a teenage drill dance squad faces a terrifying, invisible enemy in ‘the fits’

Speaking with director Anna Rose Holmer about the mysteries of mass hysteria, isolation and the sequinned world of Cincinnati's Drill squads.

by Hannah Butterworth
25 May 2016, 3:35am

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Throughout history, cases of group hysteria have confused and terrified communities. The Salem Witch Trials were blamed on the suggestive natures of teenage girls, as psychological torment moved between them. In The Fits director Anna Rose Holmer transposes this same unseen, unknowable presence to Cincinnati's West End. Here we meet 11-year-old Toni, played by Royalty Hightower. Her experience transitioning from boxing tomboy to dancer in Drill squad The Lionesses is interrupted by a mysterious case of seizures — and they appear to be spreading through her troop.

In Anna's hands, the coming of age story is transformed into a metaphorical tale documenting the terrors of isolation and hysteria. Premiering at Sundance, the film is Anna's directorial debut. We caught up with her to talk about how a story of mass seizures became an allegory for the experience of becoming a teenage girl.

Before this film you'd worked as a producer, tell me how taking over as director felt.
Directing is so much more emotionally rigorous than I've found producing to be; particularly when you're doing fiction because there's this idea you've created and birthed into the world. There's a responsibility for everyone's emotional securities throughout the whole process because you've put them in it. It's all consuming, especially when you're working with kids, there's no bullshit. If you are asking someone to be vulnerable in front of you and your audience, you need to share that with them. My policy as a director is if you are asking anything of anyone then you need to be ready to match it.

Speaking of kids, the majority of the cast were untrained as actors, how did you find them?
I had been developing the script for about a year and we were looking for a dance group. We were starting to really focus in and YouTube actually recommended this video of the Q Kids — it was the first time I had seen Drill. It was this really exciting, electric feeling of falling in love so I called their coach. We ended up going to Cincinnati because they are from there and their team has a couple of hundred girls. We cast 45 of them, including Royalty Hightower our lead. Once we brought the Q Kids on we started to adapt the entire script to be set in the Drill community. The girls helped workshop all of their own dialogue, boys too, so it was a really collaborative effort.

The Q Kids at a competition. Image via Facebook.

So they really were the catalyst to everything. Royalty is really special, the moment she appears her quiet intensity is transfixing.
When I first met Royalty there was this immediate connection, she was the eighth girl we saw read, she was nine-years-old and two things about her really struck me: One, she had this amazing capacity to listen. She was listening to me, she was listening to her teammates, she was also listening to herself, she seemed very self-aware. But there was also this feeling that I really wanted to work with her and collaborate, the only person I could see directing as Toni was Royalty Hightower.

The Fits is about, among other things, contagion. What's your fascination with the phenomenon?
I read a lot of non-fiction, so I've been really fascinated by these historic cases of hysterics. One of them is kind of like the dancing plague, and this idea where people couldn't stop laughing or dancing and kind of being in this group state of possession. There's something really powerful in that. I've been really fascinated with it for a long time and wanted to manipulate it into an allegorical look at what it means to join a group and how much agency we have in that process.

At times, it was hard to work out if the fits were really happening or if they were actually part of the choreography.
You know we are talking about hysterics and normally in this type of hysteric or contagious setting all of the symptoms would be completely identical, but we wanted them to be very individual experiences — kind of like transcendent moments. They are very different, but from Toni's perspective they start to shift. In the beginning they're very terrifying and realistic but as her understanding of them shifts so does the way that we frame and film them.

Royalty as Toni, Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Speaking of realistic, I have to ask, did Royalty really pierce her ears on set?
They were already pierced and through the film we covered them with latex and then did some VFX touch ups on some of the extreme close-ups. So she's putting a sterilised needle through her existing hole.

Royalty is quite young — how did she go digesting these complex themes?
I think she understood it. You know you can be the most popular kid and there's that moment where you're afraid someone might see you for who you really are. Especially when you're an adolescent, when you're a girl, I think that's why people gravitate towards Toni because so much of her isolation is self-isolation. She's putting herself alone in the room, she's locking herself in the bathroom stall. No one's pushing her in there, she's doing it on her own and I think we all kind of do that to ourselves. We separate from the group because we're afraid of being seen.

'The Fits' is now showing as part of the festival Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now Film Festival at Palace Cinemas across Australia.



Text Hannah Butterworth

the fits
Anna Rose Holmer