Eliza Hittman’s sophomore feature Beach Rats (2017), continues a thematic inclination towards sexual angst following her 2013 debut feature, It Felt Like Love. While the former followed Lila’s pursuit of a sexual encounter with an older man, which only deepened the danger of her predicament, Beach Rats looks to the pressures confronting masculinity.
With his father dying and his mother wanting him to find a girlfriend, Frankie (Harris Dickinson) escapes the bleakness of his home life by causing trouble with his delinquent friends and flirting with older men online. When his chatting and webcamming intensify, he finally starts hooking up with guys at a nearby cruising beach, while simultaneously entering a cautious relationship with a young woman.
Beach Rats sees Hittman confront the internal conflict of her character from the external perspective of the camera with a marked assuredness. The movement of the camera alongside the spatial merge with Frankie’s internal and external identity struggle that offers a film that is as much to be felt as it is to be experienced on a traditional narrative level. It captures a snapshot of the tumultuous divide between one’s mind and feelings, as well as the duality of an individual’s nature, both fighting for expression that muddies the clarity of identity in a close-minded world.
In conversation with PopMatters, Hittman reflects on the impulsive and mysterious beginnings of discovering her creative voice. She also discusses the meeting and separation points of theatre and film, the importance of the small moments within the big events, and film has not necessarily needing to be message-driven.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
There were a lot of factors that influenced my decision to experiment with being a filmmaker. I started out interested in acting but realised I was no good at it, so I started directing in the theatre a little bit and then realised that there was no way to make a living in theatre. I never grew up in a house with a camera and I’d never made a film, but I had always played around with photography. I went to Graduate Art School to study film on a what I have to say was a whimsical impulse. It was my last attempt at finding my voice as an artist.
I loved the experience and it came together quickly for me. I wish there was a more interesting story, but it seemed impossible to learn to make a film and part of what drew me to it was that I could never conceive of how a film was made. It was through the mystery of that feeling and it being something seemingly impossible to do that drew me to it.
I recall a filmmaker telling me that you can’t have expectations on a first film, only on successive films.
I think that’s true. The first film I made was a micro-budget movie we shot for $30k and it was a miracle that it found an audience. I had no expectations over what the life of the film would be.
With the second film it’s a much harder process. You’re measuring your success, measuring against yourself and you just hope that with everything you make, you find your way to the next level and advance in your career. But there’s no way to predict that will happen, so you just have more expectations the next time around, more pressure and eyes on what you’re doing.
Transitioning from theatre to film, can you see a way in which the former has influenced your approach to filmmaking?
The process of putting together a play is very much about bringing people together — casting it, talking through the internal beats and arcs of a characters journey throughout the entire narrative, and finding a way to chart that journey. And then standing back and looking at the overall arc of the narrative — blocking and mise en scène. All of those things are useful, but you have to forget about them when you get onto a film set. You have to be able to have a similar dialogue with an actor, but I would say that this other dialogue you are having is very different.
Moving from theatre to film, I wanted to learn how to write because it was something I had never done in theatre. The idea of writing a play seems more important than writing a screenplay, because the play has to exist as a text to be read and regarded in a different way, whereas no one really reads the screenplay. It’s for the director, it’s their blue print, and something about that appeals to me.
I also moved away from working with actors a bit when I first started working in film, realising that real people were more interesting on the screen than the performance on some levels that an actor could give. Real people have inner worlds onscreen that are quite different to what an actor does in the theatre.
Was this something you were trying to incorporate in Beach Rats? To move beyond the imagination of the writer and performances of the actors, to create tangible and authentic emotions that feel neither written nor performed?
For me, I’m always trying to show small moments and those are harder to render on a stage. Part of what’s exciting about getting out of a black box and working in the real world is that you have all of these other forces that you can’t control. I knew we wanted to shoot a scene if it rained with Harris on the hand ball court, somewhere in the neighbourhood to give us a feeling of what he was experiencing internally. It rained the first day we were shooting. It wasn’t just raining, it was the torrential kind of rain that you shouldn’t take a camera out into. Just being able to capture the chemistry between the performance and the environment, which you can’t control, is part of what makes film and filmmaking special.
Working with both — what you can and can’t control in a independent sphere — gives you something that until you sit down and begin to edit, you are almost unable to know what that is. I love that scene with him in the rain on the handball court because it’s like a summer rain specific to New York. It’s sunny and then all of a sudden everyone is running for their lives to find shelter for ten minutes and then it’s gone.
Film often dramatises the everyday. Here you are seemingly drawn to the mundanity. Therein, the film honours the natural ebb and flow between drama and those mundane moments that are typical of everyday life.
I guess in a way it’s always hard to process big events and we are always experiencing these small moments around them. That was how I was thinking of the death of the father, which is eclipsed over in a way by looking for the moments that Frankie will remember about the days around this event. He’ll remember the mother fighting with her tights, or the boys playing in the hydrant spray on a summer day while he was burying his father. When I think about big events, I think about the ride to the cemetery versus what the priest, the rabbi, or whoever says. I don’t know, I think life in a way is an accumulation of those moments.
Is one of the appealing aspects of film that it captures the visual nature of our minds, as you say, those specific images of an event?
I think so, to capture those small moments between the larger events.
Frankie struggles to fit into the world he knows, or rather the world he’s trying to belong to. A character trying to compromise his two opposing natures, it sees the film look to the idea that we are authors of our identity. Yet there are emotional impulses and a psychology that we have a lack of control over. Beach Rats could be interpreted as an exploration of the conflict of authorship and the reluctant truth of identity.
For me, it was ultimately about — and talking a little bit about second features — this character is under an incredible amount of pressure. I feel that was something that I tapped into from my own moment of this film, of my life and financially. I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on a young person to know who they are — this pressure for Frankie to fill his fathers shoes and the pressure to perform in bed in this certain way. I think there’s more pressure on men sexually than culturally we are able to acknowledge, and there are also pressures on this character with his friends.
In the context of one’s life, I was just thinking that there’s a myriad of pressures around someone who is supposed to be in every context in which they exist, amidst playing all of these parts, or trying to play all of these parts. Well, there’s someone else inside that’s struggling to find their way out or to find a voice, and I hope it’s something audiences see and feel in the narrative, regardless of whether they see it as just a coming out story.
At its core, Beach Rats is a film about the pressure to perform all of these roles, and at the same time to be understanding and to find the role and the voice that’s buried inside of you.
There’s a moment when words fail Frankie, leaving him lost in the void of feeling over articulation. Was this intentional on your part to posit the idea that on occasion there’s no language to explain our emotional feelings or impulses?
There are a couple of ways in which I think about it. One is I feel the character is unknowable to himself, and that was something I was consciously trying to explore. But at the same time, his exposure to the world is quite limited, so it feels like he wouldn’t be able to articulate what was happening to him.
The language to express and understand emotion is cultivated through life experience.
Yeah, but it’s also a film about fear — fear around who he is and obviously feelings of resentment and self-hatred. And to say that would ultimately be too painful for the character. So it is also about the pain he feels around whom he doesn’t want to be.
Picking up on your earlier point about the audience acknowledging a certain idea, Palestinian filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud spoke to me about how an artist is defined within the scope of the engagement of their work. She explained: “As artists I believe you have a responsibility…If you are commercial and you want to make money, then okay everything is cool, but you cannot call yourself an artist – you are an entertainer. When you want to call yourself or more importantly when you consider yourself an artist, then you have a responsibility towards your society and the world that you are a part of.”
That statement implies that commercial work doesn’t have to be responsible, or conscious of its dialogue. So I don’t know if I agree. I simultaneously don’t know if I think that work has to be overtly message-driven, that the film has to communicate one thing. The film in many ways articulates that in parts of this world that are incredibly close to major cities, there are masses of people still isolated, and there’s a violence that can erupt from stagnancy, of a community of people that have fallen away. But I don’t know if the film has such a direct message as much as it’s a slice of life.
Is it important to keep in mind the internal impact a film has on its audience, not only the vocalised response?
Yes and I think that people identify and relate to different parts of the narrative, so I can’t control everything that the film communicates to people. Everybody has a subjective response.
Eliza Hittman (chrislawrance.com)
Beach Rats screens at select locations theatrically across the UK from 24 – 31 November 2017.