Down in the Delta 

Filmmaker Lance Hammer ponders his journey to Mississippi, and what led to the self-distribution of his award-winning debut Ballast.

“There is a place for industrial filmmaking, and film as a commodity that you sell like an iPod or a car or a sandwich. But I also think there is another reason to make films,” filmmaker Lance Hammer nobly remarks as he sips tea in a small café on Melrose Blvd in Hollywood. His debut feature Ballast is one of the breakouts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning awards and garnering a mountain of acclaim. But Hammer’s current state is not one of celebration. Unlike his Sundance counterparts, which include Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man), Hammer, at 41, has chosen to release the film through his own means.

Distributing with a small team assembled to identify the audience and market for Ballast, Hammer is taking control the only way he knows how. Screening at museums, film societies and college campuses, he is creating a life for the film outside of a common theatrical release. “I am going to have to do it myself… In the old days, distributors would offer you more money; it was worthwhile to give up that control. The abilities of the independent filmmaker to market over the internet is pretty exciting,” says Hammer.

When I first enter the café, I spot Hammer’s form through the clear glass door, hunched in a collared blue shirt, playing with the tail string of his tea bag in anticipation, almost like a nervous twitch. “This was the worst year for Sundance financially ever,” Hammer utters with a softly spoken voice. “I had modest goals. If people did happen to respond favorably to the film, the goal would be to re-coop our production costs, though nobody cared financially. It was a big shock.” There was interest and some negotiations—even a fleeting union with the Independent Film Channel. The distribution offers were miniscule, hardly enough for Hammer to pay off production costs that came straight out of his pocket. Times may be tough, but he could see a place for his small, grass-roots film in a vastly expanding distribution market.

From an early age Hammer had a passion for cinema, but it wasn’t until college that he discovered the European masters of celluloid. Collecting videotapes of foreign classics, he developed a hunger for the freethinking cinema he displays in his own work today. “Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire—the first film that struck me so hard that I really wanted to be a filmmaker,” he recalls. These iconic filmmakers shaped Hammer’s inescapable ardor for film. His eyes widen as he further proclaims, “What he gave to me, the visual poetry of that film, and the existential beauty of that film. I realized, ‘oh my god, this is an art form that can move people.’” Hammer’s first job after college was designing Gotham City for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever as a visual effects-based Art Director. He enjoyed the work, as it fulfilled his desired connection to cinema, but the job eventually wore on him. “My motivations for that work changed…that amount of work it takes to do [art direction] I could put it into my own projects. When I started thinking by that logic, I decided I better start writing to see if I had anything in me—so I did,” Hammer explains.

“I was driving around looking for locations,” says Hammer, raising his voice as the espresso machine lets out a billowing sound. “I ended up going to the Delta. There was something really sad—I had a tremendous feeling of sad. I couldn’t explain that feeling but it was really powerful. At that moment, I had a strong intuition to capture this tone.” Hammer found his muse in this escape from his industry job, a place filled with devastation and pulsating life. But it was a labor to find his creative footing in this murky locale. “I actually wrote a screenplay, a different one. I shot some scenes for it—that was a stupid idea… I was dating a girl from Mississippi. Mississippi was just part of my life at that point. I became an expert as much as a Californian can be—and I tried to write a screenplay like that—it failed,” Hammer concedes. “It was maybe 8 years between those two attempts to try to make a film there.” A waiter approaches Hammer as he finishes that last thought, interjecting with an offering for the table. “No, I don’t think that’s us, “ Hammer politely responds, shooing the waiter away with two plates of bagels and jam.

In the beginning of Ballast, an estranged father commits suicide, creating a ripple effect with his separated wife and son, as well as his close brother. Their constant struggle to survive is in question as money issues, long crippled ties and the languishing effect of the Delta permeate their everyday lives. “Everything in [the brother character] has tremendous capacity for grief and tremendous sorrow…the desire ultimately not to let it kill you, and patiently endure it… I let that emotion generate the details of the structure.” The look of the film is also very much part of its gravitational pull. Flourishing in unnerving moments of low-lit images and atmospheric sound, a handheld camera follows these characters through the muddiness of the Delta dusk. These tonal and visceral shifts are what drive Ballast. “[Director of Photography Lol Crawly] sent me a lot of images of Todd Hido—very long exposures, large format of a house with a vapor light in a fog in Madison, WI. The influence of Todd Hido’s stills shows up every once in a while,” Hammer imparts, also noting Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves as a relevant starting point for the film’s Dogma 95 aesthetic.

Now that the film is being readied for a release, Hammer must put on his producing hat. He acknowledges the fervent nature of the NY independent film audience, and chose New York’s Film Forum as the premiere (which took place on October 1). A scheduled rollout of art house theaters in major American cities will follow. “The film I spent so much time on has a chance to be a part of the cinematic record,” says Hammer, “I want it to have a fighting chance to be that. The theatrical window, without question, makes it a lot more possible.” Hammer confesses that he is betting on the South to come through with support, “It is very rare when an art film comes around that is based entirely on African American culture and characters. I made the film in that place. I want the people of that place to be the audience.” The lead in the film, Tarra Riggs, an amateur thespian pre- Ballast, has received some attention from Hollywood, which pleases Hammer.

The theatrical release may be modest, however, his devotion to the film—the work and perseverance—is refreshingly lofty. Hammer fixates on the tea string, wrapped again around his index finger—ever-remotely indicating his current state. “I am overwhelmed,” he says, “[But] people forget how much a film makes right away, after two months. The film itself has a chance of living for a long time.” 

TEXT BY Adam Keleman