Last week, we met up with filmmaker Eliza Hittman at a laptop-cluttered cafe just off the Lorimer L -- an odd choice of venue given that her first feature film, the alternately dreamy and shocking It Felt Like Love, is set in parts of Brooklyn that most transplants will never see. A native of Flatbush, Hittman, 34, grew up around the working-class neighborhoods where her characters -- mostly white kids in their mid-teens, played by actual teenagers -- spend summer days acting out barely understood desires. Our only glimpse of the world beyond is a shot of the Manhattan skyline from the reedy banks of Gerritsen Beach.
After a year on the festival circuit, It Felt Like Love began its first theatrical run last weekend, at IFC Center; it opens this Friday in Chicago and L.A. Here, Hittman talks about taking on a project so close to home -- from shooting a skeevy party in her parents' basement to attending a cast member's sweet sixteen.
Tell me about putting together your cast.
Gina [Piersanti] [Ed note: Gina plays the lead, Lila] actually wanted to be an actor and she found me through Actors Access or something -- one of those open casting sites. Giovanna [Salimeni], who plays the friend, I found at a dance studio in Carroll Gardens. The kind of rougher guys I met in a park in Manhattan Beach. Jesse [Cordasco], who plays the first boyfriend in the beginning of the film, he went to my high school and I found him through auditioning kids from their theater program. He's part of Pro Era, a hip-hop collective of high school kids from Brooklyn. It's spearheaded by this guy Joey Bada$$ [one of our 2013 Beautiful People]. We couldn't use his music, though, 'cause they hadn't cleared any of the backing tracks.
The soundtrack is pretty much all hip-hop. Were you into that before you made the movie?
No. I mean, a little bit more in high school than over the last 15 years. But it's very authentically them, you know, and of the moment of what those kids listen to. It's a film that takes place in a specific neighborhood in Brooklyn. There's not a lot of establishing shots, but you get a sense of the place through the music and the people. I think.
What are the neighborhoods?
We shot in Gerritsen Beach and Gravesend and Bensonhurst, a little bit in Bay Ridge. All over those areas you don't see in films.
And you grew up slightly north of there.
Flatbush. Kind of central Brooklyn. I couldn't have shot in my neighborhood because it's unrecognizable. It doesn't look like the neighborhood I grew up in 'cause it's gentrified so much.
But when you were growing up, was that area part of the same world as the one in the movie?
Closer. Flatbush was a little bit more Jewish, but it was also always very Haitian and Pakistani. Bensonhurst was always more Italian and now it's become more Chinese, so they're not the same. I didn't try to make a period film that exists in the world I grew up in. But those neighborhoods still feel untouched by gentrification, even though the demographics change.
Did you really shoot the party scene at your parents' house?
That's my parents' basement. I gave one of the kids in the film a can of spray paint and he tagged up the walls. I sent my parents out of town while we were shooting.
How long has it been since the first public screening?
It's been over a year. No lulls. I'm ready to move on. I want to go off the grid and not be attached to my email.
Do you like doing the festival circuit?
It's a job, to go and represent the film. You go from being broke to traveling someplace, being picked up in a car, having an assistant, being treated really well, getting a nice room for a few nights in an interesting place and presenting your work -- and then you come home and you're kind of broke. It's a weird experience to go back-and-forth between those two worlds. But it's great. I have no complaints about how everything has worked out. I obviously had no expectations in making it, and it's exceeded those zero expectations at every level.
When you started shooting, did you already have producers lined up?
I had producing help. I didn't have a lot of investors. We started shooting with almost nothing. Like $15-20,000. My cinematographer, whose name is Sean Porter, it was his camera. And we shot the film without a crew. It was fun though. It was so small and it was such a family kind of environment. It's hard to imagine going on to anything else and working with a bigger crew. It doesn't totally appeal to me.
Speaking of bigger crews, do you ever get compared to that other filmmaker from your old school, Edward R. Murrow High?
Darren Aronofsky? No one's made that comparison, actually. I really like Darren Aronofsky, and whenever I have meetings in the industry and they ask what movies I like, I always say The Wrestler. It's like my commercial reference point for if I were to make a bigger film -- the regional specificity of it, the tragic antihero.
Do you see yourself someday making Noah-style epics?
I don't know. I think I have a big movie in my future. I don't know where in my future. I feel it there. It's not next, that's for sure.
One more thing: tell me about the Sweet Sixteen scene. Were those things a part of your teen years?
I went to so many sweet sixteens. They're much more elaborate than I was able to afford. They usually have DJs and lights and replicate a club-like environment. Mine is softer and prettier. And actually last March, we went to Giovanna's real Sweet Sixteen. It was a moment of life imitating art, art imitating life. And we lit a candle on her cake. Hers was really bangin'. And because all of her friends are dancers, the dance element was amped up and they performed. It's a weird event -- it's like a wedding without a husband. And it's also a right of passage into womanhood, but it feels too late. She's crossed over already.
It Felt Like Love is now playing at IFC Center in New York. It opens in L.A. and Chicago this Friday. Details here.