Lance Hammer’s cast had never acted before.Photo: Brigette Sire
BALLAST written and directed by Lance Hammer, with Micheal J. Smith Sr., Tarra Riggs and Jim Myron Ross. A Kino Smith release. 98 minutes. Opens Friday (November 21). For venues and times, see Movies.
It's the day after the U.S. election, and Lance Hammer is a little distracted.
The writer/director of Ballast is doing phoners from his Los Angeles home, where a plumber can be heard clunking around in the background, fixing the toilet.
Hammer is trying to be upbeat about the situation. "There's been some really great news in the world," he explains, "and then some disappointment at my plumbing."
He has no trouble being upbeat about his film, though. After spending most of the past year on the festival circuit, Ballast opens in Toronto this week propelled by ecstatic reviews and numerous prizes, including the directing and cinematography awards at Sundance and the International Critics Prize at Buenos Aires.
With American independent cinema largely being defined by the mumblecore movement these days, the ragged realism and emotional immediacy of Ballast sets the film instantly apart. As Hammer explains it, that was all part of his process in building a movie out of atmosphere, improvisation and instinct, working with a tiny cast of untested actors who'd never been in front of a camera before.
"It's probably a very liberating thing for somebody not to see a script, because it's intimidating," Hammer says. "The desire, of course, is to do things the way the script is telling you to do things, and I wanted to avoid that.
"I discussed that with the actors from the beginning: ‘I'm interested in your words, your idiom, and we're going to talk about the architecture of the scene. But if it's not something that you feel comfortable with or doesn't feel natural to you, I want you to tell me, and tell me why, and more importantly, tell me what you would do instead, and let's try that.'"
While Ballast can be compared to the austere dramas of Robert Bresson and the Dardenne brothers, Hammer has a very different rationale for the movie's immediate yet disconnected visual sensibility.
"We're David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth," he says about his film's approach to its characters, three damaged souls in the Mississippi Delta.
"We're an alien who's come down to this planet. We're not visible to these people, yet we can be very intimate with them. But we can never be in their lives. We can never have their POV. That's why there are no shots looking through the eyes of the characters; we're only allowed to observe. And we don't know where they're going, so they have to lead us."
Lance Hammer on the improvisational nature of the film:
On the comparisons of "Ballast" to a Dardennes film:
On his decision to self-distribute "Ballast" instead of going the conventional route: