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“I Actually Feel Like the Firefly Was Caught in the Jar”: Tyler Taormina on His Cannes-Premiering Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point

Christmas Eve in Miller's Point

Whether the sprawling fantasia that is Tyler Taormina’s Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point proves heartwarmingly reflective or personally destabilizing in its near-ethnographic study of American holiday ritual will depend, largely, on the composition and size of your own Xmas memories. It’s a strength of the film, however, that Taormina’s expansive canvas allows for — and incorporates — the whole range of emotions that the theater of Christmas can produce, from the giddiness of an overstimulated child, stomach groaning from too much pumpkin pie, gazing at all those wrapped presents, to the wearied anxiety of an adult realizing that the holiday has only put a brief pause on family troubles. And what’s particularly remarkable about Taormina’s picture is that it produces a kind of narrative excess in near non-narrative ways. The film’s storyline is, paradoxically, both overstuffed — any member of its sprawling cast might have been the lead in a different movie — and sparse, with affecting moments and trenchant lines of dialogue quickly subsumed within its sensorial flow of girl-group holiday tunes, sparkling lights and, in a surreal moment, a fire truck costumed as Santa’s sled making its annual drive-by to the squeals of neighborhood children. 

An impressively larger-scale follow-up to Taormina’s microbudget Ham on Rye, Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point takes place within an Italian-American neighborhood of New York’s Long Island, and, for the first two thirds or so, within one particular house, where the adult children are experiencing a final Christmas in their family home before, most probably, selling it and sending their mother off to assisted living. The teen kids, who include Matilda Fleming in a strong debut, hunker down in the basement, show off a pet lizard, and, later, escape for beers, hookups and, in an arrestingly lovely moment, nighttime ice skating. Deadpan, Michael Cera and Greg Turkington play somnambulant cops with, it’s revealed, their own conflicted Christmas wishes. But, really, the film is a gestalt that co-mingles the director’s own Christmas reminiscences with the holiday Americana implanted in us all by movies, TV and commercials (specifically, Coca-Cola). It’s a concoction that delivers its promised Christmas cheer while still containing a hypnotic uncanniness that is an aesthetic lifeline for the Yuletide-resistant among us.

I spoke to director, producer and screenwriter Taormina— a founding member of Omnes Films, who we spotlit in our 2021 25 New Faces series — before Cannes about his own holidays, making his film a neighborhood affair, and why he produced Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point purely independently after trying an industry approach. (Taormina’s film is one of two Omnes titles in Cannes this year; Carson Lund, who shot Christmas, directed his own picture, Eephus, also premiering in Directors Fortnight.)

Filmmaker: I come from a relatively small family, just me, my brother and my parents. We didn’t have big extended family holidays with all the neighbors coming over. Our Christmases were nothing like the one in Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point, so your movie, particularly the first half, was a literal shock to me. What were your Christmas holidays like? Were they this big? And what memories from your own childhood did you put into this film?

Taormina: They were definitely similar to what you see in the movie, maybe more so in an “emotional truth way” than a literal way. But, yes, a huge family that has just so much love for one another. We all didn’t necessarily understand each other in a deep way, but that’s not important. It was just important that we were there for one another. So many happy times. Witnessing these people all throughout the years, I think a big proponent of making this film was seeing how time has taken so much away. Specifically, I found myself unable to watch old home movies. I just emotionally couldn’t bring myself to do it, to see how much time has passed and how things have changed. And I think this effort was to really reanimate that and sort of conquer that experience with time that was so overbearing for me.

Filmmaker: It was difficult to watch home movies while researching this or just in general?

Taormina: In general, which lead to this in a sense. It started with my parents’ wedding video, which is before I was born. On their 30th anniversary, a moment that was very formative in my life, I saw their home video, and I realized the cineaste in my calling — that this is what I needed to do with my life. I think a lot of that experience came into this film — just really confronting my memories and the fact that we’re all here.

Filmmaker: When you watch the finished film, do you feel it’s a successful reanimation of these memories, or is there something you are reaching for that is ultimately unreachable?

Taormina: I actually feel like the firefly was caught in the jar and I’m able to just enjoy it lighting up in there. I really feel like, yeah, that’s it. I mean, I take pride in how rich the film is with detail and layers and things like that. There are just so many I regret not getting, but I think that’s kind of inevitable. Still, I relate to this film knowing that it really does capture some foundational, fundamental sense memory and the spirit of what I valued so much.

Filmmaker: You just mentioned detail, which is so much of what the film is about to me. It’s just overflowing with very specific details, particularly in the production design. I noticed in the credits that a number of families are credited with the set decoration.

Taormina: As I said, the details are the reason we’re making this movie. So what’s weird about that, especially looking back now, is that I hired a friend of a friend, Paris Peterson, to do the production design. I had known him a little bit over the years; in fact, Daniel Goldhaber connected us. He’d never production designed a feature film. I’d only really seen him production design a music video that was cardboard cutouts — like arts and crafts, you know? So, I really had no idea what his actual work was. But something in me made me think that he’s going to do a great job. He’s just such a sensitive guy. I knew [the job would be] hard — enormous — but he had this way about him that totally had me convinced. And I think that putting faith in him caused him to move mountains to make this movie happen.

A lot of the décor in the movie is an amalgam —an amalgam of producers, families, decorations, the people of the communities. The house in the movie is actually four houses, and in three of which the mother of the house survived longer than the father, and the kids were about to sell the house. Which is the plot of the movie! Basically, these were the only houses that were going to allow us to invade, you know? We were a huge operation. So, the film felt extremely personal not just to me but to many people.

Filmmaker: What time of year did you shoot?

Taormina: February and March.

Filmmaker: So, these families were getting their Christmas décor back out of the attic, basically?

Taormina: Yeah. We left so many notes [in the neighborhood]: “Would you mind leaving your Christmas lights up in your house until mid-March? We’re going to be filming.” And some people did. Others, they were actually kind enough to redecorate their houses for our shoot.

Filmmaker: Carson Lund, your Omnes Films partner and your DP on this movie, wrote an article for us on shooting your previous film, Ham on Rye, as an L.A. microbudget film with no permits and for something like $20,000. I don’t know the production budget on this one, but it’s a lot more than that, obviously. And you mentioned in interviews all the speaking parts in that film, which you’ve really doubled down on here with an even bigger cast. Ham on Rye is largely daylight; this film is night. Ham on Rye was West Coast, this is East Coast. How did you adapt your Omnes Films production model to all of these changes?

Taormina: I feel like when you scale up in budgets, there’s no experience that can prepare you for what’s in store. We learned this doing Eephus and Christmas — our first two location films — around the same time. There are so many new headaches that come with making a location film — I just did not realize how insane it could be. Transporting actors and crew, putting them up — all these logistics were complicated to figure out. This time I think we took six months in prep. I was living at home in my parents’ house in Long Island so I could take as much time as I need to cast the film and slowly garner all these resources. So, there was a similar way in which the long soft prep was an approach to save money, whereas time costs money in a more conventional producing model, I would imagine. It was just a whole bunch of new headaches, but it was immersive, too, for many people. A lot of people lived on Long Island, but a lot of people came in from the city, from Boston, from L.A. But we opted not to look for some new [crew] — like, for sound recorders or assistant camera we actually just brought our friends over because it’s so natural for us to be around people who know how to make each other laugh and how to stimulate each other.

A lot of our approach to be economic in producing this film was to just have the house ready to shoot in as much as possible, including a huge amount of practical lights that just lived there and are doing a lot of the work. The production design of the space and also the light was very intentional to create the quickest workflow we could.

Filmmaker: I never felt any budget constraints in the film, and I was consistently knocked out, again, by all the little details, like the scene with the woman sitting in the little vestibule where every little windowpane was perfectly frosted.

Taormina: I didn’t know about the frost game, but Paris Peterson, he knew.

Filmmaker: In other interviews you’ve talked about the notion of the collective protagonist, which is something you use again here. There are so many little mini storylines that thread through the film without any one of them being dominant. What was your script development like? Do you have an office with 10,000 colored index cards on the wall?

Taormina: My friends joke about these index cards, which follow me on my walls everywhere. They think I’m crazy. But [co-screenwriter] Eric Berger and I, we basically went into log cabins, decorated them like Christmas, and we did this maybe four or five times. The first two sessions, we didn’t write anything. We just drew out the family tree and we talked about everyone’s whole lives and how they all affected one another. One of the formative decisions was, when did the patriarch die, and how did that affect the children? How did that affect [the adults] parenting of their children? How did that affect their relationships within the family? That family group collective psychology was really exciting and stimulating to do. We wanted this to seem like wildlife, you know? I picture this movie like a Petri dish of bacteria overflowing. I think Eric’s mind is always in favor of restraint and keeping things dialed back so that the essence of something living is what you’re interacting with and not the actual information.

Filmmaker: You said that Robert Altman and John Hughes were inspirational directors for Ham on Rye. Who would the inspirational directors for this film be?

Taormina: Well, they’re here too. In many ways this feels almost like a sister to Ham on Rye. But some big influences would be Diner and American Graffiti. And Martin Scorsese movies, which was not very prominent [in production] but was in the edit.

The point I’m getting at is that these films and filmmakers are so influential culturally in that they’re part of this sort of ethnographic study for Italians on Long Island. They use Scorsese movies as a way to understand themselves. It’s really funny and kind of ridiculous. And then there were so many other influences, and one of the biggest ones Carson and I spoke was the iconography of Coca-Cola and their Christmas advertising. And Sirk, obviously.

Filmmaker: Scorsese is known, going back to Goodfellas and Mean Streets, for the use of songs as musical score. Which is a hard approach to do now on a lower-budget movie, particularly as you’ve got a lot of well-known tracks in this film. How difficult was it to get some of those cues?

Taormina: Well, the soundtrack is, as you might imagine, a huge engine to the construction of this movie, and it’s not, at least, consciously inspired by Martin Scorsese, but very much explicitly by Scorpio Rising. These songs are such an important character of [Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point]. For one, they’re Christmas songs without being Christmas songs, which is I think the only way to go. And of course, they’re nostalgic and all that. But I what I really love about them is that the lyrics are all about “I love you.” “I want to be with you.” “I can’t be with you anymore. “You break my heart.” “You left me.” I love thinking about those lyrics in the context of a mother losing her influence over her daughter, or the cousin who can’t extricate himself from the family. In terms of actually clearing the songs, we were pretty lucky that everyone was very excited about the film. We were able to present it in such a way that only very few songs had to be replaced.

Filmmaker: So the lyrical content was tied to the lyrical content of the scenes? Were you thinking of those songs while writing, or did you later match them up?

Taormina: The script had a Spotify link on the title page, and the scene headings would have the songs in there.

Filmmaker: This was all made through private financing?

Taormina: Yes, that’s correct.

Filmmaker: Did you try to go out in a more industry sort of way with it?

Taormina: Did I spend a year and a half waiting around in development? Yeah. “It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” and then a year-and-a-half goes by. We were packaging the film with one of the big agencies, and we had producers on it who were a little more a lot more reputed and experienced. They all tried, you know? But I think producers, they push it a little bit and they see how much it’s going to roll, and then they’re on to the next. So, yeah, I did deal with that sort of temporary illusion that “this is happening now,” which probably led to me growing, in a way. It was an incredibly hard moment for me when I felt like my agency of my life was getting out of my hands and the Hollywood industry was sort of dangling me. But as a result, you have a true family affair [with this production].

Filmmaker: Were you exploring a more independent route on the side, or was there just a break one day and you switched approaches?

Taormina: I wasn’t exploring [another approach] on the side. I was just trusting, and that was the issue.

Filmmaker: So, there was one point when you just said, “Thanks for your efforts, but we’re going to do this another way”?

Taormina: That’s right. That’s the nice way [of saying it].

Filmmaker: And then how long until you were able to find financing?

Taormina: Actually, it was not very long because I had so much anger in me at that time. I was talking to these friends of friends who were somewhat in the private equity space, and I was just like, “Screw this Hollywood thing, let’s just do this our own way.” I had this idea how to finance it and a model that would be really amenable towards the cast and crew. Everyone was paid an appropriate wage, but there’s a differed supplemental payment. Even the actors who aren’t SAG, we carved out a percentage so that we’re all sharing in this. It would be heartbreaking for me if this movie becomes a classic watch every year and we’re not all sharing that, you know?

But I think that if we went the Hollywood route, there would have been less resources and, especially, less time. I heard recently of a $10 million film that was a 23- or 24-day shoot.

Filmmaker: How many days did you have?

Taormina: I don’t know – 25? If we had maybe 26 or 27, it would have been perfectly comfortable. But, you know, we scheduled it appropriately.

Filmmaker: How much of the film is left on the edit room floor, or were you fairly precise in the scripting? Because, again, it feels like so many of these characters could have their own movie.

Taormina: Yeah, it’s true. There’s just one 20 second scene I remember and then a lot of odds and ends of each scene. Because, you know, the chemistry of the script really was such a house of cards. Eric and I worked hard, and, in the story, Kevin [Anton, editor and story editor] as well, making sure that this was the perfect balance of all of these [elements]. It doesn’t have a traditional throughline, so it relies on something in its totality. It needs to feel completely chemically right. I don’t think it really had a malleability in the end.

Filmmaker: Both yours and Carson’s films are very American stories told in compressed time frames with large ensemble casts. They are kind of companion films in a way.

Taormina: Yeah, they are cousins, so similar and so different at the same time. When I was pitching this to Carson, he said, “You need to see this movie that I made long before I met you.” It was a Christmas short called I Fell Silent. It was not so similar in terms of aesthetics, but it had the same sort of ethnographic looking at a family celebrating a holiday. So we’re weirdly similar in the way that we see life and cinema.

Filmmaker: Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?

Taormina: No, but I do love Fanny and Alexander. When I watched Fanny and Alexander last, back in 2020, I realized how much it even influenced Ham on Rye. It’s not even just the Christmas element but the way in which the joy is sort of dimmed to a point and then kind of transforms into something very confounding, you know? This is a huge formal inspiration to me, more than the aesthetics of that film and the subject matter.


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