Hailed by Rolling Stone as “The Girl Power Movie of 2016,” “The Fits” – directed and co-written by Anna Rose Holmer – is not only one of the most acclaimed films of the year, but also one of the most unique films in quite some time. Set in West Cincinnati the film, on the surface, centers on a young girl named Toni (wonderfully played by Royalty Hightower) who, while working out in a gym, pushing herself to the limits, come across a group of defiant young women who are part of the drill dance team, and finds herself compulsively drawn to them, wanting to be a member of the group. It’s a film that deals with self identity and self acceptance, the pressure of trying to “fit in,” as young girls attempt to establish themselves and find where they belong in the world.
Born in upstate New York and a graduate of New York University film school, Ms. Holmer, for whom “The Fits” is her first feature film, originally found support when she pitched it at the Biennale College Cinema, which is part of the Venice Film Festival. It is there that the film premiered last year. Since then it’s been picked up for theatrical and video release from Oscilloscope Films and opened last week in New York and L.A., ahead of a wider expansion.
Recently we had an opportunity to talk to Ms. Holmer about her film and its genesis, as well as how she approached the film’s unique visual style, and why she feels anyone it’s open to interpretation.
SERGIO: First of all let’s talk about your background. You started in the business on the film crew side. You previously worked as a grip and a first camera assistant among other positions. I can’t think of another director who started out that way. What made you make the transition to directing?
HOLMER: Well, when I went to film school, I really wanted to be a DP (Director of Photography) and I’m still really grateful that this was my foundation. And as you know, to be a DP you really have to put in those hours, and I learned so much from crewing and being on the set. And one thing about being one of the first who became a director that way is that you’re right behind the camera, so you get to witness these incredible conversations between DPs and directors, or directors and actors.
So it actually was a great foundation for me and when I started the transition to above-the-line; it was actually towards producing because I saw so many creative producers flexing their muscles in team building, and seeing film as a collaborative process, and that was really exciting to me. So directing really stemmed from that, and trying to establish my form of leadership based on what I had seen creative producers doing. But still I have to admit, it’s all rather surprising to me. But I am so grateful that this is the way I sort of made my foundation. I draw a lot from having crewed and knowing how much everyone is giving, and being able to say “Thank you” back to the crew.
SERGIO: And, of course, this is your first feature film as a director, so I have to ask – what was it that drew you to the subject matter and made you want to make this particular film? Especially since it was a completely different culture and environment than you were used to.
HOLMER: The original seed for the film did not take place in Cincinnati or with drill [dance]. The actual seed of the film was originally just looking at historical cases of mass hysteria. So I started to think about what it would mean to explore this idea in a dance film. I had been producing content for the New York City Ballet and I had recently produced a feature documentary called “Ballet 422,” so I was really excited about dance on film. So I wrote a script with two other partners – Saela Davis, my editor, and Lisa Kjerulff, my producer – and part of that was going out and finding a dance form that would be a good match. And we were developing for almost a year before we found some drill videos on YouTube.
Of course I was more familiar with the majorettes sort of thing, but I had never seen a stand battle, and it was a very immediate feeling, and really exciting to see drill in the fan battle context. Because there were so many elements in the dance form that fit the bill in terms of incorporating modern movements, and also this “call and response” with the captain and her team that was so exciting. So when we approached the Q Kidz it wasn’t just about starring in the film; it was about collaborating with us and really letting the actors be the co-authors, allowing them to totally rewrite their own dialogue and workshopping the script and building it into that world.
SERGIO: For people who are not familiar with drill, it’s more than a dance; it’s a form of “battle” between two teams over which is more superior.
HOLMER: Yes, we were also excited about a dance form that was very athletic and simultaneously very graceful. There’s a very balanced element to drill. And we worked with the two drill choreographers who we collaborated with to bring in some of those movements directly from boxing, so that [the lead character] Toni’s journey as a dancer, we were able to explore through the choreography of the stand battle itself, and nod towards the movement of boxing, really trying to coordinate the boxing sequences so that they were as fluid and graceful, bringing those two sports close together.
SERGIO: Which brings me to the lead actress, Royalty Hightower, who is extraordinary in the role. She has just a fascinating face that makes her seem older and more mature than her actual age.
HOLMER: Well she’s very aware and in control, which we may call being mature, but she is just an amazing performer and just so generous.
SERGIO: And I’m sure you’ve been asked this question hundreds of time already, but how many young girls did you have to see and audition before you found her?
HOLMER: Well, believe it not, Royalty was the eighth girl that read.
SERGIO: Really? You lucked out.
HOLMER: I’ve heard horror stories about open casting calls. We only had open casting originally to cast for the Q Kidz because there are only a couple hundred of them in circulation, and we cast 45 of them, including Royalty, who I saw on day one, and was immediately struck. We had a great connection and she has a great capacity to actually listen and to absorb. She really was taking it all in and was able to translate that to her face. And the character of Toni has a very tough heart.
My only hesitation after meeting her was that she was nine. We always assumed that we would cast an older teenager who looked younger because it was quite a heavy part, but then we also met Alexis Neblett who plays Beezy in the film on day one, and she was also nine, and I think it helped that their chemistry was just incredible, and taking the chance of the two of them together made it easier. But I think that, after the second day of casting, I told my producer that the only person I could imagine playing Toni was Royalty, and I was just so excited to work with her really.
SERGIO: But here’s the point I wanted to bring up about the dialogue in the film. There isn’t much of it. Most of the story, the feeling and emotions, are told visually, like how you constantly isolate Toni from the rest of the group. Was this always in the script or something that developed during filming?
HOLMER: Yeah, we saw this as a dance film from the first frame to the end credits. So our script is very specific and detailed in terms of what is seen, and very spare on dialogue. That was how my co-writers and I approached the idea of the cinematic elements of the film, and we didn’t see much beyond that practically. When I was talking with Royalty she actually had a bit more dialogue in the script, and she would actually cross out lines and would say, “But we’ve done this; I don’t want to say this; we’ve said it already.” I think we all had the same idea of the kind of movie we were making and how to communicate that. I think the dancers in particular really understood that element of the script.
SERGIO: And also one of the really refreshing things about “The Fits” is that it’s a film about young girls and their emotions, and trying to make sense of who they are, and where they fit in the world. What I mean by that is, boys are not a factor in the film. Often when you see a film about a woman it revolves around her relationship with some guy. But in your film, with the exception of Toni’s brother who appears in a few scenes, and who she has a tender relationship with, men are not a factor in the film.
HOLMER: Yup! There’s a gap. There are not a lot of films about complex girls who command action and drive narrative, and we wanted to put something in that space. That’s how I remember being 11, and that’s how my co-writers remember being that age. There’s so much about your identity that’s not in relationship to a sexual awakening, and we wanted to make it safe, and show a young complex girl exploring that.
SERGIO: Also there are sequences in the film where it’s open to interpretation – particularly during the final five minutes, which are almost surrealistic in a way. And I wish more films did that – where you can read into it however you want. You have your own ideas, but anyone else’s are just as valid as well.
HOLMER: Exactly! All answers are O.K. And I understand through watching the film that every audience member is bringing their own viewpoint to the picture. That’s what so exciting about it and that’s why it feels so alive. To interact with audiences and have a conversation. It’s not about making a declarative fact and saying this is this. It’s about asking questions and inviting conversations about how we see. Those are my favorite kind of films.
“The Fits” is now in theaters, in a limited release, via Oscilloscope Labs. Check your local listings.