Writer-director Eliza Hittman discusses the genesis of Beach Rats, working with actors, and the sculptural elements of the male body. Listen to our podcast on Eliza Hittman’s followup, Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
There was a particularly impressive cohort of LGBTQ films at Sundance this year, from Call Me By Your Name to God’s Own Country to Beach Rats. The latter two both picked up Best Director prizes in their respective competitions. Eliza Hittman’s sophomore feature, Beach Rats, tells the story of Frankie (an impressive Harris Dickinson), a teenager still in the closet because he lives in a deeply homophobic community — a sentiment he’s internalized.
Frankie spends his days hanging out on the beach, smoking pot, and playing handball with his friends. He spends his nights hooking up with older men on Grindr whom he chooses because he know they won’t know any of the same people. Shooting largely with a handheld camera, Hittman restricts us to Frankie’s subjective perspective, so that we feel the loneliness of his secret and how hard he tries to fit in with his friends. He’s also coping with a sick father, tensions with his mother, and his questionable decision to start a romantic fling with a woman (Madeline Weinstein) who pursues him, even though he knows, deep down, he’s not interested in women.
Hittman is deeply attuned to Frankie’s desire, focusing on how his body and the bodies of the men around him move together. The setting may be working class and even a little grungy, but Hittman and cinematographer Hélène Louvart find a poetic visual language with which to tell the story.
When the film screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year, I sat down with writer-director Eliza Hittman to discuss the genesis of the film, working with actors, and the sculptural elements of the male body.
Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in telling this story?
Eliza Hittman: I had made another film called It Felt Like Love in a similar location, a similar area of the city. While I was in between projects, thinking about what to do next, I felt a lot of expectation around telling another female story. I was curious about exploring male sexuality. All of my work thus far had explored female sexuality.
I grew up in that world. I grew up in an environment that was a bit toxic. I was thinking about the effects of that toxicity on my youth and thinking a lot about internalized homophobia and how much pressure is on young men to fulfill very conventional roles. I was thinking about how parts of the city are very cut off from a very progressive version of New York and the effect of that isolation.'I was thinking about internalized homophobia and how much pressure is on young men to fulfill conventional roles.'Click To Tweet
When I started writing the script, I started writing from the place of character: a young guy who is exploring his own desire but unable to accept himself.
7R: What is your process for writing your screenplays? There isn’t a lot of dialogue in either of your films. What does that mean the writing focuses on?
Eliza Hittman: It’s always a balance of trying to be atmospheric and poetic but also have enough narrative to advance the story forward in a traditional, linear fashion. When I write, I know that the story is gradually becoming darker. I have a sense of the overarching trajectory.'It's a balance of trying to be atmospheric and poetic but have enough narrative to advance the story.'Click To Tweet
I look for ways to explore that tension visually. In It Felt Like Love, I did it through dance. In Beach Rats, I played a lot with the physicality of these guys and their environments, through the handball and through the stagnancy of the activities that they participate in throughout the day. They have very little to do. They’re just hanging out in the beach. The stagnancy around them creates some interior tension that begins to grow and grow and grow.'I played a lot with the physicality of these guys and their environments.' - Eliza HittmanClick To Tweet
7R: Are the scenes in the film heavily choreographed? The way the bodies of the boys in a group move together is so important in the film.
Eliza Hittman: Yes. It’s always about staging the protagonist first, in the frame, and knowing what his blocking is first, then playing with the choreography of the guys around him. Central to the story is what he’s thinking and feeling at every moment. We have less access to the secondary characters. They’re all there to create tension and opposition and support in whatever he’s thinking and feeling at every moment.
Some of the handball stuff, I just let them play and observed them. But I was thinking about power dynamics and how that plays out visually on screen. In the first handball game, one of the characters, Alexei, I wanted to introduce him as being a bit of an aggressor. Frankie isn’t taking the game as seriously, so he sort of throws the ball at him. I was looking for subtle ways to introduce their dynamics as a group through the game. Then, there were other games where it was just about their physical interaction, their physicality, and the beauty of watching them on the court together.
Some things are narrative, other things have narrative intention, and other things I’m just exploring visually and atmospherically.
7R: You’ve got professional actors and non-actors in the film. What is your process for working with them? Do you rehearse?
Eliza Hittman: I rehearsed with Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, and the mother, Kate Hodge, in a more traditional process. We sat in a room. We read the script together. I answered their questions about the characters and their intentions. We would do a rough physical blocking of the scene, but we weren’t working on set so all of that ends up changing. It was an opportunity for the actors to become familiar with each other and get to know each other.
With the guys, it was less traditional, except for at the end of the film where we worked with a fight choreographer, and that was heavily staged and choreographed and safe for everyone involved. But I left things a lot looser with the guys.
I don’t rehearse any sex scenes. That I do on set in the moment, with not a lot of crew, close the set.
I’m conscious about what needs to be rehearsed and why, and what doesn’t get rehearsed, what needs to be spontaneous and organic. It’s a combination of all of those impulses.'I’m conscious about what needs to be rehearsed and why...and what needs to be spontaneous.'Click To Tweet
7R: What do you feel like needs to be rehearsed?
Eliza Hittman: The dialogue scenes primarily. Scenes that are advancing the narrative. People come from different backgrounds so a rehearsal is an opportunity to think about the way that they’re talking about performance and how they’re engaging with the character.
It’s figuring out if they have any tics, looking at their general impulses, talking about the structure of a scene and what it’s building towards, and just understanding the shape. When you’re shooting a film, you’re not shooting chronologically. The rehearsal is the time to chart the emotional progression for each character and each actor. Then, when you get on set, you have to remind them and bring them into that moment.'The rehearsal is the time to chart the emotional progression for each character and each actor.'Click To Tweet
7R: What was your process for working with your cinematographer Hélène Louvart to develop the aesthetic of the film?
Eliza Hittman: We looked at a lot of visual references. We didn’t watch any films together because we both feel that becomes a bit dangerous. You start to stage and think in terms of other people’s process, logic, and work that isn’t your own.
We both like to look at a lot of photographs that I had compiled. Those were images that came from Facebook that I had done screen grabs of, kids from certain neighbourhoods, selfies. I was looking a lot at how people photograph themselves and represent themselves. I was thinking about questions of the authenticity of identity in a selfie.'I was thinking about questions of the authenticity of identity in a selfie.' - Eliza HittmanClick To Tweet
I looked at some photography from the ‘50s by a photographer named Danny Fitzgerald, who photographed a lot of South Brooklyn thugs and gangs. He also did men’s physique photography so it was an interesting perspective. He was looking sculpturally at the body in a more classical sense. But the men were these thugs. I was thinking about the classical sculptural elements of the male body.'I was thinking about the classical sculptural elements of the male body.' - Eliza HittmanClick To Tweet
I also looked at the photography of a woman named Barbara Crane, who worked in Chicago in the ‘80s, and did a lot of polaroids and segmented shots of people’s bodies — like a hand in a back pocket, these sexy, candid moments in the way people and bodies interact.
7R: When you get to set do you have ideas about certain fragments you want to grab?
Eliza Hittman: It took us over a week to shot-list the entire script. In some places, it’s a general we’re just going to get closeup coverage of the dialogue scene. In some places, it’s more specific — trying to capture body parts or moments.
The opening montage of the film is like a shot of a bicep, extreme closeup of stomach abs. A shot list is more about constructing the grammar of the film on the page. Then, I would allow the DP to have framing freedom for the precise composition.
7R: A lot of the film is from Frankie’s perspective.
Eliza Hittman: It’s about constructing a subjective space. A lot of that is done through the edit, cutting things specifically, as much as we can, through his point of view. If it’s a dialogue scene between two characters, you can say, “This is a balanced scene between two people who are even in power.” Or, you can say, “This scene is really about Frankie trying to test somebody’s understanding of his desire.” You can shape the focus of a scene through an edit. You can play with who is the dominant character through an edit, or who you want an audience to identify with more through an edit.'You can play with who is the dominant character through an edit.' - Eliza HittmanClick To Tweet
When you try and shoot the film, you try to give yourself some options. It’s making sure you have more shots of Frankie, making sure you have every reaction to everything that’s happening within the scene.
The world is very tightly constructed around him, and that’s a choice. I didn’t choose to write it with scenes outside of his point of view. It’s not like we know his mother is getting frustrated with his behaviour in a conversation with his sister — no.'The world is very tightly constructed around him, and that’s a choice.'Click To Tweet
We learn everything about him and his world through his experiences, and that’s a choice. So in cutting the scenes, we’re also restricting them to be as much about his understanding and feeling in every scene.