Lance Hammer helped to redefine the concept of independent film with his 2008 feature debut, "Ballast. " The former architecture student and artist drew inspiration from the European scene of the 1960s and the landscape of the Mississippi Delta for the film, which detailed the relationship between three emotionally displaced souls in the grip of poverty. The largely improvised feature took two years to complete but won Hammer considerable acclaim and awards from critical circles, which helped to confirm his status as a filmmaker with a refreshingly unique cinematic vision.
Born in 1967 in Ventura, CA, Hammer developed a fascination for arthouse films from Europe and Japan as a teenager. He continued to cultivate his interest in film while studying architecture at the University of Southern California, from which he graduated in 1992. His senior thesis, which concerned built form and digital space, required him to buy an expensive silicon graphics machine; to pay for the equipment, he created photographic renderings for architectural firms to use in competitions. His work was showcased in several architecture and computer art magazines before catching the attention of production designers at Warner Bros. The studio hired Hammer in 1995 to create a three-dimensional rendering of Gotham City for "Batman Forever," which led to more visual effects and design on features like "Batman and Robin" (1997) and "Practical Magic" (1998). In 2001, he advanced to assistant art director on the Coen Brothers' neo-noir "The Man Who Wasn't There."
But Hammer retained his fascination for more complex and intimate films, and began to ferment ideas for his directorial debut. A visit to the Mississippi Delta in the 1990s spurred a return to the region, where Hammer fell in love with the emotional resonance of its people and history. He began culling a thumbnail script and auditioning local non-actors for his leads, whom he would eventually put through a three-month rehearsal process which would allow them to improvise the majority of their dialogue. Plot structure and continuity were placed on the back burner in favor of emotional realism. Shot on digital video, "Ballast" emerged as an intensely personal look at the lives of three individuals - a young man on the brink of personal disaster (JimMyron Ross), his mother (Tarra Riggs) and a grief-stricken older man (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.), who are forced through financial and personal hardship to form a family of sorts for the benefit of the boy.
Shot in 2005, it took Hammer two years to complete an edit on "Ballast," but he relented on submitting it to the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in favor of another pass that satisfied him. Once completed, the film - which was self-distributed by Hammer - opened to rave reviews from critics and moviegoers alike; it soon began amassing an impressive collection of accolades, including the Directing Award and Excellence in Editing Award at Sundance. Nods from Berlin's Golden Bear Festival for Best Feature and two Independent Spirit Awards for Hammer's direction and script soon followed.