Eliza Hittman Explores Female Sexuality with “It Felt Like Love”

There’s always that one film, the diamond in the ruff, that people whisper about at film festivals. It’s the one that surprisingly pulls ahead. At Sundance this year, that film was It Felt Like Love. I kept hearing about its progressive female director and its impressive young stars. I finally saw the film in LA and was, indeed, entranced.

Eliza Hittman explores a topic often unexplored in film: female adolescence. Her main character Lila, played effortlessly by Gina Piersanti, has a blossoming sexuality. Her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) is more experienced, and Lila is set on imitating her. Lila soon becomes transfixed on a college dude, a party boy who’s slept with plenty of chicks. As she pursues him, she finds herself in compromising and dangerous positions.

I had a chance to chat with Eliza and Gina in LA on the eve of their premiere at Downtown Independent. In a loft full of pictures of famous male idols (David Bowie, Jim Morrison, etc.) we discussed a female driven film. The juxtaposition was too perfect.

Hittman reveals how she cast nearly all unknown actors, going to dance studios and parks. She also shares her passion for writing dark, dramatic stories. In a generation of Wannabe-Lena-Dunhams, where chicks feel they need to be comedic and romantic, Hittman admits, ‘I’m trying push something else, that women can be complicated…in a way that doesn’t use humor to lubricate its message.’

If you’re not already hooked, you will be…

Meredith Alloway: What about this adolescent time in a woman’s life were you interested in?

Eliza Hittman: I think I was interested in exploring female adolescent because it seems really taboo. There are so many movies about boys. They always have boys masturbating and its always really funny. The same topics on the other side are so taboo. I was interested in female desire and how it articulates itself during adolescence. Those stories are very romanticized when they are told.

MA: How much of this film is you?

EH: It’s fictional. None of the events are at all borrowed from my life, but the feelings of the character are things I was reflecting on in that age. Some of the embarrassing moments are stolen from my life.

MA: I felt like I wasn’t watching actors. How did you find everyone-including this jewel over here?

EH: She can tell you how I found her!

Gina Piersanti: I think my mom found an add she posted on Actors Access and my mom reached out to her. There wasn’t a detailed description-

EH: I was purposely vague-

MA: Right! Who would take their 14 year old…

EH: …Dark, subversive, sexual movie-

GP: -Right! My mom was excited because it was a feature and sounded like a cool thing. I auditioned with some tame sides. She pulled my mom in the room and sat us both down and gave us a play by play. We were like Oh my Gosh! We said no a few times.

EH: Gina couldn’t get past page 10 when she read it…

MA: Nothing has even happened yet!

GP: Yes! This was my year before going into high school and this was the last thing I wanted to be thinking about. I wanted to go to the beach!

EH: She went to Disney world to deliberate! They kept me hanging!

MA: What finally made you jump?

GP: Getting to know her, location photos, audition tapes of all the other kids. We got to hear where she was coming from and it made sense after a while.

EH: I tried to give her the full picture so that there was nothing unknown.

MA: Right, trustable. But the rest of the cast-how did you find them?

EH: Through casting sessions I only cast one person. The rest of the kids I found in other places. Giovanna I found at a dance studio. I went to studios specifically in neighborhoods I thought the character would be from. Dance studios are great places to find young girls.

MA: Girls that are comfortable with their bodies-

EH: With their bodies and you don’t have acting experience but dancing experience. They understand movement and blocking. I contacted a theater teacher at my old high school in Brooklyn and she sent me a bunch of kids. I scrolled through cast photos on Facebook. I saw this one kid, Jesse. He came in and he was really stinking charming and was part of a hip-hop collective and had music experience. The rougher guys I met in Manhattan Beach. They were playing handball.  I walked up to them and had a pitch and was like, ‘Have you ever heard of the Sundance film festival? I had a short film there.’ They were like, ‘Yea, 50 Cent. He had a movie there!’

MA: I love that!

EH: I said I was casting the role of a heartbreaker. And they were like, ‘That’s’ me!’ I tested them to see if they could be professional and trusted. I made them come into several auditions in Manhattan and they live very far. The fact they would commit to being in Manhattan at a certain time to me meant that they were serious.

MA: What was set life like? Did you let them improvise?

EH: The camera and staging was rehearsed but the cast wasn’t. There wasn’t much dialogue and I begged them not to read the script. Loosely learn the lines, don’t practice in front of a mirror. Don’t let your mothers near it! They understood what it was about and that was enough. The only thing that was improvised was that I let the guys watch porn when she wasn’t in the room and then I filmed their responses to it. Because that’s something I couldn’t write as well as them! They had a specific slang.

MA: Speaking of the porn scene, I walked away from the movie feeling that the nudity wasn’t gratuitous. What’s your argument for why it’s necessary to the story you’re telling?

EH: The shots are not very long. I argued a lot with my editors about the duration of those shots. I opted for them to be shorter. It’s about her confronting this thing she thinks she desires and it felt essential to show it.

MA: Gina, as an actress, what was filming those moments like for you? Bravo! That’s a lot to take on.

GP: The most intense scene, I wasn’t there for! I’m under age so I couldn’t be on set for the nudity. Eliza was my body double! That scene was pretty removed.

MA: What about the scenes with your love interest?

GP: Everyone was so nice. No one was intimidating to work with or be around. Everyone was really friendly. It’s pretty weird to watch it all together. We were like oh my gosh this is such a serious movie! You sometimes forget how dark the actual movie is. It’s hard to watch it-

EH: -And have a reaction or response. Part of the discussion we had was that she didn’t have to experience what the character experienced. I just needed her to be present and bring herself to it.

MA: There are so many layers to Lila. At the beginning you think it’s about a young girl trying to copy her friend. As the film unfolds, there’s more to why she’s seeking this man. For you, what were her motivations?

EH: I included the fact that she had an absentee mother but I didn’t want to make it this dramatic plot point. I didn’t want it to feel like it was psychologically motivating everything

MA: What Lila does seems drastic, and yet people that don’t go through catastrophic psychological events do this stuff.

EH: When I started sending the script out, people were like I don’t get the characters motivations. It’s provocative for the sake of being provocative. I’m like kids do this all the time. They lie about their sexual experiences and whom they’ve had them with. They put themselves in situations they pretend are fun but aren’t.

MA: The film doesn’t leave you with this message that children shouldn’t be acting a certain way.

EH: It’s not a cautionary tale. It’s not message driven although some people might try and read that.

MA: Sending the script out, given you’re writing about something ‘taboo’ did people say it couldn’t get made? Were there roadblocks?

EH: I was determined to make it. Some producers I interviewed initially wanted me to tone down the language a little bit. To hear a girl say, ‘I like sex…’

MA: That was bad?

EH: Uh huh. That was part of why I wrote the film in a way. You walk behind a pack of high school kids at three o’clock and what they’re talking about is so much dirtier than anything you could write!

MA: Gina, did you relate to that world at all?

GP: I came from a really small middle school. I definitely have a lot of friends who live farther in the suburbs and I remember that being another world. You definitely hear these kinds of stories all the time! There’s nothing quite like it in mainstream film.

MA: You teach at Columbia-what’s the advice you give your students? What’s the recipe to get a film made?

EH: Be really practical about what you’re writing. Use what you have access to in your life, in your world. You’re in graduate school to form a network. Those are the people that will help you make it outside any system.

MA: Filmmaker Magazine named you one of the ‘25 New Faces!’ What’s the voice you want to communicate to people now that people are listening?

EH: There’s an unfortunate feeling in the industry that if you want to be successful as a female, post-Lena Dunham, that you have to be a female, comedic, romantic writer. I’m trying push something else, that women can be complicated and dark and edgy and in a way that doesn’t use humor to lubricate its message.

It Felt Like Love is in theaters in LA and NYC!