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An interview with filmmaker Eliza Hittman

24 November 2017 Nick Chen

Eliza Hittman’s new film, Beach Rats, is the kind of coming-of-age story we rarely see onscreen. Above all, it confirms why the American writer-director is one of the most promising filmmakers working today: she actually captures how young people speak and navigate the world. As evident from her 2013 debut, It Felt Like Love, Hittman’s movies eschew sitcom-y one-liners and genre clichés; instead her style is to capture the raw poetry and authenticity of simply being a teenager during a confusing time.

In the opening moments of Beach Rats, a mysterious figure practises various poses and snaps a topless selfie. It’s our introduction to 19-year-old Frankie, a Brooklyn boy played by Londoner Harris Dickinson. Frankie is a handsome enigma wrapped up in few words and even fewer clothes. By day, he shoots the breeze with his macho male buddies and has a girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein) attached to his shoulder. But at night, he hooks up with older men, all of whom he meets via gay chat rooms.

“I like the image that the film starts on,” Hittman tells me, referring to the selfie, “because it’s a private moment that then becomes public on the internet. The character is struggling to negotiate between what’s public and private – how we represent ourselves, and how we see ourselves online.”

We’re speaking in Mayfair Hotel a few hours before Beach Rats plays to a sold-out crowd at London Film Festival. It feels a world away from the hazy beaches of Brooklyn where the film is set. I tell her that Beach Rats couldn’t really take place in London. “No?” she responds. “I think there are loads of suburbs in London you could draw a connection with.”

To be fair, a “beach rat” is a specific geographical phrase. “It’s a slang street term for a certain group of kids that grew up in a certain neighbourhood in Brooklyn,” Hittman explains. “The kids grew up on the water, and it’s an isolated little peninsula.”

In 2013, she tinkered with a different script called Beach Rats; even though she scrapped it, the name stuck. “The title resonated with me because there’s a certain type of tough kid who’s very into drugs and doesn’t want to go to college and goes into the military and drops out. There’s a lot of opiate and meth problems in the area, but also a lot of cruising. So I was thinking about the relationship that all these different men have to this beach.”

So it’s a shock to learn that Dickinson, the film’s star, is a born and bred Londoner. I mean, he grew up in Leytonstone. “This is the perfect place to discuss Harris being from London,” Hittman laughs. “I was very torn and I wrestled with it. But he gave, by far, the best audition, and I knew he was the best actor for the job.”

Beach Rats is, remarkably, Dickinson’s first feature. Was Hittman ever concerned a newcomer would be nervous on set, particularly with the sex scenes? “Harris and I talked about the nudity the first time we ever Skyped,” she recalls. “He was very comfortable with it. Obviously, for any actor – experienced or unexperienced – there’s a lot of tension around revealing yourself, but you make the room as comfortable as possible for the person involved. And he watched my other film and understood how the material would be handled.”

I ask if she investigated any hook-up sites during preproduction, but she won’t go into specifics. “I looked at a few,” she says, “but it was as much an invention as it was something that was researched.”

Instead, there was a far more fruitful source of inspiration. “I knew some kids from [Brooklyn] and I went on their Facebook pages, and I stole hundreds of images of them hanging out or smoking pot or partying or them alone on rooftops, taking selfies. One was of a kid in a basement, taking a photograph of himself with his shirt off. It was evocative to me.”

In the film, one piece of dialogue sticks out. It’s when Frankie’s girlfriend, oblivious of her partner’s affairs, tells him: “Two girls can make out and it’s hot. When two guys make out, it’s gay.” Is this a key line? “It’s reflective of their world,” Hittman says, “but maybe it’s reflective of a larger experience. Somehow, the idea of men having sex isn’t generally perceived as erotic.”

Even with a miniscule budget, Beach Rats is gorgeous and, crucially, shot on 16mm. “Digital cameras are exceptionally light-sensitive,” she explains, “and that wasn’t a look we wanted. I wanted the film to look slightly out of time, because that’s how the neighbourhoods feel when you walk through them. I didn’t have a lot of tools. It’s a very small independent film, and I felt if we invest in one element, it should be to elevate the look of the film. But I’m not a snob about this. I’d happily shoot digital on another film.”

So far, Beach Rats has been a critical success. Everyone I know who’s seen it can’t stop raving about it, and the reviews are nearly all positive. There was an uncomfortable moment, though, at Sundance, where the film premiered. More specifically, it was a hostile Q&A following the first public screening.

“I think the controversy around the film has been mostly related directly to my gender,” Hittman sighs, probably annoyed I even mentioned the incident. “And I don’t feel like there’s much to say to that. It’s not like people at Sundance were delving into my sexual history or my orientation. They were just like, ‘Why would you, as a woman, make this story?’”

Next up for Hittman is at least one more low-budget movie, after which she’d be eager to have more resources, whether it’s in film or TV. Would she do a big director-for-hire gig? “Not at the moment,” she says. “I did some episodic TV work in the spring. I did 13 Reasons Why and an HBO show called High Maintenance to see what it felt like to be for hire.” And the verdict? “I’m still processing it. Ultimately, I’d like to be the primary creator of what I’m working on.”

The thing is, Beach Rats really does stand out among the many teen dramas that flood our cinemas. Movies continually try and fail to capture what it’s like to be an adolescent, and Hittman makes it look easy. So, what’s her secret? She won’t pin it down to one thing, but offers a piece of advice.

“For me, part of the writing process is cutting as much dialogue as possible,” she says. “I don’t think my films have a conversational realism to them at all. I’m not aspiring for that. I’m just interested in what characters are hiding, versus what they’re saying.”

I ask if there’s a risk of being pigeonholed as a filmmaker who specialises with young people. “Definitely,” Hittman responds, then chuckles. “I do feel at some point in my life I have to grow up and make a film about a grownup.” If she can make a coming-of-age gem like Beach Rats, though, let’s hope she takes her time.

Beach Rats is released by Peccadillo Pictures in UK cinemas on November 24

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