Four years after her critically-acclaimed feature debut It Felt Like Love, New York filmmaker Eliza Hittman returns with Beach Rats.
The film follows Frankie (Harris Dickinson), an emotionally shut-down, aimless teenager who copes with the bleak reality of his terminally ill father dying at home by wandering around the neighbourhood with his delinquent friends in the scorching hot summer, while secretly cruising for sex with older men online.
Beach Rats earned Eliza Hittman the Directing Award in the US Dramatic Competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was just nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, including one for Dickinson as Best Male Lead.
Mandy News had the pleasure of chatting with the award-winning filmmaker during last month’s BFI London Film Festival where the film had its UK premiere.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind the film, starting with the peculiar title choice?
There are always a lot of impulses that go into making a film and there isn't really just one inspiration for this. In 2013 I made my first film, It Felt Like Love, and I cast non-actors who were from a specific neighbourhood in Brooklyn, called Gerritsen Beach. Kids from Gerritsen Beach are called “Beach Rats” so that was the inspiration for the title. In that area there are certain kinds of tough, not very likeable kids who grew up without any life opportunities and have done some really bad things, so some of the story is inspired by their world.
The film is obviously an intense character study but did you ever toy with the idea of expanding the plot more?
Yes, there were versions of the script that went much farther but then it felt like the story became something else that started over and was going to require another thirty minutes of running time. As a writer, you always have to explore how far you can go with things and then pull them back to find the story that you’re telling. For instance there was a scene in the script where Frankie told his mother everything but in the end that didn’t feel right for the movie.
You always have to push and write the scene longer than it might play out because that’s how you make discoveries. If you don’t keep exploring things in the writing process you wouldn’t discover how much you want to reveal.
Was it hard for you as a woman filmmaker to relate to certain issues? Like, for instance, this toxic hyper masculinity that pervades some of society nowadays?
No, it wasn’t. I had one main concern, the fact that since Frankie says so little, he might not have the depth I wanted him to have or that the conflict might not resonate in the way I wanted it to. My biggest fear in making the film was that Frankie is so inarticulate, which made me wonder: would we understand him through his behaviour and would we be able to find an actor who could make it all resonate? That was the challenge I think, rather than the whole issue about representing guys and guy culture.
It was more: is this guy going to be compelling enough to watch since he doesn’t say much? But then you find a phenomenal actor like Harris Dickinson who brings that level of emotionality to the part and you realise it’s all going to work out.
The ending purposely doesn’t tie things with a tight bow. Do you have an idea of where the character might be after the credits roll?
I’m not sure I want to answer the question. I think we end the film with Frankie up a tree, in a way, dealing with his own cowardice, fear and shame over what he’s done and who he is and not really knowing where to go next. I don’t know if I see this character finding a way out.
Were you influenced by social commentary with your portrayal of disoriented youth in the film?
Well, sure, there is a more metaphoric read of the film. There are lots of class issues in the world and in the States in particular with people who are jobless or have opiate problems and with anger that erupts into violence and hostility towards the rest of the world.
I think, since the election, that world and that class have regained focus in terms of attention in the media. However, when I was writing it, there wasn’t a lot of focus on the sort of dying middle class or the blue collar class experience in and around New York and other major cities and those were things I was definitely thinking about.
Is Simone’s character (played by Madeline Weinstein) the only beacon of hope in this overall bleak state of affairs?
Yes, because she’s the only character who is aspirational but she has her own flaws too and a full arc despite the supporting nature of her role. For me she was this kind of girl who is seduced by somebody with problems and then realises he doesn’t offer her anything. That’s a learning curve for many women and it was something I was thinking about when I developed her character.
The presence of technology grounds the film in the present, yet it feels like we’re watching something suspended in time. Can you talk about the style you chose?
I wanted to capture the feeling of walking through those neighbourhoods, which are slightly out of time. We would like to think that the liberal-progressive world is the dominant one but it’s not. For me, if you get on the subway and you just drift to any edges of Brooklyn or Queens or if you go to Staten Island, it’s another time and another place and that’s what I wanted to capture and also the sense of isolation of these characters.
There were more cell phones and technology present in the film but those moments got cut because it’s boring to watch someone on screen with a cell phone.
Can you talk about that image of Frankie taking selfies that’s become iconic since the first trailer launched?
When I’m writing I always try to find a reference for the characters because it helps me see them and it helps me cast the film too. It can change, of course, as you work on a script for a long time and things shift and evolve. When I was thinking about what these kids’ reality looked like I went on Facebook and started pulling all these images and there was this selfie of a shirtless guy in front of a mirror – his face almost covered by the visor of his baseball cap and the camera’s flash keeping his features hidden. It really stuck with me as it encompassed Frankie’s secret life.
Actually, a lot of those kids in the film took very evocative images of themselves and there’s something interesting to me in how people represent themselves in the world through social media. In this case it was interesting because they had different intentions behind it. They weren’t trying to make themselves look like models to try and gain fame or pretend to be happy.
Did you have any particular cinematic influences?
Yes, definitely. A wide range of movies influenced me. For instance, since we talked about the ending, the first thing that comes to mind as an inspiration for that scene is the French New Wave – titles like 400 Blows or another French film called The Life Of Jesus (La vie de Jésus, 1997) by Bruno Dumont that I like a lot and was thinking about when making mine.
There are also a lot of '70s New York films that affected me about kids who can’t get out of their world and the city is very far away and all those kind of tropes – I’m thinking of Saturday Night Fever (1977) and The Lords of Flatbush (1974).
How do you feel about the scene for women filmmakers in the industry at the moment?
I can only speak for my experience, obviously, but I feel like I’m always starting over whenever I’m making another film. I’ve just met more people and more people have seen my work but I don’t have a development deal in place and I don’t have a studio movie.
I do feel a little bit like I’m always starting from scratch. I don’t think, unfortunately, that world is so sophisticated in terms of how things work. I’ve never made a movie for over a million dollars while most men make first features for well over a million dollars. I’m just trying to focus on my career and build a body of work that I feel is challenging and interesting to me and I keep finding an audience with everything I’ve made, so I try not to focus on what I don’t have.
I think you only need one production company that’s excited about what you’re doing next to make a movie and that usually is the right company. I don’t need everybody to want to make my next movie. I just need one company that’s enthusiastic about my voice.
Beach Rats is out in UK cinemas and on VoD from November 24th
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