When it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Ballast,” Lance Hammer’s rough-hewn examination of broken lives in the Mississippi Delta, inspired more than a few excited comparisons to the films of Robert Bresson. Critics also invoked such filmmakers as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium’s latter-day Bressonians, and that essential chronicler of African-American urban life, Charles Burnett.
It’s worth remembering that these established giants of American and European neorealist cinema earned their reputations, paradoxically, through their commitment to making films of modesty, austerity and quiet understatement. “Ballast,” which opened in limited release in November, more than belongs in their company. It’s a work of spare, poetic realism that, to a degree rarely seen in American movies, immerses the viewer in the grubby textures of everyday life, allowing its black, Southern, working-class characters to tell their own stories minus the filter of a Hollywood narrative.
“The Bresson influence is huge on me,” Hammer admits. “I’m interested, procedurally, in what he was doing, his removal of everything that’s not essential — saying something with one note instead of three notes whenever possible.”
Hammer spent years visiting the Mississippi Delta before beginning work on his writing-directing debut, and the result feels thoroughly steeped in the region’s cold, desolate beauty. Heavily improvised in Mike Leigh-style workshops by nonprofessional thesps, “Ballast” may be merely the most obvious example of a kind of collaborative minimalism in recent cinema — an aesthetic that prizes intimacy, authenticity and low-key realism over dramatic contrivance and easy audience payoffs, and that crucially requires flexibility and openness from both director and cast.
Films as different as “Wendy and Lucy,” “The Class,” “Gomorrah,” “Flight of the Red Balloon,” “Chop Shop” and even “Rachel Getting Married” have made use of some or all of the basic tools of this style: rough, handheld camerawork; non-pro actors; improvised dialogue and situations; and dramatic rhythms that are either slowed down or sped up so as to approximate the tempo of a specific milieu.
Slowing down has always suited Kelly Reichardt, a New York-based indie filmmaker whose delicate mood pieces “Old Joy” (2006) and now “Wendy and Lucy” have earned her a passionate following on the fest circuit. Both films tell simple stories — two longtime friends go on a camping trip in “Old Joy,” a young vagrant searches for her lost dog in “Wendy and Lucy” — that barely fill out a 50-page screenplay, yet somehow manage to convey onscreen the full measure of their characters’ inner lives.
A day (or two) in the life
“The stories that I tend to gravitate toward seem to just be two or three days in someone’s life,”
Reichardt says. “They’re small stories, barely features.” But if the modesty of her work is in part a restriction imposed by her shoestring budgets, it can also be chalked up to her temperamental inclination as an artist: She prefers to work in isolation, with a small crew and an indefinite timetable.
It was under these ideal conditions that Reichardt made “Old Joy,” which she envisioned as “an art project in the woods” rather than a feature-length narrative. She was less lucky with “Wendy and Lucy,” as heightened expectations and outside involvement — inevitable, given the critical success of “Old Joy” and the casting of Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams as Wendy, the titular drifter — squeezed her into a more frenzied, chaotic production schedule than she was used to overseeing.
“I definitely am more creative with fewer people around me — the smaller the apparatus,” she says. “The economics of the project were very much in keeping with (Wendy’s) economic situation — one thing goes wrong and it could all fall apart.”
Still, the finished film retains all the qualities that distinguished “Old Joy”: an eye for the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, an ability to find poetry in the mundane, and an affinity for underprivileged characters dwelling on the margins of society. Reichardt’s process remains consistent: She begins with a carefully detailed script (co-penned with her longtime writing partner, Jonathan Raymond) but allows her actors ample room to explore and figure out their characters on their own.
A similar philosophy governed the making of Laurent Cantet’s French-language drama “The Class,” a highly concentrated, almost doculike study of the rowdy social, emotional and intellectual dynamics in a public junior high school. The film was adapted from a novel by former educator Francois Begaudeau and cast with students attending the school where it was lensed.
Begaudeau gave Cantet and writer Robin Campillo plenty of feedback to ensure that individual scenes and lines rang true. But the film took shape primarily through extensive workshops with the students; while they were given specific characters to play, Cantet did make occasional changes to the script, depending on what his young charges brought to the table.
“I like the energy of this age,” Cantet says. “I like filming those actors because I’m watching them just at the moment where they’re trying to find their place in society, and it’s not always easy because they don’t always have all the tools to find it.”
Cantet, who reveres another neorealist icon, Roberto Rossellini, saw “The Class” as an opportunity to dig deep into an environment rarely portrayed with any depth onscreen.
Next to the likes of “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “The Class,” Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” looks like a splashy mainstream entertainment. Yet this family-reunion melodrama has been hailed as a return to the brand of unpredictable, bighearted independent filmmaking Demme earned a reputation for in the ’80s with such films as “Something Wild” and “Melvin and Howard.”
With its handheld HD cameras often thrust up close to the actors’ faces and its strategic use of a live soundtrack provided by the musicians strewn throughout its Connecticut house setting, “Rachel Getting Married” has a handcrafted intimacy that recalls Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma opus “The Celebration” (1998).
Demme, who has supplemented his own recent Hollywood output with nonfiction films such as Jimmy Carter profile “Man From Plains” and “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” drew upon his documaking experience to create what he calls “real-life snapshots from a weekend.
“We literally tried to pretend we were making a documentary,” he says. “That meant we never rehearsed the scenes; we never had a pre-established shot.”
While “Rachel” stars a bankable Hollywood actress (Anne Hathaway) and sticks “religiously,” per Demme, to Jenny Lumet’s script, it otherwise dispenses with convention.
“Of the movie, 95% of it is scripted, but 5% of it is found gold that occurred as we kept the cameras rolling,” Demme says.
For the film’s two key setpieces — the rehearsal dinner and the wedding itself — Demme essentially threw two big parties, flooding the cast with relatively unknown legit thesps, with cameras lensing the entire event, improvised toasts and all. Actors cast as wedding guests were given video cameras so as to maximize coverage. To maintain continuity and authenticity, the entire movie was mostly shot in sequence, with very few retakes.
While he quips that “maybe this was an extraordinarily lazy way of making a movie,” Demme brims with noticeable enthusiasm for this mode of filmmaking .
“Whenever we make any kind of movie, our goal is to pull the audience into what’s going on,” he says. “If we can create that documentarylike verisimilitude, that’s a different way of pulling the audience into this story.”