Catching Up With It Felt Like Love Director Eliza Hittman

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In a time when there is legitimate concern about the lack of visibility for women filmmakers, Eliza Hittman’s work is especially important. But the truth is, It Felt Like Love is an exciting project in any era, and Hittman is a rising talent worthy of our attention because of her contributions to film, and not just films by women. Still, one cannot turn a blind eye to the particular stories this Columbia University film professor is telling—there is a unique, feminine voice to which she provides a platform, and that visibility is crucial to the world of film. Paste caught up with Hittman to talk French film, hip-hop, and cringe-worthy sexual experiences that sometimes make for great movie scenes.

Paste: I know others have compared It Felt Like Love to Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, and I was immediately reminded of that film from some of your opening shots on the beach. Can you talk a little about the works that might have inspired this story?
Hittman: I was definitely inspired by that whole movement of French filmmakers who explored sex in their work. In American films, there’s this sense that the filmmaker wants you to be attracted to the experience, or aroused, and there’s this perpetuation of romantic ideas of love. I think I was attracted to Catherine Breillat’s depiction of these really young girls who were aggressively sexual in a way that was different—not meant to arouse an audience. Obviously, the films are visually and thematically different. She works a lot in long takes, and I had 14-year-olds, and a really different set of legality issues to deal with (laughs). You can’t quite do what they can do over there. I’m influenced by films that are subjective and that have female protagonists. I also like films that are about misfits and wayward youth.

Paste: Your main character, Lila, is not the teenage girl we’re used to seeing on screen. We spend much of the film feeling embarrassed for her, even if we can identify. So maybe some of that embarrassment is a reflection of our ability to identify.
Hittman: That was always a part of my mission statement—that the film would connect audiences to that feeling of embarrassment and shame because they know they’ve misbehaved (laughs). She’s very much a reflection of all of us, male or female. I’d like to think people can identify with her.

Paste: I know you’ve said that it’s important for filmmakers to draw on those cringe-worthy moments when they’re creating. Can you talk a little bit about how that idea played into your writing Lila?
Hittman: You have those moments in your experiences that are embarrassing or shameful and you either have to recover from them or you block them out. Those interesting moments are often omitted from films. One moment that was definitely drawn from my experience was when Lila was watching the porn and this woman was touching herself in a really aggressive way. I remember the first time I saw porn, and it was dramatically different from seeing a pornographic image. As a teenager, I said something totally embarrassing in a room full of people watching pornography—something that clearly exposed me as inexperienced, not just sexually but as a consumer!

So that moment definitely makes the film authentic. But I wouldn’t say the film is autobiographical.

Paste: It’s important that you do give her a moment of triumph, and I love the ending where we get to see the dance recital. It’s this great thing that has nothing to do with the boys of the story. In your original drafts of the script, did it always end with this scene?
Hittman: No, it didn’t. The dancing came into the film a little bit later. In the beginning, I only knew that the friend was a dancer. Originally, Lila would go and pick Chiara up at dance class and sit outside the rehearsal room at the tail end of the class, and it was always about Lila’s observations of her friend’s sexuality. When I was younger, I never took dance, and I always thought that women who did had this connection to their bodies. They knew how to carry themselves, how to move and be seductive, and draw attention to themselves. That was always a part of the friend, and not Lila.

But when I was casting I started looking in dance studios for the part of Chiara, and I went to a dance studio called Albee Dance Studio. The girls performed for me, and I was very taken by the performance—how dynamic it was, and aggressive and sexual. It had all of these elements I’d been thinking about. So I decided to cast a girl from that group, and I asked her friends if they’d want to be in the film also, so I expanded that element of the film but in a way that is unconventional for coming-of-age stories. Because they never talk about dance classes! It just establishes another way that young girls know each other, but we never see these girls rehearsing, or working towards a goal. I thought there was a more interesting way to use the dance to communicate these things and to show the layers of their relationship.

Paste: Hip-hop plays a big part in the film. We’ve got these guys free-styling here and there, and then there’s the music at the parties. But everyone is also kind of performing their identities—the girls trying to be sexual, and the boys trying to be tough. Do you see a connection between the music the kids are listening to and their personas?
Hittman: We did. The music that plays at Sammy’s party, for example, is more sexually explicit than what is heard throughout the rest of the film. We tried to make a subtle distinction between the type of music that was in Sammy’s world and Lila’s, even though it’s all hip-hop. That was a conscious decision. And I just wanted the film to feel of the moment and contemporary, to capture what people are listening to now.

Paste: I love the cinematography—there’s this real focus on youth and sensuality. It’s all very intimate. Can you talk a little about working with cinematographer Sean Porter and the editorial process?
Hittman: Sean is a champ! He shot the film without a crew. We had a few friends volunteer to help for about five days, and we had a NYU intern, but beyond that he shot alone.

I thought his reel was very solid and professional, but there was something else that made me want to work with him. After one of our interviews, we kept talking, but I walked with him when he went to pick up his son from daycare and I got a chance to meet his son. I knew the set was going to be inhabited by so many kids, and I felt that, being the father of a young child, he would set the right tone on set. Not only were we dealing with kids, but these were sensitive issues. I thought that he would be able to manage the environment in a very sensitive way. That was important to me.

I always knew the film was going to be pushing the boundaries of subjectivity. We weren’t just going to see what the character saw. We were going to experience the world and feel how she felt. I wanted it to reflect how at that age you are very hyper-aware of other people’s bodies. And I think that acute awareness kind of dissipates as you get older. Films are always looking at people’s faces, but I think there’s so much more that you can photograph about an experience.

Paste: There’s some ambiguity in that scene with Lila where she either does or does not engage in a sexual act with the three guys. Why was it important for you to leave this a little open-ended?
Hittman: It’s an interesting scene that can be read two ways. One way is that she experiences the ultimate humiliation and they do not want her to do it, which is more shameful for her. Other people walk away thinking she’s done it. What’s interesting is that when people ask questions, they do not ask about that moment. They walk out of the film projecting and feeling very strongly one way or the other.

Paste: You’ve described your next project as “the anti-Juno,” which sounds very interesting. Can you talk a little more about it?
Hittman: I became very fascinated with articles I was reading about women who couldn’t get access to abortions in rural areas. They were traveling to New York City or other major cities. And there was something about this kind of lonely journey that was compelling. So the film is about a teenage girl who wants to get an abortion in rural Pennsylvania. She doesn’t want to involve her parents, but in her area she has to go to a judge to get permission. The judge rules that she isn’t mature enough to think about having an abortion. And so she hops a greyhound and sort of steals away to New York City for a few days. So it’s about her odyssey.

Paste: I’m looking forward to it! Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Hittman: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.