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October 2008
An Interview with Director Lance Hammer

An Interview with Director Lance Hammer
by Wilson Morales

October 1, 2008

Currently playing in limited theaters in New York before going nationwide later this month is a powerful story of loss and resilience in the American south. One of the most acclaimed American independent films to emerge in recent years, BALLAST was the winner of the Best Director and Best Cinematography prizes at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as the Boston (Grand Jury Prize), San Francisco (FIPRESCI Prize), Buenos Aires (FIPRESCI and Directing Awards), and New Directors/New Films festivals.

In the cold, winter light of the rural Mississippi Delta, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), a single African-American mother, struggles to scratch a living for herself and her 12-year-old son, James (JimMyron Ross), who has begun to stumble under drug and violence pressures. So when the opportunity to seek safe harbor at a new home arises, she grabs it, even though the property is shared by Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.), a man with whom she has a long and bitter past. With circumstances thrusting them into proximity, a subtle interdependence and common purpose emerge for Marlee and Lawrence, as they tend to old wounds, test new waters, and tentatively move forward.

Aided by remarkable and excellent performances from local non-actors, writer-director Hammer's gritty first film is an amazing piece of work and I recently spoke with Mr. Hammer on getting this film in theaters.

Where did the idea for this film come from?

Lance Hammer: It came from living in the Mississippi Delta 10 years ago and having a visceral reaction to the place, and a sense of sorrow that I felt. I had a strong desire at that point to make a movie on that feeling. I wanted to make a film about atone and the surroundings from there.

One of the things that gave the film a sense of realism is the use of non-professional actors. Why did you choose this route?

LH: The original goal is to try to convey the sense of place accurate as possible and I wanted people from that place and with their language. I think professional actors would have been intruders to this and the people there would have sensed that they were from the outside.

Was it a challenge to find the right people for the roles?

LH: It was in a way. It took a lot of time, but we weren't in a hurry. It took two months of casting. I went to Baptist churches for assistance. I saw a lot of people from church clubs, to people on the streets. Mike Smith, who plays Lawrence, is the son of Reverend Smith of the New Zion Baptist Church in Yazoo City. I held open casting calls. I was looking for people who I felt were natural for the roles.

Having non-actors can present some challenges when trying to get distribution. Was that the case for you?

LH: Well, when it got to Sundance, I couldn't believe it. It played in competition and we ended up doing very well there. If you do well at Sundance, in which we did, offers would come, and a lot came our way and we felt IFC Films was the best one to go with. Then I learned that no one is offering any money anymore and filmmakers are expected to give their projects away for free and give up ownership. You would also lose creative control; so I decided after many months of trying to work it out with them, not to sign the contract, and with a pool of people set up a distribution entity and put it out myself. That's what I have been working on for the last four months.

Why should anyone see 'Ballast'?

LH: It's an honest American film that brings truth and emotion from the characters.


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