One of the most talked about films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was the experimental coming-of-age dance film, The Fits. Focused on Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower), a Cincinnati tomboy who joins the Q-Kidz dance team just before members begin experiencing hysterical fits. A blend of naturalism and experimental filmmaking, the film is an impressive debut for director Anna Rose Holmer. Holmer, who’s also worked as a cinematographer and producer for both narrative and documentary films, and still photographer, co-wrote the script with both the film’s editor, Saela Davis, and film’s producer, Lisa Kjeruff. The film NY and LA and will continue to roll out in select theaters this month.
When I saw you earlier this year, the movie was just about to premiere at Sundance and you were really excited to premiere as part of Next. How did it go?
I love Next. It was the section I wanted to premiere the film in. It’s kind of the punk section of Sundance and I felt connected to the other directors there. It’s non-competitive so there’s more free-spirit attitude among the filmmakers. It was magical and more than we could hope for. We were picked up right before we went to Sundance so it gave us a nice sense of momentum going into the festival.
How’s the response from audiences been when you do the Q&A during the festivals and screenings?
It’s been incredible. We also did New Directors, New Films and a bunch of regional festivals right after Sundance, I just got back from Australia. I’ve been blown away by how wide and diverse the audience has turned out to be, more than I could have hoped, and hearing people’s different interpretations has been fascinating. We wanted to create a dialogue piece that could be debated and both empowering and uncomfortable for the audience. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do. I love hearing the various responses and it’s great to hear people saying they want to see the movie again before they talk about it.
Have you noticed a difference in the topics and dialogues depending on the ethnicity and gender in the audience? I would imagine an audience full of women would be very different from and audience with a lot of men.
Yeah, but that’s what’s great about these types of movies. Audiences get to bring their personal experiences to the movie. And that’s been very apparent to me, how people are interpreting it through their living memories and trigger points.
Have you heard any theories or interpretations that were really strange or eye-opening to you?
I think most of them have made sense to us and we considered most of them while making it. But someone just said they were interpreting it through the lens of Jazz, where there’s a rigid frame work but freedom within that and there are explosive solos. And I loved that metaphor. But in terms of interpreting the ending, a lot of people bring up the idea of conformity and identity, and those change depending on where we screen it. Gender, racial, sexual identity all have an impact.
Where did you find the locations in Cincinnati?
We actually found the locations after we cast the movie. And originally, the movie hadn’t been about Q-Kidz, we originally started with cheer. But then I thought cheer wouldn’t work because we’d have to film that very athletic, gymnastic kind of cheer, and that would have been too risky. So then we started looking at other dance forms that’s still done as a team teams, and that’s how we learned about the Q-Kidz. I called the coach and started adapting the script to them. So once we decided to make it about them, we of course cast those who were already a part of Q, they have a couple hundred members. And we filmed in the building they practice in.
What made you decide on boxing as the sport Toni and her brother would share?
I think boxing is a very cinematic sport but I also think that the things which make someone a good boxer can make someone a good dancer. They need to have excellent footwork and think on your feet. They need balance and agility. Boxing can really look like dancing. So I thought it would be logical for a girl like Toni to go from the boxing ring to a dance team.
Why did you feel it’s important to make Toni a tomboy?
I wrote the movie with my editor and producer, and we were all tomboys growing up. We still are a complex blend of feminine and masculine and we grapple with that. We also had formative relationships with our older brothers, so that was also important. So much of our identity as adolescents are about mirroring the examples around you. It would make sense that she’d strive to fit in with her brother and the boxers, just the way she tries to fit in with the other girls when she joins the team.
What was it about Royalty that made her stand out as right for Toni?
Royalty’s the 8th girl to read for the part. She has an amazing capacity to listen, not just to me as her director, but also to her fellow performers and to herself. You could see her listening, and that made me want to work with her and collaborate.
What did you talk about that ended up in the final script?
We talked about her experiences when she first joined the team. Her memories of feeling like the older girls were so much older when she first started. We talked about what perfection means and her desire to be good. We talked a lot about her relationship with her older brother, how it’s more of a parental relationship. We just talked about life.
Was it hard to pitch a movie like this to funders and producers?
My producer Lisa, who’s also the co-writer, came on board with about a one sentence pitch. I do a lot of visual work, colleagues and stuff like that, when I’m developing an idea. So I built a Tumblr for choreographic and visual references. And then we developed the film with the Venice Biennale as our key funders, so they were the only people we had to pitch to in the development phase. And they were open to our experimental processes and gave us the grant.
What was the initial key idea?
I wanted to make a non-traditional dance film about a hysterical outbreak.
I haven’t seen hysteria depicted in a film like this, and you don’t specify the cause or specific diagnosis.
Well, mass psychogenic illness is real, and can have serious consequences, and there have been reports of hysteria in recent years. But in the film it’s from Toni’s point of view and we deal with it as allegory. And we wanted to make sure each episode’s specific to each girl, and felt real. We talked about each one individually with the performers and choreographed for them with our movement consultant. And the other girls hadn’t seen the fits before we filmed them. So their reactions were honest, although we’d then have to film them maybe a dozen times.
The scene outside, when Toni’s dancing on the overpass, what made you want to film in that location?
That is located really close to the community center we filmed in, and it sort of represents Toni’s bedroom. It’s her private, personal space. So there are three key moments that happen there and they all had to be unique. The first time she hears music, when it awakens something in her. The second time, when she discovers her love of dance. And the third time, the final sequence, when she’s living in her fantasy.
Your previous film was a dance documentary (Ballet 422), do you think you’ll continue incorporating dance in all your films?
I do, I see movement as a cinematic expression. Not just in terms of the actor’s bodies but in terms of the camera movement. I’m more interested in that kind of cinematic language than I am in dialogue heavy scripts. And that might include more dance, but there are other ways to incorporate that kind of cinematography that that can be expressed in film.
Do you describe camera work in terms of dance and choreography?
I did, and a lot of that came from my experience shooting dance in a more verite setting. You learn that dance works best when shooting with a single lens and the dancers and choreographers know where the front is. So I worked with my DP to design those shots, using a dolly and Steadicam at various points to add motion. A lot of the experimental filmmakers that inspired me were also choreographers.
What were some of the films that sparked your interest in directing?
The number one films this movie called Street Wise by Martin Bell, based on this photographic Life series by Mary Ellen Mark. I got into film through photography, so Mary Ellen Mark’s work I really admired. Seeing that film made a huge impact and got me interested in cinematography.