Positioned between adolescent innocence and cynical adulthood, the teenage years exist in a state of heightened awareness that the past is gone forever, and whatever comes next just might be the most exciting thing ever. Many films have tried to capture the essence of these contradictory and immersive feelings, but few have been successful. Exceptions include Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015).
Dizzyingly connected to the rhythms of high school-age awkwardness and discovery, Ham on Rye (2019) belongs in that esteemed company. Beginning with the riveting opening sequence, Tyler Taormina’s debut feature ignites a specific curiosity in the viewer, challenging us to consider a different coming-of-age narrative that strips away familiar tropes that root the genre in easy nostalgia and comfortable iconography.
Set in a sleepy California town, Ham on Rye follows different groups of teens as they depart for what appears to be a dance or group celebration. All gussied up with somewhere cryptic to go, they make their way by car, foot, scooter, skateboard, bike, and crutch through the quiet suburban streets and backwoods trails. What follows is a collective pilgrimage both breezy and mysterious, euphoric and tense. Tonally, the film evolves in surprising and sometimes menacing ways, much like any young person’s perspective would as newfound experiences become indelibly marked on their subconscious.
I was lucky enough to correspond over email with two of the filmmakers behind Ham on Rye, co-writer, director, and executive producer Tyler Taormina, and co-producer and cinematographer Carson Lund. We discussed their filmmaking process and influences, themes of confusion and youthful bliss, and the many complexities of making a micro-budget indie film.
Glenn Heath Jr.: High school feels like a pilgrimage, and a painful one even at the best of times. How much of the film was inspired by your own experiences as teenagers?
Tyler Taormina: In a very broad and emotional way I’d say this film is inspired by my teenage years. The film is more centered on an emotional reflection and understanding of that time than any specific details. My teenage years, high school, was actually a really wonderful time in my life. I look back on it very fondly. As the film suggests, it was the period that followed where the true shock of being took place. I feel like the consciousness I gained in that time made me retroactively view my youth, and the social conditions of suburbia, through a different lens. The film is a sort of retreading of those years through a more complex, darker consciousness. I like what you say about high school feeling like a pilgrimage. I find it to be like moving through some sort of comforting grid; 10th grade, 11th grade, 12. When the numbers ended I found myself floating in space for the first time.
GHJ: This being your feature debut why were you drawn to the idea of rituals and traditions and how they are handed down over generations?
TT: Well I love celebrations of any kind. I’m very drawn to them or at least to remembering them. I love dance and the way it can show everybody how much you love yourself (or don't). That’s some real vulnerability and beauty. Before Ham on Rye, all the films I’d made and conceived of had to do with people dancing in restaurants. This wasn’t conscientious, my mind just takes me there and I end up enjoying it. My next film, a Christmas movie, is rooted in the conservative notion of tradition and ritual passed down through generations; but this time the various generations occupy the same space! It’s important that we consider our degree of consent in playing along with the games of our culture. Not only is this important for social reasons, but also because we sacrifice a great deal of our sense of self in blindly following tradition. Maybe I have identity issues or something, I’m so drawn to this topic. But even still, this movie is not a scathing critique of rituals or games or society but a look at the emotional experience we may encounter in dealing with them.
GHJ: Carson, what interested you about this project from a Director of Photography’s perspective?
Carson Lund: I should say that I'm not chiefly a DP, which I bring up not to stroke my own ego but to point out that it wasn't as if I was on the hunt for a feature to shoot so I could get my career going. I like to think of myself more broadly as a filmmaker, and for a long time I'd been hoping to seize upon a project that would suit my interests and sensibilities, but I often have trouble coming up with ideas myself. When Tyler came to me I was drawn to the unique premise, of course, but even more so to what he said he wanted to accomplish on a thematic and emotional level, as well as the creative matrix from which he was drawing influence. It's not common at our age (we were in our mid 20s at that point) to encounter aspiring filmmakers with a strong grasp of film history as well as a genuine emotional and spiritual need to express something through cinema. Tyler had both, so of course I was on board to help him achieve this vision.
GHJ: Most filmmakers would approach this narrative and coddle the audience with sordid details of mythology, but this is such a singular film because you refuse to indulge in that sort of cheap exposition. Tyler, why was that important for you as a co-screenwriter and director?
TT: Yes, I hear that. Thank you. Eric Berger, my co-writer was a big proponent for this element of the script. I don’t think the mythology (or the rules of the world) were ever made too explicit but Eric was a constant advocate for keeping these things under the iceberg. This made sense to me because it allowed for the details and texture to be the focus. Also, I feel like the quasi-high concept nature of our film is something we were a little embarrassed about. To play into it would be very reductive and exterminate any inkling of poetry we had strived for. After all, the film is about confusion. The resolution of the movie is a question mark; an understanding that you’re not gonna know where this fork in the road will take you, you just have to keep moving through it all.
GHJ: Back to you Carson. From a production standpoint, what were some of the challenges you experienced as a producer and cinematographer working with a larger crew and an ensemble of actors?
CL: I work in the advertising world as a shooter and editor and often work with larger crews, so I didn't feel completely out at sea going into the production of Ham on Rye. That said, I'd never worked with such a malleable large crew, all of whom had different scheduling complications that I had to manage. It was often the case that I'd be working with a different grip and electric team every day for several days in a row, which can be stressful and I definitely got anxious that the aesthetic wouldn't be consistent. On a micro-budget film like this where I'm also playing a producer role, it was critical to try to suppress that anxiety and just keep moving on. I was in charge of all the equipment, making sure that the most expensive items were taken inside every night after 16 hour days, so it can take a mental and physical toll. All of that can compromise that pure state of creative focus that you're striving for. Nonetheless, I think we were able to buckle down and put aside the stress when it mattered most.
GHJ: Tyler, much of the film explores characters trying to work through social anxieties while waiting for something to happen (life, romance, mystery, etc). How do you relate to this theme as a young person and filmmaker?
TT: Well, I’m a very impatient, anxious person so that was probably inevitable. What intrigued me about Ham on Rye as I was first dreaming it up was the shape of the narrative. I sometimes think about it like the allure of a loveless orgasm. We’re sometimes helplessly drawn towards this point of stimulation— in the film the teenagers are drawn by romantic notions of their futures and of aging (sex just being a symbol of aging and purpose).
Then, once the threshold has been crossed, the desire quickly dissipates, and the intoxication turns to an uncomfortable, sobering reality. I’ve had desire lead me into this trap so many times, I remember wanting braces so badly when it was a thing of kids two or three years my senior. The cycle of romance, waiting and disenchantment has been consistent in my life. I don’t look at it as a bad thing or in any negative way. I don’t even see it as foolish (although in the case of the loveless orgasm it can easily be) The romantic part of the process has given me so much love of life. I try to hold onto it all the time.
GHJ: The film's evolving visual style beautifully embodies the changing tones found throughout the story. What was it like for you, Carson, collaborating with Tyler to create such a dynamic and malleable aesthetic?
CL: Tyler and I had so many in-depth, nuanced conversations about tone, compositions, visual texture, and influences before shooting that I felt very confident going into production as to the film's desired effect, and I appreciate so much that Tyler gave me tons of creative freedom once on set to take control of camera positions and lighting schemes. We're both cinephiles, so sometimes on set we would drop a director's name or a movie title as shorthand to make sure we were on the same page.
I understood the emotional shift in the narrative on a gut level, and we had similar reference points for how we wanted to convey that shift. In a broad sense, we wanted to move from Hollywood glossiness (John Hughes of course, but also older references like Vincente Minnelli) to modernist slow cinema in the vein of Michelangelo Antonioni and Tsai Ming-liang. At some point, I'd very much love to make a film with someone who hasn't buried their head in cinema for most of their life, but in this case working with another cinephile was a lovely symbiosis that came very naturally.
GHJ: I noticed a distinct lack of establishing shots in the film. There's a constant sense that we're not getting the whole picture (both metaphorically and literally). Tyler, can talk about collaborating with your editor to construct this world? It's both a lovely and sinister place.
TT: I think this question is closely intertwined with your previous question about refusing to indulge in cheap exposition. We wanted the film to be an intoxicating dizziness. Kevin Anton, my editor and co-executive producer, talked a long time about the language of the film being one of disembodiment which is inherent to constructive editing. The idea was to keep the viewer as lost as the teenagers on screen. These kids signed their futures away, one literally does so on a clipboard in Monty’s. They naively laugh on the sunset street where time snatches them away! They have no idea what they’re doing or where they’re headed as they mosey through time.
GHJ: Carson, you've been a vocal advocate on social media for film critics to better educate themselves on the artistic elements of cinematography. Why do you think critics have such a hard time writing about the visual image from that standpoint?
CL: I appreciate that you see me as an advocate and not just a crank. This is a tough one, because I don't want to parrot that bullshit line of argument that you often get from filmmakers about critics being failed artists or lazy know-nothings. (As a critic myself, I must be the exception here). But I also think that criticism as an art form gains nothing from being hermetically sealed from an experiential understanding of production, and a lot of writers probably haven't ever been on a set or picked up a camera.
In the best case scenario, this might result in beautiful poetic writing that takes on its own life apart from the film. At worst, this separation results in ignorant and futile writing that's indistinguishable from bad literary criticism, trafficking only in vague proclamations and getting nowhere close to the real core of a film. It's important to know why a film looks the way it does, why a certain lens was used in a certain moment, or how many lights and crew members were needed to capture even one three-second establishing shot...not so you can feel sympathetic to the filmmakers and give them softer reviews, but so that you can understand how all these elements of cinema interact to produce the moment on screen. Sometimes an actor's great performance is that much more incredible knowing that there were massive fresnels glaring down on them. That objective reality is something that always attracts me to cinema, a medium that's fundamentally a document.
Ham on Rye is currently screening in virtual cinemas around the country. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
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