Tyler Taormina’s transition from musician to filmmaker is a natural progression, since whenever he creates music he always envisions the visuals of the songs.
In Ham on Rye, Taormina makes his feature-length debut with coming-of-age tale that follows Haley and the lives of ordinary teens living in a quintessential suburb.The local kids attend a ritualistic, prom-like night at Monty’s, their local deli. One night changes the course of their lives forever as they venture into adulthood. While most end up accepting their inevitable transition into the real world, Haley stays behind.
It’s a love letter to the millennial generation and shows the innocence of youth contrasting with the realities of life in the modern world. I caught up with Taormina to talk about the film and capturing the lost innocence of youth before adulthood takes over.
Your background is in music. What made Ham On Rye the moment when you transitioned from music to film?
I was doing music for about ten years. It began in a local D.I.Y scene in Long Island where all the people growing up in the suburbs met in basements. There was a huge network of people who were meeting and making beautiful music. I really came to develop a huge community of friends who were thriving to find themselves as musicians.
I stayed with this art community aspect throughout my life and at one point. I was so interested in the visuals behind the music. When I hear a song or I record a song, I know what it looks like too. Naturally, a transition started to happen where I really wanted to see these songs come to life and that’s why all the films I’ve made so far are very musical and like needle drop films. It’s always been very important to me.
In the middle, kids TV was my focus. I suppose Ham on Rye is a mix of my love for kids TV in Nickelodeon’s golden age, world cinema, and music.
How long was the process of the script writing to getting the film made?
I was on vacation with childhood friends so there were a lot of old feelings. We were on the Oregon Coast in a jacuzzi. The film was conceived in a jacuzzi [laughs].
A friend of mine said as a joke, and in passing a place where you hook up, “like a sandwich shop” and my eyes lit up. I said, “I’m going to make a movie about that.” Before I knew it I was in that sandwich shop every day.
When you witness these mating rituals, it’s so strange. I’m really guessing everyone feels as if they’re on the outside of it. The script was born through that feeling of nervous confrontation to those rituals and then it bloomed into ‘What happens to those who don’t get selected?’ It became about the suburbs where I grew up in and those teenagers left when college began and they didn’t come back and a whole generation of teenagers disappeared and who was left? People who were on heroin. I was exploring that context.
The script was written in a year. The production was about eight months after that.
It’s a beautiful story about capturing the innocence of youth.
The movie is divided into two parts. One is the lead up to the deli where the teenagers cross the threshold. I wanted everything before that point to encapsulate all the naivety and all the excitement that I felt in my youth. Especially not having any idea what was coming next and not even caring. It was about just being excited about the future itself.
You’re so excited for anything down the road and the world feels like it’s yours when you’re a kid. I wanted to hire kids who were of that age and who fancied themselves as actors but were really non-professional. I wanted them to play themselves. Some thought they were playing these characters, but I was interested in their own naivety.
I made a rule on set that no one could read past their own screen pages. This was troublesome for some people, but it was important to me that they had excitement about their little world. They don’t know anything past it and that’s what it’s like when you’re young. I wanted to employ that to capture all that excitement.
You mention casting. Haley was perfect. How did you find her?
My filmmaking aspirations began with working in kid’s TV. I was working with the Tom Lynch Company and we were developing a series called Suburban Legends. It was like my Pete & Pete a 90s Nickelodeon show. I wanted to cast my lead for Suburban Legends – Poll Flowerpot. She was full of curiosity and spunk. She had such a chip on her shoulder. This was my early filmmaking days. We brought in 30 people to look at the lead. I saw Haley’s headshot and said, “This is her.” She hadn’t even come in yet. She had so much in her look that spoke such depth for such a little person. She came in and knocked us out of the park. She was 12-years-old. She’s turning 18 at the end of the year. It’s been such a long journey of us working together.
Let’s talk about the visuals and working with your DP to capture such beautiful shots, especially when you’re working on a tight budget and short timeframe.
When you talk about color and photography, a big element of that is production design. It was really important for us to evoke the 60s., the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s. We wanted them all to be compiled in this aesthetic that was sheer nostalgia. We did photographically by using pro mist filters and they were used heavily in those 80s cheesy music videos. We look at that image and we have that association. A lot of what we wanted to capture through color was in the same way. When someone walked into the casting room, I’d listen to how I felt inside. I’d listen to how I reacted to them. I’m very particular about colors. I think it’s something about intuition. When I saw colors I liked, we went with those because they made me happy. I wish the answer was cooler, but that’s how it went.
You didn’t have the luxury of a long shoot.
We shot for sixteen days. We had 60 locations and 100 people to wrangle around. I have to say after 7 months of rigorous planning, we really saw a very smooth and beautiful shoot. Everything was planned to a tee. Even those hiccups that came with any shoot, we were able to handle. One day it was really hot and the camera would overheat whenever we turned it on. We’d put it in the ice cream fridge the day of shooting. We had a very meticulous plan before the film to try to foresee all these moves.
You tell a tight story in under 90 minutes, talk about your editing.
I’ve been editing with my co-executive producer Kevin Anton for about five or six years and we really have a collective brain at this point. The editing process is us bickering for hours over ideological things that might not even have to do with the film. We take our time with it. A lot of the editing was about the musical process and seeing how they made us feel. We’d look at the chemistry of the mixtape and how we felt. I had an obsession with making the perfect mixtape throughout my youth and I look at editing to be the same way. How do the songs flow into each other? Where can we put a song of this dynamic into the next? How do you feel then? It was very intuitive and it took six or seven months to edit in total.
We just wanted to take our time to make it find its perfect place.
Where will the film screen next?
We’re going to be the opening film at Tree Fort Musical Festival. It’s exciting to screen there. Next month, we’re going to the Sarasota Film Festival.
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