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A Right to Tell Their Stories: Eliza Hittman on “Beach Rats”

In the space of only two films, “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats,” Eliza Hittman has become one of America’s most promising new filmmakers, making work that can compete on a global stage instead of just being informed by fellow American indies. So far, she has specialized in the difficult sexual awakenings of, respectively, teenage girls and young closeted gay men. “Beach Rats” focuses on Frankie (played by British actor Harris Dickinson) who spends his days hanging out, drinking and doing drugs with three male friends, and has a girlfriend, but seems to only come alive during anonymous pick-ups with older men he meets online. Hittman’s perspective is distinctly female and feminist: “It Felt Like Love” shows how hard it can be for teenage girls to avoid being sexually exploited, while “Beach Rats” unabashedly sexualizes young male bodies. Essentially, she’s making the films Larry Clark has been trying to make his career, and doing it much better than he ever has.

Both of your films are set in Brooklyn, and the borough seems really central to them. I was curious if you grew up there, and if you live there now?

I did. I grew up in a neighborhood called Flatbush. My parents still live in my childhood home. I live in a neighborhood called Kensington now. My grandfather ran a boys’ club on 6th St. and Avenue D for 40 years, so I also consider the East Village home.

Does the choice of music in your soundtracks reflect your personal taste?

With “It Felt Like Love,” we were looking more towards what the kids in the cast were listening to. There’s a kid who’s part of a collective started by Joey Bada$$. His real name is Jesse Cardasco. I didn’t have such a huge budget for that film. There’s not a whole lot of non-diegetic music in “Beach Rats,” but there is a little bit of a score that we found from a composer in Miami who’s about 20 years old named Nick Leon. It’s a mixture of the world and the interests of the people in the film.

Well, you went from using tons of hip-hop to electronic music.

The thing about the electronic music in “Beach Rats” is that it wasn’t specifically composed for the film. It was originally part of a hip-hop track and I liked the tension between the dreamy, atmospheric track and the harder vocals. That fit the mood of the film.

It did occur to me that if real 16-year-olds were doing a dance routine to Mykki Blanco, they would be amazingly hip.

That was originally a different song. I can’t remember what song, but that was a real dance troupe. We couldn’t afford the rights.

Both of your films are coming-of-age tales. What attracts you to this theme, and are there any autobiographical elements?

There are thematic elements which are autobiographical, but nothing event-oriented. The films explore themes from my life. It’s challenging, because obviously, all work is personal but not necessarily directly autobiographical.

Watching “Beach Rats,” I kept thinking how much easier Frankie’s life would have been if he could have kept on drinking beer and smoking pot with his buddies but then gone home and made love with one of them. Given what later happens, that’s obviously completely impossible. But he’s really living in a world where it’s impossible to live out his true sexuality. There’s the slogan, “it gets better,” and for him, it really doesn’t unless he’s able to completely change his life. I’m gay myself, and a lot of people have very naïve ideas about how easy it is to leave the milieu you came from and enter a different world and come out.

Even if he went to college, it would still be an extension of the world he started out living in.

Did you talk about these issues with the actors?

Harris and I talked a lot about why he was doing what he’s doing, his motivations, and the parameters of the environment, as well as his economic background. At the same time, the film is so driven by the character’s behavior that I don’t want to overdo psychology.

I really like the ambiguity of the film’s final five minutes. Did you originally have other ideas for the ending?

I did. Then I realized I’m just not so good at writing endings. For me, it’s a portrait and slice of life. There’s no resolution to what happens. Every time I tried to write a different ending, I was essentially starting a new film. I wanted to leave the character lingering in what he’s done and knowing his inability to deal with who he was has consequences, not just for himself or his family, but for the world.

There are very few films that go into such detail about what it’s like to be in the closet. The best comparison I could come up with is actually “The Conformist”!

I’ve never seen it. I will watch it, though.

Well, it’s set in a much different context, but it’s about someone who becomes a fascist to cover up his true sexuality.

I can see that comparison, somebody conforming himself to the opposite of what he is. As illogical as it is, it makes sense that extreme homophobia could be part of someone’s journey to come out.

Apart from Dickinson, did you cast real Brooklyn street kids?

We did, and I initially thought I was going to cast someone from the streets for his role. I quickly realized it would be impossible to ask them to do what the script required them to do. His three friends and his sister were found in different handball courts in Brooklyn. It’s useful when you’re casting non-professional actors to get people who have other skills that might translate. I found a basketball player at high school, and that kind of physicality can easily translate to acting, blocking and everything else required to work in a film. I also worked with non-professional actors in “It Felt Like Love”.

Your film depicts male bodies with a decidedly female gaze. As you’ve toured film festivals, have you found resistance to this? On the other hand, have women reached out to you and cheered this?

With “It Felt Like Love,” men were turned off by the gaze of the film. To be quite honest, they’re used to watching films about a female protagonist that turn the audience on. It’s a movie about a 14-year-old girl you don’t want to see have a sexual experience. She’s putting herself into sexual situations before she’s ready. With “Beach Rats,” the gaze is even more intriguing to people.

You’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to Claire Denis and “Beau Travail,” but as I’ve said on Twitter, the film made me think much more of Larry Clark.

My cinematographer is from France, and she knows Claire. When the film premiered at Sundance and I got those comparisons, she sent me a message saying “Claire does not own the male body!” The comparison is a bit too easy.

In terms of female filmmakers who’ve used the female gaze and filmed male bodies in a way that reflects their libidos, “Beau Travail” is a very obvious reference point. But Clark has also filmed male bodies similarly, and because you’re a woman, few people would make that jump.

I’ve gotten it in the past. It’s somewhere between those worlds.

Also, I know some gay men reacted badly to the film at Sundance.

That was right after the election, at a moment when everyone’s emotions were elevated. The controversy over the film was because it was made by a woman, which to me isn’t a controversy at all.

People have a tendency to throw around the word appropriation without thinking about what they’re saying these days.

I think it’s a valid conversation, but the more critical conversation is “How do we give opportunity to people who deserve a right to tell their stories?”

Certainly, I want to see more films made from a genuinely gay male perspective, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t have a right to tell stories about gay men. In fact, I think “Moonlight” and “Happy Together” are two of the best films ever made about gay men, and they’re made by straight guys.

I could say that about some of my favorite films about women, which are made by men. It depends on the perspective of the filmmaker. Sometimes a bit of distance can actually serve a film.

I really like the way you subverted clichés about online hook-ups, in that Frankie winds up being more dangerous to the men he meets than they are to him. How much research did you do in that world?

I was thinking about a lot of gay-baiting crimes. That’s something the film explores. I was also a teenager when AOL came out. I spent many nights having erotic conversations with anonymous strangers. That’s a shared experience, I think. The Internet gave me a portal to this erotic place. That’s why the screen-saver is a tropical beach, for me. I wanted it to be a portal into fantasy.

How did you find the men who appear on the “Brooklyn Boys” site?

They were actually cast by a producer who talked to a friend. I don’t remember how it all came together, to be honest.

How do you decide to shoot your film in 16mm? As a result, I think it has a really distinctive look, particularly in the lighting.

I thought about 16mm particularly when we were talking about the lighting. There are a few Philippe Grandrieux films I like a lot, particularly one called “White Epilepsy”. The films all use this frontal light. I was thinking about how this is very much about a character who confronts something he perceives as a darkness within himself. This is within the environment. These digital cameras are so light-sensitive and about letting light in. I wanted to control light. I was also thinking about 16mm as a gendered privilege, because there are so many young male peers I have who are committed to shooting their New York indies on it. As a female filmmaker, I just want to get my movie made in an economical way and not ask for things that are out of reach. But women need to ask for things that are out of reach. That one choice would give it an anachronistic feel and elevate the film’s world. It’s important to fight for those elements.

Do you feel part of a community of American independent filmmakers?

I do, and for me the community gets wider and warmer. I started off in a theater space, and it wasn’t very inviting and it was very privileged. Every time I meet filmmakers who understand the challenges and risks that come with making independent films, I’m impressed.

For me, the problem with a lot of recent American independent films is that they’re really tame. They’re made on a budget of $200,000, but they’re as safe as recent Woody Allen films, and they’re often totally white and male. Obviously, you can still make a great film from that perspective, but I was really excited by the film “Columbus”.

I haven’t seen it, but I know one of the producers really well. We went to graduate school together.

It’s a film that’s really accomplished formally. It shows the director is really familiar with contemporary world cinema but has his own voice. And it’s a film made by an Asian-American director that’s as good as, say, Hirokazu Kore-eda. It’s coming from a completely different perspective than all these New York indies that have no ambition and are basically just white guys telling boring stories about themselves.

I think "Beach Rats" will be my last white male movie. Don’t quote me on that. Overall in my career, I feel a commitment to telling stories about women and female friendship. When I made “It Felt Like Love,” I didn’t really break into the industry in any way. It was a very micro-budget indie. I wanted to counter all those white male indies that never go into areas of Brooklyn that they wouldn’t be interested in seeing unless they were representing other areas of the country. It’s a very macho industry. I’m shooting a TV show now, and it’s the most male set I’ve ever been on, in terms of crew and everyone being from a specific demographic. I don’t know how to change that. I work as a professor too. I’m always trying to champion my female students and give them more of a voice. I wish I had more power. I think everyone feels this right now. I want to change the way people think about themselves. Now is the moment to get more politicized. The kind of white male New York narrative is over.

Do you have a third film in the works?

I do. I’ve spent the last few years researching what’s kind of termed “abortion tourism.” I’m working on a movie about two girls from Western Pennsylvania who hop a Greyhound bus and enter into the labyrinth of New York City trying to reclaim their youth. That’s as much as I’m willing to say now.

Well, if you look at American movies and TV, you’d think abortion doesn’t exist, so I think that’s a great idea.

I’m also trying to capture the magic and horror of a crisis and transformative moment of youth – the idea that all these women are forced to travel to get abortions. It’s an untold story. I also want to get out of the city a bit and make a road movie, with a more chapter-like narrative structure. I think I will direct it next winter, 2019 maybe. I took on a lot of TV projects and I want to get more comfortable with bigger crews. 

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