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A Conversation With Eliza Hittman (IT FELT LIKE LOVE)

(It Felt Like Love is now available on home video through Lorber Films: DVD, Amazon Instant, iTunes. It world premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed theatrically by Variance Films. Visit the film’s official website for more information, and be sure to read Jesse Klein’s HTN review.)

I wrote this about Eliza Hittman’s excellent film after catching its world premiere at Sundance last year:

Fish Tank meets Raising Victor Vargas meets Kids in the startlingly assured feature debut from Hittman, which has a voice all its own thanks to its being set in a part of Brooklyn that we rarely see on the big screen. Newcomer Gina Piersanti has the expressive face of a silent film star, which Hittman uses to her advantage, as she tells the tale of a confused young motherless teenager who finds herself being swallowed up by the macho pressures of her environment. One-man camera crew Sean Porter brings a soft, sensual touch to his photography that heightens the summer tension, and Hittman’s absolutely bumping hip-hop soundtrack ups the ante even further. This movie is dope.

After a long run on the 2013 festival circuit, It Felt Like Love is finally ready to be unleashed upon the public. In the days leading up to the film’s NYC release, I spoke to Hittman on the phone about her casting process, her personal connection to New York City, and her wish that the film industry would have more women calling important shots.

Hammer to Nail: Let’s start with the casting. I don’t know who had acted before and who hadn’t, but in either case, there obviously had to be a level of confidence and trust on your part that these kids could get the job done. Was there a pattern that emerged or was it a different process when finding the right person for each role?

Eliza Hittman: It was a different process for each role. For Sammy, the love interest, I was looking for somebody who I thought would have the qualities that a 14-year-old would be attracted to. When you’re 14, those qualities are limited and pretty specific. [H2N laughs] I thought that the actor, Ronen Rubenstein, had those qualities, and he had the authenticity and specificity of place that I was looking for. You want the person you’re attracted to to reflect yourself in some way, and that’s often so idealized. I think that was the criteria for the love interest, and he did a really nice cold read—I always have actors and non-actors do cold reads, because with a certain amount of training you never know how people are going to prepare and I wasn’t casting name actors. So I withheld the script from them as long as I could. I wanted them to come in not having prepared anything, ‘cause then I could work with them from the ground up. I just looked for natural, conversational qualities, and the type of look that they had. I always watch everything on tape afterwards, I never really think too much about the performance in the room.

For Chiara [Giovanna Salimeni], the friend, I knew specifically I wanted her to be from an Italian-American background. And I wanted her to be a dancer, ‘cause when I was younger I never took any dance classes, and I always thought girls who studied dance had this connection to their bodies and they knew how to flirt and be seductive and have presence and move and dance at dances and I never had any of those skills. [both laugh] I knew what I wanted specifically from that character, so when I was casting I went to dance studios in Bay Ridge and Carroll Gardens and those communities to find the actress, and that’s where I met Giovanna. It’s nice working with non-actors who have dance training, because there’s a lot of things they innately understand about acting even if they haven’t acted before. They understand how to move and how to memorize choreography and blocking—that was important for that character. That’s how I directed the sexy scenes, I just gave her a range of movements and she was able to execute them gracefully. So it made my life easier that she had that training. And she knew how to carry herself in a way that exuded confidence, and that was what I was most interested in.

H2N: How about the lead role of Lila?

EH: For Gina [Piersanti] I didn’t have a physical, visual image of the character. It was more emotional, which made it really impossible to cast. A lot of the people I saw in the casting process, through the help of my casting director, were too self-consciously awkward. It was like, “Oh, this person would be the Todd Solondz version of this film,” but I didn’t really want that. And I felt like I was casting a relationship and we had to believe that those two girls were friends. Even if this is the last season of their friendship, or a snapshot of the end of it, I still felt that you needed to believe they had a real relationship. So she couldn’t be too self-conscious or too physically comically awkward. It was something internal I was looking for, and that made it really impossible to cast. When Gina came in to audition, her performance very obviously had passion—I could send it to you, ‘cause it’s so charming. In the video, she has the presence of someone on screen who you can tell is thinking and feeling and has an inner life by not doing anything in front of the camera. Sometimes people can be visually interesting on screen but you feel like they have no inner world. And she has a really palpable inner world.

H2N: And did you know she was the one immediately or was she simply filed in the “definite callback” folder?

EH: I did. She didn’t know anything about the film. She just had a general description of it. And after her audition, I brought her mom in the room, and we chatted for a bit. I was like, “Your daughter’s super-talented, I want you guys to think about coming in for a callback, but before you do that I need you to read the script and know what’s gonna happen in the script.” And I charted the whole story for them in the room so there would be no surprises.

H2N: That’s funny because you’re now answering my next question!

EH: In a very casual way, I told them everything that happens in it before they’d even read it, because I was trying to take away any of the shock and not make them feel that they were blindsided.

H2N: I imagine you did that with everyone along the way?

EH: Yeah. With Giovanna, I said, “There’s this kinda sex scene but I want you to know I’m not a pornographer, I’m not gonna show anything,” and she understood and was very relaxed about it. And the boys were 18, so it was less of an issue. With the girls, it was more of a discussion with their parents and a process of getting to know them.

H2N: Was the spark for the movie itself a reaction to seeing so many dishonest and inauthentic coming-of-age dramas, particularly with regard to female representation?

EH: Yeah. It was also a reaction to—I had a short film at Sundance in 2011, and I didn’t get to see a lot of the work but on the last day I saw the award-winning films, and I saw one that just kind of stumped me. It’s not a “bad” movie, but it’s very generalized. And I went home, feeling like I wanted to make a movie that was sort of anti that kind of Sundance movie, weirdly, and then it ended up playing at Sundance.

H2N: There are Sundance movies and then there are “Sundance” movies.

EH: I wrote this film hoping that I was going to make it and was determined to make it. I wasn’t writing a three-million dollar movie. I was writing something where I was going to pull a bunch of kids together and try to make something. I knew it was gonna be during the summer because then I wouldn’t have to worry about shooting around school schedules, and I was pretty strategic about how I conceptualized the project based on the lack of resources. And I started writing a short film at first, but when I discovered the character’s voice I liked her so much that it encouraged me to go forward with pushing the character into a longer story.

H2N: How long did the writing process take?

EH: I wrote the script over the course of a year, from January 2011 to January 2012, but I didn’t write it with a deadline. I just wrote because it was fun to write it. I didn’t have anyone important to show it to, and I wasn’t getting feedback from producers. It was really just this thing that I came home from work every day and tooled around with. I didn’t agonize over it. I was thinking about making it the next year, and then we shot it in August of 2012 and premiered it in January of 2013.

H2N: Unlike a lot of these “Brooklyn directors” you actually are a Brooklyn director. Were you writing with very specific, personal locations in mind?

EH: I was writing with specific locations in mind. When I was in graduate school from 2007-2010 and all these 5D micro-budget films started popping up about New York, and I was thinking how can I do what these people are doing, but make it more unique to my New York. The city has changed so rapidly since 2001, that I always feel more comfortable taking the Q train south, beyond where I grew up, because those neighborhoods are more untouched. Even though the demographics have shifted over time, they aren’t gentrified and ubiquitous. So for me it’s always a nice experience to ride the train out and retrace my steps, because I can’t really retrace my steps in this city anymore. It’s so different.

I think that those neighborhoods are beautiful and have qualities that you don’t normally associate with New York, where kids grow up having access to water, especially during the summer. From June into September—it used to be called the green line bus, I don’t know what it’s called now, and it would stop at Kings Plaza and we would take it to Neponsit, which is just past [Jacob] Riis Park, and that’s where we shot. And we would skip Riis Park, because it had a crummy, urban beach feeling, but just beyond it, it was much more peaceful and that’s before people discovered the Rockaways being a thing. So the journeys that the characters take through the neighborhoods are definitely inspired by my own journey through the city as a teenager. And I think that you spend a lot of time on a bus as a teenager, because a lot of those outer neighborhoods aren’t connected by the subway.

H2N: Sean Porter [cinematographer] rocks. I’m wondering how much prep you guys had to talk through the film’s feel as opposed to, say, the “look.” The way Sean shoots this film, there’s a really tactile sensuality, and I am trying to figure out if that was developed through broader, more philosophical discussions, or if you talked in practical storyboarding terms?

EH: We never storyboarded. We didn’t have time for that. I think we were able to book Sean for like a solid week of prep. He looked at the locations with me and he knew the story pretty closely by the time we started, so it took us about three days to break down the film into shots. The shot list isn’t huge, actually. I think the total number of shots in this film was 156. Super pared down, probably about five shots per scene. We only had two lenses, a 50mm and a 75mm. I always explained to Sean that I wanted her face to fill the frame, or the water to fill the frame. I could talk to him about the type of shots and feelings that I wanted. Once we got on set it took a couple days to find a working rhythm, but after that we never looked at the shot list. He understood the kind of shots, and he understood that I wanted way too much slow-motion, and that ended up being a problem! [both laugh] There was a lot of talk about the subjective space in the character’s head.

H2N: Every movie has to find its feet, but with regard to the performances, was there an easing in period, or did you stick to a plan of a few takes of everything before you had to move on?

EH: I don’t think we ever did more than five takes of something. We didn’t have that sense of perfectionism on set. We knew we had to move, Sean did it as a one-man-band, and there wasn’t a commitment to nailing something.

H2N: But that’s also inherent to the story you’re telling, so it’s not selling yourself short, that’s actually tied directly into the movie you’re making.

EH: Mm-hmm. I was pretty intimidated going from shorts to features, ‘cause a short film you shoot like a 12-page script over five days… [EH laughs]… and then with a feature you shoot six pages a day, and that was pretty intimidating. But Sean had done it a few times and was super relaxed about the amount of pages we were taking on…

H2N: How many days did you shoot?

EH: 18. And then we shot two half days of pick-ups.

H2N: I was just watching a bunch of movies at SXSW, many of which I felt were pretty damn worthy of finding a distribution home, and I realize it’s soon after the fest, but combined with a comparatively tempered Sundance this year sale-wise, I’m actually not feeling as rah-rah-rah about our world at the moment. Yes, good movies are easier to make than ever, but I feel like distributors are becoming more timid and settling for “sure shots” that aren’t even sure shots. I’m just wondering where you stand on this, as it’s taken a seemingly long time for your theatrical release day to come—especially for those of us who loved the movie when we first saw it at Sundance, that is.

EH: It’s been in the works a long time. Even though there were a lot more sales at Sundance the year I was there, a lot of people took no MG deals and ended up being pretty miserable with what they got from their distributors. And I felt like because of the ethos with which we had made the film, because it was so low-budget, that I felt like it wasn’t in our best interest to take a no MG deal from a distributor that was guaranteeing very little. So we took our time and we raised the money to do the theatrical release working with Variance, because I felt like it wasn’t that much of a burden to take on. And I felt like the film had had a certain type of success and credibility that I didn’t want to just see it have a half-assed run and I wanted to be involved in the strategy of it. But I think it is intimidating and I think figuring out how to make another film is utterly baffling because I don’t know what I’m doing and I think that’s a big question, it’s hard to come out with a next project with the same passion and enthusiasm and carefree confidence like, “Something will happen with it,” because the expectations are different and the climate is different. And I don’t know necessarily what the solution is, and I don’t have advice. I feel like every year is so different, the landscape of distribution is just changing so rapidly. And then you ask yourself, how often do you go to the theater? What do you want to see in the theater and where do you watch movies? And then you get even more stumped! [both laugh]

H2N: Shit, we should probably end this on a happier note. What’s something happy we can end it on rather than…

EH: …my existential filmmaker crisis?

H2N: I kind of teed that one up for you, it wasn’t really the most optimistic question. I wasn’t looking for salvation, I was looking for support in my own confusion!

EH: I will say that it doesn’t deter me from wanting to make things that are difficult. It’s just figuring out other things around it, I guess. But I feel almost like the next film I’m working on people will have even less confidence in its ability to make a return. [H2N laughs] I don’t know. You have to make what’s interesting to you and I think that when you try and make bigger films there’s a danger in just being in a bigger pool of less interesting work.

I do think the distribution world needs more women curating what audiences see. You know that the world is run by men, and you know that the industry is predominantly male, but when you get this far in the process and realize, “Oh, everybody who’s booking theaters is male, and everybody who’s buying movies is pretty much male,” it’s a jarring realization to have, that what you see in the world really is curated by a certain sensibility.

H2N: Which connects directly to your movie. Imagine the trailer that could—or would—have been if you’d gone with pretty much most distributors.

EH: Instead we have a totally tonal trailer that people seem to respond to, and that was what we gained in choosing this alternative distribution route, is that we got to control and have a dialogue about those materials.

H2N: There we go! That’s ending on an inspiring note!

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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