About this series: Before it was a movie, it was a screenplay. And before it was a screenplay, it was a terrifyingly blank page. Revision History tells stories about one of the least understood but most creative stages of filmmaking: the writing (and constant rewriting) of the screenplay.
The movie: Beach Rats, a character study of a Brooklyn teenager coming to terms with his sexuality. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival last week, it should reach theaters and streaming services later this year.
When Hittman brought her first feature film, It Felt Like Love, to Sundance in 2013, people kept asking about her next project. In truth, she had no idea. "I was very lost about what I was gonna do next," she says now—but she began improvising an answer. Though it was female-driven coming-of-age film set in outermost Brooklyn, It Felt Like Love featured a few "toxic male guys" as minor characters. Hittman’s aunt had termed these characters "beach rats," a phrase that had stuck with Hittman. She began improvising an answer to the ubiquitous question: Her next film would be called Beach Rats, and would focus on those characters.
Over the next two years, however, Hittman began by trying to write anything but Beach Rats. She had had success with a female-driven drama, and felt pressure to deliver another. So she spent a lot of time with what she calls "an autobiographical script about a girl on a college campus, called The Ingenue. But when she shared a draft of that script with collaborators, the response was lukewarm.
Meanwhile, life was happening. Hittman was busy with adjunct-teaching at NYU, and in 2014, she became pregnant. In August 2014, at eight months, Hittman had a panicked thought: "Once you have a baby, you’re never going to have time to write again."
Like a character in a movie, Hittman now had high stakes and a ticking clock. She opened a new draft on her computer and gave it a title: Beach Rats.
In August of 2014, Hittman banged out what she calls a "really, really messy, kind of vomit first draft of Beach Rats." When shooting It Felt Like Love, she had noticed a fair amount of gay cruising still happening around Gerritsen Beach, a working-class area of Brooklyn (the kind Lena Dunham is unlikely to use as a Girls location). Hittman began thinking about "the intersectional relationship between class and sexuality" as well as "online crimes, and how many people had been victimized through gay sites." She threw all these ingredients into the stew of her first draft.
The draft focused on a young male working-class character, Frankie, who spends a summer exploring drugs, anonymous sex with older men, as well as relationships with several young women. Hittman recalls the draft as mostly a string of scenes of extreme behavior.
By late 2014, she hired a casting director and invited people to hear the script read aloud. "People were confused and excited by it," she recalls—a step up from reactions to The Ingenue. Already supported with a fellowship from an organization called Cinereach, Hittman also applied to the Sundance’s Writer’s Lab. In late 2014, she flew out to Utah to join the lab and begin working on the second draft.
At the Sundance lab, Hittman had meeting after meeting with various advisors. "People were sort of challenged by [Beach Rats] as a text," Hittman recalls.
One day at the lab, Hittman screened It Felt Like Love to her advisors. "And one of my lab advisors, [actor/director] Kasi Lemmons, sat down after in this cool and casual way and said, ‘I loved your other movie. This one just needs the same progression.’" Most screenplays—even rule-bending indies—tend to benefit from a classical feeling of a story that grows and builds from one scene to the next. It Felt Like Love had that, Lemmons saw, but Beach Rats didn’t yet. The draft was a scramble of scenes that erupted in sudden, unexplained violence.
"That was the most important note I got," recalls Hittman. "I was like, ‘Oh, right. I know how to do that.’"
Hittman came back to New York with Lemmons’s note rattling around her head, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015—when Hittman could visit Brooklyn's Gerritsen Beach again and reconnect viscerally with the world of her screenplay—that she began executing the revision. One key to unlocking a sense of narrative progression, it turned out, was giving in to a note several readers had given: that the screenplay would benefit from combining the many women Frankie dated into a single character, named Simone in the final film.
Hittman also directed Beach Rats, and for many writer/directors, production and post-production amount to a shaping of the final draft. With Beach Rats, the story underwent drastic changes in these stages, says Hittman, mostly through cutting scenes that she shot but felt didn’t belong in the final film.
The several drafts of Beach Rats had each placed great weight on the relationship Frankie had with his dying father; Hittman even shot several dialogue-filled scenes between the two. But in the editing, she cut those scenes entirely; the father winds up not having any lines in the finished movie.
Similarly, the final shooting script also contained what Hittman calls "an obligatory scene between mother and son," where Frankie confesses to his role in a crime that occurs late in the movie. "It was a very painful scene, and it works on the page," Hittman says. But she felt it wasn’t working when she shot it, and she cut it, too, from the finished film. The scene would have been cathartic for audiences, and "I aspire not to create that kind of catharsis," says Hittman.
Her artistic choices paid off: Beach Rats is a haunting, challenging film; the distributor Neon just acquired North American rights. This past weekend, Hittman won Sundance’s Directing Award in the U.S. dramatic section of the festival. (Sundance also features documentaries and global films.)
"There’s nothing more taboo in this country than a woman with ambition," said Hittman in her acceptance speech. "Hollywood, I’m coming for you."