Ham on Rye

Ham on Rye

I just watched Ham on Rye. My first time in several months. I haven’t seen it all the way through since our film festival run really started to take off. This may very well be my last time giving it a look. I have to review this cut for its final delivery to our distributor, Factory 25. I thought that this could be a good time to write about my experiences in making the film and some lingering sentiments. I hope to find some closure by doing so. I imagine that when finishing a film and touring it around for a year or so, one usually feels the desperate need that I have now to close the chapter and move on.

The first time I told my collaborators that I was interested in self producing a feature film their faces turned to shock. I won’t ever forget those worried faces. We were all around twenty-five years old. None of us had ever made a film at feature length before although many of us had been making movies all of our lives. With just around twenty thousand dollars between our collective savings, some investor begging, some credit card rewards, and a whopping three thousand dollars from crowdfunding, we set out for a rigorous seven month pre-production. Eric Berger, Kevin Anton and myself went through the script too many times to count. It saw more iterations than you can imagine up until we began shooting until just a few months ago. We listened to our instincts which evolved and transformed constantly. When Eric and I speak about our films we close our eyes. When he talks, I think that I sway lightly back and forth as if to a tempo.

It surprises and pleases me to no end how we were able to garner such human resources with ostensibly no compensation. Friends of friends and strangers alike gravitated toward the project as if by magnetism. Many of them told me that they find very little meaning in where their creative pursuits had taken them; most of which led to advertising and music videos (another form of advertising). I’m confident that the momentum is due largely to our producers David Croley Broyles, Carson Lund and Mike Basta. Their talents and passion for cinema have always been admired by our community and when the three of them get together there is an infectious energy. There is much sentimentality between us. David sometimes says that the film saved his life.

The actors weren’t allowed to read the script. Only their own scenes. Some characters, such as Sloan played by my dear friend Cole Devine, were allowed to read a bit more. I see his character as one weighed down by his consciousness and so I wanted him to be fully aware of the world around him. The other talent, mostly young teenagers, happily abided to work on a film in which they hadn’t a clue what it was about. I’m told that on set they would try to exchange information about the story and put the puzzle together. I wanted to keep them entirely in the dark. It was their vulnerability that I was after. We held auditions in the same room that I first read Haley Bodell for my children’s TV show, Suburban Legends when she was just twelve years old. We cast her off of her headshot alone, I was startled by how much heaviness a twelve year old could contain in her eyes.

The night before the shoot I scanned the prop bins in my living room about a thousand times. My apartment, located on Rye Street, became our production office and was a disastrous mess. It really gives you the notion that making a film means shedding off all of the comforts of your life, you become prepared to lose everything. David drove us to the first day of set and we listened to “Moment of Truth” by Gang Starr. Our shoot was an incredibly joyous time. It went swimmingly.

I would spend at least 30% of the time on set DJing to build an environment. Music played incessantly. I wanted to fuel Carson and his crew, as they would set up the shots. His instincts warmed me and his interpretation of the material always excited me. Our most intense day of shooting was easily the second day at Monty’s (whose owner still thinks our production is a student short film) We were two and a half hours behind schedule and the camera overheated each time we turned it on. We threw it in an ice cream freezer and captured only a quarter of the shots that we had intended for our biggest sequence— the selection ceremony. You wouldn’t understand unless you saw the raw footage the brilliant work of Kevin Anton who edited that sequence. He used much of the footage before and after every take and repurposed shots in bizarre ways to create so much. By the time night had rolled around at least half of the kids had walked off set, their parents were furious. We reduced a seven shot sequence to one setup of Carson’s roving camera through the slow dancing teenagers and it was somehow far above anything that I had dreamt up. I’ll never forget the feeling I had trailing him operating his camera through that dancing crowd as Deuter’s music played so loudly. When it came time for the kids to kiss, all of our actresses who had agreed to kiss on camera had walked off set. I had to call over my best friend’s girlfriend and her friend to smooch the teenage boys.

We wrapped principal photography and went on to shoot pickups for nearly two years, even after the film had premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The only reason the film was ever programmed there or at Locarno seems entirely due to the support of Jordan Cronk, Peter Labuza, Sean Baker and Eric Allen Hatch who were the first people to champion the work. A tremendous thanks to them all. Before their feedback I had never considered the idea of an audience. The process of witnessing people’s reactions to the film seriously confused me. I had forgotten that movies were made for people to watch. I had only made these films as a follower of some ghost. The first public audience that saw this film walked out and compared it to The Lobster. Then a few months later in Maryland Film Festival it was suddenly a success with the crowd. I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand. The good criticism and the bad criticism are both quite painful for me. The best part about presenting a film is the friends you make along the way. Easily. The champions of cinema as an art and the practitioners who make genuine films (that may never even be seen) have my heart.

So here is Ham on Rye, coming out in the spring of 2020, the year that I will turn thirty. This time around I realized how much this film has to do with the forks in your path where both sides seem equally dreadful. The comforts of conformity or the scorn of alienation, to enable your child to live a coddled numb life or to abandon them in this world of concrete. I was so incredibly lost in my personal life while putting this script together. That’s very obvious to me now. I still don’t know what’s best and I still don’t have any answers. I just know that it’s hard for me and it’s hard for a lot of people around me— the high highs, the low lows. I am glad that we made this film because it remains a mystery even to me. Not in the sense of, “where did the kids go?” (which many people asked me during Q&As) but how the film shows me something of the mind that I don’t understand and cannot explain. It can only exist outside of the mind in the form of a movie!

Maybe that’s everything to say for now. Maybe I’ll never watch this movie ever again. Please don’t compare it to Yorgos Lanthimos. I do hope that you at the very least appreciate our effort to explore our impulses. When I became disoriented by the many pieces of this mosaic, my guiding light was the faces of my actors. If nothing else, I wanted to honor their humanity.

Thanks to all who have been kind.

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