By Madeleine Nesbitt, SPARK Movement
“It Felt Like Love,” premiering this year at Sundance, might sound like yet another bittersweet coming-of-age film, but it’s more than that. The film explores not only the developing identity and sexual awakening of the protagonist, 14-year-old Lila, but also the complexity of facing difficult realities. I spoke to It Felt Like Love’s director, Eliza Hittman, and young star, Gina Piersanti, about their experiences on this film and beyond.
Eliza Hittman’s short film “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight” made Indiewire Magazine’s “The Best of the Best” list for Sundance in 2011. “It Felt Like Love” is her first feature and premieres this month at Sundance and Rotterdam.
Madeleine Nesbitt: Was there an event in your life that kindled your interest in filmmaking, and how did it make you interested in filmmaking?
Eliza Hittman: I’ve always been passionate about storytelling. When I was in elementary school, I joined a storytelling group that met during lunch. We picked books, memorized them and performed them in front of the entire school. That experience was very powerful for me. I stood up in front of hundreds of kids, and I realized I had the innate ability to communicate and connect with people. The kids in the audience laughed and gasped and I went on to win several competitions. Later, I studied theater, acting and directing in high school and college. But I couldn’t get past the ephemeral nature of it. It was like building sand castles only to watch them wash away before I could even appreciate what went into it. I always loved American independent film. It wasn’t until much after college that I really became confident enough to want to do it. I was intimidated by it. There was so much technical knowledge that I felt I didn’t have and wouldn’t ever have. A lot of my mentors were pushing me to go to grad school, so I bought a camcorder and decided to try and make something to see if I could at least get in. Getting past that first something was the hardest part.
MN: I was looking at your tumblr for the film and you said you were “collecting portraits of vulnerable young women.” What made you want to make a film capturing, as you put it it, a “vulnerable” stage of life?
EH: I really love coming-of-age films and art about youth and wanted to try and do the experience justice. There’s a lot of discomfort a person experiences growing up and that’s what I wanted to capture. I like to think of the film as being outtakes from other coming-of-age films.
MN: There aren’t nearly as many women in the filmmaking business as there are men. Have you ever experienced sexism during your career as a filmmaker, and, if so, how did you deal with it?
EH: Early in my directing career, I had a coffee with well-known playwright that I really admired and he told me I would always face problems trying to become a director because not only was I a woman but I was also a petite woman. I don’t think he meant it to be a jerk. But his words loomed over me when I was starting out and felt like a curse. Back then I worked extensively with a male playwright and he would always try and grab the reigns and never acknowledge my contribution, even though the productions created a lot of buzz and were the springboard to a lot of other bigger opportunities for him. He was my really extreme introduction to how nasty the biz can be. But all for the best, because it was then that I realized I wanted to develop my own ideas and writing skills and if I understood dramatic form, then there was nothing really stopping me from becoming a writer too. With film, I’ve worked on set with a lot of male crew guys. They’re a type for sure. Grumpy, complaining about the food, showing off how quickly they can set things up and break them down. I’ve also worked with some awful guys (not with It Felt Like Love) who want to brag how much they know about their gear and all the toys in their trucks. I’ve learned over the years to depersonalize it. A lot of men want to brag about the model of their cars and very few really know how the engine works. With film, I know how the engine works.
MN: “It Felt Like Love” is your first feature film. What was an experience in the making of the film where you really felt confident about your film and how it was turning out?
EH: The process of making a film is really difficult in an emotional sense. Every step of the way I was filled with a profound sense of doubt. I wrote the script and everyone hated it. I kept revising it and revising it until people seemed to hate it less. I really loved the main character I had come up with and felt she was truly an extension of all my demons and insecurities. That’s what kept me going. I knew the character had soul, because I’d injected her with so much of myself (in a fictional context). Then, when we started casting all the young actresses I saw were so scared of the character! I didn’t know what to make of that! It was a long process of getting to know Gina Piersanti and her mom Jill Armus before they agreed to do it. I shot on HD for the first time and having access to the dailies while we were shooting threw me off. I doubted every choice and felt everything we shot was wrong and that it was going to be a giant expensive failure. But I have a really amazing boyfriend, Scott Cummings, who is also a talented filmmaker and after the first few days, he looked at the footage and told me I had nothing to worry about and keep going! The nice thing about a feature, is that you really find your stride which had never happened to me before on short. With shorts just when you get comfortable, the shoot is over. But with “It Felt Like Love,” the cast and crew really gelled and we had a really positive environment, and after the first few days, we found a stride together and with that came confidence. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel 100% confident, maybe that’s what keeps me going, aspiring to be confident.
MN: What advice do you have for young people, especially girls and women, who want to go into filmmaking?
EH: I think there are so many skills that you need in order to pull a film together successfully. You can’t possibly have them all when you first start making work. The learning curve is steep, but if you are committed your work will get stronger and stronger.
Gina Piersanti plays the naive protagonist, Lila, in “It Felt Like Love.” She started acting at a young age and “It Felt Like Love” is the largest production she has been in. Gina was recently interviewed in Verge Magazine, and she agreed to talk with me about being a young actress and about the sexualization of girls and women in the media.
MN: What that inspired your interest in acting?
GP: I started acting when I was pretty young, about 5 years old. My parents signed me up for a local musical theater group for kids because they thought it would help me get over my stage fright! It definitely did the trick and I quickly fell in love with it. I don’t think I can picture myself doing anything else!
MN: Eliza said that there had been a lot of discussion about the sexualization of girls and women in the media during the casting process for “It Felt Like Love.” How do you feel the sexualization of girls in the media affects you, as a young actress and as a teenage girl, and are there any unique pressures you face as an actress?
GP: There’s definitely a lot of sexualization in the media, TV shows, advertisements, music videos, you name it. Especially in the digital age when everyone is constantly plugged into something. It seems so many young girls are exposed to it younger and younger. The first step of course is noticing it and calling attention to it and I’m seeing that done more and more.
I think there’s pressure for actresses and everyone for that matter to look a certain way. whether it be an actress being told to lose weight for a role or someone looking at a magazine and saying “I don’t look like that,” not to mention that most things in print are so retouched they are not even real. It’s an important issue.
MN: Right now we’re seeing many talented young women acting, like Elle Fanning, Hailee Steinfeld, and Chloe Moretz. What do you think is the opening for young actresses in the film industry at this time?
GP: Yes, I definitely think there are lots of opportunities for young actresses in film now. It’s very inspiring and encouraging to see girls like Chloe Moretz and Elle Fanning getting great roles and giving powerful performances. I think it’s really great that directors like Eliza Hittman are writing such powerful stories around young women. And that’s why I was so drawn to this role and her film.
Madeleine Nesbitt, 14, is in 9th grade in York, Pennsylvania. She writes for the teen program at her local newspaper. She is particularly interested in how changes in fashion correlate with changes in society and views of how society should be. She is interested in activism working through creative writing such as novels and poetry, and has been an Anglophile from an early age.