Barely Legal: An Interview with Eliza Hittman

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Image credit: Variance Films

Set in director Eliza Hittman’s native Brooklyn, It Felt Like Love (2013) evokes a place far from the sidewalks of Bedford Avenue or the Greenpoint of Lena Dunham’s Girls, and closer to the working-class borough of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) or Saturday Night Fever (1977). In it, we follow the listless fourteen-year-old Lila (newcomer Gina Piersanti) as she wanders through a wet hot American summer of teenage ennui and sexual provocation. Lonely and bored, Hittman’s “anti-Lolita” (as she christened Lila in a recent New York Times interview) watches her friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) in the throes of summer love. Craving what Chiara has, she sets her sights on the buff and bronzed Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein). Despite his passive disinterest, Lila is relentless in her pursuit and her compulsion to make something—anything—interesting happen in her small world.

With three short films in her repertoire, Trickster (2008), Second Cousins Once Removed (2010), and Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight (2011), Hittman crafted a quiet storm of a film with her first feature. She deftly evokes the discomforts of Catherine Breillat’s oeuvre and grounds the film in a surprisingly funny, though dark, script, which is based on her own teenage experience. It Felt Like Love stands out against the countless films of its coming-of-age genre (be it those of John Hughes or Harmony Korine) because it has no inherent moral. Rather, as Hittman discusses below, the film reflects back to its audience the humour or earnestness we bring to it.

Shot on a micro-budget (though its lush, atmospheric aesthetic would suggest otherwise), Hittman mainly cast non-professional actors and filmed the movie over 18 days, using her parents’ basement in Flatbush as a primary location to cut costs. It Felt Like Love is an independent film in the truest sense of the word. On the other side of the Hudson River in Manhattan, Hittman spoke to us about working in the indie world, toying with teen movie conventions, and challenging audiences with representations of teen sex.

cléo: What is it that Lila craves?

Eliza Hittman: She craves a sexual experience more than an individual; the kind of guy she targets is more of an object. She hears that Sammy is a little bit easy, so she assumes that with the right amount of lubrication in a drunken environment something could potentially happen. She’s mistaken. So while what she wants is the experience, whether it’s negative or positive, she’s trying to control how it unravels in a very divisive way.

cléo: Your camera distinctly lingers over the male bodies. Was your intent to avoid filming the female bodies on screen in this way?

EH: I think that for Lila the whole world is kind of charged. She’s observing Chiara, her sexuality; her world is sexual.

cléo: Is that just her age?

EH: Yes, but it’s also how she feels about herself, and that’s reflected in how it was shot. A lot of the teen movies that I like—and that I was addressing and employing the clichés of—they really sexualize the main character. I wanted to do the opposite, where you’re like, “No, you don’t want to see her do something sexual!” That’s the tension of the film.

cléo: What were some of these teen movies?

EH: The ones you watch addictively as a teenager, like the John Hughes films; Sixteen Candles (1984). Basically movies with awkward but likeable protagonists, who set their sights on an older guy.

cléo: I know you spoke at Sundance about the movie being called a “dark” film, but it is also pretty funny.

EH: It’s really interesting to have a film that plays so differently to different audiences, because when I wrote it I knew it was funny. Then when we screened it at Sundance, it played like a dark comedy. But in other places, sometimes the audience has a less charged response. For other audiences, it’s just a film about a girl who’s going to be raped. Lila isn’t seen as complex, but asking for it.

cléo: Is that discomfort productive? Whether it is making your audience uncomfortable, or even the actors themselves?

EH: In a way, a film has an energy of its own. When I was writing the scene where Sammy and the guys paddle Lila, it wasn’t necessarily as dark. But once I started casting and bringing these elements together, it started becoming something much more sinister, which was the result of the energy of all the people that we brought together. Gina is vulnerable, and the actress’ vulnerability mixed with those guys, who have an edgy nature…the film took on that power. I always knew that it would be the climax of the film, but I didn’t know the paddle scene would have the effect it did on people.

cléo: What is Lila’s relationship to her own vulnerability?

EH: She’s challenging it. She’s willing to throw herself into the unknown, and that’s pretty common in a female experience. You’re almost willing to take the risk even if you’re reading on the situation isn’t all that developed. When I was thirteen or fourteen, it felt like my classmates and peers were doing that—they were targeting guys and throwing themselves into situations. They would always come out of it thinking it was so much fun because something had happened. There’s always a level of anticipation from the actual experience as opposed to the feeling of accomplishment. Women have an aggressive side that you don’t normally see.

cléo: Why not show scenes of explicit sex?

EH: A lot of it is legal issues. Most of the cast was under eighteen and that restricted the decisions I could make—what I could show, what I couldn’t show. I wanted to be more explicit in Chiara’s story, what was going on in her sexual life—wanting to show something more real or palpable, which is instead shown through dance.

cléo: Chiara is an intriguing character, as she is a foil to Lila—or, Lila wants to live vicariously through her.

EH: I had a close friend in high school who had a very lively and active sex life. We were all watching her in awe. She had men in a revolving door system. I think you always have that kind of person in your life, someone who acts as a template of what you think your world or your experiences should be like. In the script, yes, Chiara does function very simply as a foil—she’s a year older, but that year developmentally is quite vast.

cléo: Yes, it is that age when we rapidly learn how to perform being sexual, but everything is unclear.

EH: When we were cutting the film, I had an argument with my editor who wanted to use takes of Gina smiling and edit them into the footage. He wanted to create some release from the neutrality of the film and I fought him on it. I said, “No, that’s not the story, we need something that’s more neutral and forces you to look into the character.” There’s one moment that I let Lila smile—after the paddle scene, in the car. There’s a small smile from her in the darkness as Sammy is driving her home. For her character, it was traumatic, but she got through it and that’s exciting. That’s what we see in her smile.

cléo: Can you talk about working with non-professional actors?

EH: I came from a theatre background and that process is so centred on the actor. As a director, you’re so focused on making them feel supported and at the same time getting what you need from the script. When I started studying film, I was relieved that I got to let go of that process. I started watching Robert Bresson films and recognized this other model of working. I realized the theatre process didn’t translate to film and that how you rehearse a play isn’t how you prepare for a film. I started working with non-actors in graduate school, and I found you get something different—something that’s irreplaceable, that’s the real deal. When I started thinking about making this film, I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of resources. I’d always planned on gathering a group of New York City kids together to make a film, so I wrote it always knowing it wasn’t going to have a traditional casting process. Also, I wanted the film to feel regionally specific. Because I wrote the film thinking about my own youth, I wanted the kids to be like the ones I knew from my high school. Not that I don’t think I couldn’t have made the same film with professional actors, but what’s fun about working with kids is that they really understand the immediacy of acting.

cléo: Can you expand on that?

EH: Film is supposed to be this art form where you are always present and are always in the moment. Kids get that. They jump into it and don’t expect to have a conversation about the psychology. There’s no intellectual dialogue happening, no talking about the scene. They just did it and there’s no self-awareness, there’s no questioning me on set. Eventually this will happen as I start working on bigger budgets and all that stuff.

cléo: Can you talk about filming in your native Brooklyn?

EH: I chose to partly because there was an era in independent film in the 1970s where there was such a flavour of New York—Dog Day Afternoon, Saturday Night Fever—and now films from New York feel very staid to me.

cléo: What about Larry Clark’s Kids, which, I think, shares parallels with your film?

EH: I just re-watched that over my winter break. That’s still a really solid film, but I was surprised at how much more of a morality play it is when I revisited it. Like, “This is what will happen to you if you have unprotected sex!” It came out when I was fifteen or sixteen, so it made a huge impression on me. It was at that age when you were discovering sex.

cléo: It Felt Like Love is not only a Brooklyn film, but seems to also be a part of an emerging Jersey Shore aesthetic—which isn’t a pejorative!—but it focuses in far more interesting ways on the tanned, rank bro culture that we’ve come to know through the reality TV show, and now films like Don Jon, too.

EH: I didn’t make The Jersey Shore connection until I put together a kind of look-book for the film. I went through all the kids’ Facebook pages and took screen-grabs of them smoking pot, hanging out, drinking, and throwing up peace signs. I showed it to this 75-year-old investor. He looked at it and said, “I hate The Jersey Shore.” I said, “Huh?” I see the guys in my film much differently. I don’t know if I’m off with that assessment or not, but I always wanted to show a side of the city that New Yorkers (or “New Yorkers”) are very detached from. I wanted to show people who live in the city and work in the city, and show it in an aesthetic way—make it beautiful and interesting, but not condescend to it. I found there was something more interesting and aesthetic about that world. And some of those guys are quite beautiful onscreen, quite sculptural, and have a lot of magnetic qualities. You’re not meant to look at them and laugh; you’re supposed to feel like you’re in their space with them.

cléo: How much of their own personalities did you incorporate into the film?

EH: The majority was scripted, with the exception of the rapping and some of the commentary in the basement. This was because Gina was never in Sammy’s apartment with him or with those guys, because she had some levels of discomfort around people talking about sex. We shot everything in singles and in close-ups, so she was never really there—I worked around her in these cases. In that scene, I basically let the guys just put on the pornography, or hang out and smoke, just talk, or tell stories, but that was the only element of the film that was at all improvised. Even within that, there was the structure of the dialogue that they would then say.

cléo: This is your first feature, are you confident about funding for future projects?

EH: I think the next film is going to be much harder, because this one was just about proving that I could do it. There was so much adrenaline that went into doing it, that just getting through the shoot was a success for me. Then we cut it really quickly, we got into Sundance immediately, and it was such a win-win situation. The next one, I’ll have to measure it against myself and my expectations. I’m not managing that part very well. There is so much pressure! People ask, what budget level do you want to work in, and I think, “I just want everyone to get paid this time.” What budget level is that? [Laughs.]

Julia Cooper is the managing editor of cléo.

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Julia Cooper is the managing editor of cléo.