A look at why smaller films love being shot and set in the summer months.
In no other medium has summer love been such a reliable theme than in film. Specifically independent film. One reason is that summer love is defined by its temporality, a duration that is conducive to a 90-minute film. Summer love quivers on the premise that once the summer is over, the relationship will end abruptly or fade. It is a sub-genre of cinema that will thrive as long as there are summer holidays. And not just because the characters depicted are often high school students, but also for the very practical reason that summer is the cheapest and most viable time to make films. If you don’t have a bit budget, then you’re going to take advantage of the longer days and good, natural light. And if you’re working with a young cast – which if you’re making a film about summer love, you most likely are – then you don’t have to worry about hiring an on-set tutor. And if you shoot in the summer you can do post in the fall and send it to Sundance for January (if you’re in the lucky 1% to get accepted that is). Put simply, shooting a film in the summer is the best decision for any up-and-coming film director. Of course, Hollywood cinema is also keen to take advantage of the summer season by releasing summer blockbusters. As our Natalie Mokry noted, since the 70s Hollywood studios have lured audiences off of the beach and into the theater, starting with Jaws. But given that Los Angeles is basically summer weather year-round, their ‘summer’ films tend to back away from exploring summer as more than just a season. What then do independent films shot in the summer have to say about summer that’s different than Hollywood cinema?
Eliza Hittman’s debut feature It Felt Like Love is a prime example of a summer indie film that explores summer love in a refreshingly nuanced and specific way. Lila, a 14 year old determined to gain sexual experience, puts on a performance for the older boy she’s trying to seduce. Lila’s performance stands in for the performance of the film. It is the aesthetic that reveals the performance, that makes room for it. When I watch Hollywood films about summer love, the high production value (the manicured LA beaches or the air-conditioned, unaffordable Manhattan apartments) can often feel like they’re keeping their distance from their subject. Coming of age and summer love is super messy and scary. And in my experience, it usually doesn’t end too well. It Felt Like Love understands that. It doesn’t dramatize summer love, so much as evoke the complex, irrational feelings of a young girl who just wants to fall in love. The first shot takes on this element of performance head-on. Caked in sunscreen, Lila is back to the camera and out of focus at the edges of the water. Then she turns and stares directly at the lens. Gazing uneasily at her summer ahead, Lila is trying to confront the rough, cold waters of adolescence. This first shot sets up Lila’s world. For indeed, the film is shot very subjectively. It’s as much about Lila watching others as it is about her desire to be watched.
Hittman is an Adjunct Professor at both NYU and Columbia (another justification for shooting in the summer). Shot in 18 days in August 2012, the film is set where she grew up: in unrecognizable Brooklyn, in un-air-conditioned apartments and littered beaches. What this does is creates a specific sense of place. As it’s become more and more gentrified, Brooklyn has become a very popular shooting location – mostly for films about people who have moved there. But It Felt Like Love and its various locations feel lived in. There is a sense that though summer is impermanent, home is not.
In both its shooting style and its locations, the film is an unadorned representation of summer love. The genre of summer love and coming-of-age, two genres that frequently converge, have been done to death. But the film’s handheld, low-budget aesthetic feels closer to the bone and closer to the heart of summer love. In the DVD commentary, Hittman talks about her thinking behind the film’s visual language: “[we wanted to create] a palate that contradicted what you think of when you think of films shot in the summer and films about summer love, so we shot on a Red Epic and used vintage Cooke lenses. But I like the Red for this camera because it is so cool [in tone].” The film’s aesthetic is deeply informed by its run-and-gun production style. According to Hittman, the film had no budget to begin with, so she and her DP Sean Porter shot the whole film without permits. They snuck their Red Epic into Coney Island in a bag and somehow managed to go unnoticed by security swarming the amusement park. Interestingly, the use of handheld wasn’t initially planned, but came out of necessity. According to Hittman, they didn’t have a big enough crew (DP Sean Porter pulled his own focus) and felt that a tripod would slow them down, so there are only about five static shots in the whole film. The embodied shooting style no doubt provides this sense of sensual subjectivity.
Summer is a prosperous season for love and filmmaking. It Felt Like Love deftly captures the feeling of summer, while also taking advantage of its natural gifts to filmmakers.