The Fits is a surreal drama about a young boxer named Toni (Royalty Hightower) who joins a drill dance team as its members are stuck down by a strange condition, and the feature debut of Brooklyn-based director Anna Rose Holmer. The film was funded by the Venice Biennale College and has collected honours at both the Venice and Sundance film festivals, making it a significant milestone in her eclectic journey as an artist. It now receives its Australian premiere courtesy of the Essential Independents festival. We sat down with her during her trip to Australia to promote the film.
The Fits isn’t your only work with dance. What draws you to dance as an art form and a form of movement?
I kind of fell into working on dance films. I had the great honour of co-directing a short documentary piece with Matt Wolf — he’s another New York-base filmmaker — and we did that for this film called New York Export: Opus Jazz, which has a huge dance component that was co-directed by Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost.1 We were on the sidelines witnessing that film being made and exploring the historical context of this very radical ballet by Jerome Robbins that was originally choreographed in the 1950s, and I really kind of fell in love with dance on film at that moment. And then my dear friend Ellen Bar, who was a soloist at New York City Ballet, became the head of media and so she was always looking to invite filmmakers into the ballet world for collaborations. I did some various projects, and then when Jody Lee and Ellen and I got together to start following Justin Peck in the choreographic process, which became Ballet 422.
All that is to say that I kind of got lucky in that I fell into the ballet world. I didn’t grow up being a ballet-ophile, but what ballet really taught me was about the formal process of dance, and I think there are so many similarities with very formal qualities about cinema. It can seem from the outside to be very inaccessible, but I think once you begin to understand the rules and the formal language that the authors are playing around with that can be a great joy. So I always kind of looked at a lot of early feminist experimental filmmakers that I admired, like Maya Deren or Shirley Clarke, who are also choreographers and dancers themselves, and looking back I see this long history with patterns and movement based cinema. With The Fits, myself, Saela David my editor and Lisa Kjerulff my producer… we’re all very visual, very kinetic storytellers, so it was natural to put all the narrative tension into body movement. We do see it as a dance film from frame one to closing credits.
Was The Fits always going to be about a dance team rather than any other team of active adolescents?
I did always want it to be a dance team. We had also looked at cheer — the very athletic competitive, sports side of cheerleading — and we looked at more competitive dance teams that do pageantry, we looked at step, but it wasn’t until we found drill that came through searching for a dance form and a dance language that really kind of pushed the allegory that we were going for. The first fifteen seconds that I saw of the Q-Kidz dancing was super electric, I was so enamoured by them, so when we asked them to participate with us, it really became a collaboration, and we started to adapt our idea in the scriptwriting process towards being set in the drill community and in Cincinnati where the Q-Kidz are from.
The very attentive focus on Toni’s fitness regime — of sit ups, chin ups, etc — was that always in the script or was that part of Royalty Hightower’s performance?
That was actually very early on. I have this very distinct memory of being in gym class and there was this one girl who was a very quiet outsider girl, and we had to do a physical fitness test, and she got up and it felt like she did 20 pull-ups — she quietly got up, she went to the bar, and she just blew everyone away and then sunk back down. We were like ‘who is this girl, and where did she come from?’ and that was just something that lived in my memory. And when we first started the film, I looked at some cellphone videos of girls exercising on their own and pushing the limits, so that was always built in to my persona of Toni and this very extreme, controlling, obsessive kid, who isn’t aware of this other element of freedom and losing control and what you can gain from that, which is kind of what the film teaches her. She’s so tight and gripping at the beginning.
I know that Royalty Hightower is a skilled dancer, and she really amazingly adopts a clumsiness to her dancing at the beginning.
She’s been dancing with the Q-Kidz since she was six, so she’s an incredible dancer which you see later in the film. We worked with Celia Rowlson-Hall, a modern dancer, as a movement consultant throughout the film, and she helped create those awkward, masculine, clumsy movements. So Royalty in a lot of ways is still doing the choreography perfectly, it’s just that she was given these specific gestures to do, to fake that she’s not a dancer.
When the routine calls for a punch dance step, she looks very professional as a boxer. It’s the only thing that seems to come naturally for her. How hard was this to direct in her — or was it part of her own instinct?
All the drill choreography is done by Mariah and Chariah Jones, and we wanted to make sure that there were gestures that would feel very comfortable in the dance. So that phrase that she learns and relearns and redoes throughout the film was very specific in making sure that it could evolve with Toni, including the punches in the dance sequence as something that could give her a moment of reprise when she can fall into her comfort zone. As that body falls away throughout the film and the dancer emerges, the movements change with her.
The shot on the overpass, when Toni begins to practice her routine repeatedly in her grey sweat-suit — that shot is three minutes long. Is that the longest shot in the film? How did you decide that was to be the case?
I think it is, but I don’t know for sure. We call that “the shot” — because it is in some ways the entire film in a single shot, it’s the story of Toni. It’s the most beautiful, articulate, exciting thing I’ve ever put on screen and Royalty’s performance in it is just incredible and sophisticated and nuanced, and powerful, and raw, and glorious to watch. I think everybody on set is just weeping off camera — when she’s channelling that energy, it’s not coming from within her, she drawing it in like a magnet, and that’s Toni’s journey. It falls exactly at the midpoint of the film, and it takes her the rest of the film to be able to get there in public.
A thing that I noticed that was really powerful, in terms of Toni’s progression and also in understanding the girls’ fits, was that there was almost no adult presence in the film. What made you go for this decision?
Well, there were lots of decisions. One, practically speaking, to involve adults really took away power from the society of girls, so if the coach becomes too present or if parents are there, then the girls looking to Legs and Karisma as authority figures is minimised. We wanted to make sure that we were always protecting the power of the older girls. But also, we did a lot of things to really place the audience in Toni’s perspective, and I think at that time [of adolescence], adults and their influence really do live out of focus, on the fringe of your lives, as peers become more and more important. There’s a moment when that’s all you see and do, and it was always our intention to keep it very tightly focused on Toni. Her entire world is in that building.
Toni is utterly transfixed with the dance team. I interpret it as some kind of adolescent desire for femininity, for the unknown, something missing in the only other point of comparison of her brother.
I think what’s interesting is to think about all the time that Toni went to fill the water cooler and didn’t stop and gaze and look, and for the audience, we’re seeing these graceful, strong, beautiful, complex beings through the window, but it’s actually coming from Toni. It’s been available, but something now is different within her, and she kind of wants that for the first time.
Then she has some of that for her brother and the other boxers, after she has joined the dance team, you see her glance back in at the boxing team in the same way she once yearned after the girls. So will that go on, this desire to do everything?
That’s a really heartbreaking little beat for me, the return to see Jermaine now training her replacement — a boy. For me that’s a moment where she is kind of accepting that her actions have consequences, and it’s not so easy as this or that, or black or white, but there’s a more nuanced, rippled idea of reality that she’s barely touching on. But it’s sad for me, because I think she looked through and she has so much care. I love the relationship between Toni and Jermaine in the film, it’s sweet and it’s something that I’m really proud of. So she can look through and feel like she’s missing something by making a choice, and that’s what it feels like to be an adult. She’s realising that things are complicated.
I felt a correlation between Toni’s being transfixed with these sports teams, and the audience’s transfixion, these mirror each other. You build a framed space from which it’s impossible to look away. How did you come to build this intimacy via pulse rather than via plot exposition?
A big theme through every department was breath. When we allow breath in, when we’re exhaling, through dance that’s really clear. There are moments when Royalty is literally holding her breath, she’s holding everything in, she’s very tense, there are moments when she’s almost hyperventilating, pushing everything out, and we were very aware of how breath was moving in the score, in the clarinets. In the mix we really lifted everybody’s breathing, so I think that there’s this respiring vibe to the film, and it does kind of feel like a body. We were very aware of that rhythm, the internal state, and that doesn’t come from talking, it comes from movement, silence, patience, from letting things linger and then sprinting away. I think a lot of accolades need to go towards Saela Davis, my editor, because she was simultaneously allowing it to feel slow and perfectly timed and very lean. Her sensibility bled throughout the whole film, because she’s also one of my co-writers.
How closely did you work with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans on the music? Their music is really integrated with the sound as well.
The concept of the sound design started at the script phase, and we brought our sound designer Chris Foster on really early. So he was attached before we started shooting, and we were talking about these kind of states. We actually really thought that a lot of the music would come from the external world, and we imagined using a lot more diegetic music coming from outside in. But the first time we saw an assembly of the film we knew it was actually the exact opposite, and we needed sounds to be coming from within Toni. So at that stage we showed the cut to Danny and Saunder and they really connected — the references that I gave them were experimental, jazz, noise, art, mostly saxophone, and that idea of using the instrument as a body, focusing on breath was my main note. Then I shared a lot of the choreographic notes and we had quite a lot of tonal references, and body notes, and that was really exciting. They scored The Fits in the same way that we approached the choreography. Their collaboration was so joyful, so free, I think their work’s incredible, and I think they elevated the film to a different place.
There’s a really noticeable attraction to tightly framed shots of bodies in The Fits, but also you give time to vast open spaces. Is there a particular process behind this juxtaposition?
One of the films that was a big reference for me visually was Steven McQueen’s Hunger. That film was so electric for me when I saw it, and one of the things that I really was pulling from that was the idea that if you have a very tight frame that cannot fit the body, and the body is being forced to enter and exit. You’re not following it, there’s an inherent discomfort and violent feeling by forcing this body to be in a container that can’t contain it. Then the moments of breath, when you do get to inhale, can be that much more powerful, but they can also feel lonely. Those big gymnasium shots where Toni’s body is very small, I think she feels very alone. So the juxtaposition of those two states really help us get at Toni’s mindset through the film.
Returning to that shot on the overpass, where the camera pulls into Toni’s body slowly, sort of embodies that idea.
Everything is converging. I became very obsessed with this overpass, with these converging lines all crossing at Toni’s body. It was a really special space. You’re outside but you’re enclosed — it’s the same thing with the pool — you’re in the open, but you’re in a room, so we tried to keep that claustrophobic pressure going even with exterior spaces.
Thinking about line accompanying Toni — towards the end of the film, she’s wearing an outfit that matches the purple and yellow stripe on the wall, which closes her in more intensely.
Our production designer, Charlotte Royer, painted that wall, and the colour palette had been heavily established with our costume designer, Zachary Sheets. We really wanted to make sure that the hallway fit in the language of the community centre, and we wanted to make sure that The Lionesses’ space and colour palette is a lot of secondary colours — purple, gold, teal — so we really brought that colourscape in that was so heavily defined by the costumes which all live within that palette. It’s distinct from the very primary blue, yellow, red, black, white space, of the boy’s
Purple for Toni’s character was something that I always wanted, and there are three versions of that heather-purple shirt you see in the final moment. It’s a very square box shirt in the beginning, and it gets smaller and smaller, to fit her body shape. So that converging lines shot that you mentioned — you really actually see her body for the first time. And what I love about that shot is that she is so close to the camera and she gets so small in the frame, and because we’re on a wide lens, the change in perspective is so dramatic, because of those visual lines. The community centre kept those stripes on the wall.
And at what point did you decide on Kiah Victoria’s “Aurora” for the final sequence? It’s quite beautiful.
Not until the editing process. We filmed the end sequence with playback to a different song, and so we were locked into that beat, but when we did the first cut it no longer worked. It wasn’t heavy enough, and we needed to go much deeper. We started to think about doing an original song, and our assistant editor brought Kiah’s music to us with the idea that maybe we could connect with her to create something original, but we immediately fell in love with “Aurora” as a track. I think it is one of the instances where it’s really great that my original idea didn’t work because it brings that transcendent, magical, otherworldly feel to the end sequence and gives it true meaning.
I haven’t seen Twelve Ways To Sunday but I would love to. I’m interested, what was it like working in a small New York state community, and then in a community in Cincinnati? What draws you to close-knit studies of this kind?
I grew up in upstate New York, and we shot Twelve Ways To Sunday in Western New York, about nine hours away from New York City. With anything I do, it’s really about connecting with other human beings, and recognising the beauty in different perspectives, and having the opportunity to sit down and listen to someone else’s point of view and experiences, and share yours. With Twelve Ways To Sunday, I filmed with my brother, and we lived there for about six months while we were shooting. So many of my favourite moments were not when we were filming, like when we would help chop wood, or make dinner, or walk in the woods, or share a moment that never lived in the film. But they did live in a way, because the relationships that we built made every other moment more meaningful and more alive. The film is only one product of what you’re doing.
Even when you’re making fiction, regardless of the fact of whether you’re working with trained actors, they’re still human beings with lives, and zooming out and recognising that the film is only one part of what you’re doing, and maybe not the top priority, is important. I think taking the time to really listen, and having the opportunity to share your perspective and hear ones that are drastically different than yours, is very valuable.