A Sophomore Sundance Star Goes to the Next Level
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we can’t wait to keep watching this director’s next steps.
By Michael Nordine
The world loves freshman filmmaking wunderkinds, the ones who make auspicious debuts at festivals and appear poised to deliver a succession of thought-provoking, dreamily shot follow-ups in the coming years. Three years ago, Eliza Hittman was one of those wunderkinds when she emerged on the scene at Sundance with the feature It Felt Like Love. A portrait of sexual awakening at its most demystifying, the movie was as promising as first films get.
Now, though, comes the time for Hittman, 36, to avoid the sophomore slump. Her second film, Beach Rats (selected as part of the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab last year), will explore similar themes of sex laced with the prospect of violence. It’s a strange time for any filmmaker, dealing with what Hittman calls “the pressure to make something bigger” — and the question: “What is bigger, and what does that mean?” As Beach Rats heads into production, Hittman is feeling the many familiar pressures of an artist seeking to follow a hit. She’s making the rounds, teaching at the Pratt Institute after similar stints at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Columbia University and NYU.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker suggests Hittman is building on mumblecore, an oft-maligned genre that’s more important than some give it credit for. With an indie aesthetic marked by low budgets and improvised dialogue, mumblecore is not a term that many filmmakers self-apply to their work, but movies considered to be examples include Lena Dunham’s debut Tiny Furniture and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. For Brody, the term is no insult, and he tracks Hittman’s proclivity for getting into her actors’ faces, filming their expressions, even their skin, until “the intentions dissolve and yield the person herself.”
Hittman’s first feature was full of a lived-in authenticity that resonated with audiences. The retrospective clarity of It Felt Like Love’s title and Gina Piersanti’s naturalistic performance as Lila, the confused adolescent in question, was “relatable but not autobiographical,” Hittman says. But the uphill climb to make that hit happen looms over her next plans. Navigating the institutional and financial realities of independent film is difficult, doubly so for women. Despite being met with rave reviews and screening at more than a dozen festivals between Park City, Utah, and Gothenburg, Sweden, It Felt Like Love had trouble securing a stateside distribution deal; taking meeting after meeting with tastemakers and executives who didn’t see box-office potential in a low-key, female-driven story proved demoralizing. Hittman sometimes rented out her apartment while touring the festival circuit with the cinematic baby that preceded her actual child.
Reflecting on that long, ultimately rewarding experience, Hittman notes that she didn’t grow up wanting it. She attended Indiana University with acting aspirations, which didn’t work out as planned — she was never even cast in a production. “There was something very classical about the program, and I think people just didn’t have any idea what to do with me,” Hittman says. “Or I wasn’t very good, you know?” So she turned to directing in her senior year, beginning with a production of Never Swim Alone. It’s an odd, unconventional satire that doesn’t go down easily with everyone: Two men in suits engage in a weird boxing match with no rationale behind it (or at least not one that’s explained), refereed by a woman perched in a lifeguard chair. “They all thought I was crazy,” Hittman says of her college peers. But the thrill stuck: “That was how I got bit with the directing bug.”
A few years in New York’s theater world proved enough for Hittman to realize she couldn’t envision a future for herself in it, but being exposed to Columbia students’ graduate films made her realize, “You know, I think I can do that.” This led her to pursue a master’s at CalArts — the only grad school she even bothered applying to — in what ended up being a “transformational” experience.
Her thesis, the 16-minute “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight,” jump-started the budding filmmaker’s career when it was accepted by Sundance. This was great in and of itself, but it also provided a whole host of problems and questions. “How on earth do I get back here in a year or two with a feature?” Hittman found herself wondering. “Unless you have the award-winning short, you don’t really attract the industry attention,” she says. “The door was open to Sundance, but not much else.”
She made it back two years later, of course, but Sundance isn’t the only institution she has a strong affiliation with. “I consider Eliza to be a mentor and a friend,” says Leah Meyerhoff, who founded the Film Fatales collective of female filmmakers to which Hittman belongs. Meyerhoff adds a rare descriptor these days, one much sought after as the future audience for art-house cinema remains uncertain: “Her films speak to a young audience without condescension.”