Sundance Film Festival is known for attracting and turning out coming-of-age stories, a fact perhaps linked to Sundance's identity as a haven and a heaven for independent films. The Fits (2015), an indie coming-of-age "inspired by true events" story about an 11 year-old girl who watches as her peers are overcome by strange, shaking fits. After young Toni (Royalty Hightower) takes a break from her boxing efforts to join an all-female drill team, in hopes of feeling less like an outcast, she witnesses her team members succumbing one by one to frightening fits that feel like a metaphorical representation of the onset of puberty and the start of growing up. The Fits screened as part of Sundance 2016's NEXT category, which showcases indie films from new, up-and-coming filmmakers which are innovative, unusual and making the most of a limited budget and access to digital technology. Anna Rose Holmer, the writer-director of The Fits, said she was thrilled that her project fell into the most "punk rock" section of the festival.

At Sundance, ScreenPrism sat down for a dialogue with first-time director Anna Rose Holmer and Royalty Hightower, the young star of The Fits, at the Acura Lounge in Park City.

ScreenPrism: At the start of the film, Toni goes from boxing with her brother to joining an all-girls drill team. Why did you choose a dance drill team as the medium for Toni’s change from a guy-centered world into a girls-centered one?

Anna Rose Holmer: I was looking for the right dance form for the film and I was originally thinking cheer or step – but neither really fit perfectly. I was watching YouTube, and it was recommending video and recommending video for weeks, and this video came up, and it was the Q-Kidz doing a stand battle. I saw a lot of the similar language in boxing and stand, and I fell in love almost instantly with drill and Q-Kidz at the same time. Q-Kidz is the only team I ever approached [to be in the film]. Drill has this amazing quality to it. It’s very narrative, and there are real life elements that are woven into the dance itself. There’s this inherent part of drill: call and response. The captain does the dance move and sets up the stand, and the entire team mimics her and dances in unison. That kind of mirroring is part of the dance floor. So that’s why drill is amazing. We worked with two drill choreographer: twins, Mariah and Chariah Jones. They choreograph the Q-Kidz [in real life], and they’re fantastic. They know the dancers really well. We tried to incorporate a lot of the narrative themes into the dance on screen. Then we worked with a modern dancer for the rest of the choreography.

SP: Royalty, did you know how to dance before you took on the role of Toni? Or did you have to learn how to dance modern and drill?

Royalty Hightower: Yeah, actually, I’ve been part of Q-Kidz since I was six.

ARH: She and everyone in the film are on the same team in real life.

The Q-Kidz, cast of The Fits (2016)

SP: Can you tell me about the casting process? Did you know, going into it, that Royalty was part of Q-Kidz? Did you seek her out?

ARH: Nope. The first step was that from the very first concept of the film, I wanted to cast girls who knew each other, intimately. I feel that, at that age, you can’t really fake that relationship. I knew, with our budget and timeline, we weren’t going to be able to naturally develop that camaraderie. So we cast the team first and then opened up casting only to girls on the Q-Kidz. We were open to casting [the lead] outside the group, but we all knew the other roles would be found on the team. We found Royalty on day one. She was the eighth girl who auditioned, and she blew me away. After the second day, I didn’t need to see more – I knew it was going to be Royalty. It was really immediate, that feeling, but I didn’t get to tell her right away for a month. [Laughs] Same with Alexis [Neblet], who plays [Toni's best friend] Beezy, it was a similar feeling, that these two young women would be collaborators. And they brought so much of themselves every day. They created their characters with me.

SP: You say that the girls created the characters with you. Did the script change a lot after they were cast?

ARH [to Royalty]: You can take this one.

RH: Yeah, there were some lines [that were changed]. We didn’t feel comfortable saying some lines on camera. It was only a couple words, not the whole script.

SP: Were there words and sayings that you didn’t think an 11 year-old would really say?

RH: Yeah, exactly.

SP: The age of 11 is a significant time in a young person’s life. It’s the time of growing pains, in between childhood and teenagedom. How did you decide on Toni's age?

ARH: I really wanted to make a story about being a girl before this sexual awakening happens. I feel like, so often, filmmakers or authors conflate female coming-of-age with sexual awakening. Personally, for me, finding my own voice and identity, it happened before that. By the time I got interested in boys, I had already gone through that transformation of self. I was interested in telling that story, which I hadn’t really seen. Yes, there’s that sexual chatter happening in the background with the other girls, but that doesn’t happen on Toni’s journey. It’s about defining yourself [outside] the context of that sexual gaze.

SP: There are some deliberate camera movement choices made throughout the film. Can you discuss that?

ARH: We have a lot of long takes in the film. When there’s something dynamic happening or something happening internally to her, we wanted to externalize that. Often, that was done through camera movement; she’s the center and the world is shifting around her. Or we’re revealing, and we let her face carry something for a long time, and then we reveal what she’s seeing. So there’s a lot of playing around with that, with perception and point of view. But the whole movie is specifically from Toni’s point of view.  

SP: Royalty, you’re in every minute of the film, correct?

ARH: In almost every frame.

Still from The Fits (2016)

SP: The Fits is a mashup of genres. It’s a dance movie but also a coming-of-age story and a psychological horror. Do you see the film as belonging to any genre, or do you prefer a loose, experimental structure?

ARH: I really don’t see [the film] as a genre piece. Those boxes exist for a reason and – it doesn’t really follow a genre structure. It’s a lot more loose than that. But if I had to define it within one of those, I would have to say it’s a psychological portrait film. But it is a dance movie, too. We actually looked at a lot of horror references. It is not a horror film, but in terms of structure, and letting the monster live off camera, off-screen. Like Let the Right One In (2008), as an example, it’s a coming-of-age story set within a horror genre.

SP: The entire movie was filmed on-location in Cincinnati, Ohio.

ARH: Yes, almost exclusively in a single building.

SP: Did you always plan to film in one building for the sake of the acting and developing the story?

ARH: It was more that this building [a community center] was spectacular, and it allowed us more time with the actors. Every time you do a company move, you lose hours working with the keys, and we had limited hours with them to begin with. So yes, there was some convenience to it, but the building was so inspired, we adapted the script to that space more than anything else.

SP: What was a favorite scene to film? A favorite scene to watch?

RH: I liked the scene in the gym.

ARH: With Beezy at night or the end?

RH: …Both. No, at the end!

ARH: She really likes the end of the film.

RH: My favorite thing to watch…it was the bridge dance.  

ARH: The bridge sequence is my favorite part too. It’s like a Rocky (1976) moment.

SP: One of the best things about this film is its score. How involved were you in the music decisions for the film?  

ARH: Well, my key creative team – Lisa Kjerulff, Saela Davis, and I – was involved in everything that’s in the film. [The score] is Toni’s voice. We collaborated with amazing composers, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. The seed for the score was: experimental sound, noise music, breath going through a saxophone. We took that theme of woodwinds but [added] eerie, breathy, groaning sounds. [Bensi and Jurriaans] elevated the story through the score in a way that I can’t imagine the film without anymore. There was a lot of back and forth; most of the time, I was saying, “Go crazier or go wilder. No rules.” There are two songs in the film that we licensed. The end song is very important to me, a song by Kiah Victoria called “Aurora.” It’s a really transcendent moment in the film, and it just gives me chills every single time I hear it. It’s actually the song that triggers the emotional moment at the end. It leads to a visual sequence at the end. It’s one of the magic moments where you find the perfect song.