• 10. August 2020

ELIZA HITTMAN

Das folgende Gespräch führte Carolina Helsgård am 1. Dezember 2019 in Rom.

Interview with Eliza Hittman by Carolina Hellsgård

Eliza Hittman is an American director of the feature films “It felt like Love”, “Beach Rats” and “Never rarely sometimes always”, which was awarded at Sundance and won the Silber Bear at the Berlinale 2020. She is based in New York City.

Carolina: We met at Cal Arts’ grad school in 2008 and I remember some things you told me back then. Originally you come from a theatre background, but you were quite unhappy about that world, and decided to go to Cal Arts to study film directing. Can you tell me about your background and how you came to that decision?

Eliza: At 19 I had an internship at a theatre called Soho, which is a downtown theatre in New York. They produce mostly work by new playwrights, and I was very interested in that. The artistic director there was very kind to me, during the summer when the theatre was closed and they couldn’t rent the space, he would let me mount productions. I started this collaboration with some writers from a playwriting program at Brooklyn College, and that was sort of my first real directing experience. I found the kind of dynamic of working with a playwright to be very complicated, since they’re fundamentally the primary creator in the theater. As a director you’re like the secondary creator. Somehow I couldn’t really see a future in it. It didn’t feel like a sustainable career choice. I went to Cal Arts not knowing anything about filmmaking. On the other hand, I had all this experience in play development. I had read hundreds of plays per year, while working at the theater and was able to identify the kind of writing and stories that I was drawn to.

C: You’re such a visual filmmaker, and it’s so much about these small moments in your films. How did you discover that cinematic language?

E: That’s Cal Arts’ influence. The strength of the school was in the theory classes and the films we watched. There was an emphasis on realism, which ended up forming the work that I was interested in making.

C: What I find fascinating is that your shorts as well as the features, all have more or less the same style, although you obviously worked with different camera people. I almost have a feeling that it doesn’t matter with whom you work, your style and visual sensibilities are consistent. What I’m trying to get at – how do achieve this cinematic style? How do you implement your vision with different DPs?

E: There are always challenges in working with DPs. Especially with a certain kind of American male DP. They have very consistent ideas about what’s cinematic. But it’s about bringing specific ideas and references to the table, and seeing if they can work within them. My films all follow a basic logic that makes sense. My editor [Scott Cummings] says that the shots are always kind of the same.

C: That’s exactly what I mean. How do achieve this kind of consistent cinematic style?

E: There’s a consistent shooting strategy that I have, which I’m not necessarily conscious of. It’s a logic that makes sense intuitively to me. I never try to create a perfect master shot, it doesn’t interest me. Cal Arts wasn’t rigid in how they taught you to shoot, so you just find a way that works intuitively. We never learned things at Cal Arts like basic coverage.

C: Right, we’re not interested in that.

E: We’re not interested, so we find an intuitive way that makes sense. For example, I don’t start with a perfect master shot, and I don’t use wide shots to orient the audience in space. I don’t care so much about those things. Instead it’s about aligning the audience with the interiority of the character. It’s about pulling them into the subjective experience of the story. That’s first and foremost my approach and my movies are written around that experience. What is on the page is supported by the shooting strategy, if that makes sense?

C: It totally makes sense. I think that is the very core of your filmmaking. At the same time it’s kind of a magical thing. I’m very impressed by how you externalize the inside of your characters. As a viewer I go underneath the surface and identify with their emotions. I also have a lot of sympathy for their actions, even though they’re sometimes quite unnerving. I wanted to ask you about the use of slow mo. I don’t remember seeing it in “Beach Rats” – do you still use it?

E: There was some slow-mo. The DP I worked with on that film, Hélène Louvart wasn’t such a fan of it. But we found sort of a compromise in it. We’re using slow motion at some moments, but it’s very subtly integrated and it’s barely slow. It’s like thirtytwo frames per second. It’s like something you feel but barely see. It’s used in some moments to punctuate subjectivity.

C: In “It felt like love”, it was defiantly more present. Did you have to convince your cinematographer back then to use it?

E: I don’t remember. I think he was used to shooting in a certain way, but then he realized what we were doing and embraced it. It was a micro budget film and we spent a few days breaking down the script into a shot list and he didn’t have a crew. We had to work together in a very immediate and present way. The shot list was minimal but is representative of what’s in the film. It is something you build upon when you shoot, and we expand where we can.

C: So you’ll shoot a scene and then you possibly add some additional shots?

E: Yes. But I never cut things from the shot list, since it’s so pared down to begin with. It’s very economical and on the day of shooting there’s nothing I can sacrifice, rather it’s about what I have time to add.

C: Right. Another a bit nerdy question is regarding the monitor – do you use a monitor or do you watch the reality?

E: The last two movies were on 16 millimeter and the monitor is really frustratingly bad. And the signal that’s transmitted…

C: It’s this weird video signal, right?

E: It’s terrible, and if you look at it, you would be disappointed in the movie you’re making. I don’t rely on it and I think the monitor is there to kind of check the frame and to establish the composition. And to you essentially watch the performance as close to the camera as possible.

C: Right, but you don’t do that then?

E: That’s right, I don’t watch the monitor. I think what’s nice about working with Hélène Louvart is that she’s so in touch with the emotional storytelling of the film. So I don’t need to stare at a monitor. Hélène is an intuitive operator because she’s so close to the story.

C: She sounds amazing. I know her work from other filmmakers and am a big fan of her.

Do you to prepare a lot with Hélène? Does she give you notes on the script or how do you do it?

E: Mostly Hélène asks questions about the script and the dialogue. She doesn’t approach the script like an expert; she comes to it with a lot of curiosity and questions. And then we go through it page by page. It takes a long time to break down the script into shots. Usually we come up with a logic for the movement in the film. For example, where we’re using a Steadicam. Like we look for a pattern for using a certain kind of movement.

C: You’re looking for a certain kind of rhythm?

E: Yeah. We sit together and break down the script, and find a logic based on whether the character is moving or not. I tell her about the movement I envision, and Hélène proposes how to execute. And then we test things, we make sketches. Although Hélène has a tremendous amount of experience, she doesn’t pretend to know everything. So we have to take these ideas and experiment and explore them.

C: I admire how you cast the actors in your films. They all have a special kind of aura, which works incredibly well cinematically. Do you talk to Hélène during the casting process?

E: The people I trust the most with regards to casting are Hélène and Scott – my editor. Hélène is going to be looking through the lens and Scott will be editing the performance, so both of those opinions are very relevant. Usually we’re aligned in our thinking. I’m sort of a casting directors worst nightmare, since I’m looking for something, which is not easy to articulate. Sometimes casting people look at what’s on the page and it becomes sort of cliché. They find you a stereotype of what’s written. But I think casting is very simple in a way – who does the director like? Who do they feel the movie in and want to watch?

E: Like with “Beach Rats” for example, I was searching for some kind of authenticity, and then I ended up casting this kid from London. In a way it’s about emotional authenticity, as well as authenticity of the world.

C: It’s interesting that you mention authenticity, we all want something which feels real. But it’s not enough that it’s only real, it has to have a shape, or be under control in a way. It’s not like a documentary thing, it’s more like stylized authenticity. Then it works really well.

E: I don’t know if it’s quite authenticity. I mean you’re looking for somebody who embodies, not only the physical attributes of what you imagine, but also the interior ones. If that makes sense?

C: It does make sense and I’m wondering if this idea was relevant already, when you did theater? Perhaps that’s why you migrated towards film, since theater doesn’t deal with the interior in the same way?

E: I’ll get back to that. Working on “Never rarely sometimes always” I always had a girl in mind. But I’d never knew she would want to do it. After seeing 300 girls from L.A. and some non-professional kids, I was still thinking about this other girl. She lives in western New York, and I found her while making another movie five years ago. I had been following her music on Instagram and on Facebook and invited her down to NY. She had never done a film before and Hélène just happened to be in the city that week. Hélène and I went out into the world, and made our own version of a screen test. We felt like working with this girl, but she had never done a movie before. In the end it’s all about the three of us, working together. The film is about a girl who’s navigating New York under crisis. So we took her on the subway and shot her while she navigates the city. It’s like a video sketch of a performance. Scott edited it and we looked at it and we thought about it. We talked plenty about it because obviously it a tremendous risk to ask somebody who has never performed in a film before to carry an entire movie.

C: It’s a huge responsibility.

E: It is. The goal was to see how she felt onscreen, but also how it felt to work together and what the dynamic would be like. I think what’s fun about working with Hélène is that she’s sort of open to doing these things as part of the process. Some things that we shot with her in that sketch, are things that ultimately are in the movie.

C: So this sketch convinced the producers to go along with this particular cast?

E: Yeah. The sketch wasn’t perfect, it’s not a perfect performance. But we also did some more traditional scene work, to see what her acting was like and felt like. When we were done that day, Hélène said that she was totally convinced. And regarding the plays I worked on, they were more ensemble driven.

C: Right.

E: From those experiences, I definitely learned how to work with performance. I think film is very different in the sense that you have to chart this emotional journey for each person. In each scene and through the whole film. It obviously entails thinking about blocking and composition and all of those things, which are in the filmmaking. But in film every frame is its own stage.

C: I wanted to ask you about “It felt like love”, and how men are sexualized in a way that I haven’t seen before. “Beach Rats” had the same kind of feel to it. How does this element relate to your latest film?

E: “Never rarely sometimes always” reminds me of my first short film “Second cousins once removed”. It’s about these two girls who stray out into the worlds, in unfamiliar territories to do something sort of illicit. “Beach Rats” and “It felt like Love” are films about characters on self-destructive quests. They’re sort of set in the same worlds almost. When I started casting “It felt like Love” the guys had these very self-conscious physiques. In a way, they were more sort of symbolic, than they were characters in the movie. And Lila was looking to have you know an experience that’s more symbolic.

C: It’s kind of a hyper masculine culture.

E: I think still exists very much.

C: I’m in Italy since some months and that’s exactly how guys look here. When you go to the beach, that’s the kind of people you see. They are hyper masculine, and have an almost homoerotic vibe.

E: I was playing with that tension of hyper masculine and homoerotic.

C: Watching the cast in “Beach Rats”, I almost feel like your teaching me something new, how my own gaze tunes in on male representation.

E: In classical art there’s a balance between the way that we look at men and the way we look at women. But in film it became skewed towards a certain sexualization of women. I wanted to turn the gaze back on men. Especially in narratives around teenage female sexuality, they’re all about sexualizing the protagonist. And usually it’s about sexualizing a young girl. So I was trying to do something that was sort of this anti-Lolita narrative, and a film about the pain of not being desired. It didn’t make sense to sexualize her with the camera.

C: And I completely agree. I mean, not for one second you sexualize her. Being women we are so aware of this kind of like play with gazes since we’ve been raised with these sexualized characters around us. In a way it feels so immensely radical when you don’t sexualize a young woman, and that says a lot about the world that we live in right?

E: It’s part of the frustration of the characters, that she wants to be sexualized and isn’t. That was important. There’s like a Todd Solondz version of that idea.

C: Right, “Welcome to the dollhouse”.

E: It makes the character sort of comical, without visual pleasure. It shows her purposefully awkward or purposefully geeky. And I was trying to avoid that also, if it makes sense.

C: It makes sense since when I look at Lila, I mean she’s cute. It’s not like there is something wrong with her outside, it’s rather on her inside, where the problem lies.

E: It’s not like a superficial problem in a way, but it’s more about how she feels. And that colors the world she exists in. She has to break free from herself, but what she strives for, is not a healthy solution.

C: It feels like all your films are political and certainly “Never rarely sometimes always” will have some political impact. Do you want to talk about that?

E: I don’t know if it will have a political impact. I think it’s divisive. I think “Beach Rats” stirred audiences in a lot of ways. It inflamed a kind of white nationalist crowd. Like the alt-right, and it stirred up anger in some misogynists gay men. They were unhappy with the ending of the movie, and unhappy that a woman would make that movie.

C: What was your response to that?

E: I think it’s absurd, because obviously as women, we’ve never owned our representation. And I think on a fundamental level, people are angry that the main character does something they don’t agree with. Gay men are used to seeing themselves as heroic victims, and the movie is about internalized homophobia. It’s about the destructive impact it has on a human being and his family and community. I think people had a hard time seeing that because it wasn’t so easily messaged to them. I felt very under attack in Q&As with “Beach Rats”. I definitely felt tension around presenting it. But I also think, there’s something exciting in making a movie where people feel and think differently about it. If everybody walks out having identical kind of experiences, I don’t know if that would be so interesting.

C: So do you have to brace yourself for something like this happening again?

E: With “Never rarely sometimes always”, I don’t know how it will land or how much controversy it will incite. I hope people go and see it. I think that we’re at a moment in history, where you can’t create a neutral piece of work. To have a dialogue with both sides, I don’t think that’s possible anymore. It is a too divisive moment in history to have a rational conversation about certain issues. The new film is a character driven film, and it’s not optimistic and it’s not pessimistic. It shows the reality of what women in this country do when they need abortions, which is largely travel. I felt that that was a very untold experience, and I’m always looking to make movies about untold experiences.

1st of December 2019, Rome.

eingestellt von Franz

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