To come of age is to leave behind a fragment of individuality in exchange for the apparent safety of homogeneity. Challenging this notion is Anna Rose Holmer’s narrative debut, The Fits.

A powerful masterpiece with an ominous soundscape permeating each sequence, The Fits demonstrates a complex sense of space and truth in every performer’s acting. Royalty Hightower plays Toni, a preteen well-versed in the aggressiveness of boxing but also intrigued by the synchronicity of choreographed dance. When a series of unexplained seizures begins afflicting the girls on her team, Toni struggles both to maintain her safety and understand herself.

Together with co-writers Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff, Holmer conceived a story laced with uncertainty, yet grounded on authentic experiences and sensorial moviemaking. MovieMaker chatted with Holmer about her commentary on choosing community over conformity.

In The Fits, Toni is fascinated by her local community dance group

In The Fits, Toni’s local community dance group begins to experience a series of mysterious “fits”

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you get this cast to be so natural and full of life, without ever feeling like they’re acting? Did your documentary background help?

Anna Rose Holmer: We invited the cast to be authors with us and really take ownership and pride. Although they’re playing parts, the girls brought their distinct voices, vantage points and lived experiences. We workshopped for about six weeks before filming and said, “It’s OK to play, it’s OK to experiment, it’s OK to fail.” All of the girls in our film, including Royalty, are on the same dance team in real life, so they supported each other as peers and created a safe, creative space. I also think that as trained dancers, they are professionals in a way. It was really just a tremendous collaboration. Even the boys in the film are elite boxers who compete at the national or Junior Olympic level, so they understand the need to rehearse, put in time and work.

MM: Tell me about creating Royalty Hightower’s character. She’s this bridge between the aggression of boxing and the dance world. Where did she come from, as well as the decision of not having parents?

ARH: Toni is a conglomerate. I co-wrote this film with Saela Davis, my editor, and Lisa Kjerulff, my producer, so Toni is all three of us. We’re all sort of tomboys and outsiders, and we all had very formative relationships with our brothers, so we wanted to capture what it means to perform as a female. When we cast Royalty, her own experiences came into the mix, so Toni became the meeting of four very different women’s experiences. Some of the first images from the film were about the duality of strength and grace and how the two form Toni as a person throughout the film. She needs both; it’s not about choosing between the two, but about fusing the two.

In terms of adults, they were always out of focus and on the borders—we said Charlie Brown or Muppet Babies style. At this time in your life as a kid, peers become the most important sources of information, and to protect that truth, we decided to remove adults from the main picture. We played around with that balance; we actually did a version with no adults, but that felt false and inauthentic. We wanted them to be there but unimportant, because that’s what it feels like to be 11.

MM: You use framing in such a particular way; the space is always wide and filled in specific ways. It’s a beautiful film. Can you tell me about your framing choices and working with your cinematographer?

ARH: My background is in cinematography, and our DP, Paul Yee, is one of my oldest friends in the industry. We’ve known each other for 13 years. He came up as a gaffer, but we share a language, and every decision we made was about putting the audience in Toni’s mind and body space. Even the decision to shoot 2:35:1 was so that when we framed her in portrait, there was still empty space around her. You feel her isolation, loneliness, anxiety and fear when she’s very small in a huge room; it’s about projecting her emotional state. My production designer and costume designer, Charlotte Royer and Zachary Sheets, included color as another way to bring us into Toni’s world. And there’s also a slight nod to the horror genre in the cinematography, because Toni’s afraid.

MM: I’m glad you mentioned horror, because there are very present ominous sounds that completely alter our experience of the film. Can you talk about the sound space you created?

ARH: We brought on our sound designer before we started shooting and had a big meeting about the use of sound, because we knew from the script there are many full pages of dialogue that are off screen. They’re kind of competing—there’s one action happening and then there’s another story being told off screen, so we knew we wanted to have a really specific use of sound. We also thought, what does Toni’s internal world, when she’s exercising, sound like? We liked the idea of using the score to punctuate those beats and clue the audience in to this kind of quiet discomfort brewing inside her. Breath was also a big theme in the sound design and the score; you can hear the breaths moving through the instruments. We tried to think about everything in relationship to her body: the heartbeats and pad noises.

MM: I thought that metaphor—the horror element of these unknown “fits” the girls are having—was brilliant. Without revealing too much, in a way, she has to join the pack and reach womanhood, but she’s going to do it on her own terms. Even when she gets her own “fits,” it happens on her own terms. Tell me about bridging that metaphor with this element of horror.

ARH: We wanted each of the fits to be very individual experiences, so we actually choreographed them in isolation, so that the girls had no reference for what a fit was or should look like. That’s why they’ve very unique on screen. So yes, there’s kind of this collective behavior, but that doesn’t take away from each of those moments being very individual experiences for these girls—significant, traumatizing or powerful moments. And with Toni, we wanted her to have agency in everything. She enters with control and longing, and it is not by any means about conformity; it’s about community and the power she’s able to access through the collective dance.


Royalty Hightower plays Toni, who finds her way into the dance world from a boxing background

MM: So it was very much about joining on her own terms. Were you ever concerned about not explaining these elements or having to tie them up at the end?

ARH: I like films that ask good questions instead of making a statement, because I think we all bring our own ideas as viewers, so my experience with my films can be much different than yours. Allowing the film to operate as a conversation piece is really important, and also allows it to be much more complex, which I think is beautiful.

MM: Can you tell me about the community of making this film with this group of people? Did the fact that you were contained with this group of people for the entire shoot reflect how you worked with them?

ARH: Yeah, I lived there for about nine weeks total, and the community center where we shot is where they really practice, so everything happened in that building. It really did feel like a community, like a family-based film, and it was one of the proudest experiences of my life. I’m proud of how collaborative it felt and how everyone who worked on this feels ownership over what we made. The community where we shot, in the west end of Cincinnati, was so generous with their time and so patient with us, and it was a true gift to have them as collaborators.

MM: What’s your take on the rite of passage? I’m sure it’s completely different for females than males, but were you concerned about these moments you have to reach to become one of “them” or “us?”

ARH: Sometimes I think those moments might seem scary, like the unknown. But like I said, this isn’t about Toni conforming, and I do think that her experience is probably different from everybody else’s, because it’s on her own terms.

MM: I love that it’s a tight script70 minutes. Did you want it to be this tight and not waste time?

ARH: Yeah, there’s almost nothing we shot that’s not in the film. Our script fluctuated from 68 to 75 pages. We always had this lean sensibility in mind. I like stories like that that only include what’s necessary; there’s a kind of simplicity in that I think is elegant. That doesn’t mean you can’t linger or wait or let the film breathe, but you don’t need anything else to get there. I’d rather leave an audience wanting more than the other way around.

MM: How hard was it to make, financially?

ARH: We were entirely funded by grants, so it was a financial model with a lot of freedom. I think the nonprofit space has been embracing and championing “risky films,” and it was an honor for us to make the film that way. Our key funder was Venice Bienalle—they championed us at every step of the way. In the same way, the Sundance Institute, Cinereach and Rooftop supported us as artists. From our perspective, we made it in a very specific way, not a traditional financial model, and we got a lot of freedom in that. MM

The Fits opened in theaters June 3, 2016, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. All images courtesy of Yes, Ma’am!