When you first lay eyes on Lila (Gina Piersanti), the teenager at the center of Eliza Hittman’s first feature “It Felt Like Love,” her face is caked in white sunscreen, appearing as if she stepped out of a Kabuki production, both not far from where she lives in Brooklyn on the shore of a local beach yet out of her depth as her best friend nuzzles up with a casual acquaintance. It sets the tone for a story of sexual awakening that’s filled with both raw emotion and playful energy told beautifully by Hittman, who with the help of cinematographer Sean Porter often does as much searching within the frame as Lila does in life to find something true.
But whereas most coming-of-age films deal in allegory to avoid the limitations that come with depicting sex onscreen, in Hittman’s film, it may just be that sex is an allegory for her own journey to becoming an artist, based in part on her summers spent getting away from Flatbush yet bearing the marks of someone who’s considered other mediums deeply before arriving at film. At the end of last summer, I caught up with Hittman for an all-too-brief chat after the film made its debut in LA at Sundance’s NEXT Weekend, where it will soon show again as it begins to roll out theatrically, about shooting for 18 days with a crew of just 11, showing a different side of Brooklyn and how she became a filmmaker.
What was so funny to me was that you made this sound like an allegory for you as an artist almost whenever anyone else making a film like this about sexual awakening.
When I was at Sundance for the short film in 2011, I didn’t really get a lot of attention from it. I had one meeting with an agent and all they wanted to know was will you write a rom-com? I don’t think it was intentional and it wasn’t that the person insulted me, but I just felt patronized by the expectation that all I could produce at a larger level that would be successful would be a rom-com. So writing this character that reminded me sort of myself at that age [where] you’re vulnerable but kind of aggressive was definitely parallel to how I was feeling after the experience at Sundance – wanting to make a larger work but feeling like such a small fish in a big pond, even though I had this success.
You said that you placed a premium on casting actors that were actually from the area. Why was that especially important to you?
I like regional cinema. It’s hard to find in the independent world where it really feels authentic and part of it is because of the casting. A lot of times I see films that are set in regional places with celebrities and I find it distracting. Part of it was also just the paradigm we were working in. I had no money and I knew to get the film made I was just going to collect a group of teenagers from New York and make it a summer camp experience, which it really was.
It felt to me like you moved from a more rural countryside into the city deliberately, in every sense of the word. Was that actually intentional?
It moves only into the city into Manhattan [for a brief time]. It’s not the country, it’s the edge of Brooklyn where it touches the water and it has this wild beauty to it, which I really think is something you don’t often see. When you grow up in Brooklyn, you have a huge connection to the water and that’s what you do in a listless, aimless summer experience. It’s just what beach are you meeting at and what street should we meet at and what bus stop? I was trying to capture that moment of my adolescence where it’s just about trying to find your friends that day at the beach. They go only into the city once when they go into the Planned Parenthood [clinic].
The way the camera moves and what it focuses on in the frame is pretty striking – are there things that you look specifically in the frame?
The majority of the film was prepared and shortlisted, so I always knew or had a sense of what detail shots, as we’d call them, I wanted in a scene. For the party [scene, for instance] on the shot list, it would look like segmented shots of men’s biceps. I would find the exact frame for that on set, but the idea was always in the plan and the strategy in the visual design of the film.
Was it a challenge to create that kind of sexually charged imagery without making it exploitive?
There was a more extreme version of the script when I started and I think you had to get that out. It’s good to write and push things as far as they can go when you’re writing because you can always dial it back, which I did. But you can never push things to be more extreme if they’re flat in the process. So I really believe in going for it on the page and then when you start think about casting, negotiating how far you want to go with things a little bit later in the process.
Because you’ve had some time to process it, what’s it like to have audiences see it and get that response?
Every audience is different. When it first screened at Sundance, the audience was so excited and so warm and the humor of it played in a way that I haven’t always seen it play since, so people initially laughed at the [climactic scene]. Some people find it uncomfortably funny and we have had the occasional walkout where people think she’s going to get raped or something, but most people trust the film enough to know it’s not going in that direction.
*SPOILERS AHEAD* Was it difficult to figure out the tone of that scene while you were shooting?
In the script, it was clear that she didn’t do it and when we were staging it, I knew in the back of my head that there was a way to create a sense of lingering ambiguity amongst the audience. When people watch it, it’s very interesting because people feel very strongly either one way or the other. They never really ask. They either feel like she didn’t do it or feel she did do it.
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
I’ve always been involved in some way with storytelling. When I was very young, I always competed in public school citywide competitions, so I knew from like the age of nine that I could stand up on stage and tell a story to hundreds of children and make them laugh better than any of my peers could, and it was a heady experience that I’ve always wanted to repeat in one form or another.
Then I acted a little bit as a kid. I was in a couple NYU films and when I saw myself on the big screen, and I was like, “Oh, never again.” I was horrified at the way I looked and I sounded, so I directed theater for a bit and was very frustrated by the experience. I had always loved independent film, but I didn’t know anything about film. I met someone from Columbia who showed me one of his shorts and I thought I can do this. But I didn’t have the confidence to do it on my own. I really learned how to generate my own material at CalArts where I went to graduate school, but it’s been a long journey to this moment. I’ve been doing it in certain ways all along, but I really feel it’s all culminated in this film.
“It Felt Like Love” opens on March 21st in New York at the IFC Center and March 28th in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent.