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Precision Moves: Anna Rose Holmer, Lisa Kjerulff and Saela Davis on The Fits

Royalty Hightower (Photo by Henny Garfunkel)

“Stop thinking as an individual and start thinking as a team,” says Legs (Makyla Burnam), one of the Lionesses — a dynamic Cincinnati high-school drill team — to a group of young recruits, who include the shy, diminutive, but quietly purposeful 11-year-old boxer Toni. Played in writer/director/producer Anna Rose Holmer’s terrific, formally assured dramatic feature debut, The Fits, by the self-possessed and emotionally transparent Royalty Hightower, Toni has been drawn away from the comforting routine of her boxing practice by the sounds, music and movement of the Lionesses and, by extension, the more adult world they represent. But soon after she becomes one of “the Crabs” — the troupe’s newest members — that adult world delivers her a mystery. One by one, starting with Lioness leader Legs, and then Karisma (Inayah Rodgers), the dancers are struck by sudden epileptic fits.

The fits soon become a phenomenon, perhaps the result of impurities in the local water supply (a plot point suddenly accruing eerie resonance), or maybe an instance of social contagion. As the girls are hospitalized one by one, and local news reporters stop by, the seizures become a potent yet almost free-floating metaphor for so many turbulent things floating around in Toni’s mind — from the awkward sexuality of early adolescence to the loss of individuality that comes with assimilating into a team to, simply, the emotional risks required of Toni if she’s going to exit an introvert’s comfort zone.

What makes The Fits such a remarkable and rigorously impressive debut film is its skillful devotion to Toni’s point of view. Often shooting with shallow depth of field, and isolating Toni in the frame, Holmer and her gifted cinematographer, Paul Yee, make the minute tremblings of Toni palpable to us while also — aided by a deliberately sparse screenplay — allowing her to retain an essential mystery. Toni’s relationships with friends and family — particularly brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) and friend Beezy (Alexis Neblett) — feel poignant and true, yet this is a loner’s story. Holmer and her collaborators — writer/producer Lisa Kjerulff and writer/editor Saela Davis — resist the temptation to make the film more of a mystery than it should be, or to fall back on the feel-good tropes of so many other high school sports and dance movies. The film’s final uplift is both authentically joyful and unexpectedly strange.

The bold filmmaking, as well as The Fits’s appealing disregard of all that’s supposed to be “commercial,” wouldn’t have been possible without the Biennale College – Cinema, created by the Venice Biennale and run in academic collaboration with the Torino Film Lab and IFP. Savina Neirotti is Head of Programme, with Jane Williams and Michel Reilhac Heads of Study. The College, which has produced such other notable independents as H. and Memphis, has an operating premise that’s straight out of a reality TV show. Each fall, 12 filmmaking teams arrive on the tiny island of San Servolo, bringing only a skeletal idea that they’ll develop over the course of two weeks with a group of mentors and advisors. At the conclusion, they pitch their films to Biennale Director Alberto Barbera, as well as to the mentors. Just a few weeks later they must deliver fully realized screenplays. Three projects are then selected, given production budgets of 150,000 Euros (about $170,000), and completion dates for the following summer, when they’ll premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

At this point, I should provide the full disclosure that I’ve been a mentor at the college for several sessions, and, in the fall of 2014, mentored Holmer and Kjerulff when they first arrived with The Fits in its earliest, unformed state. As Holmer notes below, she had been pulling image references — girls, bodies, dance teams — and putting them on her Tumblr. The concept of seizures and social contagion loomed as a potentially unwieldy DeLillo-esque social metaphor. Toni herself was a slender character, and the documentary verisimilitude that so richly informs the final movie was absent as Holmer. Kjerulff and Davis had yet to even visit Cincinnati and meet their first-time actor subjects. So, I, along with the other mentors, hesitantly awaited Holmer and Kjerulff’s pitch and were thrilled when the two simply knocked it out of the park. Ten months later The Fits would premiere at Venice, scoring critical raves and, later, a distribution deal from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Before The Fits, Holmer worked both as a producer and in the camera department. She studied cinematography at New York University undergrad and produced documentaries like Jody Lee Lipes’ Ballet 422. Kjerulff has worked as both a producer and writer — she has both credits on Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light, with another production, Zachary Shedd’s Americana, set to premiere soon on the festival circuit. Davis edited Ballet 422 as well as Americana, was an additional editor on Northern Light and receives her first writing credit with The Fits. As this interview and this issue’s cover photo demonstrate, they are very much a team, with their overlapping credits speaking to a supportive, free-flowing, collaborative model that is a refreshing antidote to the egotistical hierarchies of much film production, studio or independent.

I sat down with the three women at a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, cafe to discuss the College, how they co-wrote their script and how they brought Toni and her world to life.

One of the concepts of the Biennale College Cinema is that you arrive with a concept that isn’t fully developed, and then you develop it there, on the island. So, what were the seeds of your original idea? How far ahead did you work on it before arriving at the College in the fall of 2014? Holmer: We had thought about applying the year before, when we started thinking about the film. And we realized that it wasn’t in a space where we could pitch it, or where we knew exactly what we were wrestling with. It grew over that next year of research. But we were excited because none of us had worked in feature-length fiction; we were unproven filmmakers, the three of us. We wanted a space where we could really experiment as artists and be allowed to take big creative risks.

Were you writing during this period as well? Holmer: We were never writing a script. [We were] doing research on hysterics, trying to find patterns [and] hooks that meant something to us that weren’t just abstract ideas, and trying to find a dance form that we felt this film could be set in. Six months out from the application, we seriously started looking at what we had. I started working on my Tumblr in more of a deep way. I was collecting choreographies, dance references, little abstract ideas. Drill came to us through this searching process.

I remember when you first arrived at the College, you had the idea of a dance troupe and social contagion — one by one the girls experience these epileptic seizures. But I don’t remember Toni being as vivid a character. How did she emerge as your lead? Holmer: Toni is a mix of all three of us. When we went into the Biennale College, we didn’t know if this was a movie about the fits or about Toni. That was a big struggle in the script development, because the fits [were] our entry point into this world. That phenomena of hysterics was what had intrigued me. But we realized that that’s not a film, that’s just a sequence. It’s a mood and a tone, but you need a character. We went into the Biennale with both Toni and the team being equal in terms of the story focus. When we came out, that really shifted towards Toni, because all three of us really identified with her as a character. The fits became important because of how they affected Toni and her growth.

You said Toni has parts of all of you. What are those parts? Holmer: She becomes this kind of stubborn, tiny little champion, which I would say is all of us. And we all had formative relationships with our brothers at that age.

Davis: I think shyness, also, and awkwardness. I think she’s part of who we are now, but also, who we were when we were that age. She is a tomboy, and I remember Anna and I having discussions about being tomboys and then growing into being more feminine.

Kjerulff: We each grew up in very different places with very different backgrounds, but I feel like we all went through the same sort of emotional childhood experience of being shy and awkward and not knowing who we were.

Holmer: And there’s kind of a self-imposed loneliness, like a self-isolation [in her]. No one is telling Toni she’s terrible or no good — that never happens. But she’s putting herself alone in a room, and we wanted to explore that idea, too. She’s not bullied, but she is questioning who she is. We all felt like we self-isolated, almost created our own outsiderness. Maybe we continue to do that, too.

I remember talking to you about films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the challenges of making a film about a mystery that may not necessarily be explained. So, I find it interesting that the fits, which was your central concept going into the college, is really just the B-story. Holmer: Exactly. Because if we had overdeveloped it, it would have become something we couldn’t have achieved with this [scale of production].

Davis: It’s also just a different type of movie. We were all in love with this Toni character. That was the story we wanted to tell. The fits was the B-story, and I think we were all okay with that.

Anna, I know you were resistant to the concept of the traditional script early on. Did you write one? Holmer: So much of what we were interested in did not fit into what we had been taught was a traditional narrative structure. I think I conflated “traditional narrative structure” with a script. Until we were talking in Venice, and [I learned about] your production experience working with directors who didn’t have scripts, I hadn’t been privy to that process. The Biennale [process] was really healthy for us, because we realized that a script was what we needed — not necessarily what an industry or a financier needed. So the [final script] is super traditional in terms of its format, but it doesn’t follow a three-act structure. And it’s short — 68 pages — because there’s not a lot of dialogue.

Saela, as a writer, what was your relationship to the script process? Davis: We started with the treatment [for the college], and then we forced ourselves to write this traditional script. We would bounce ideas off of each other and try to figure out what the full story would be. Eventually, Anna took those ideas, took that treatment and developed it into the script that we used to shoot.

Holmer: I would do pages, and then I would come back to Saela and Lisa and we would read them out loud, workshop them, tear them apart. I would always go back and do pages so that the voice of the script was consistent. But the script really came alive in those sessions with the three of us. [Lisa and Saela] held me accountable, in a way. It was really nice having Lisa as a creative producer, because we were working with limitations.

Kjerulff: Being a producer and co-writer allowed me to understand all of the decisions that were being made and to understand what was a priority in the story and what each scene needed to accomplish. Talking and arguing through all of that definitely helped in terms of making all of the decisions for production and scheduling — deciding what we needed and what we didn’t.

Did the script change much during production? Holmer: All three of us are lean storytellers, and we really didn’t write [unnecessary scenes]. Because we didn’t have the privilege of time on our side, a lot of decisions came down to coverage. Once we realized the pace of how the kids were working, we started to preemptively cut out coverage. I was always choosing [between] another take over another setup, because performance was so important. I couldn’t move at the speed that I wanted, and I had to accept that. I would debrief with Saela at the end of the night. Because she wasn’t there, on set, she had this kind of perspective that was coming from our ideal form, which was the script. She would ask “Are you getting this beat, and this beat, and this beat?” Lisa and I were checking in with each other on set, saying, “The voice that was on the page, is it in the can?”

What’s an example of a scene that had to be reworked on set? Kjerulff: The Crabs’ practice is the very first time [Toni] is in the dance group and the first time she tries dancing. By the time we shot that scene, we had been shooting for maybe a week and a half, so we had a good sense of how to use the cast and what they could handle, and also the spaces that we were in. We got there and looked at the shot list and were like, “This isn’t going to work at all.”

Holmer: That scene was written with bleachers. We didn’t get the bleachers, but we got these beautiful blue gym mats. There are a lot of things happening [in that scene]. One of the big narrative things is introducing Maia and Beezy to the audience. We made this circular dolly track that pivots, literally, with Toni in the center of it, and we let the friends enter the frame. Paul, our DP, really pushed for close-up coverage of Karisma and Legs. He [said], “We saw them obscurely through a window, but the audience needs to learn that these women have the power of a close-up at this moment.” He was right — we needed to give them power, and one of the few ways that we give someone power in our film is by giving them a close-up. Mostly, Toni is the only one who has that power.

Davis: I remember not knowing what anything would look like and then getting the footage. I think having to cut [shots] established the tone of the piece. It was all of these static shots, and you can just sit there and watch the girls acting and performing. I thought [the footage] was amazing. I’m kind of happy that it happened that way, because for the film, I think it did a lot to establish the tone.

Lisa, as a producer who has previously worked in documentary, what did you bring from that tradition to this, your first fiction film? Kjerulff: I think that a large part of the success of the production was knowing how to go into a community and work with it to bring the film to life. I went to the upper peninsula of Michigan [for Northern Light], and I became part of that community for two years. I was living in Florida, so it’s a world that I had no knowledge of, people that I had no connection to, but we shared a humanity and a time together that has informed my approach to working with people. And so, going into this community, we really appreciated everything they were giving us. As much as possible, we brought them into the process because our success was dependent on the team and the coach and the community center understanding what we were doing, trusting us and being a part of it with us.

I remember at the college being a little freaked out that you had not yet been to Cincinnati, and that you hadn’t met in person this team you hoped would be the main part of your film. Holmer: I was hesitant to involve them [in the early stages] .

So when did you contact them and why did it have to be this specific group of girls in Cincinnati? Holmer: When I saw this clip on YouTube of the Q-Kidz, it was like the feeling of falling in love. Right before I went to Venice, I called Ms. Quicy, [their coach], on the phone, and I was like, “Hey, do you want to go in on this crazy thing with me? I’m going to come to Cincinnati after we pitch in Venice.” Then I flew to Cincinnati, and the moment I walked into that community center — it was such a powerful space. I called Lisa and Saela and said, “It’s really freaky because it’s like walking into a set that is so much of what we had envisioned. The team, the community here — I think we can make a movie with them.” And we never formally ever asked anybody else. Really, if it hadn’t been for the support of the West End in Cincinnati, this movie wouldn’t exist.

Davis: We decided on the Q-Kidz because we were looking at all the girls on their website and were falling in love with them. A lot of our characters came from actual girls on the team. We would see a girl, and we’d be like, “That’s Beezy.”

Holmer: When I went to formally pitch Ms. Quicy in Cincinnati, I said something like, “So have you given it any more thought?” And she was like, “What are you talking about? We already agreed. From the moment you called us, we were involved. Did you fly out to Cincinnati to convince us to be in your movie?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And she was like, “You didn’t need to do that. We’re in.”

What about the possibility of being perceived as privileged outsiders coming into their community? Did you do anything to combat the possibility you’d be seen that way? Holmer: I think you have to be really honest with yourself about it, to acknowledge that we are not from that community. A lot of it is just listening and knowing that you are not an authority on anyone else’s experience except your own. A lot of the process was being open to other voices — listening, taking a step back, checking in and saying [to the actors], “Does this feel authentic? Does this feel like you? How would you change it? Is this comfortable? Do you feel safe?” That wasn’t checking in every now and then. That was checking in every hour. And it continues through the process of bringing this to an audience. We still have to check in on the safety of these girls and say, “As this film comes out into the world, do you feel respected? Would you like your voice to be part of this process?” Those questions don’t end just because the movie is edited. We’re dealing with amazing, real human beings who made this film with us, and that conversation is ongoing and forever.

Davis: That also speaks to the doc experience, too. I remember Anna was very aware of going into the community and what it would mean to bring a crew into their space.

Kjerulff: We really wanted the experience to be just as beneficial for the girls and the team as it was for us. We didn’t want to walk in and feel like we were taking advantage of all of these amazing things that they were giving us. We wanted to create an environment where they could ask questions, where they could ask our sound mixer how she does her job, or talk to our camera guy about what he was doing — to create a more collaborative and safe space for everybody so that we could be an example of what [filmmaking] could be.

Anna, I was struck by something you said to Taylor Hess in the interview you did in Venice for Filmmaker online. You said that in your previous experience working on film sets that you didn’t really like directors. So, how much of the way you approached The Fits was a response to other situations that you observed or had been part of? Holmer: I think that what I meant, and what we tried to create here, is a system of leadership that wasn’t led by an ego. And I think that comes from how we considered creative producing to be such a big part of the voice. It’s like, yes, I was in the role of director. And often, that required me to say how I felt, and [my voice] was way higher than some other voices. But I’ve seen a lot of negative examples of that, where people get caught up in their own interior vision of perfection, and they’re not listening to these amazing people around them. What I have learned most about directing is about leaning in on your collaborators, listening to what they need and trying to fill that void for them. It’s also about expressing sincere and honest gratitude to your team and letting them know that they’re an invaluable part of this process.

Another thing that is important to me is creating an environment where you can fail, and it’s not like the end of the world. Where someone’s not screaming at you to get this light in place because we’re losing the location in an hour. Especially with kids — that they never feel like if they messed up the movie was somehow on their shoulders. We had to say, “We’re responsible as adults for bearing that weight.”

Could you talk a little bit more about that? Because on every film you do lose the light and you are getting kicked out of the location in an hour. Holmer: We were working with 50 kids in a community center that was active the entire time that we were shooting. We started to adjust our production schedule, because we couldn’t wrangle 50 girls for a full turnaround setup in two hours. It was on us to change our plan, our approach to shooting, to give them the space, because they needed 16, 17 takes. And you don’t take that away from them. You give that to them. It became like, what can we give them to make it possible for them to do their best? And we were in the same place every single day. Not having any company moves saved our production. And I mean, we built it that way, but it was like, we didn’t have the womanpower or manpower to do company moves, and they would have really eaten up [time].

Kjerulff: We staged everything at the community center. We had a room with all of our equipment in it. We had a room for our production and our DIT station and a holding room for the girls away from set. It really just allowed us to do everything we needed to.

Anna, how did your previous work in the camera department tie into this film, and when did you decide upon the style with which you wanted to shoot this film? Holmer: I’ve had a lot of experience shooting dance and knowing the relationship between camera choreography and the choreographer’s work. Shooting vérité dance is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. But I knew really early on that I wanted a very stylized, patient, precise type of camerawork. I remember one of the first films that I talked about with Paul was Hunger — the idea of allowing a body to flail in and out of a very specific frame, where there was an inherent, really discomforting feel, but the camera wasn’t following the body.

But that was not how Paul first saw the film. When he first read our treatment, he thought that we would be taking a little bit more of a nonfiction approach to it, but I really wanted to do a single camera, very precise framing, with choreographed camera moves. A lot of our script is about isolating Toni, and we used a lot of cinematographic tools to do that. Some of that is focus, some of that is framing, and the decision to do widescreen, so that even if you’re framing Toni in a portrait, there’s empty negative space around her. Paul added a lot because of his background as a gaffer. He just had an amazing way of wrangling the light with so few tools. He came on two weeks before we started shooting and did sun charts with every room, so he knew every moment that we were going to get direct sunlight.

Saela, what were other challenges in post, in terms of structure, storytelling? I’m presuming you had screenings, people looked at it. Davis: We did the inaugural Sundance [Institute Story and Edit Lab]. At that point, it was a month into our edit, and it was the perfect time to go there, to intensely work on our edit together, and to have the guidance and mentorship of the people at Sundance. There were some scenes that we had difficulty figuring out how to properly hone in and find what Toni was thinking. How do we tell this and remain within her head, her perspective?

Holmer: The role of music changed pretty heavily in post. We had originally wanted to do a lot more with diegetic music, but we realized in Saela’s first assembly that we wanted the score to be Toni’s interior voice. Collaborating with our sound designer, Chris Foster, and our composers, Danny [Bensi] and Saunder [Jurriaans], in post, was a huge growth in our thinking that had to happen within our 12-week edit.

Davis: The sound [design of Toni’s interior voice] was a challenge. We were calling them “internal sounds,” and we had to figure out what we wanted them to sound like. We wanted to avoid clichés, like heartbeats.

Holmer: We tried a couple of things to fill that interior space [of Toni’s] with sound. Somewhere in the process, we stripped a lot of things out. [It became about] creating this inner, peaceful space, with all the tumultuous sounds of the world coming through her body, and you’re just hearing their remnants. But that kind of happened by mistake when Chris and I were isolating one [effect in order] to hear it. We were just hearing reverb on a skipped rope or something, and we were like, “Oh, that’s what it sounds like in Toni’s body. It’s like being inside a cave — sounds are getting filtered through.”

If you had more money, what would it have gone to? Holmer: More dancing.

Kjerulff: Maybe a longer production schedule.

How many days was the shoot? Kjerulff: 20 days. Nineteen with cast, and then an extra day with a skeleton crew. And then we went back for two and a half days at the end of June and added a few scenes with a skeleton crew.

What were those scenes? Holmer: In the edit, the things that I was really attracted to were these moments of levity and joy, and I felt like we needed a few more. And we tried to condense [scenes]. The push broom scene was something that we added, which [was about] condensing the blooming of Toni and Beezy’s friendship with Toni starting to understand the joy of movement. Trying to do two things at once, instead of separating them. Also, there were some scenes that we really needed to stay on Toni for longer in a single or just have an isolated single of her. So we did a couple of pickup close-ups of her. But yeah, there were just a few beats of joy that we needed to make the movie that we wanted to make.

That magic realist moment at the end of the film — I don’t remember it being in the treatment that I read, or in our conversations. Holmer: It’s super abstract in the [final] script. “Time stops but doesn’t stop.”
Kjerulff: That’s all it ever was in the script.

Right. And at what point did that line become the scene that’s there now? Holmer: It was really a conversation with Paul [Yee] that started it. He was like, “Okay, you say these crazy statements in your script, but what do they mean?” We started to look back and see how we had written about the fits —

Davis: As out of body experiences.

Holmer: It was about trying to make it a transcendent moment. We wanted it to be subtle. We didn’t want to explode the world. We wanted to keep it within this kind of restrained tonal voice that we had. So we did lots of crazy camera tests at the end of every day with our crew, trying to build the apparatus [needed to do the shot].

The shot could be viewed as something happening in Toni’s mind. Holmer: We wanted to play around with that idea.

But it also could be that the other girls are seeing it, too, which is a very different meaning. Holmer: Right. We wanted the audience to question Toni’s perception of events in a very clear way in that sequence — and therefore, the perception of the entire film from Toni’s perspective.

Last question: Do you think you would’ve done this film if the college didn’t exist? Holmer: The college was the seed for us to start thinking about making this film, because I wanted to make an experimental narrative film, and the college seemed like one of the very few places that would offer us the support and freedom that we wanted.

Kjerulff: It’s really challenging, I think, to make a first narrative feature, to find the money and to put in the time while in a vacuum. Having the support of an institution like the Biennale was really encouraging. Their timeline gave us the motivation, and the deadlines really helped push everything forward.

Holmer: I think if the Biennale didn’t exist, we would still be making a movie, but I think that the end result would be very different. If this had to be produced under even vaguely traditional financing, some of the risks that we took would’ve been turned down. Maybe even the three of us [working together] would have been a risk.

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