Brooklyn native Hittman on her deft portrayal of young "love" in her auspicious feature debut, It Felt Like Love.
It Felt Like Love is an acutely perceptive observational drama written, directed, and produced by Brooklynite Eliza Hittman. Lila (screen newcomer Gina Piersanti, in a quietly devastating performance) is a 15 year-old in Gravesend longing to have some of the sexual experiences she talks about with others. As the film opens, she is seen as a third wheel hanging out with her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and Chiara’s fourth boyfriend, Patrick (Jesse Cordasco). At home, Lila has an uneasy relationship with her single father (Kevin Anthony Ryan), and often confides in her younger neighbor, Nate (Case Prime). What quickly becomes palpable—and forms the strength of this remarkable small film—is Lila’s restlessness.
Hittman takes a canny, voyeuristic approach to chronicling Lila’s transformative summer. Her camera deliberately lingers on the characters’ bodies at rest and in motion. There are marvelous scenes that focus on Chiara’s tan skin as Patrick draws a heart on her back with sunscreen, or the way Lila spies on Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), a sexy older guy she hopes to seduce. In the process, Lila’s one-sided desires become tactile.
What distinguishes It Felt Like Love from other (and much slicker) films about teenage girls exploring their sexuality (e.g., Nymphomaniac Volume 1, and Young & Beautiful, forthcoming in April) is Hittman’s insistence on engaging viewers in creating Lila’s story. There are significant moments that happen off-screen that are open to viewers’ interpretation—from Lila and Sammy sharing a bed at a party, to a climactic scene where Lila is confronted by Sammy and his friends.
In a recent Skype session, Hittman spoke about how she crafted It Felt Like Love, and revealed her thoughts on teenage sexuality as well as how to depict it.
Gary M. Kramer What were you like as a teenager?
Eliza Hittman I was involved in a lot of theatre. I went to Edward R. Murrow high school in Brooklyn. I had strong relationships with female friends but there was a three to one ratio, female to male. The guys were celebrities if they were at all attractive. It was a communication arts high school so there were no sports teams. The principal didn’t want an environment filled with jocks, so he funneled the sports money to jazz and arts programs. It was a unique public high school experience. My mother battled breast cancer while I was in high school, so I felt I never gracefully transitioned in to adulthood from adolescence. That’s what it felt like from the inside out, but I don’t know what it looked like from the outside.
GMK: Why did you feel compelled to tell this particular story for your feature debut?
EH The character is a bit of a fantasia of what I perceive myself to be, but the events are not based on autobiographic elements. It’s emotionally autobiographical. That’s what writing fiction is—shaping your experiences into something structured and dramatic and interesting. I think I also wanted to make a micro-budget feature, I thought about it from a producer standpoint: How can I use what I can access and locations that were interesting that I never saw in films from my own youth? I like films that explore youth and what is youth.
GMK Such as?
EH Everything from John Hughes to Truffaut to Bresson to Hal Hartley.
GMK How did you conceive of the character of Lila? She’s transparent to others, but she attempts to impress them and is really out of her depth.
EH The film started as a short film that I never made or titled, but once I started writing it, I knew I had active characters and I wanted to push to long form. I came up with this character who reminded me a lot of myself—her navigating a high school party, and her attempts to get someone to make out with her. The night is a failure and she tries to force her dog to go down on her in a curious attempt to have intimacy. I found the character’s voice there—I had a sense of the story, but needed a driving character. I know how she sounded and what she would do in any situation I constructed for her. I think that the power struggle she has with her father is reflective of most adolescent’s relationships with their parents—they are transparent, but fighting against being known and against the fact that their actions are so knowable. The neighbor character is based on a neighbor I had who matured very rapidly even though he was younger than me. I was trying to impress him and provoke him. He was very cute and in the 6th grade he was taken under the wing of 8th grade girls. I remember being blown away by what was going on in his life. For Lila, I constructed moments that I experienced, moments of naïveté and false confidence.
GMK What can you say about the observational approach you took to the narrative?
EH I don’t know if I consciously took an observational approach, but I like more behavioral, less dialogue driven stories, and I think for a lot of the film you’re observing her observations of people—the sexually charged environment. I wanted to pull the audience into the experience of watching her watch people and what she’s interested in. A female gaze. It’s not about her being sexualized to the audience, but her sexualized perception of the world, her friend, and this guy she’s into; her observations of sexuality, and what its like to notice men for the first time. But when I started writing this film, I started taking out dialogue that I thought was unnecessary. I only have the character say what’s absolutely essential to the scene. It’s not about recreating a naturalistic speech pattern or a conversational dialogue.
GMK Do you find that audiences are frustrated or intrigued by the way the narrative unfolds—slowly, evocatively, with much action happening off-screen?
EH I think it depends on the audience. I’ve had some older audiences, film audiences, ask why it took so long for them to be invested in the story. I wanted to immerse them in the atmosphere and the tone and introduce the characters in a non-verbal way. It’s hard to know what everyone thinks and experience watching the film.
GMK I like the way you film bodies in this film. You are investigating them with your camera, not objectifying them. Can you talk about that approach—specifically in regards to the way female filmmakers eroticize actors?
EH I was interested in being really close-up on the characters. We had 50- and 75-millimeter lenses and I used the 75-millimeter lens more. I was interested in a segmented visual language in which you are experiencing body parts or limbs filling the frame. I wanted it to be a different summer film—it has a cool, not warm palette, and you’re encountering all these bodies. I wanted to show how someone at that age looks at the world in a tactile and sexual way—it’s all you’re drawn to at that moment. You look at people less closely as you grow up but at that age you are examining everything about their physicality—the way their clothes fit them, how they are touching each other romantically, etcetera.
GMK I like how you depict Patrick trying to coax Chiara to fondle him when they are lying in bed with Lila. The scene is realistic, erotic, and discomfiting all at once. What prompted you to create this moment, which is very representative of the film as a whole?
EH (laughter) My experience of watching it at this moment is not like yours. What is uncomfortable about that scene to you? It’s not a scene people mention.
GMK I love the scene because it shows a side of male teenage sexual desire—Patrick trying to get Chiara to touch him, and Chiara playfully resisting. It further underscores the difference in experience between the two girls. Lila really shouldn’t be lying in bed with the couple if they are being so sexual. It is uncomfortable, but also kind of exciting. Lila seems to always be eavesdropping on the couple’s intimate moments, and she shares their secrets.
EH Writing that situation was one that I, or others I know, have been in. The scenario is not out of the ordinary. What works about the film is that it is not provocative in an unrealistic way, but in an everyday way. The situations are familiar to people and they resonate. This is the only situation where Lila knows more than the other characters.
GMK Why do you think Lila and Chiara are friends? What do they have in common as teens?
EH I think there is backstory to that relationship. In my mind, they are a year apart, and as they transition from junior high school to high school, that year difference becomes much more vast. You can’t control the rate that teens develop or mature. Their relationship is ending, but this is snapshot of their relationship as it ends; one matures faster than the other, and the other accelerates that process in a way that may be destructive. Lila’s pursuit of intimacy is a selfish one. She only thinks about herself.
GMK Sammy is interesting as Lila’s object of desire. His relationship with her has him protecting Lila at times, confronting her at others, and also pushing her away. How did you form his character, particularly in relation to hers?
EH Lila’s relationship with Sammy is invented and forced. When I explained it to the guys I said, She’s a girl who’s pulling a hang-around. Everyone is aware of what she wants. It’s amusing to a point, but no one is actually interested. That’s how I framed it. I asked the bigger guys Nick Rosen and Ritchie Folio (who play Sammy’s friends Devon and Justin, respectively) if they had a slang term for a girl who hangs around. They did, but I don’t remember it, but they understood the dynamic and the character.
GML Lila also has a very uneasy relationship with her father. How did you conceive of their rapport?
EH The character of the father is nothing like my dad, but the dynamic/power struggle is one I experienced. The family pet whom no one wants to be responsible for is emblematic of a lot of tension and resentment in a household.
GMK There is an interesting parallel between Lila’s father spanking her in one scene (he suggests she disciple the family dog that way) and Lila being spanked with a paddle by one of Sammy’s friends in another scene. How did you consider Lila’s responses to male authority?
EH I don’t know that I was cognizant of that authority while writing it, but I was aware of how it’s sexual in one context, and abusive in another. Her father wants her to spank the dog. He spanks her playfully, but he whacks her in hostility.
GMK I’m curious about your thoughts on depicting the drug and alcohol use among young teenagers in the film.
EH I think it’s unavoidable. It’s part of the experimentation, to transform and lose control and what it means to lose control. In a way, in a high school context it’s more reserved than college. In the context of Patrick and Chiara, they know Lila, so when they push her to smoke and drink, she’s not going to do it, but in this new environment, with Sammy, she reinvents herself and proves that she’s not uptight and reserved. They have a perception of her she’s trying to break. She is shattering her own image of herself.
GMK What can you say about the dance sequences in the film? They serve as a kind of metaphor for her coming of age.
EH When I was writing the film, Chiara was going to be a dancer. I never took dance classes, and I thought girls who studied dance had a secret knowledge of their bodies that I didn’t have. I never felt I had or could access sexuality and be seductive. So initially, I had Lila pick Chiara up at dance class, and she would sit and watch them move, but when I was casting I went to dance classes in Italian neighborhoods and I was taken by the sexual dynamic of the group and how professional and provocative and aggressive it was. I weaved that into the script, but not in such a narrative way—they didn’t talk about class, or a competition. There’s only the experience of watching it or doing it. Gina didn’t study hip-hop, so I gave her one lesson and let her research the dance in the film. It became metaphoric for me—the performative nature of womanhood.
GMK Do you want to comment on the “Kabuki” facepaint Lila sports in the beginning of the film? I don’t know that it needs to be discussed; it should be left open to interpretation? What are your thoughts on this?
EH I don’t think it requires a comment. You have an image in your head and on set. My costume designer asked, “How far do we want to go with this?” I said, “We could go all the way, and could always pull it back.” We went all the way. Looking at dance costumes, we rhymed images that made sense in my head that I don’t know that I need to justify or explain. There’s an internal logic at work when you are visualizing and realizing something. A film instructor once said, “Everything is a symbol and nothing’s a symbol.”
GMK I like that Lila winces on the amusement park ride, or scrunches her face up during the dance scene when she is watching the other performers. Her expressions speak volumes, especially in a climactic scene, as does her body language. How did you work with Gina Piersanti on playing Lila?
EH Gina, when she first read the script, didn’t want to do the project. We talked about the film and my intentions for a month, and discussed every scene. She was 14 when we shot it, and it was her summer between junior and senior high school. The script was pretty racy for her. It took her a while to read the whole thing. She got to like me and trust me and embrace the experience. I’m not sure she ever fell in love in the script. There was male nudity. She understood it as a precocious teen, but it was hard for her to put herself in the character and play someone undesirable in the world.
We didn’t rehearse the film. I blocked it alone and acted it out by myself because I was working with non-actors and needed to have as much figured out as possible in advance. This made Gina a lot more confident, because it was very directed for her. But she brought a lot of her own thoughtfulness to the performance and the character. I looked at her casting audition—she had a palpable inner world, and I knew from her image that she’s thinking and feeling. Her reactions and responses were to interpret how not to enjoy the rollercoaster. I gave her a sense of what the character was thinking and feeling. She also understood movement because she had some dance training, and that helped her understand proximity to camera. She had done some NYU undergrad student films and had comfort level on small sets. But I credit her performance and for being a super sensitive fourteen-year-old who understood the context of the script in a small film.
I didn’t feel I needed to push her out of comfort zone, or do anything that made her feel uncomfortable. I shot the film around what she would do or not do. It was my behind in the paddle scene. The confrontational scene was the easiest day; she had one or two shots in the room. A lot of her reaction shots were her alone in the room, or only with Sammy. I didn’t need to manipulate or provoke a reaction from her. I don’t agree with those directing tactics. We discussed that—she didn’t have to be exposed to anything or have her space violated.
GMK Lila visits an OBGYN in a key scene, which reveals a lot about Lila’s character—her behavior, and how she presents herself. Did you build the film around this episode, or did this scene develop more organically?
EH It came together organically. I wrote episodically about a girl’s attempt to devise ways to get to know this guy in a blissful non-eventful summer. I didn’t think about it in terms of structure. I knew the character was pushing for experience.
GMK You follow the doctor visit with a shot of Lila on the subway. It’s blurry, but conveys tremendous emotion. You eschew the use of a score to create emotion in your film. Can you talk about this decision?
EH I think it’s how I learned filmmaking: Using music is considered manipulative. I wanted the audience to be connected to her experiences, and one of the challenges of thinking about how to make a micro-budget films in New York that considered sound. The model is mumblecore—they aren’t films that use sound in an expressive way. When we were cutting it, we considered the expressive nature of the sound design—such as the ocean sounds—from the get go.
GMK Do you see Lila’s story as a cautionary tale, or a cry for help?
EH I don’t know. I think that her experiences and her behavior are . . . Adolescence is like being a crab without a shell. The scars you get during those years you carry around for the rest of your life. It’s about this small, violent moment in her life where she pushes boundaries trying to obtain something she thinks she desires and is confronted with that in a harsh way. It’s not a big event in the scheme of the character’s life. It’s a cry for intimacy and closeness. There’s not a message. I’m not interested in messages. It’s a glimpse into a small, transformative moment in a girl’s world.
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work appears on websites including Salon.com and indieWire, as well as various alternative weeklies across the country. He covers film festivals for the journal Film International, and is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.