An inspiring look at the micro-budget film Ham on Rye.
2020 may be a sparse year for cinema, but it's not without its hidden gems. Ham on Rye is the debut feature from writer-director Tyler Taormina. It tells the story of a group of teenagers gathering at a deli for a traditional courting ritual. The film exists without a particular era or setting, somewhere in the haze of postwar suburban America. It’s arresting in its simplicity, yet awe-inspiring in scope. Despite all this, it’s also an approachable piece of pop art—and shot for less than $30,000.
A narrative film that eschews convention entirely is always a hard sell, but Taormina and his DP-producer Carson Lund were both compelled to work in this unique format. Their approach to storytelling is what you might call an “ecosystem film” or a work of “narrative pointillism" – guiding the viewer through a tapestry of details rather than a story. Filmmakers like Robert Altman and Jacques Tati have attempted this as well.
Despite its strange approach and scrappy production, the film has screened all over the world (including Locarno International Film Festival), was picked up for distribution by Factory 25. Their U.S. theatrical run has been interrupted by COVID-19, but they're hoping to do more screenings post-epidemic. No Film School sat down with Taormina and Lund to learn more about the film and their process.
NFS: How did you start working together?
Carson Lund: We went to Emerson College together and oddly enough, we didn’t work together throughout our college years. We were on the outside of each other’s social circles and we didn’t collaborate until 2-3 years after college. When we were in LA, we got a drink one night and Tyler was like, ‘Let’s just do something together.’
NFS: So how did this project come about?
Tyler Taormina: Ham on Rye is the first thing we shot together. I was just falling in love with cinema more and more, really coming into it honestly, after college ended, in a serious way. And I knew Carson was one of the only cinephiles I knew, so I was really excited to talk to him. I was like, ‘I’m watching this movie by this dude Tarkovsky.’ [laughs]. I showed him a short I had made and I think he really responded to it in a way that drew us together.
Ham on Rye was conceived by a joke made in passing about a sandwich shop where people go to hook up with one another. And the joke just stuck with me and I really fell in love with this place and I pictured it every day. And slowly this whole tapestry kind of unfurled from that joke.
NFS: What was the writing process like?
Taormina: It is very much a short and long process. Once the idea was jiving, it was written very quickly. And it was changed in gigantic ways for almost a year, I guess. Even during production, even after production, the script and the story was always changing. But I think it’s very simple to follow the thread of this idea. There’s an energy that pushes you towards this place and there’s an energy that pushes you away into the ether.
NFS: How did you obtain financing?
Taormina: We shot it for about $25,000, and it ended up being maybe around $30K. To be honest, I don’t even know for sure. We ended up spending way more after than I expected, even though we didn’t hire a sound mixer, we didn’t hire a colorist, we only spent like a thousand dollars on festivals. I don’t know where all that money went. It was made out-of-pocket. I put up about half and then the other executive producers put up a good amount and we crowdsourced about $5,000-6,000. We were in debt and paid it off slowly. Finally paid everything off as of a couple of weeks ago.
NFS: So did you have to ask for a lot of favors then?
Taormina: A lot of it was done on discount. Our equipment, for example, we paid next to nothing for it. And the locations, the labor—a lot of it was done “on favor,” even though I don’t like to use that word because if someone’s doing it as a favor, that’s a weird energy on set. Either you’re in it or you’re not in it. But it’s the same idea, obviously.
Lund: It is possible to make films on really, really meager budgets that are not even considered categorically low budgets. They’re like infinitesimal, or nano-budgets or less. It is possible. Like Tyler said, it’s not favors, but you have to really pitch the project to people and get them personally invested in it, to the point where they’re willing to give up a lot of time for little monetary return. I’m really, really proud of what we were able to accomplish production-value-wise with so little money.
NFS: What camera and lenses did you use?
Lund: We used the RED Scarlet which we got through an independent owner that Tyler knows. For lenses, we used Zeiss CP2 Ultra Primes. Those weren’t my preferred lenses to shoot on for the film, but they were really nice cinema lenses and they did the trick. Part of my hesitation was that, given the aesthetic of the film we wanted to achieve, they have a sharpness to them and a kind of modern digital sheen to them that wasn’t exactly in line with the project.
I would have loved to use Panavision glass from the 1970s. Something older. I like the image to be a little unpredictable and unstable. So, I was trying to mitigate that through the use of Pro-Mist filters and other softening filters to create the image we were after. We were trying to invoke prior periods. Though the film’s not literally set in the past, it is an amalgam of many different generations of American life as well as cinematography looks from those eras.
NFS: Is it true that some of the adult actors in the film are former child stars?
Taormina: That’s true, yes. It was a reference to, or maybe inspired by, Sunset Boulevard. It’s a film about this silent star who is living in the past, past her heyday. And it’s a study of how the mighty are fallen, right? And there’s a poker game they play with all the silent stars’ friends and it’s cast with actual silent stars, including Buster Keaton and what not. That was in my mind when I was thinking of where all these people from this town ended up, and I thought maybe all these familiar faces from Nickelodeon and Disney Channel end up playing Uno in the backyard of this opiate-addicted suburban town.
NFS: Oh, is that how you see the town in Ham On Rye? Opiate-addicted?
Taormina: Uhh, I mean, that’s how I think of a lot of the towns surrounding the one I grew up in. But it’s a shade of it. We didn’t want to go explicit with it, because it would have been a little bit cheesy or tasteless or a little didactic or something. But it’s obviously there. If you know these suburban towns, it’s in the air, I think.
Lund: Same thing for me. I grew up in New Hampshire. The same opiate epidemic has hit New England as a whole. That’s kind of a shadow hanging over the second half, I think.
NFS: One impression I had of the film was, yes this is an art film, yes it’s weird, but it’s accessible.
Taormina: We were always hoping it would be like a stoner flick for younger people. In fact, it was screened at 4:20 o’clock at one festival, and it was a teenage screening only at one festival in Italy, too. So I think these things have been laid out there, but the festival circuit is all we’ve had for our film so far, and it’s not a way to reach the younger audiences. They don’t turn up.
Lund: You’re right in that I don’t think the film is getting at anything that’s esoteric or inscrutable thematically, emotionally; a very large swath of young people in America have gone through a certain rite of a passage like the prom and all the attendant baggage that comes after that. And after high school, you have to enter a world of financial expectations, you need to find a career, and you’re coming about in the age of a recession and an ongoing war and there’s just this pressure that all feels insurmountable. I think the movie’s captured something that’s just kind of latent in so much of our generation and probably the generation before ours.
NFS: Pointillism as a narrative technique is something that’s really seldom attempted in film. How did you approach that?
Lund: That’s something we talked about a lot preparing for the film, the idea of really honing in on the gestures and the details. That’s the texture… that’s how you live, that’s what you remember, I think. Robert Bresson was very important to us in thinking about that whole first half. The way you’re describing it, it makes me think of that movie The Strange Little Cat. It’s a really interesting movie, set entirely within one house.
That’s a movie that approaches narrative through an entirely detail-oriented visual schema. It’s fascinating. Yes, there’s Haley, who’s kind of the protagonist in Ham on Rye, though it’s not always very evident. So much narrative puts the blinders on to all the complexity of what’s happening around a protagonist. We bring that stuff to the foreground and that’s what overwhelms Haley.
Taormina: The spirit of the film is what we call ‘collective protagonism’, the notion that the main character is not one person, but an aggregate of all the people together, a collective animation of a community of people. It’s really a study of a milieu. It’s very much rooted in something anthropological. I think a movie like Voices Through Time by Franco Piavoli—a film I saw after shooting Ham on Rye—it’s on the same page, wanting to collect a series of glances and hands and moments and fragments to speak of a much bigger thing only drawn from this gestalt. This is what really, really inspires all the work that I do. I can’t really remain interested in a protagonist all that much. It’s fun, but I’m much more excited to see what’s going on in the next room over, almost every time.
NFS: Do you think Jacques Tati’s Playtime is a movie that applies?
Taormina: I do, but much more than Playtime, I would say M. Hulout’s Holiday, one of the first films that showed me that you could do this. It’s all centering around Hulout and his kind of interfacing as a pure creature through this place, but there really is not a plot to the movie, it really just has an interest to look at all the people around Hulout and to dip into their private moments and totally senseless moments. And I think that’s really what opened my eyes.
Lund: That’s part of what immediately sold me on the idea of working on this. I’m equally disinterested in protagonists and narratives that have a kind of single-minded focus. I like watching them but making them doesn’t interest me as much. And I’m writing something now that is much more focused on a collective. I’ve made other things in the past, little documentaries and stuff, that are more focused on everything you can glean out of one single location or a single compressed timeline.
NFS: How long was the editing process and what was that process like?
Taormina: About five months of work. The rough assembly cut was pretty close to where it ended up going, really. But there was one moment where I decided to radically shift the timeline of the film and brought a lot of the action that was supposed to take place over two days into mainly one day. That was a pretty huge breakthrough moment in post, but it also was pretty close to the script in many ways.
NFS: Editing a feature there can be a lot of breakthroughs and it can be very emotional, was that the case for you?
Taormina: It was emotional… and I’m not the kind of person who’s going to do it a thousand different ways just to see what works. We were kind of anxious, to be honest with you, about how the narrative would go, because it is such a strange narrative, to us even. It’s very hard to say what’s right. I knew going into it, going into production even, that the second half was going to very malleable and open for complete reconfigurations.
The second half was not meant to be something that is logical in terms of the plot and something that you necessarily are following in the traditional sense… but something much more musical. It’s ironic because all the music really takes place in the first half, and the second half, I want it to operate as music, where you are literally getting lost in hypnosis and trances and tangents that then reemerge to the surface of sobriety, suddenly. These sorts of things. Getting that down, I think, was the majority of our labor in editing.
NFS: Rhythm is really integral to making a film work.
Taormina: Have you ever seen Un Flic? That movie is seriously a drum solo, it’s incredible. And I remember that much more than I really care to remember the other elements of it. That’s Jean-Pierre Melville’s last film. But as far as editing goes, you know, we worked with one hundred people in the film, which actually is literal. Someone challenged me on that, but I looked up the cast and it is literal. And you know, many of them are not professional actors, many of them are kids, you know. We had to edit a lot to make the performances what they are.