Dialogue: Lance Hammer

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Los Angeles-born Lance Hammer comes to Berlin directly from the Sundance Film Festival, where his Berlinale Competition film "Ballast," an intense portrait of an emotionally frayed family whose lives are torn apart by a suicide in a small Mississippi Delta town, won the best director and cinematography awards in Dramatic Competition. After graduating from the University of Southern California with a degree in architecture, he worked as an art director and a digital designer on studio films for several years including a couple of "Batman" movies. "Ballast" is his first feature film. Hammer talked to The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Kirk Honeycutt in the days between the two festivals.

Complete Berlinale coverage

The Hollywood Reporter: What was Sundance like for you?
Lance Hammer: I've been to Sundance many times to watch films but never came with a film. So it was overwhelming as I was also preparing for the Berlinale at same time all by myself. I produced, directed and edited this film -- it was just my girlfriend and me discussing it in detail and having to prepare logistical things such as travel accommodations to get the cast (to Park City). I had no objectivity by then, having stared at the film on my computer for months. I didn't know if people would hate or love my film. So I was a little surprised by the critical reaction. But I gladly accept it.

THR: Why the Mississippi Delta?
Hammer: I was an art director for a long time in the studio system. I was often frustrated by the lack of care and attention to story in that system. So I wanted to write my own script. About 10 years ago, I drove to Tennessee, thinking I'd like to deal with a subject about Tennessee or Kentucky. One day I pointed south to look at the Gulf Coast. It was winter. I was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness in that place. I needed to create a project that captured that feeling, which was a visual, tonal and emotional thing, through a narrative structure. It took eight years and two different screenplays. I lived there for a while, went to churches and spoke to people, took photographs, read books, steeped myself in the place. Most films taking place in that region deal with the blues or civil rights or larger concepts. I realized I needed to take a micro approach, to deal with human emotions that are pretty universal, in particular grief.

THR: You cast mostly nonprofessionals, I believe.
Hammer: I realized if I used people from that region, they will bring the authenticity of living there. Casting took a long time. I had to be very patient. I had written these characters and lived with them for two years. So I searched and searched for people closest in physical look and temperament. I waited until I found that person. I had faith that people could act, or at least be themselves in a fictional scenario. Casting took two to three months. We rehearsed for three months. "Rehearse" is the wrong word though. I never showed the script to the actors. I started with psychotherapy sessions. I went over the history and emotions of their characters, everything that happened before Page One. We would hash out the conflicts. They were amazingly adept at this: They immediately imagined their own emotions in an imaginary scenario.

THR: Any trepidation as white director in dealing with black subject matter?
Hammer: I knew the issue could come up, of course, but I tried never to think about it. To me, the story was about this place and being truthful about this place. If it were another place, the story would be white or Asian. The authenticity of place was more important than race in this case.

THR: How did you finance the film?
Hammer: Are you kidding? No one would finance this movie. It was private -- a few friends and family. I was working on another project with (producer) Mark Johnson that involves more money and an actor but I was frustrated with that process. He was aware of what I was doing (with "Ballast"), was very supportive, had read the script and came aboard along with Andrew Adamson and Aimee Shieh as executive producers. They helped me to get a good lab deal and in the festival process to find a publicist and producer's rep.

THR: Any discussions with distributors at Sundance?
Hammer: We have offers. The small [distributors] are the ones passionate about it. The big distributors would all love to do my next one. They don't know what to do with this one. William Morris is representing the film in the U.S. and Celluloid Dreams is doing foreign in Berlin.

THR: Is yours the first film to compete both in Berlin and Sundance?
Hammer: William Morris looked this up. "Maria Full of Grace" played in Competition at both festivals. I submitted the film cold to Sundance. Programmer John Nein got a hold of it and liked it. I cold submitted it to Berlin, too. I had been to the Berlin Talent Campus in 2004 with the Mark Johnson project and was in the Berlin Co-Production Market so I have a little history with Berlin. It's my favorite place in the world. I lived there for six months, working as art director on a film called "Equilibrium" with Christian Bale and Emily Watson.

THR: What is the Berlin Talent Campus like?
Hammer: The Berlin Festival is passionate about positive globalization and the integration of artists from many countries to work collaboratively to subvert governmental systems and corporations trying to exploit people. Hundreds of people from all over the world come. It's a dream to have Mike Leigh and Wim Wenders teaching master classes. When I left Berlin in 2004, I was determined to make my film with a European crew because I like European and Asian filmmaking so much more than American filmmaking. I called many cinematographers I met at the Berlinale, who do such amazing work. Ultimately, I chose Lol Crawley from a DVD I saw at the U.K. Film Council. He was a real collaborator.

VITAL STATS:
Nationality: American
Born: 1967
Filmography: "Ballast" is Hammer's debut feature
Notable awards: "Ballast," best director, cinematography, 2008 Sundance Film Festival
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