The Truth, The Horror: Eliza Hittman on It Felt Like Love
“If you happen to know a brave fifteen-year-old, that’s not too embarrassed to act in an emotional teenage role, that deals with things teenagers deal with — please have her contact me. Most of the kids I’ve been seeing can only handle a part that’s an idealized version of how they want to be perceived. It’s kind of incredible that parents would let their children perform in some totally exploitative slasher movie, but tense up at the opportunity to be a part of a fictional yet emotionally truthful coming-of-age film.”
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Eliza Hittman posted the aforementioned on the Tumblr blog for her debut feature film, It Felt Like Love, on June 7, 2012, deep in the throes of pre-production and struggling to cast the lead role. Within weeks, the scales had tipped, and Hittman finally had her Lila: the film’s 14-year-old centerpiece, who wrestles with the desire to mature faster than she’s mentally prepared for one Sheepshead Bay summer. Played with tenacious curiosity by Gina Piersanti, Lila falls under the intoxicating example of her sexually forward best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), and subsequently sets her sights on collegiate bad boy, Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein). What’s in store for the blindly determined Lila is hardly a seaside romance.
After premiering in Sundance’s 2013 NEXT section and mounting a healthy run on the festival circuit, It Felt Like Love opens through Variance Films this Friday at the IFC Center, with a national rollout to follow. One of our most recent crop of 25 New Faces, Hittman spoke to Filmmaker about the need to frame a coming-of-age film from the female perspective, the importance and challenges of casting a 14-year-old for the demanding role of Lila and the film’s subjective aesthetics.
In this writer’s opinion, It Felt Like Love is one of the most significant American independent films in recent memory. A fresh, honest voice with an exacting eye, Eliza Hittman cuts through the trends that coalesce in the privileged pockets outside the studio system. Please go see and support this film.
Filmmaker: So you actually started out in theater. You went to school for it.
Eliza Hittman: I did, yeah, for undergrad.
Filmmaker: How did you make the transition? How did you decide that you wanted to start getting into film?
Hittman: In theater, I was really interested in developing new works, I wasn’t really interested in —
Filmmaker: Seeing them through?
Hittman: Yeah, I was interested in the life of a new play. I was interested in developing writers, and working with them. I worked at a theater called Soho Rep. I was the assistant to the Artistic Director for a number of years, and during the summer, when they weren’t using the space, they would let me mount a play. Not in their name, but just in their space. And so I did a couple productions with playwrights, and all of a sudden, they started to get the attention.
Filmmaker: Annie Baker shows up.
Hittman: Yeah, she does. She was past my time; she was newer, of a newer generation. But yeah, the playwrights started getting all of this attention and they felt no loyalty to the person that was developing and producing and directing the work. Those relationships were weirdly volatile and that world was more competitive actually than the film world.
Filmmaker: I saw Machinal recently, and that was the first play I’ve seen in a really long time where I felt like I could see the director’s hand. Because theater is the actor’s medium and the playwright’s medium…
Hittman: But it’s also the director’s medium, like if the production is the good, the director is invisible.
Filmmaker: Yeah. In film, it’s not quite the reverse, but we’re able to see the director’s influence a lot more, because it’s a visual medium.
Filmmaker: I was interested in your theatrical background because, to me, It Felt Like Love is very visually aggressive.
Hittman: Yeah, I had to throw away everything in my process because the process you use in theater isn’t the process you use in film.
Filmmaker: A lot of the camera work is subjective, it’s from Lila’s perspective. Especially in the first shots of Sammy and the boys, you pick up on things that girls at that age are fixated on. Their different body parts. Their chests, their hands. How did that work with directing your d.p., Sean Porter?
Hittman: Well, to create something that’s subjective, you’re essentially putting the audience into the point of view of the character. So a lot of it is about the angle. If I put the camera here [to our side], and film us having this conversation, this is the objective point of view. And if I put the camera here [in front of the interviewer], and then show my reverse reaction, this is subjective point of view. Some of it is just the positioning of the camera and to heighten that subjectivity, I use a lot of slow motion, and then some details shots, where you’re seeing smaller details. Not just his face but also something that the character notices or observes.
Filmmaker: In terms of working with Sean, was that something you then laid out at the beginning and then he always knew to go in for those pickups?
Hittman: The shotlist would have, you know, Lila’s POV on Sarah, reverse close-up, and then it would say, detail shots, segmented shots of the guys’ bodies: biceps, tattoos, you know. And then Sean would find the image and the frame, but we would know in advance to get those shots. Then it was kind of the editor’s challenge to figure out how it fit together, because it was a bit unconventional.
Filmmaker: You had two editors, right?
Hittman: It worked really well actually. Because my first editor is a friend from Spain, Carlos [Marques-Marcet], and he able to be on set, so he was cutting while we were shooting and he did the Sundance cut. But then he had to go back to Spain to work on his own film [10,000 KM], so Scott [Cummings, the other editor] was sort of collaborating with him from a distance. Scott was sort of farther back, and Carlos was closer up.
Filmmaker: Scott was still present on set.
Hittman: Not every day. He was working. That posed some problems, I mean, during the shoot.
Filmmaker: So it was nice to have Carlos’s perspective.
Hittman: And then Scott sort of tightened everything up at the end.
Filmmaker: Carlos was editing while you were directing it, so you were never over his shoulder. You had to put a fair amount of trust in him.
Hittman: A little bit, and it was really hard because I couldn’t direct the cut and direct the film.
Filmmaker: No, of course not.
Hittman: And it was just too much, because I would come in and watch him do it and it was like, “Oh god, is this my film?” It’s just too much at once, to be confronted with the work while you’re making it.
Filmmaker: Totally. And if you don’t like it, it brings you down.
Hittman: You never like it.
Filmmaker: You hate everything.
Hittman: It creates total panic central.
Filmmaker: Something I think is prevalent throughout the film is the theme of performance, which is what happens with girls that age. They’re so naïve, they’re almost propelled by their inhibitions and they don’t know who they are yet as a person. It’s exactly as Lila does, she mimics Chiara’s behavior. It comes through in the visuals as well: the very first time we see Lila’s face, she’s caked in sunscreen and looks a bit like a mime. The performative element is also clear in her delivery, when she says things like, “he went down on me,” you can tell she doesn’t really believe it. So, I was curious in terms of how –
Hittman: She’s performing the lines.
Filmmaker: Right. In terms of directing Gina and the rest of the kids, if you framed it in that context, or you didn’t want them to put too much thought into it.
Hittman: I didn’t want them to put too much thought into it. Most of the conversations we had, like with Gina, were in the early stages of trying to cast her cause she was very phobic of the project. There were questions about why I was making the film and I talked to her about how kind of unheard of it was to see male nudity, women are always naked in films, and just trying to show her that the film had a point of view.
Filmmaker: And it was hers.
Hittman: Just like, as a filmmaker, I had a point of view on what I was showing. You know, I talked to her about how there’s always an expectation that women will be naked, and this not a film about teenage girls getting naked and titillating a male audience.
Filmmaker: No. And that was a key decision for you from the outset, I think, because it frames the film in a certain way.
Hittman: It depends who’s making the film.
Filmmaker: And you also started a Tumblr, to further your perspective and the casting process.
Filmmaker: So where did you get that idea from? Or when did you do it?
Hittman: At the very, very beginning. I started that Tumblr, and I just started collecting images of teenage girls. How they’re photographed by photographers and how they photograph themselves. And then I started using it as a casting Tumblr. I sort of realized early in the process that Tumblr is a hub for teenage girls, and so whatever girls would come to audition, they would follow the Tumblr. So I started using it in a way as an audience engagement tool, and it worked, though I didn’t realize that until further in the casting process.
Filmmaker: Right. So it sounds like a big part of making this film for you was to fit your perspective in the conversation of how women are being depicted.
Filmmaker: But it’s done subtly.
Hittman: I like teen movies but I think that they’re for men.
Filmmaker: I want to know how you feel about Kids.
Hittman: You know, I like Kids. I just re-watched it for the first time, actually.
Filmmaker: 20th anniversary, baby.
Hittman: I know. I re-watched it, and I don’t have the sort of talking point complaints that people have about Larry Clark. Actually, I sort of have different questions about the film.
Filmmaker: I saw that movie a little too young, I think, and it kind of momentarily scarred me. I couldn’t look at men for two weeks.
Hittman: It’s a morality play, actually.
Filmmaker: Oh, totally.
Hittman: It wasn’t that different from the world that I was raised in. At the same time that Kids came out, there was this controversial Calvin Klein campaign all over busses.
Filmmaker: The Kate Moss ones?
Hittman: No, it was like, kids, teenagers up against a wood panel backdrop. And there was an off-camera voice saying, “Do you like your underwear?” And they were super scandalous. But actually, I had friends from my high school that were scouted in Washington Square Park.
Filmmaker: That was the place to be.
Hittman: Yeah. And one of them made it into those ads, and he was on all these talk shows and it paralleled Kids. That moment.
Filmmaker: Well it’s interesting, because the kids in Kids are the same age that Lila is, right? For some reason, maybe it’s because of when I first saw it, they seemed a lot older to me.
Hittman: They’re not.
Filmmaker: They’re not. And I think it’s so important that Lila’s the age she is in this, because 14 is the precipice. I remember being 13 and still kind of being on top of the world and being really comfortable with myself, and then it starts to go downhill for a little bit, and it’s just a vulnerable period, where you’re totally susceptible to what else is going on around you. And I remember you saying that you had to dial the script down because you didn’t want to be forced to cast an 18-year-old.
Hittman: I started with it dialed up. Knowing that I could pull it back.
Filmmaker: But it was never written for someone older, and you were never considering casting that.
Hittman: From a producing standpoint, once you make a film about adults, you kind of need actors. We didn’t have a budget when we started. It was an “if you build it, they will come,” mentality. And I always knew that if I was going to get a feature made, I was going to rally together a group of New York City kids to make a film. But I should also say that Kids wasn’t a reference, at all, for the film.
Filmmaker: I don’t think so at all.
Hittman: Some people mentioned it, and it’s actually, like, I hadn’t seen that film since college.
Filmmaker: No, I definitely don’t see any similarity. Whenever I read about the film, it gets compared to Breillat and Pialat, but there’s just something so hilariously brutal about their filmmaking to me. I laugh uncomfortably at a lot of moments in À Nos Amours or Fat Girl, but I would say that your film is much more honest. To me, there’s no shock value.
Hittman: There’s more identification with the character, whereas with Catherine Breillat films, there’s a little bit of an agenda. I like them a lot, though.
Filmmaker: Oh, so do I. You could be compared to a lot worse.
Hittman: Obviously, they were in my head more than, say, Larry Clark.
Filmmaker: Yeah. I did watch your short Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight, and the narrative interest is apparent between the two films, but I think the style’s really different. And I think that’s what makes It Felt Like Love so special, is its visual language.
Hittman: They’re different. There’s more access to the character in It Felt Like Love.
Filmmaker: What you said earlier about making a movie with a bunch of kids. I felt like that let you speak freely, and maybe a little louder, as a director. Not that you were overshadowing them, but I don’t know that we would’ve gotten a clear picture of your talent, if it was with big actors. Do you know what I mean? I know it never has to be one or the other…
Hittman: I think kids are fun because they just get the immediacy of the job.
Filmmaker: And they sort of have boundless energy, except for when they get frustrated.
Hittman: They were at the right age. A little younger, and they can quickly lose focus. They just check out.
Filmmaker: How old was Gina when you shot it?
Hittman: 14. The youngest kid on set was 12.
Filmmaker: Did you have to amend the script for her sake?
Hittman: I did.
Filmmaker: So she said, “I’ll do it if this is removed?”
Hittman: She had a script full of post-it notes, with things that made her uncomfortable. Some of them I worked around, and some of them, she grew out of whatever phobia she had about it. And some stuff, I just couldn’t get her to say. Like I couldn’t get her to say, you know the scene where they’re watching porn?
Hittman: I think I tried to get her to say, “I like fucking,” and she couldn’t do it. Physically, like she looked so uncomfortable. Or it says she says something about porn and she wouldn’t say the word “porn,” so I re-wrote it, and she says, “I thought about doing that.” You know like, weird, small changes. They adjusted her whole approach. And in the end, I don’t feel like I sacrificed anything.
Filmmaker: Yeah. You can’t serve as a double for her voice. [Hittman was Piersanti’s body double in a scene with male nudity.]
Hittman: Right. So I worked a little bit around it. And I think part of it was just because it was her summer between eighth and ninth grade. I think had it been ninth and tenth, it would’ve been a totally different shoot.
Filmmaker: Why did you decide you had to have her?
Hittman: I don’t know, I’ll send you her audition. She was perfect. She did like a perfect audition.
Filmmaker: What did she read?
Hittman: The scene where she goes up to Sammy’s work. She was natural. She was vulnerable. She was conversational. And she was visually interesting. I tell my students this all the time, but when you cast people, you have to look at them on the monitor, and you have to ask yourself, “Do they have — what I call — a palpable inner world? Can you see them think on screen? Can you see them feel on screen?” And she had all of that. And there are plenty of actors who you just look at them, and there’s nothing beyond the image. You can’t describe it, but I always just call this inner world. If you see the audition, you see the inner world.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I know how it works. Once you’ve decided on someone, that’s it. So, she was it.
Hittman: She was it. It was hard. I didn’t want her to be self-consciously awkward or self-consciously or physically vulnerable.
Filmmaker: Yeah. That’s what I mean when I say her performance is interesting because you can tell that, as Lila, there’s the performative element there, but there’s still very much that real, insecure sort of in-transition young woman behind the character.
Hittman: There’s always sort of a coming-of-age off-camera and on-camera when we do something like this.
Filmmaker: It is a popular genre, obviously. And it works its way in a lot of different styles, but why do you think people like to explore coming-of-age so much?
Hittman: I think they like to sort of reflect on their formative years, you know. There was a quote that I read that was so good. When you’re in adolescence, you’re sort of like a crab without a shell. You know, and whatever sort of scars or wounds you get, you sort of carry with you for a while. People like to explore the truth and the horror of that moment in their life.
Filmmaker: I also think that you’re so wonderfully irrational, the adult part of your brain hasn’t crystallized so you’re willing to push yourself so far out of your comfort zone – I think that’s really interesting to explore.
Hittman: I think in the end, Gina did the film because she trusted me and she liked me. I don’t think she was necessarily in love with the material. There was no way she was going to love it. She had to play an undesired character, she had to do things she was uncomfortable with. She had a hard time rationalizing Lila’s behavior.
Filmmaker: Of course, I think the irony of it is that a real actress who’s a bit older, with some distance from the part, would love to play something like that.
Hittman: I know, I know. I get e-mails all the time from 20-year-olds saying, “Your movie really spoke to me. I’m an actor, this is exactly the kind of role I want.”
Filmmaker: Cast me! Yeah, but it just wouldn’t have worked. Also, I feel like a lot of it can be chalked up to societal expectations, like once a girl is 18, she should know better than to be after these bad boys and getting in over her head, you know? And so then, do we have less empathy for that sort of woman?
Filmmaker: It’s interesting. Slash fucked up.