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How the director of 'The Fits' made a quiet movie that says a lot

The Q-Kidz dance team in Anna Rose Holmer's
The Q-Kidz dance team in Anna Rose Holmer's "The Fits."
Oscilloscope Laboratories
The Q-Kidz dance team in Anna Rose Holmer's
Royalty Hightower as Toni in Anna Rose Holmer's "The Fits."
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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For a movie that has very little dialogue, "The Fits" has a whole lot to say. The independent film, which was shot in and around a community center in Cincinnati, Ohio, features non-professional actors who became significant collaborators in the making of the film.

The main character is an 11-year-old girl named Toni, played by newcomer Royalty Hightower. During the course of the movie, the audience sees her character go from boxing with her older brother in one part of the community center to dancing with a girls' troupe, The Lionesses, in another part of the building. At the same time, some of the girls in the troupe begin having fits. They’re never fully explained, but the fits are a metaphor for the physical and emotional changes the young women are experiencing.

In real life, Hightower is a member of the dance troupe, Q-Kidz, and she was cast along with 44 other members to be the dance team in the movie.

'The Fits' was directed by Anna Rose Holmer, who also produced the movie and co-wrote it with the editor, Saela Davis, and fellow producer Lisa Kjerulff. The movie was financed with a grant from the Venice Biennale and played at the Venice Film Festival as well as at the Sundance Film Festival.

Below are excerpts from The Frame's interview with Holmer.

Interview Highlights:

Can you tell us about your working relationship with your co-writers, Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff?

They came on really early in the process as collaborators and as co-writers. I think the roles of producer, director [and] editor were really distinct and specific, but when we talked about collaboration around the script, it was a lot looser. I feel like those varied voices in the writers' room really strengthened the film. Toni is kind of a conglomerate of the three of us as women at that age. We all had very formative relationships with our older brothers. We're all kind of tomboys and are self-isolating. That moment when you start to step away from his shadow, and really start to define yourself as an individual for the first time in your life, is what we focused the narrative for "The Fits" on in Toni's story. 

I want to go back to the origins of this story. Did you end up making the movie that you thought you were going to make, or did it really evolve and change as you were making it?

I would say both. I think that the initial seed is so present in every frame. And that was started by looking at real cases of hysterics, of mass psychogenic illness and of conversion disorders, and really examining those historical cases and reimagining those subconscious movements as choreographies of sorts. I think that's present throughout. I think it grew into something much more profound than I could have achieved on my own and I think that's the strength of the film — that the voices that came together to create it strengthened it. 

Toni is the lead character played by Royalty Hightower. Can you tell me how you found her and what she brought to this part?

Royalty Hightower is incredible. I think she's just such a gifted performer and it was very serendipitous that we found her. One of the early ideas for casting this film was that we wanted to work with a group of girls who knew each other. Simultaneously, we were looking for a dance form to really express the film and a dance team. So we found the Q-Kidz on YouTube. There's a couple hundred of them in reality, but we cast 45 girls in the film, including Royalty. She's actually been dancing with the team since she was six years old. We found her on day one of casting and she really just blew me away with her capacity to listen and internalize all the information she was taking in. I think the collaboration between me and her as director and actor was really special. I feel like we pushed each other and challenged each other and it was such a joy to work with her on set every day. 

Royalty Hightower as Toni in Anna Rose Holmer's
Royalty Hightower as Toni in Anna Rose Holmer's "The Fits."
Oscilloscope Laboratories

As you're trying to figure out how kids communicate, what kind of cues do you take from your actors who are largely non-professional and non-experienced? How do you make sure that what they're doing feels authentic to your film and authentic to their own experience?

In the original script, dialogue was kept to a minimum. We were really focused on movement and the physicality of the story and putting all of that narrative tension in motion and in dance. We always knew that we wanted to collaborate with the actors, so all the dialogue was [considered] placeholder. I was there for about six weeks before we started filming, and what I said to all of the cast was, This [is] just a map. It is not a bible. I want you to take authorship alongside of us in this because it's very important that you feel comfortable to explore these characters in the same way that we're exploring them and bring your voice to the table. All the dialogue for the most part was rewritten by the cast. It is about authenticity, but it's also about ownership and validation, and it was just a real exploratory phase for us to kind of tackle the script as director and actors and really break it down. As they said, some of our dialogue was "real throwback" because we were Toni's age in 1996. So they gave it a really great upgrade and I'm really grateful for that. 

The score of the film in some ways mirrors the chatter of the girl characters themselves. In one scene, some score comes in and then we hear the girls talking over the top of it. 

With the score, as well as the sound design, we really would listen to those group discussions and that chatter. We also sampled bird noises when the group gets particularly wild. The sound of the horn, plus the sound of the girls, plus the sound of the birds all started to sound like each other. It was always about pointing to this quiet discomfort that's lurking right below the surface.

There's a scene on a bridge that comes toward the end of the movie. I'm not going to say what happens, but it's really a transformative movement for the lead character. Can you talk about where that scene fits in the overall story, why you shot it in the way you did and what Royalty did in that scene that's so transformative?

The shot you're referencing — our team calls it "The Shot." I really think it embodies the entire film in a single shot. It's her "Rocky" moment. She's actually in a small, grey, girl's sweatsuit ...  There's also a set of stairs. It's about her discovery and the joy of dance for the first time. She really transforms from a boxer to a dancer before the audience's eye. It's a continuous, uncut take and I think why that's so important is that it's important to see the in-between moments where she goes again and again and again. It's almost like, through exercise, she breaks down the dance into little bite-sized pieces. We worked very closely with Celia Rowlson Hall as a movement consultant on this — she's a modern dancer — to bring movements of boxing very close to the movement of dance that [Toni's] trying to access. It's really about her letting go and finding freedom, not about hitting the move perfectly, but with intention.

It's one of the most powerful things that I think I've ever put on screen. Royalty's performance in it is just incredible. I was crying on set, as I think most of my crew was. It just felt so magical. That was the end of week one and I think we all realized that the movie we were making, the sum of all of our efforts, was adding up to something really incredible. I've never had a moment quite like that on set before.

This is a movie about being a girl and being a young woman, but it's also a movie about being an African-American kid, and you're not African American. Was there any concern or nervousness on your part about negotiating those two things and what, as a white filmmaker, you had to say about the African-American experience that these girls were going through?

My philosophy heading into casting the Q-Kidz is about stepping back and saying, I'm not an authority on the experience, and what I can do is listen and make the process open and invite the girls to be collaborators alongside [me] with my two writers. When I see the film, I do see a lot of myself in Toni, but I also see a lot of Royalty, Seala and Lisa. I think that what we hope is that anyone can access Toni's story. She specifically is a young black girl from Cincinnati, but she can teach you something about yourself and that's really special. I learned a lot certainly through listening and being open to learning about different perspectives and different vantage points. And I think that's one of the most beautiful things about cinema. 

"The Fits" opens in Los Angeles on June 10.

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