Recently HeyUGuys caught up with talented filmmaker Eliza Hittman this week to discuss her latest movie Beach Rats. The director also discusses her love of shooting movies on film, her TV work, and her filmmaking techniques. The film is out at the end of this week in UK cinemas, and you can read our review right here.
Andy Furlong sat down with the director, here’s the interview.
ELIZA HITTMAN: When I was writing the script that was one note I got from people. The world doesn’t seem homophobic, what’s holding him back? Why doesn’t he just come out? For me it’s that the psychology of the place is so engrained in the people. When it does come out in the moments that he begins to test the waters, I think those moments are more true to the environment than a bunch of throwaway lines that were stereotypical slander or telling him he was a pussy or this or that. You know it’s something that is embedded in the place.
When it comes to identity, not just sexually speaking, but just in how you are perceived by your family and community, the people, it is often the hardest to open up to your family and your friends. In Frankie’s case he seems like he has a mother who would be supportive, but the times we see him at his most honest about who he is, is with strangers on internet sites. Why do you think it is so hard for people to be themselves with the people who perhaps would do their upmost to support them?
Because he doesn’t want to disappoint them and I think there is such an incredible fear that the character has of himself and disappointing the people that are closest to him and around him. Compared to when you are on an anonymous site and you feel that you can just explore this one part of you. The internet is a portal for him to just exploring this one part of his identity.
In both Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love, I really like the close up way you shoot scenes that involve intimate moments. How the camera focuses on the flesh and certain parts of the body, often combined with the ambiance of music or nature sounds, it really creates a unique sensory feeling in relation to touch and desire that I haven’t really seen done before. Was that the type of feeling you set out to create in those scenes and do you think it’s an element that a lot of movies often fail to capture accurately when it comes to intimacy and desire?
I think for me, I am interested in behaviour and sort of the way that we interact with each other. I think most films focus on and shoot the dialogue. For me, I am always interested in the small detail of what someone’s behaviour says about their feelings and their relationship to their environment and their relationship to whoever else is in the scene. I think for me it’s as important to sort of try and capture those moments either by writing them in and making sure that it’s not just a scene about two people talking, or finding those moments on set. So I would say it’s like a combination of making sure that these moments are emphasised on the page or are articulated on the page and then prioritised also in the shooting of the film. I am just interested in what our bodies communicate in a scene as much as what our faces and words communicate.
There’s a scene where Frankie is in nature and you shoot certain shots of blurry distant foliage combined with the sound of water. I think that combination created a real sense of touch, was that your intention?
It was, I liked how that sort of tactile approach to filmmaking. There’s something about the challenges of trying to light a beach at night and I didn’t want to light it. Because I didn’t think it would ever feel credible to add light to darkness so that the audience can understand the environment, when the real experience of people who kind of cruise that area is sort of in darkness. And using sound and the touch of a frontal light to sort of feel what’s just in front of you versus what is all around you, that was my approach.
You shot on film as well, I believe. It’s brilliant for somebody like myself who loves 70s cinema to shoot a film that way. What you find with digital sometimes compared to film is that film feels like you really capture something in that moment that can’t be captured again. It feels part of a canvas that something is painted onto in all its grittiness.
I am somebody who loves 70s cinema as well. It was a low budget movie and film was something that we talked a lot about. I fought for film and part of the reason I fought for film were all of those night scenes where I said we could control and shape the light. Whereas with a digital Alexa camera it’s just sensitive and picks up everything and we really worked to be able to sort of shape the light on the subject and thought about how much space around the characters we want to illuminate.
It really showed. Do you think you will continue using film?
I don’t know with every script you kind of have to keep the dialogue fresh, what makes sense for the story, what makes sense for the production. I’m not like a snob about it and I would be happy to just make another film and I don’t know if I will always win that battle. There’s a Kodak lab that recently just opened in New York, so they’re trying to make it easier and incentivise filmmakers again so we will see.
One thing I was really curious about is what do you think Frankie gets out of his friendship with the guys he is friends with, and what do you think would have been their reaction had they found out that Frankie was gay. Because it’s also kind of suggested that one other member of that group perhaps might be attracted to men in some way as well?
I don’t want to sort of fill in blanks that were purposefully sort of unexplored but I don’t think he would ever come out to those guys. He’s just killing time you know, they’re around, they like to party, its convenient.
You once told an audience member at a Q&A, “People who are looking for films with very straightforward messages should watch after-school specials.” One thing I really appreciated about Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love is the ambiguity of it all, it felt very naturalistic and real as opposed to moralistic preaching. Do you think it’s a lot harder to make films without straightforward messages now, in a moment in time where even depicting something in a film, can be accused of endorsing something or glorifying something?
I don’t know what people are looking for, I think that people are trying to make movies that they think are simultaneously important, whatever that means. But also movies that will attract a certain type of audience and that is mostly an audience that is interested in genre. I mean I didn’t see Mother yet but you know this kind of idea that nobody is interested in a drama but everybody is interested in an elevated genre, whatever that means, and can you tact that on and explore something that they feel will attract more audience, whatever that is. I don’t know, I try not to think about those things, I’m not a producer but I can only gauge from creative dialogues I’ve had with studios and production companies and I think it’s very hard to sort of get a straight drama made.
In your films to date the central characters have walked this fine line between being instigators of terrible things while at the same time being victims themselves. Do you think that by portraying sympathetic characters that are also capable of such acts it opens up a much more productive dialogue to certain subjects?
I hope so, I don’t know if I think of them as sympathetic, or if I did in the rendering. I think we understand their world and that gives us insight. I’m not sure if what they do is sympathetic.
I mean their actions might not be sympathetic but I think if you follow a character long enough then you begin to understand them.
I mean, it’s not like we see them save a cat and see that they have potential, I don’t think these characters have potential in the world and that’s something I also want the audience to understand. I guess the word would be I attempt to humanise them versus trying to force the audience to empathise with them.
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects you have in the works?
Well I just came off of four months of doing a lot of TV work, so that was kind of a new experience for me, and I directed a HBO show called High Maintenance and a Netflix show called 13 Reasons Why. So I’ve sort of been getting perspective of how TV works I guess and now I’m ready to go back and write another feature.
Beach Rats in out in UK cinemas on the 24th of November.