Some filmmakers seek to penetrate the mystery of human existence through cinema. Others would like to churn out a blockbuster, establish a franchise, and make more money than the GNP of Uruguay. Lance Hammer is more the mystery-of-human-existence kind of guy, a preference perhaps confirmed by his years working in the studios as an art director on films like Batman & Robin
. He takes the art of film seriously, and his debut feature, Ballast
, a mood-heavy, meticulously detailed but oddly dreamlike tale of a broken African-American family living in the Mississippi Delta, acted mostly by non-professionals from the region, has earned a Best Director nod at Sundance and four nominations from the Gotham Independent Film awards, as well as exuberant critical praise and comparisons with such masters as Robert Bresson. Heady stuff, but in person Hammer is just a modest, regular guy and a genuine idealist.
You got your filmmaking start working on Batman & Robin. Was it the nipples on the Batsuit that drove you to make your own movies?
I think it’s fair to say that. The truth is that when I was 19 years old, I became a cinephile. I went away from my childhood house for the first time to live somewhere else, in Tucson, Arizona, and a new-found independence was expressed by venturing to the arthouse cinema. I saw [Wim Wenders’s 1987 film] Wings of Desire and was overwhelmed with joy and sadness and I couldn’t believe that film could move somebody in this way, that you could be so poetic and say something important about the human psyche and the existential longing for something you can’t have. And so at that point I wanted to make films, but I didn’t think it was a realizable goal, so I studied architecture instead, and that kind of led me into art directing. But all this time I’ve been a cinephile. So I began to be fearful for my soul as an art director, working on these industrial films that are totally empty of meaning.
So how do you go about making a meaningful film?
Having gone to the Delta now for about 10 years, I learned quite a bit, and I became obsessed with learning everything I could, reading everything I could, meeting as many people as I could, spending as much time as possible there. I know a lot about this place, but there’s nothing that will change the fact that I wasn’t born there and that I’m white. At a certain point I realized that the more I’ve learned about this place, the more I’ve learned how little authority I have to speak about this place. But I’ve spoken to so many people, and I’ve basically stitched together the scenarios from real stories that I’ve heard from people I’ve met. And the things that I’ve seen there. I brought that script with some of that stuff intact to these people that actually live here now and said, “You are going to be the human beings that populate this landscape. Tell me if this works.” And it took a long time.