INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Tom Charity
The last person I met on the way out of Sundance—in fact it was at Salt Lake City airport—was the Portland novelist Chuck Palahniuk. I’d seen the adaptation of his novel Choke just the night before, a scrappy, uneven but funny, ballsy movie with Sam Rockwell as a sex addict perturbed to discover he may be the cloned half-brother of Jesus Christ. I asked Palahniuk if he was working on an original screenplay. Not a bit of it. “Movies are too stuck on words,” he said. He was more interested in theatre, as that’s where you experience the power of gesture.
He had a point. Almost all the American (and European) dramatic features I’d seen over the previous week were over-plotted and over-written. They told formulaic stories and piled on superfluous elaborations to cover their vacuity. Independent film is stuck in a decadent phase. A handful of standouts—such as Ryan Fleck/Anna Boden’s Sugar, Ogigami Naoko’s Japanese comedy Megane, and Lance Hammer’s Ballast—did the opposite: they pared down the dialogue, kept the plot off to the side, and invested everything in looks, gestures, space, and atmosphere.
Sure, stuff happens in Ballast. There are gangsters (though they are just overgrown teenagers, really, and they disappear fairly early on). There is a gun. And there is a violent death, though that occurs offscreen, hours and maybe days before the movie starts. This “inciting incident,” if you want to call it that, is a man’s suicide. As it happens, he has a twin brother, Lawrence, who lives in a simple hut immediately adjacent to his own. He also leaves behind a 12-year-old son, James, though he scarcely knew the boy and seems to have had next to no contact with the mother, Marlee. These relationships are not immediately apparent; they fall into place as James—aimless and with too much time on his hands—is pulled towards his late father’s home, and the gun he will find there.
The synopsis is accurate but also misleading, because Ballast isn’t driven by narrative. It picks through a triangle of angry and resentful silences, despondencies, and inchoate emotions, asking us to feel our way towards a deeper understanding of what we’re seeing. Writer-director Lance Hammer says he wanted to make a film about a place, a mood, a tone, and that’s what he’s done. Set in the Mississippi Delta, Ballast is a film about the winter, about muddy alluvial fields, grey horizons, and no one else around for miles and miles.
How does such an environment imprint the psyche of those who live in it? Can a movie truly convey something so nebulous, and yet so deep-rooted? Terrence Malick suggests one approach—lyrical, epic, romantic—but Hammer also looks the other way, towards the raw immediacy of European social realists like Loach, the rigour and behavioural dynamics of the Dardennes, and the energy and directness of Dogme. Ballast is photographed (by Lol Crawley) on 35mm film, using existing locations and available light. There’s no score. Hammer resists the obvious temptation to stick a jukebox in the corner of the room (though in one scene a radio plays the traditional gospel song “I’ll Wait on Jesus”).
This minimalist aesthetic is not what we might expect from a former art director on studio blockbusters like Batman and Robin (1997). As he made clear when we met, Hammer has already served his time in the studio system; he’s not desperate to break back into it. Most of the following conversation took place halfway through the Sundance festival, but Hammer clarified and expanded on some of his answers in email correspondence a few weeks after Ballast won the prizes for best direction and cinematography in the dramatic competition, and had its European premiere in competition in Berlin.
Cinema Scope: You say the film was inspired by your impressions of the Delta. What took you there in the first place?
Lance Hammer: I travelled there for the first time about ten years ago. I was beginning to write something, and I like to drive when I’m writing. I was in Tennessee, and I thought maybe this story would take place there. I ended up in Mississippi somehow, and was just overwhelmed by the place. It was the winter and it was raining, everything was fallow and grey scale…Just beautiful. And so sad. I didn’t know a whole lot about the Delta except for the knowledge you accumulate as a concerned American: the brutality that’s been inflicted on much of the impoverished in this country by the establishment. Some places just bowl you over emotionally and you can’t really say why.
I wanted to capture that tonal quality of this place, maybe in music—I write music too—or maybe in film. I kept that with me, and I kept travelling back there, and I started writing a screenplay for that place, and ended up shooting some excerpts in the summer time, and wasn’t happy with it. I needed to purge myself of something I guess. It was like a very naïve first attempt.
Scope: Is that the short mentioned on the IMDb?
Hammer: Yes, Issaquena, but it’s not really a short. I was trying to raise money for the feature script and I thought if I shot some scenes someone would throw some money at me. What it did do that was really valuable, even though I threw it away and won’t show anybody, was serve as my technical education. And it made me realize I didn’t want to make that kind of story, and there was something much more nuanced and powerful in there that I needed to try to find.
Scope: That was more of a traditional story?
Hammer: Yeah, and it was a period piece. I think the most important thing I learned was that I don’t have the authority to speak about the Delta, and about race, particularly. I know a lot about it now. Over ten years I’ve studied quite a bit, and I’ve lived there for months at a time for many years in a row. I know a lot of people. I’ve gone deep into the Delta and met lots of wonderful people, black and white—but mostly black. I’ve always been interested in the African American perspective; it’s the only really relevant voice that deep into that place. And I’m white. I’m not qualified to speak of race; it’s very complicated there. I was more interested in capturing the original tonal concept of this place.
Scope: If an artist feels compelled to capture a tone, maybe they are more likely to turn to painting, music, or poetry. Film is a more unusual route…
Hammer: It’s a more difficult route, maybe, and more costly. But I think there are masters ahead of us who have done that, and I’m inspired by them. There is beautiful poetry on film, and that’s what I’m interested in: film as a poetic medium. I’m technically based too. I am fascinated with technology, with cameras, so that was my skill set.
Scope: But you didn’t study film, right?
Hammer: No, I studied architecture, graduated from USC in 1992, and quickly became an art director in the film industry. I was trying to get into filmmaking. I got sidetracked for a long time in the nasty, ugly world of studio films, and finally had to either commit suicide or leave and put my money where my mouth was.
I was working with computers doing digitally based architecture, information architecture, and I ended up buying these really expensive silicon graphics machines to explore sophisticated data sets. To pay for those suckers I had to render buildings, photo-realistic things for architecture audiences—people weren’t really doing that at the time, and all the big architecture offices bought on to that. Warner Bros saw these renderings and asked me if I could do designs for Gotham City, and I jumped into the film industry right there. So I didn’t even work in an architecture office.
I thought it was pretty cool for a while. Batman Forever (1995) was the first one. Then Batman and Robin. Tim Burton’s unrealized Superman Lives. You name it: every superhero film, I was on it. I worked on a lot of projects where we worked for eight months as an art department, without a script, without a director. They would pay us and then they would kill the project.
Scope: When did you start writing screenplays?
Hammer: Around 1995. The more disgusted I became with the artistic content of studio films, the more I began to write. Because if you feel this way you need to try it. Maybe it’s a lot harder than you think—and it is very hard. I wrote a lot of stillborn scripts.
Scope: Does your background in architecture influence your filmmaking?
Hammer: The creative process for architecture taught me how to do films; it’s programmed in my head. The creative steps: having faith in something that’s a piece of shit at first but you know there is a kernel of goodness in there, and nurturing it. Having faith in it. Refining it, like a sculpture. Being inspired by something.
Scope: Were your Hollywood connections useful for Ballast?
Hammer: I met Andrew Adamson on the set of Batman Forever, and we became very close friends. I showed Andrew a script I did called The Imperfect Self, and he said he’d like to help get it made and showed it to Mark Johnson, who was producing The Chronicles of Narnia (2005) with him. Mark liked it and wanted to produce it, and I got involved with Aimee Shieh through them, and they’re all executive producers on this film. They really shepherded it through the industry. It’s entirely different from the things they do, but they really believe in the film. So those three folks, they’re my spies from the other side of the wall, and I don’t think Ballast would be here in Sundance without them. Especially since they got me such great deals at the lab; otherwise I might not have been able to finish the film!
Scope: How long was the process?
Hammer: It was about two years to write it. I was suffering through a pretty good spell of depression during that time, and things just take a long time. The script before that took just five months. This one is so simple, I don’t know why it took so long. Preproduction was three months—three months of rehearsal. We rehearsed forever. Production was 40 days, but partial days because we were looking for rain and cloud cover. Post production: a year-and-a-half to cut it.
Scope: To what degree would Ballast be recognizable as a script?
Hammer: You would recognize it. I hate the format, Final Draft, I’m not going to do that anymore, I’m not going to use software, but I did on this one. But I had to write words, dialogue. I didn’t attempt an idiom or dialect, anything like that, but you know, there isn’t that much dialogue anyway. Structurally the script is pretty similar.
Scope: Can you talk about the inspiration for the narrative?
Hammer: My girlfriend told me a story of an acquaintance who committed suicide. The body was discovered by his identical twin brother. There was no note, no prior indication of a desire to leave this world. I couldn’t imagine the grief and the guilt the surviving twin must have felt. I responded to the sadness of this story in the same way that I responded to the sadness I first felt in the Delta and immediately felt a connection.
Scope: What do you find compelling or intriguing about twins?
Hammer: My mother is an identical twin. I’m fascinated with the psychic cord that binds her to her sister. If the soul is viewed as a corporeal phenomenon manifest at the cellular level in a complex synergy of tissue and electricity, then it’s interesting to consider the unique issue of identical twins who begin their existence as the one fertilized egg. Not surprisingly, many identical twins believe they are two bodies that share the same soul. Identical twins who have lost their siblings often speak of losing their moorings to the terrestrial plane. The spiritual implications of this unusual type of loss are interesting to me.
Scope: It’s a very subtle film, but Ballast probes existential quandaries, suicidal thoughts: if it’s just me is that enough? Am I just my job?
Hammer: All those things, yes…Poetry delves into that. To me, anything meaningful in art has to discuss those issues if it’s to have lasting value. I don’t know if this film has done that or not, but it certainly was my interest, particularly death, crisis, and purpose, pattern and rut, giving up your life to something just for sustenance. Is there something besides sustenance? In the Delta there is so much day-to-day, hand-to-mouth grind to sustain your existence, but it’s also a place where spirituality is very important; the Baptist Church is huge and a refuge for people. I could never figure out how to get that into the script.
Scope: You talked about struggling with depression as you were writing the script, and obviously anguish and desolation are strong elements in the film, even as it moves towards reconciliation and hope. Was making the film in itself therapeutic?
Hammer: I was suffering from a sense of hopelessness and, especially, futility in my life while I was conceiving this narrative. It helped me. The writing of the script itself represented an act of hope. I believe most creative acts are therapeutic endeavours at their core, even the most rigorously intellectual. For two years it’s so much about one person, then when you’re done it becomes very much about other people. Maybe Ballast is about my psychology, but you’re the first person I’ve ever had that conversation with, so, maybe nobody cares!
Scope: Perhaps the most important thing for Lawrence is finding value in relation to other people…is that the “ballast” the title is referring to?
Hammer: I’d say that’s accurate. Specifically, Lawrence finds a sense of purpose in giving himself to something larger than himself. In this case, it’s something very modest: being of use to a child. The significance of the child’s need throws light onto the insignificance of his own sorrow. To me, this always felt like a particularly utilitarian, earthen sense of purpose. I think this is why the word “ballast” came to me.
Scope: You edited the film yourself, and it’s a very spare movie. Was it difficult to assess how much you could whittle it down?
Hammer: Reduction was very important to me. I wanted to remove absolutely everything that wasn’t essential. I went back a year later with the assistant cameraman Ben Gibb and shot landscapes: trains, and fog. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. And only three or four shots made it in because it had to be sparing.
Scope: It’s interesting for what you don’t do. You don’t go for slow, lingering, artful compositions—the film is almost all handheld—and you don’t fall back on a score, which almost anybody would be tempted to do, especially in the Delta.
Hammer: The sound is so important, the deafening silence that’s actually full of sound: the wind and the rain. You can’t do that with a poem or a painting. And of course the blues is perfect for what I was trying to convey, but I didn’t want to dirty it with music.
The handheld thing was a way to respond to available light. The light there is so beautiful, especially in overcast conditions. I’m partial to European cinema. Films from England, France and Germany you get cloud cover. In Los Angeles it’s just fucking sun all the time. That’s why we shot for so long, I wanted to make a film that looked European! At least, that’s partially true.
Available light was one thing, and I wanted to be able to follow the actors around. I didn’t want marks or constraints or artifice in their work. We rehearsed exhaustively so they had it hardwired almost. I started with some storyboards and we just tossed them after the first day. Lol Crawley and I were so much on the same wavelength. Breaking the Waves (1996) was something we both put at the top of our list when we discussed Ballast. I don’t know if there are real similarities, but some of the technical approach comes from that. I think Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg were interested in liberating the filmmaker and taking all the excess away. We were close to doing a Dogme film. We had a gun, so I guess that violated a Dogme rule; our sound wasn’t all live, although most of it was sync.
Scope: At the screening you said you found the actors by going to the churches. Why non-professional actors?
Hammer: I wanted it to be as authentic and realistic as possible. I needed people from this region to be themselves. The dialogue was just some white dude from California’s attempt to make a skeleton for someone to follow. I wanted the choice of words to come from the people who would ultimately play those characters. That was critical. I wanted the sound of that language, and I wanted people that fit the disposition and demeanour of the characters. It was the Bresson model I had in mind.
I think you choose really carefully and then convince them to be themselves and nothing else, not to perform. I think they had to be from there. I wanted to have those people feel that it was coming from them, that they were responding as themselves, rather than trying to act. So we didn’t show them the script. We ran out of time sometimes, and I’d let them look at the pages once and then they get a sense of what the scene is, then take it away. You can’t remember dialogue that way but you get a sense of where it is supposed to go.
Scope: Could you tell me a bit more about Michael Smith, JimMyron Ross, and Tarra Riggs, who they are “in real life”?
Hammer: Mike Smith (who plays Lawrence) works at the Public Services Commission in Yazoo City, Mississippi. He’s a father of two, a preacher’s son, and a soft-spoken, gentle human being, and he had no interest in film whatsoever. Tarra worked as a cosmetologist in Jackson, Mississippi when I met her. Ballast was her first film, but she’s done some since and now she’s a fulltime actress. JimMyron I met at the Boys and Girls Club in Canton, Mississippi. He was 12 when he filmed. Mid-production I realized that he was the centre of the project. That seems obvious now, but I didn’t completely understand it in the writing stage. I recalibrated the film to follow his line, which involved a good deal of improvisation from all of us. If there is something happening you have to respond to it, you have to go with that.
Scope: Already you have experienced some acclaim. Do you have a clear idea of where you might fit in the movie business? You’re obviously not impressed with industrial moviemaking, but is there any accommodation you can see yourself making with Hollywood?
Hammer: I’m not sure I understand where I fit in at this point. I find this to be a particularly confusing time. Intuition tells me that emotional authenticity will always have a place. My primary objective is to make new work that is truthful. It makes sense to attempt this in a very private environment.