Eliza Hittman is a writer, producer and filmmaker. Her debut feature, It Felt Like Love, premiered to significant acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Starring Gina Piersanti, Giovanna Salimeni, Ronen Rubinstein and Jesse Cordasco, Hittman’s film presents a fourteen-year-old’s dangerous journey towards adult sexuality during a lonely Brooklyn summer. Featuring a startling central performance by Piersanti, It Felt Like Love has since gone on to tour the 2013 international festival circuit, including a screening and question-and-answer session hosted by the Austin Film Society in September 2013 and Official Selections by the International Film Festival Rotterdam and BAMCinema Fest. Ms. Hittman, recently named one of 2013’s “25 New Faces of Indie Film” by Filmmaker Magazine, spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about the process of making a feature-length picture under the radar, the exoticism of outer Brooklyn, and what makes her debut film the “anti-Lolita.” This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: You studied film directing at the California Institute of the Arts [CalArts] in my hometown of Valencia, California. Did you go into the program with a project you already wanted to make?
Eliza Hittman: Actually, I had never written a script before then or generated any material until my first year there. We were given some really interesting, unconventional assignments to think about ‘cinema,’ one of which was to go out and shoot a landscape. My father is an anthropologist and he works on a Northern Paiute reservation in Nevada that I spent a lot of time on as a child. Since I was going to drive out there to visit from California, I thought it would be a good place to make this landscape. I shot this boneyard where people leave furniture and household garbage right in the middle of the desert.
SM: You used a dump for your landscape. Can I safely assume there was no paid crew of any sort?
EH: …Where people also leave dead animals. They call it, “The Pit.” I went out with some kids from the reservation and shot them roaming around this dead animal pit. They were excited, and there were all these sorts of bones, and me, repulsed, with a camcorder. When we brought the landscapes back, we were expected to generate several different story ideas that could emerge from these places. The one I came up with was about a child who kills an animal and brings it to The Pit, and that became my first film, Trickster (2009). The title refers to this tribe’s creation story, in which the world is born through the mischief of Coyote, the trickster. Trickster also has a sibling named Wolf, with whom he shares a lot of tension because one is always in trouble and the other always trying to get him out of it. My film was about two siblings within this landscape – on the reservation.
SM: Has that landscape assignment had an impact on the way you’ve made short and feature-length films since?
EH: It has, it has, because now I’m always looking for stories in places; stories always emerge from a distinct environment for me.
SM: Where is the most fertile environment you’ve seen since The Pit?
EH: I shot my thesis film, Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight (2012), in one of the sorts of neighborhoods in Brooklyn I grew up in. They are almost untouched by gentrification. Most of my classmates at CalArts were international students who had the chance to go back to their homes whenever we had a break. So, having already shot two films on the West Coast already [by this time], I was forced to open up my thought process to Brooklyn and to see it as somewhere exotic. The outer neighborhoods of Brooklyn have this sort of wild beauty. The kids live very far from the train, but have all this access to water. They swim every single day; they have boats, they have jet skis, they have four-wheelers.
SM: Brooklyn has been the muse of quite a few filmmakers in the past. Was it challenging to find the sorts of “exotic” or new places you were searching for since the borough has been the epicenter for so many movies?
EH: There used to be a wide range of regional films coming out of New York – like Saturday Night Fever, for example. That film is so beautifully specific to Bay Ridge. But that era of filmmaking is over, I think. When I was in school, the whole DSLR revolution happened, and all of these films suddenly began pouring out of Brooklyn. I thought, “How can I make something that no one will have already seen if anyone can make a movie now?”
SM: And yet you not only shot your thesis film, but also your first feature, It Felt Like Love, on location in Brooklyn.
EH: *Laughs* I did.
SM: The main characters [Sonya, played by Viktoria Vinyarska, and Sveta, played by Nina Medvinskaya] in Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight are quite young. Did you end up making that film with your friends?
EH: No, [the actors] came from all over. I scouted a dance school in Brighton Beach, went into some casting studios…Fedor Filonov, who plays Dima, the love interest, I met walking down the street.
SM: The star of It Felt Like Love, Gina Piersanti, was even younger: fourteen-years-old. How did you find someone so young to look at your script and say, “I’m happy to do these things?”
EH: I didn’t – which led to a process of reigning in the script. I now realize that how you write sensitive content is really important. First, I think, you have to write a script that’s very direct and communicates to you, the filmmaker, what’s happening. Then you have to bury it. The original script really scared a lot of people.
SM: Did people think it was unacceptably derogatory? And if so, how did you find the money and the people necessary to make a feature-length film?
EH: Yeah, I got negative feedback from a lot of film institutions at first. Then we ended up getting a Google Matching Grant, as well as some individual investments. I did most of the fundraising under the radar because I was afraid to try and present the script after so many negative responses. I didn’t think pitching the film on a crowdsourcing format would be successful: “This is a movie about a girl who’s willing to do ANYTHING to get close to guys!” I don’t know if that would fly on Kickstarter *laughs*. [Producer] Shrihari Sathe came to the project pretty early, though, and was pretty instrumental in getting it made. [Executive producer] Hunter Gray and [production company] Verisimilitude came onboard after the movie was accepted to Sundance, but I don’t know that I would have been able to convince them to do so before [that.] Even having had a short [Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight] at Sundance already in 2012, it was not going to happen. I think that’s the journey of any first-time filmmaker, though – trying to get people excited about the kind of work you’re doing.
SM: The film reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, but in the relationship between an older man and a very young woman in that book, the audience can blame the pedophilic behavior of Humbert Humbert. In your movie, the young woman is the sexual predator.
EH: I think that situation is incredibly common. When I was in high school, all these girls used to target guys and say, “That’s the one I’m gonna have sex with. It’s going to be right here, on this day.” That’s the kind of aggressive behavior that young women exhibit, yet nobody shows that side of women or young girls. In that way, It Felt Like Love is kind of like the anti-Lolita. Lila almost forces herself on Sammy [played by Ronen Rubinstein].
SM: He becomes the victim of her behavior, in a way. Does Piersanti’s character, Lila, experience an actual sexual awakening in her predation of Sammy?
EH: That fascinates me: can girls at thirteen or fourteen cross over that threshold? Lila is trying to have those feelings and to have people feel those feelings towards her, but she never makes it there. There’s this one-dimensional reading I’ve received to the film, which is that men are evil. To read someone on a festival’s blog post saying, “It is clear here the director thinks all men are evil,” is hard because I can’t write a character that I do not find sympathetic. They’re all parts of me, you know? I thought about that when I was casting: do these girls remind me of the ones I went to high school with? Do I know these kinds of guys? You have to feel for all of these [characters] when you write them.
SM: The male characters that Lila engages with do in fact seem like people I knew in high school, sitting around a basement with a marijuana pipe and a dirty movie on TV. Making their almost grotesque behavior sympathetic must have taken some struggle.
EH: You know, I don’t think the film is that complicated, in most ways. I might be a little desensitized to it because I just don’t see what the big deal is. But men are offended by seeing their penises on the screen – go figure, you know? My fourteen-year-old star understood better than most men in the industry that women are exploited and show their breasts all the time.
SM: Your feature World Premiered at the festival in January to a lot of acclaim and it’s since been quite well regarded in its touring around the world. Has that made people a little more amenable to your work?
EH: I’ve been writing a new project that is also quite direct, and people are having the same reactions. I’m realizing that when people think a woman is behaving provocatively, she’s being juvenile.
SM: You managed to make It Felt Like Love despite the extreme content and the uphill battles for financing. You also now have an adjunct teaching position at Columbia University. Doesn’t that speak to a more welcoming environment for your work?
EH: I don’t think so because I made the film so under-the-radar; I mean, I literally shot it in my parents’ basement in eighteen days. I think the real uphill battle is within these film institutions which I think are incredibly sexist. We have been yet to see them really champion new female filmmakers…there’s maybe one in a decade, like a Debra Granik. I don’t want to sound like I’m not lucky – I feel very lucky and continue to find support from institutions – but I think a lot of them are wrapped up in the box-office success of their bigger breakouts. And they take a lot of pride in championing handsome young men. Some of the men are good directors, too, but I look at much of their work, and I am like, “Oh, here’s another one about a woman in an emotional crisis.”
SM: I spoke with the filmmaker Rose Troche recently, and she told me much the same thing: that making a film about a woman in crisis from a female director, like the Carrie remake for example, suspends you in a kind of career-danger.
EH: What has felt most successful about It Felt Like Love is just how well the film’s been doing internationally. It tells me that there is a universal appeal to it that unfortunately does not register with everyone here. The film played for about seven weeks in France and I began getting e-mails from forty-year-old women in the audience: “I saw your movie three times this week. I can’t tell you how much it spoke to me.” From men, as well, including one guy who kept writing me about how it affected him. It’s validating to me.
Editor’s Note: Still photographs courtesy of It Felt Like Love. For our review of the film, go here.