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How Director Anna Rose Holmer Made 'The Fits': BUST Interview

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Many of us remember early adolescence as a difficult social time: growing up, standing out, fitting in. In her new film The Fits, writer and director Anna Rose Holmer imagines a new, bizarre—and perfectly apt—rite of passage to illustrate these late childhood to early teen years. The film focuses on 11-year-old Toni (played by first-time actress Royalty Hightower), a precocious tomboy who spends her days training with her brother in a boxing gym in Cincinnati’s blue-collar, African-American West End. Between training sessions, Toni becomes fascinated with an all-girls drill dance team (played by the Q-Kidz, a real life Cincinnati-based dance troupe) who practice in the same building. She decides to step out of her all-male boxing gym and join them.

Toni finds herself quickly transitioning from a scrappy “one of the guys” into a bona fide preteen girl. She melds from her old self into part of the new group, when something odd starts to happen. One by one, Toni watches as her dance teammates fall ill with something they call “the fits”—an inexplicable, spontaneous seizure that comes with no warning and appears to plague the older girls first. In an hour and 12 minutes, the film leaves us with more speculation and discussion than definitive answers. Isn’t that how growing up always feels?

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AnnaRoseHolmer HeadshotAnna Rose Holmer

You’ve mentioned looking at a few other dance forms before choosing drill. How did you pick boxing to be Toni’s background?

Boxing was a little easier because I’ve been obsessed with boxing as a very cinematic sport for a long time. Both films like Rocky and Raging Bull…. I always felt like I would love boxing to be the sport because it also is an individual sport, it’s one-on-one. So it’s a good counter to this individual versus group dynamic as well.

We were looking for a dance form that was fairly athletic. We wanted it to be as easy as possible for a tomboy like Toni … I knew about majorette in terms of field shows, more like the end sequence of the film. But I had never seen a stand battle before, and that was the first thing I saw of the Q-Kidz. It had the literal battle element to it, [and] there was the kind of specific dance form with the eight-count going back and forth. And then the fact that drill in the stand battles incorporates a lot of these mundane movements. Like the idea that we could put the punches in there, and the hair flips and things that would be call-backs to other scenes in the film and help tell the story.

A lot of the reviews mention race and how it’s not a typical film about black youth with all of the issues we expect to see. But you didn’t write race or class elements into the script, right? It was just the group of dancers that you happened to find?

Yeah, it wasn’t originally set in an all-black community in the West End of Cincinnati. That came from being drill and then approaching the Q-Kidz and working with them. So we did start to heavily adapt the story to that setting and that location and collaborated with the girls, so it did become more and more specifically about that world. But yeah, there were no markers or requirements for the racial makeup of the world we were going to look at when we started writing.

How do you feel that the racial makeup and geographical setting changed the film, either in what you were trying to do or what the audience ends up taking away? Did anything come up that you hadn’t originally conceived of when you were writing the script? 

Well, when you’re talking about female identity, gender identity, and how gender is perceived in a performative way, I think that compounds when you are talking about women of color. A lot of the issues that we were talking about, we really explored with the cast and tried to include their voices and perspectives in the film. … But still, when I see Royalty perform as Toni onscreen, I see a lot of myself. And I hope that people from various different backgrounds can see themselves in Toni and I don’t think that’s so strange. I hope it’s not strange.

You mentioned collaborating with the actresses. How did the girls feel about the idea of “fits” being this rite of passage into adolescence?

We had a lot of really interesting chats about what the fits are, what they mean, are they real, are they imagined, where did they come from, what’s causing them. We tried to keep that dialogue really open because I think, as the audience will find in the film, we wanted to explore those things deeply and not definitively. There was a lot of discussion over whose fit was really a symptom, versus who was just trying to get attention. One of the ways that we did that is we did not give [the actresses] any visual reference for what a fit should look like. They designed them in isolation from each other along with me, and my movement consultant, Celia Rowlson-Hall, a modern dancer. … It was really about each girl exploring through dance what it would mean to have this kind of moment in front of their peers, and so that’s why they look very different on screen. That was very important to us, and unlike real cases of “hysterics,” where the symptoms tend to be identical, this was more about this transformative moment as individuals, this rite of passage. Just because it’s a rite of passage sourced from the group, doesn’t make it any less of a personal experience for each girl that’s living in the moment.

It’s really amazing when the girls describe what it is. I love hearing it. Because it is very abstract.

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I heard you mention at a screening I attended that the character of Toni is very different than Royalty, the actress who plays her.

[Royalty’s] very confident, very outgoing. In order to play Toni it was a more regressive place for her. It wasn’t necessarily where she was at mentally now. She had some of those tomboy elements, but it’s not so binary in her world; [she’s] much more like where Toni ends up at the end of the film.

I had heard really good advice from a producer that when you’re kid casting, you want to cast for where they are at the final frame of the film because that will always be coming through. They can’t help but show their natural selves. So that was very much the case with Royalty. She’s closest to Toni in the final few minutes of the film.

The music is so important in the film, it’s hard to imagine the film without it. Did you collaborate with the composers from the beginning?

Originally, we were thinking that we would have more of a diegetic score throughout, where music is coming from the external world, and it was a more curated space. But as soon as we had the first assembly, not even a cut of the film but just really watching the dailies, my editor and I were like, no that’s wrong, the music has to come from an internal state. The score needs to represent Toni’s voice in this film. And so it was at that stage, immediately in the beginning of post-[production] that we started to collaborate with Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans on the score. We really wanted it to represent Toni’s voice and include the audience into this kind of quiet storm that’s brewing in her.

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The film really lends itself to different interpretations. Has anyone said anything about it that surprised you?

The audience response is definitely varied. We 100 percent expected this, but the way people feel about the end sequence varies so much. But I think this idea that she’s conforming and totally losing herself is the one that I try to fight against that interpretation as much as possible. Because I don’t see this as a film about conformity. I think that there’s this power of a group that is positive, and that doesn’t mean erasing yourself to be in it.

The Fits will be screening throughout the US this summer. Check here to see when it’s coming to a city near you. 

Read a BUST review of The Fits here

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Catherine Plato is a freelance writer and editor from Oakland, California. Follow her on Twitter @catherineplato.

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