Next Wave: Anna Rose Holmer

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The director of The Fits talks about treating film as a collaborative art form.

With the specter of Trump’s America looming over us all, it’s now more important now than ever to amplify the voices of those who have something different and important to say with their films. It doesn’t need to be an overtly political message, just one rooted in a perspective or background not shared by your typical Hollywood summer release. That’s the idea behind this new Next Wave series. Not only will we celebrate some of the most interesting independent cinema around, we’ll also focus on a more diverse group of filmmakers and talk about what they bring to an otherwise-homogeneous industry.

As an added bonus, I’ll ask each filmmaker to name a non-profit or charity that they are passionate about ‐ related to filmmaking or not ‐ and make a donation equal to my article fee to their site. It can be difficult to know where to begin when looking for causes to get behind; the hope is that this series might introduce you to a few organizations not currently on your radar.

And with so many people discovering (or rediscovering) Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits this past month, it seemed only natural to sit down and talk about one of the year’s best and under-seen movies. In this interview, Holmer speaks to a type of filmmaking typically only given lip-service to: a collaborative process that involves everyone to deliver as authentic a film as possible.

FSR: In interviews, you often talk about how your background in producing affected your approach as a director. What made that such a different experience for you?

Anna Rose Holmer: I started out my journey in filmmaking really solely thinking about being a camera person. I went to school to be a DP, and if you come into film from a place that is not wanting to be a writer-director, it’s very clearly a collaborative art form. Authorship comes in many forms and many voices, and it’s an ensemble piece, an orchestra ‐ it’s cooperative. I always thought of it that way.

So when I started to think about taking on more creative leadership in film, I was looking and really admiring the work of creative producers. I think they’re kind of the unsung heroes of independent film, and the way that the people I was learning from, it was about building that collaborative nature of cinema. Of team-building, of the give-and-take and compromises and balancing of resources versus creative rendition. It just felt like a more natural fit towards the type of leadership I was looking for and the type of mentorship I was looking for. I did start to produce and I really loved producing; I produced The Fits alongside Lisa Kjerulff who’s one of the co-writers ‐ the other one is Saela Davis, my editor ‐ so I think that by the time I was ready to direct in fiction, I was borrowing so much, especially in terms of leadership modeling, from producing.

You also mentioned in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine that there was a performative element to directing that you hadn’t anticipated.

I think it also has to do with directing fiction. There is a vulnerability and nakedness that comes with directing, which I think is a requirement. You’re asking so much of your performers: to be present, to be vulnerable, to be open, and if you’re not matching that ‐ if you’re not giving that back, if you’re [not] entering into that space of risk alongside of them ‐ then the project suffers. So it’s a lot of being emotionally present and engaged. And I think in a fiction project, it’s also saying, “We generated this, we put this engine in motion, this is coming from a deep personal place.” In terms of how the project is read and criticized, it’s a very different experience than the experience of working with nonfiction (although that can be very deeply personal as well). It just had a different feel to it.

So yeah, directing is a hundred percent performative, I think. I don’t mean it’s dishonest, I don’t think it’s a thing you put on that’s a façade. I think performance can be very raw and emotional and present tense, and that’s what I’m talking about in terms of performance. Not a falsity or being someone that you’re not.

What did you do to make sure that you that you told an inclusive story about this group of kids who live miles and miles away from your New York? That come from a background you may not be familiar with?

When we first started writing The Fits, it didn’t take place in Ohio or with drill as the dance form or with the intention of casting an all-black girl dance team. That happened through our development process. I co-wrote this film with two women who come from completely different backgrounds so our writer’s room was very inclusive just by the nature of the three of us being in a room together. The openness was built into the foundation of the film.

When we decided to ask the Q-kidz to collaborate, we knew that nothing would change and, obviously, a lot would change. So I think the first step was saying that, me personally as the director of the project, I’m not an expert on your experience. And that was what we came to the table with when we approached the Q-kidz and said, “We want to invite you to collaborate with us, to be authors alongside of us in this process.” To contradict, to say no, to say yes, to embrace, to challenge; this is what I ask of all my collaborators, but especially with the cast, we wanted it to be an open process. And even when Saela, Lisa and I were writing, we said no matter who the teenagers are, we want them to feel ownership of the story, ownership of the words. It’s not a very dialogue-heavy script, but we put in placeholder lines and allowed them to re-write all of their lines.

There was a lot of just spending time on the ground. I lived in Cincinnati for nine weeks ‐ we did a lot of rehearsal and spending time together and listening, and opening up the process of filmmaking to the community that we were asking to take such a huge risk and be part of this with us. And I think it continued; it was part of the filmmaking process, but so much of that trust and love is required to make a film together continued past filming. How are reviews received? When is the first time they see the film? All of these questions about collaboration and safety and including many voices in the process, that continued to today.

Was it challenging to let go of the words as you’d written them on the page?

That was our hope. We originally wrote the lines for them to be re-written, and they were kind of in the most basic, drill-down form in our script. When we did our first script reading with the cast after we had done principal casting, what I said was, “This is a map, this is not a bible. I want your voice.” It’s not just about slang or having it translate to the vernacular, it’s also about ownership. Some cast members chose to completely re-write, some barely re-wrote, some it was just about slang, some it was more about saying that this character requires you.

And also helping make a clear boundary that these are fictional characters, that they are written. That there are voices that decide what those lines are. This is not non-fiction, this is fiction, and there’s a writing process. And opening up that was very important too, so that, by the time we got to filming, we had built this fictional world together.

Around the end of 2016, many people started to discover The Fits for the first time. Do the Q-kidz know that people are saying, “Hey, I might have missed this when it first came out, but this is really exciting!”?

You know, I talk with Royalty’s mom, Charyce, and the head coach of the Q-kidz, Marquicia Jones-Woods, almost daily. I keep them abreast on what’s been going on. And Ms. Quicy ‐ Marquicia Jones-Woods, who’s head of the Q-kidz but was also an associate producer on the film ‐ she’s one of our loudest advocates on our social media and helped spread the local news. After this interview, I’m also doing an interview with the Cincinatti paper that Royalty and I are going to be on. I try to share all of the good news, and there has been a lovely resurgence of attention on the film, which is welcome and kind of a surprise. It’s been nice to see that a lot of people have taken the time to include it in their end-of-the-year viewing.

I want to ask about the Yes, Ma’am! production collective you put together. You’ve mentioned that it was kind of an excuse for you and your co-writers to work together since you’d had such a great experience on The Fits. What else do you have in mind for that?

We made it really to produce The Fits. It’s a collective, not a formal company in any way, but Lisa, Saela and myself were really valuing our time together as creators and wanted to formally acknowledge that this was really special for us. In terms of gender balance, this was one of the most inclusive sets I’ve ever been on, and it meant a lot to have so many [female creators] aligned on this. When we got our Filmmaker Magazine cover, the three of felt like it was such a special moment to share together, and thinking about us all being film students and what it would mean to see, on the cover of Filmmaker Magazine, three women. Not just the director, but the producer and editor and the writing team.

But we want to also maintain our ability to work independently and work with other filmmakers, because I think you go and you learn from other people and you come back together, you share that at the table. Lisa right now is going to the Sundance Labs with another director ‐ she’s co-writing and producing that feature ‐ I’m writing with Saela but I’m also working on another project. So we’re trying to simultaneously say we love working together and want to share, but we don’t want to inhibit each other’s personal growth. We want people to be able to go out and explore and learn and challenge themselves and say, “This is what I learned, this is what was good.” And I think that will strengthen all of our careers.

One of the things we’re trying to do with this series is share non-profits, foundations and charities that people may not be familiar with. What is one organization that you feel passionate about that we can recommend people check out?

For me, tackling mass incarceration is something that is always on my mind. I volunteer with Books Through Bars, which [gets] reading materials to incarcerated individuals. They are doing a 20th Anniversary campaign push right now* and I’d love to help them make their goal.

*Books Through Bars successfully hit its goal on Fundly, but like us, you can still donate to the organization through their website: http://booksthroughbarsnyc.org/wp/

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.