Anna Rose Holmer on Her Feature Debut The Fits
"You had to just direct from this more guttural place and go for it"
From the moment you hear Toni, the introverted, ambitious athlete portrayed by Royalty Hightower, counting out her daily crunches in Om-like whispers, the space around you changes. The soundscape fills with quietus, and the screen with color, the way the sky looks and sounds when you suddenly notice tree leaves lilting on a peaceful spring day. Toni is the protagonist of The Fits, a Cincinnati-set independent drama that plays like Creed as directed by young Jean-Luc Godard. This beauteous new film is the feature-length debut of its writer/director, Anna Rose Holmer, and the Austin Film Society is bringing it to Austin for two exclusive screenings.
Holmer, an NYU graduate who, until now, has "mostly produced" projects like Jody Lee Lipes' dance documentary Ballet 422 and the upcoming Salero, can hardly believe that fact herself. "From our first full draft to our world premiere was less than a year," she laughs, referring to the pressure-cooker her production was thrown into after successfully pitching at the Venice Biennale in 2014 about contagious attacks spreading through a community. When funding came in from Venice, she and her co-producers knew the movie was leaving development immediately and "had to become full-time," even though she had never taken the helm on a feature. "It meant that every day mattered, every decision mattered. You had to just direct from this more guttural place and go for it – just move. It was all about making it."
The finished product, which Holmer wrote with a story by her producer Lisa Kjerulff and editor Saela Davis, follows aspiring dancer Toni as her team, the Lionesses (played by the real-life dance squad Q-Kidz), is besieged by spastic attacks. Toni's brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor) is an elite boxer at the same school, but the men in his crew are strangely unaffected. Poisoned water is blamed at first, a prescient story point conceived of well before Flint, Mich., had re-entered the national conversation. Yet Holmer is clear that the script "was more about communities seeking external explanations for potentially internal manifestations" than about true sickness. "We went through a bunch of variations on what that might mean – asbestos, soil contamination, crops, fracking" – before settling on the one system that is "out of our control": water consumption.
After a short microbudget production on location in Ohio, The Fits had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year, and has since gone on to huge acclaim at the New Directors/New Films festival and at Sundance in 2016. Shot by Paul Yee, the film is an existential experiment in combining movement choreography (by filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall), expansive interior tableaux, and child performances. Holmer attributes the flowing, seemingly effortless grandeur of the movie to "invaluable conversations" she overheard as an assistant cameraperson and grip on films like Tiny Furniture and Twilight. "It's taken me a long time to understand what kind of leader I wanted to be on set. From crewing, I came to understand that although every film needs great creative vision, it also needs human power to lift it." As a result, what could have been a disaster of a debut production instead radiates formal control, especially in the magnetic and expressive performances of first-time actors like Hightower and Minor.
Now, with the film touring internationally, Holmer's experience as a crew member, rather than a leader, seems to be over. "I saw The Fits as an investment," she says, "because I want to continue directing, and you have to invest in that time for yourself to do that."
The Austin Film Society will screen The Fits Fri., July 22, 7:30pm, and Sun., July 24, 2pm, at AFS Cinema. Friday's screening is free to AFS members. For tickets and more info, see www.austinfilm.org.