I learned how little I could speak of any of these things, because they're so complicated. You really have to be from that place to be able to speak with authority. So I think it was just a little too enthusiastic, and I realized that I needed to take a completely different approach, which was to speak about universal things like grieving, and let the actors do their own very subtle speaking about places with specificity.
I had read in another interview that you had a script, but you didn't give it to the actors.
Yeah. It took me two years to write [Ballast], and I wrote dialogue and everything--it was a very conventional script in that way, I used Final Draft. But I always knew I wasn't gonna show them the script. So instead we were gonna talk through all of the scenes. The dialogue that I wrote was always provisional, because I didn't attempt to write an idiom or a dialect for the place. Although--I know it pretty well now, but I can't write it. Really, again, you have to be from there. But more importantly, I didn't want my words impressed upon someone else, I wanted a non-actor that would use their own words, and their own emotion. I introduced something artificial, which was the structure, the scenario, and that they would embrace that as their own, as something that's happening in their own life, and respond in kind. With their own choice of words, with their own emotion--if something didn't work in the script for them structurally, we would talk about it, and I would encourage them to change it, so it happened all the time.
So you presented these general scenarios to them--
Well, it wasn't general--it was very specific. We'd sit down in a space, and we'd rehearse for two or three months. We'd go to a location, and we'd talk about the scene in detail. I had the script with me, and I knew it well enough that--I wasn't interested in saying, this is exactly what it should be. So I knew the mechanics of the scene, and we would talk in detail about it. And sometimes I'd just start forgetting what it was, and I'd be okay with that, because it was becoming its own thing. And the collaboration between the actors and myself and Lol Crawley, who shot the film, he was involved in that process as well. Yeah, so that's how that worked, and we would film everything on the video camera--because any given scene would take many different directions, we tried many different approaches to a scene. And I'd take all those tapes back and basically transcribe them into a running, shooting draft of the script that I would keep track of. Therefore, the script became married to a box of tapes, and these tapes were catalogued, logged by day and by scene, and I kept them with me all the time, so we'd be on the set, and I'd say--you know, we'd be shooting a scene, and it just wouldn't be working quite the way it rehearsal or something. And so we'd pull out the tape and say, "Look, remember when you did this?" And they'd watch it. "Oh, yeah, I remember that." "Why don't you try that direction?" And that's kinda how we worked.
There's an obvious link to Bresson in how the film is essentially drained of all "obvious" acting. Was there a big struggle to pull things back, or did that come naturally?
I think with Mike Smith, who plays Lawrence, and Tarra, who plays Marlee, and JimMyron Ross, who plays James, there was none of that. [O]nly occasionally, there'd be some theatricality, and that would be because they were trying to do something very close to the way I had envisioned it, and it didn't feel right to them, but they were just dutifully trying to do the job. It was funny, because whenever I would catch something that was just too "actorly," I realized that they're not engaged with the writing at this point. So I'd say, "Okay, this is not working. What's your problem with this particular scenario? Tell me what it is, let's work it out, figure out a new direction." Mostly, that's what happened. Also, a lot of it is cut from the film--like, you only use one out of thirteen shots. This film has a thirteen-to-one shooting ratio. So twelve of them are pretty bad, usually, and you only need one to make it into the final film. The white character, Johnny McPhail, who plays the neighbour--he had an acting background, so he had acted in local theatre in Oxford, Mississippi, and he's acted in a couple of local films that had come through. So that was a challenge, because he kept trying to bring a dramatic, theatrical approach to everything, and I struggled with him to remove it, and I think we did a pretty good job in removing it--but, ironically, the most challenging part of all was working with a professional actor.
Was it difficult to reconcile that collaboration with your vision of the film?
No, not that particular part of it. That part of it, I'm actually very happy with it. Everything's a struggle, making a film, including this process, but it worked very well, and it was a joyful process for all of us. The collaboration was something that was energizing in a way that I hadn't experienced before, and I know for a fact that it was the same for the actors and for Lol Crawley. We needed that kind of strength, that energizing, because of how difficult the rest of the production was. Independent films are very difficult to make because there's so little money and... You know... I don't know. But that part was really enjoyable.
Everything else--making a film is very enjoyable, but it comes simultaneously with a tremendous stress. Nobody really understands that until they do it, and I think the same true for any job--jackhammering the sidewalk is probably a very stressful job. But in general, the joy of making something can outweigh anything, so you'd suffer anything for it.
How does that translate into your plans to distribute the film yourself?
It's the same thing. It's almost exactly like production, honestly--it's like the same stresses, the same joys. In fact, it's more time-consuming than production right now. It's just like independent film production, where it's stressful because you have very few people, you can't pay a lot of money, you're not getting favours from the big corporations because you don't have accounts with them... You're basically treated like shit, and nobody believes in you until you finally make the thing, and then somebody watches it and validates it and says, "Oh, it's great!" So...that's what's happening now, it's tough to book cinemas, until we had M. J. Peckos come along and start booking cinemas for us. There's a monopolization of the screens by the studios--they monopolize everything. I'm not complaining, because this is exactly like making the film in the first place. So it just feels like home.
You just welcome the challenge.
Yeah, and that's what you have to do as an independent producer, is you have to say, "This is gonna be very hard, to make this film. Probably impossible. Do you wanna do it?" "Yes. Let's do it anyway." And that's the kind of attitude you have to have, and that's exactly the same thing that's happening now. I think, the rewards are huge, though. The rewards for tackling something that's probably impossible, and then successfully tackling it--there's no better reward than that. Success in distribution is an interesting thing because financial success was never something I was really looking for, because...turning down a deal from a distributor was really easy because they didn't offer you anything. [S]o I don't have to make any money to be in exactly the same situation I was in before. So any money that we actually make, if that's possible, will just be a bonus. But the real gain is just having ownership of the project--it was very important that I made the trailer, the poster... I had a very particular way I wanted to do these things. Again, we're not really thinking about profits--we're thinking about what's the best way to present the film to the public. We're spending very little money on advertising because it's kind of a joke--it's just extremely expensive, nobody comes into the cinemas that way anyway, it's a dead model--and we're really pushing it.
How far did you look into that type of marketing to realize that it wasn't for you?
I hadn't done it before, and just like independent film producing--this is all new, you have to jump in once, having not done it before, and learn on the fly. And this is exactly what's happening with me, but what I did from the beginning was set up a team of people that were very experienced, an expert in their field. This is Steven Rafael, who is heading up our marketing--comes from the head of marketing at Gramercy, and he was head of acquisitions at USA Films--and he picked up titles like In the Mood for Love and Rosetta, so he has the right aesthetic. He's extremely talented, and aggressive, and enthusiastic. My publicist from Sundance was Susan Norget. She's on board with us for the release. Marina Bailey in L.A., our publicist. MJ Peckos, who used to be the head of Tartan Films USA and FirstLook, she's booking all the cinemas for us. Molly Hansen is doing all of their special venue bookings. So there's six of us, and they're all experts, and I'm learning. Quickly.
"Would you give your child to someone away on the street and sign a contract that says they can do anything they want with it?"
Where precisely did you and IFC differ that you decided to part ways?
We didn't differ very much in our sensibilities--that's why I went to them in the first place. Particularly Ryan Werner, who's the head of marketing there, he's just kind of a remarkable person whose tastes I respect greatly. We don't have any real disagreements about that--it's just more the particular business points. The main one being that I disagree with the fact that I needed to give my film to them, almost for free, for twenty years, and give them creative control over it in a contract that says so. That's a big point of difference.
The point of ownership.
Would you give your child to someone away on the street and sign a contract that says they can do anything they want with it? That's kind of the way I equated it--this is my child. It took me five years to make it. Ten years to think about it. I paid for it. And in the end, it was the same offer from every distributor. It was almost exactly the same number. They want to give you a couple of pennies to take ownership of your project for twenty years, and you have no say in what happens to it. So that's the basic point of difference. There's a lot of specific ones, and I accepted that at first, thinking, Okay, well, what's the option? I distribute it myself. And I didn't want to do that at the beginning, so I said, "Okay, I'm gonna take a complete financial loss and just trust this company--these strangers--to release this film and hopefully they will collaborate with me." But my contract, it says they don't have to. So we went through several steps along the way, and I realized, I was struggling to win my point. Now, I hadn't signed a contract, I never did sign a contract because we never could negotiate the points completely. So we were proceeding down the road, yet we get to a particular juncture where some decisions have to be made, and I'd have a strong opinion about this, and they'd have a different opinion. And I would struggle and struggle, and I would sometimes win, but it was like combat. Like all negotiations are. And I'm thinking, Why am I having to fight for this? It's my film. They didn't pay me anything for it, hardly anything--why am I doing this? This is just ridiculous, it's absurd. It makes no sense. So when I reached a certain point--I think it was this issue with Blockbuster, and this three-year-exclusive with them, which I didn't think was smart--but yet, they couldn't flex on it. It was a point they made after our negotiation--they made a new negotiation with Blockbuster. So, I dunno. It's just that. If any of these companies would be able to pay more of an advance, close to the costs of the production costs, then it starts making some sense. Then I'm willing to trust IFC, because I really think they're a great company with great taste. Even if I just closed my eyes and blindly give complete control to them, they'll probably do a really good job in putting it out to the world that I had hoped. But not for free.
Has this experience soured you from those kinds of prospects for future films? You would want to self-distribute from hereon in?
The way the current market is, [in] independent filmmaking... The reason why IFC can only offer you between, whatever, zero and seventy-five thousand dollars per project, is because of the market. It's not an accident that every one of the distributors offered the same number. It's all they can realistically afford to offer to still remain profitable as a company. So I completely understand that. If I were in their place I'd do the same thing. But I think, right now, I wouldn't see any reason to go with a distributor in the future unless something changes in the marketplace. Unless I believe the market is changing in such a way that filmmakers themselves should--y'know, the digital tools are coming into fruition now. They're nascent, but they're developing extremely rapidly, like all digital technologies do--[and they] are allowing filmmakers to have control of their own product. Theatrical is dead. It's purely a marketing device, and it will never come back to life for independent films in the way we know it. It's just not happening. The landscape's so radically changed, that model doesn't work, I'm not interested in embracing it ever again. A new model is developing, and perhaps a large corporation will figure out how to do it in such a way that it's beneficial for the filmmakers, and themselves, and then I could entertain that. But right now there's nothing that's attractive to me.
How has your work as an art director translated into your current work?
There really wasn't anything that carried over, because that was for studio projects, they were huge, $200 million dollar budgets. Except that I met Andrew Adamson, who's a good friend of mine, and we've remained good friends for a decade, fifteen years or something. And he's directed, like, the first two Shrek films, the first two Narnia films. He introduced me to Mark Johnson and Amy Shea, who were producers on both my projects that I'm working on. That translated, mostly as a friendship. But very little else did. The independent film world and the studio world really share nothing. There is no crossover.
Not even aesthetically?
No. It is the opposite. My film is a reaction to everything that I did as an art director in Hollywood. I left art directing because I couldn't stand the industrial-filmmaking approach to narrative, which is: reduce it to stupidity, because we're trying to make as much money as possible, and we don't really care about content at all. We don't care about leaving something important culturally behind. We care about making a lot of money. And that's why Warner Bros. exists, purely for making money. Corporations are gigantic, inhumane, moneymaking machines. This is the year that they learned that [independent films] weren't marketable in the way they needed them to be. They were trying to pull blood from a stone. An independent film is, by its very nature, small, incapable of making a lot of money in the marketplace, and focused on a niche audience. A large group of the population will not like them, but that's not why they're made. [The studios] thought there was money there after sex lies and videotape and whatever else happened after that... Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite.They needed to make four million dollars per title in the box office, and if they couldn't do that it was a failure. Independent films--like Ballast--can't do that. It's not made for that. It's a car that can't drive that fast. And yet they need them to be. But since they aren't--they kind of discovered that this year--they all closed their shop. Warner Independent's gone, Paramount Vantage is gone... There are more leaving, too.
So with all of this floating through your head, tell me what it's like being a first-time director at Sundance.
Yeah, that was great--it was like magic. I feel it extremely fortunate that they selected the film. I know it takes a lot of luck, and that's the first thing that I felt, is that I just had a stroke of luck. And once I was there, it was like being in a magical snowy world. And I was sleep-deprived, and it all made the effect more surreal... it's like something that I don't think can be matched again. It was very stressful on the business side of things...but as a director, I couldn't have asked for more of an experience, and I was very grateful that it happened.
But what about festivals? People have been accusing them of being overly commercialized for years now.
I think that's a complicated issue. Sundance gets accused of that, but the truth about Sundance is they have remarkable curatorial taste, and they have created a festival that's hugely important. They've almost single-handedly defined what independent film in the U.S. is. And they still are...the current avant-garde is discovered in the U.S. through Sundance. And at the same time you have What Just Happened? and all these commercial titles that are their "premiere" sections, and those are important because the festival needs to be financed. So they're balancing it. They still play such an important role in U.S. independent filmmaking, keeping it alive. If we didn't have Sundance, there wouldn't be independent filmmaking in the U.S. That's my opinion. They're tremendously important, and if it means they have to program some titles that are a little suspect, because there are big stars attached, there's red-carpet kinda things that bring all the people out, and sponsors--I think that's a smart move. They have to ride the balance. People accuse them at times of being a little too star-hungry, but having known those programmers now, I know it's not that way. They're very cunning, and smart. I can't really say enough about Sundance, I think they're incredibly important to American film.
There's also the popular criticism that independent film has become the Special Olympics--the idea that anyone can come in and make a movie.
Well, that's what Sundance does, right? It's a big filtering system. There's five thousand submissions, and they only take two. Sure, everybody can make a film, but you can't play at Sundance. That's its importance--they're a gatekeeper. Film criticism, you guys are gatekeepers. These are extremely important things. The democratization of film--I agree with that, I think it's important, because some truly innovative, avant-garde voices can if they make fucking great material. But we need gatekeepers to find it, and that's what Sundance does, and that's what you do.
Can that exist in a YouTube generation?
Sure. It always exists, it's part of the human psyche. It will always be that way, I think. I think, yeah, there's a lot of noise on YouTube, but the quality will gel, and people agree upon quality. It's kind of elitist, but it's just the way humans work. They will say, "These are the better things," and it gets filtered through, and there becomes a structure around judgment, and these judges become trusted, and then people seek out those judges for advice on what's good and what's bad. Maybe that will happen on YouTube--I think it already is.
So you think that there's still a craving for that kind of authority.
I think so, in the same way that we crave our parents' authority when we're children. We need the government's authority. I don't have time--I trust FILM COMMENT. I trust CINEMASCOPE. I trust Cannes, when they program. I trust Harvard Film Archives. I want to see what's playing at [Boston's local indie theatre] the Brattle, because I trust them. I don't have time to look at every film in the world. I wanna know what they like, because they've done that for me. I think that's where it comes from.