The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut and one of the films that comprises the New Directors/New Films Festival, organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the MoMA, takes the universal theme of the confusions of growing up and reinterprets them by adding a psychological twist. Revolving around the young character Toni, who is trying to find her place between the world of boxing and an organized dance crew, The Fits’ harrowing complications of identity, combined with an unexplainable fit spell that takes over everyone in the dance crew save for Toni, elicits the teenage complexities of trying to find oneself. Ahead of the film’s festival release, the writer and director sat down with us to discuss using sound as dialogue, providing diversity in the writing room, and the creative influence of Mad Max: Fury Road.
NeueJournal: What is the driving force behind The Fits and what propelled you to explore this story?
Anna Rose Holmer: The driving force behind the film has always been about the subconscious choreographies we perform on a daily basis. I really saw adolescence as a culmination of that; the body mirroring and intuitive ways in which we move our body towards each other. For me it was really grounded in physical action. Looking to other girls’ bodies to define my body as an adolescent was something I finally started to understand as a 30 year old, so that’s always been the theme: how to make an unconventional dance film about adolescence and how to focus on a coming of age story that wasn’t about sexual identity but more just about identity.
NJ: This film marks your directorial debut. What was the most challenging aspect of it and what has been your favorite part?
ARH: Transitioning into directing, coming from both producing and camera work, was definitely the most emotionally vulnerable I’ve felt. You really have to be open. and you cannot ask others to give without first giving yourself, especially when you are working with kids. I felt I had to be this open book. It is a big challenge to remain really vulnerable throughout the whole process, especially with everyone witnessing that vulnerability on set, which was definitely the most challenging part. The most rewarding has been how much I’ve grown as a collaborator. As a director you cannot carry the film by yourself, you have to lean into your collaborators and I’ve grown so much through my relationships with my two co-writers; Lisa Kjerulff and Saela Davis, as well as my DP Paul Yee, our lead Royalty Hightower, Marquicia Jones-Woods and the Q-Kidz, and really the entire crew. I felt I learned a lot about myself and what type of leader I wanted to be because they were showing me what they needed along the way. I definitely feel like directing is the most articulate I’ve felt in any role in film so hopefully I get to keep doing it.
NJ: Sound plays an important role in this film. Why did you decide to say more with action and sound than with dialogue?
ARH: So much of how I communicate isn’t through words, and we use soundscape and the score to really be our lead Toni’s voice. We needed to give her a space to speak directly to the audience without that being on dialogue, so we used sound design to heighten her isolation, her sense of foreboding, and her internal struggle. We used the score to give the audience a clue about the quiet discomfort that is building, so that by the time the fits enter into the film you are almost prepared for them, since Toni feels out of place from the very beginning.
Photo courtesy of The Fits
NJ: The theme of inclusion and diversity in the film industry is as prevalent now as it’s ever been. Is this something that you actively thought about when creating this film?
ARH: I co-wrote this film with two other women, and we are all from different backgrounds, so in the writer’s room we were all bringing different ideas about female identity, cultural backgrounds, and story aesthetics to the writing process, which I think bloomed on screen in this really beautiful way. Our crew was so generous and so giving, but in order for that to work the environment needs to be inclusive, which a really deep philosophy for us – every person who was part of this process had a voice that was valued.
NJ: What three films have had a significant impact on the exploration of your personal craft?
ARH: The first film I ever saw that made me want to be a filmmaker is a documentary called Streetwise, by Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark. Mary Ellen was really my lens into the world of film; I really wanted to be a Director of Photography so that was the first film that sparked this idea that you could tell a story, not just in a single frame like photography, but in a moving elaborate world. Au Hasard Balthazar, by Robert Bresson, is a film that really marked formal language, and Mad Max: Fury Road reignited a spark in me of pure love of cinema and kinetic storytelling. When I think about that film I get so excited to continue to make work.
NJ: What did you care most about when you were 10 years old?
ARH: My big brother was a big influence for me, he is four years older. I actually mirrored a lot of the relationship between Toni and Jermaine on my relationship with my older brother, Sam. I looked up to him and I thought he was the whole world, but there came a point when I realized I didn’t want to be exactly like him, that my identity was going to go down another path. But I loved playing in the woods with him, and building worlds, building forts, exploring. I cared a lot about my brother.
NJ: What is your motto?
ARH: “Why are the rules the rules?”
NJ: How would you describe the color green to a blind person?
ARH: Green is my favorite color because green for me is like the taste of the freshest herbs or lettuce coming out of the ground. I think about spring, I think about rebirth and growth. I think green smells like just after it’s rained and you can feel the ground seeping up those nutrients.
NJ: What do you think happens when we die?
ARH: I think some people make work so that after they die their work can live on in immortality, but I’ve been trying to practice releasing that idea of ego. It’s really hard when you create work to kind of erase that idea of yourself and that barrier, but I think that maybe in death that barrier is totally erased. But I have no idea.
NJ: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
ARH: I am learning, more and more, not to ask for permission and that you don’t need somebody else’s permission to make work. Particularly as a woman in this industry you have to speak up for yourself, because no one else is gonna advocate for you on your behalf. Obedience or silence as a virtue has its place, but also asking for what you want and what you need is valuable.
Portrait Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal