Sundance-winning director Eliza Hittman: "I asked for film and that was it."
When Eliza Hittman was trying to finance and cast Beach Rats, the project was dismissed out of hand as “the one with all the gay sex.” Fortunately for audiences, Hittman persisted in getting the honest, beautiful, and at times, uncomfortable, film made with nontraditional casting and a DIY ethos, resulting in a piece that had Sundance buzzing and landed her with a Neon distribution deal and a Directing Award at the prestigious festival.
Beach Rats is in conversation with Hittman’s previous feature, It Felt Like Love (Sundance '13). The latter is a coming-of-age film about a teenage girl navigating a complicated sexual awakening, and the new film is about a teenage boy torn between the urge to fit the mold of his South Brooklyn peers—spending the summer partying and making out with girls—and his curiosity about sex with older men. This tension creates an almost triple life, each part of which is hidden from the other: a typical teen bro in a straight summer romance; a young, gay man trolling the internet for hookups, and a son dealing with his dying father’s in-home hospice.
“I wanted 16mm. I was willing to forego all of the toys.”
At once lo-fi and sophisticated, the film was shot by French DP Hélène Louvart with an extremely bare-bones 16mm setup that gives it a raw, grainy feel. But its script and acting are far more nuanced and substantive than in a typical teen movie. Much of the film’s drama plays out on the face of its excellent breakout star, Harris Dickinson, in his feature film debut. The role is supported by several non-actors from the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood where the film takes place.
No Film School sat down with Hittman the day after the film’s Sundance world premiere, where the post-screening Q&A contained a passionate debate about who can and should tell stories of populations to which they do not belong. In our interview, we candidly discussed this exchange, along with casting non-actors, choreographing sex scenes, and shooting on 16mm film with only one light for night scenes.
No Film School: Can you talk about your mix of traditional and non-traditional casting?
Eliza Hittman: When I initially started the casting process for the film, I was trying to attract bigger name talent, and I failed. People weren't excited about the script. Agents weren't passing it along. There was a very sarcastic reaction to it, like, "Oh, is that that one with all the gay sex in it?" I always thought that the lead character was such a complicated, meaty role that people would flock to it, but I think that the industry is still very conservative when it comes to gay content.
Then, I just started looking more broadly. My other film used a lot of non-professional actors and I wasn't sure I would do that on this film, but when I started seeing who was out there, I knew I had to, or else the film wouldn't be authentic or convincing. I thought this time around I would be able to just turn over the casting process over to the casting director and let her create the world, but I took it back. I hired a bunch of my students, and we had some great associates who did street casting in more of an unconventional, non-traditional process. But I think that the lead role had to be played by somebody who wanted an acting career. [Otherwise] it was asking too much.
"The industry is still very conservative when it comes to gay content."
NFS: It's a real actor's role; he has so few actual spoken lines. How do you direct someone when most of their work is expressed through body language their face and body?
Hittman: It was very much an exploration of the inarticulateness of a certain male at a certain age and how they're unable to discuss what they're feeling. It's so internalized and so pressurized. In casting somebody who doesn't speak very much, you're always looking for an actor that has an incredible amount of chemistry with the camera, but also somebody who you can really see in a screen test is thinking and feeling on camera. [Dickinson] had the “still waters run deep” quality that we were looking for in the role.
There's so little dialogue, but there's a specific rhythm to it, and it's not always naturalistic. He understood the rhythm of the dialogue intuitively. I would call the style of filmmaking very “behavioral.”
NFS: How did you actually direct him on set? Did you say things like, "Look pensive"?
Hittman: I think you cast people who you feel have a general understanding of the scene and what the character is feeling from the outset, and then you work to tweak and revise what they're giving you. We did a few rehearsals in a studio, but a lot of his prep for the film was spent just in the handball court with the guys, working out with them and hanging out. It was more about him understanding the world.
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NFS: How did you get yourself into the mindset of a teenage boy to write the script?
Hittman: It's not a personal story, but the job of the writer is to personalize the material. When I was in high school—and It Felt Like Love dealt with this too—my mother was very ill and was very absent. I always spent a lot of time in the basement trying to disconnect myself as much from what was happening as possible. Those are just teenager things, and this kid who doesn't know how to articulate what he's feeling became the tension of the dialogue. I think once you begin writing and find the voice of the character, it becomes very easy to predict what they will do.
"It's not a personal story, but the job of the writer is to personalize the material."
NFS: Right, but it still felt so male and so much about masculinity. Where did that voice come from?
Hittman: It's not something that was so researched. It was a character idea and I just started writing. The first draft of the script was very much all behavior, and he was just acting, going back-and-forth between worlds and not thinking about anything.
Then, as I went back to revise, I carved more of a progression into the story. But I think that you just always try and write from a place where you understand. I understood the pressures of what he was going through. This pressure of trying to have a summer love affair, even though he doesn't totally connect to it but it was what was expected of him, and the pressure and expectations of trying to please everybody. That was a big entry point to the character. I wrote it at a period of my life where there was so much pressure to make another movie and make a certain amount of money per year and balance all of these things, and I feel like that's very much in the character. He's forced to balance all of these things.
NFS: Both of your films deal with teen sexuality. How do you go about dealing with those topics sensitively both on set and for audiences?
Hittman: Well, there was a lot of nudity in the film and I asked for everything up front and was very clear about what our expectations were from him, but I also said that it would all be done very, very tastefully. I don't think any of the male nudity in the film ended up being so in-your-face provocative or gratuitous.
It's just about finding a balance. You want the moment to feel real and authentic without overly punctuating it for the audience. The set was incredibly small. I think that as a human being, your conscience guides you through the process, but it was important to the script that there be certain elements of onscreen sexual encounters and violence.
“It’s just about treating sex like choreography and not forcing them to do it until the camera is rolling, so you’re just going through the choreography of the scene.”
NFS: Was there anything you did on set to create a certain type of environment?
Hittman: We rehearsed, like the first scene with Simone [a sexual encounter between Dickinson and his would-be girlfriend, played by Madeline Weinstein], for example. We did a version of it without any kissing, and then you slowly integrate those other elements.
With sexual scenes, you get the actors to be comfortable with each other. We got to know each other and that was part of the process, but with those scenes, you don't really do them until you turn the camera on to shoot them. That's the best way.
It's interesting because the cinematographer of the film, Hélène Louvart, had worked with people like Larry Clark. I asked her, "How does Larry Clark approach sexual content?" She said, "He was just very straightforward. It's like, 'You do it or you're not in the movie.'" For me, it's just about treating it like choreography and not forcing them to do it until the camera is rolling, so you’re just going through the choreography of the scene.
NFS: She did a really beautiful job with the cinematography. What were some of the technical decisions that were made around shooting?
Hittman: Early on in pre-production, I wanted more toys. I was like, "Ah, I've never done anything on a Steadicam, or I've never done everything on a dolly, and I would love the experience of staging things a little differently or integrating other types of movement into the scenes," and then I let go of all of that and I decided that I wanted 16 mm. I was willing to forego all of the toys to strengthen the overall look and feel of the film.
I loved the idea of staging scenes in darkness, and digital has so much latitude, which is fantastic, but it wasn't what we wanted for the film. I wanted to be able to really embrace the darkness of the character, the darkness of the movie, the darkness of the night, and I thought that because the film had such a timeless quality that 16mm would give us that look.
We shot on ARRI 416 with 35mm lenses, and we had an Easy Rig and no other toys, and it was a very skeleton crew.
NFS: How did you light those very dark nighttime scenes?
Hittman: There was a consistent approach to the lighting of the film. One of the references that I looked at—and I didn't have many references—was an installation video-art piece called White Epilepsy by a French filmmaker named Philippe Grandrieux. It's just a creature moving in the darkness, and there's a frontal light and that's the only source and it's unmotivated. It's not the moon; it's just a totally non-diegetic source.
I thought that that was an intriguing concept, and then my cinematographer who's French was very familiar with Grandrieux’s work, and we talked a lot about this idea and conceptually how it connected to the narrative of the story. It was like catching an animal moving at night. It related to the title, to seeing things in the darkness that you're not supposed to see.
The entire night scenes of the film were just lit with an LED light on a stick that the gaffer held, and we played with and tested the intensity and brightness and the color that we were working with, but it was very, very, very minimal. I'm all about embracing limitations and working minimally and not using every tool. I asked for very little. I asked for film and that was it.
NFS: What about the scene where your protagonist is sitting in the pouring rain on the handball court? When I saw that I thought, "How the hell did they shoot that?”
Hittman: It was real rain, and I had told everybody, "You guys, I want one scene of him on the handball court in the rain, so we have to track the weather." Then, our first day on the beach there was the most massive torrential downpour, and everybody is like, "You should just shoot it," and I was like, "Oh no, it's way too much rain."
“I'm all about embracing limitations and working minimally, not using every tool.”
We all just ran out and shot it, and I fell in love with the feeling of it even though it was so melodramatic. But sometimes you say, "Why not?" We all ran out there. We were all drenched. We didn't record sound , and we just found as many moments as we could with him in the 10 minutes that we shot the scene.
NFS: Do you have any other advice about really stretching your budget to get what you want?
Hittman: A lot of people wait for some ungodly amount of [money] to come in before they make things, and I wouldn't have been able to begin to build a career without working within limitations. With It Felt Like Love, I was looking a lot at DSLR micro-budget production models, and I was like, "How do I take that model and make something that's more authentic to me?"
That film had Sean Porter and his RED, so we were able to elevate the camera, but I had no crew. I had no camera team.
I think you just have to not be afraid to work with what you have. In some ways, the desire to make the film has to come before your own expectations of what the set and toolkit are that you think you need to make it. You just have to have the desire to make it and work with what you have and not always wait on cast. I'm still figuring it out.
NFS: That's so much easier said than done, but I couldn't agree with you more. We all want to have the big lead or the best camera, but that's not really what it comes down to.
Hittman: No, it's not, and I think that I've been able to show that I'm somebody who can discover talent and get really honest performances, and maybe on the next film or the film after that some other big actor will see those performances and want to work with me. But if not, it's okay. I'll make another discovery. I think that you have to, first and foremost, really want to make a film.
NFS: There was some challenge to you and the film from your Sundance audience during the Q&A. How do you navigate those situations?
Hittman: Well, I was anticipating some volatile responses to the film. It's very provocative. I think that you have to be prepared and empathize with the viewer, or at least listen. You have to know what you want to say before you go into it. There are a lot of male filmmakers who are very famous and I'm always impressed with the way that they dismiss audience questions, but I think at this moment I have to embrace the criticism.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.