Two privileged millennial Williamsburg girls blow off their responsibilities in favor of joining a couple of cute guys at the beach for a day of molly-induced good times. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything. Fort Tilden (out now in theaters and VOD) is the debut feature film from writing/directing duo Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, whose most recent writing credits include Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. The film stars Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty in the lead roles of Harper and Allie, two twenty-something friends treading the water of adulthood with self-absorbed abandon. Fort Tilden provides a brutally satirical, often uncomfortable look at white millennial culture, leaving no real survivors in the process. I talked to the film’s co-creators and stars about the inspiration behind the movie, finding sympathy in anti-heroes, and how to make a niche film relatable to a broader audience.
What influenced you to make this film?
Charles Rogers: Most of it comes from real life. We’ve both been to Fort Tilden. We both know it can be a hard journey, even though it shouldn’t be. I had a birthday there one year and half of my guests lost their signals and I never found out what happened to them. We also drew from friends and friends-of-friends. A lot of people we know and love ending up working their way into the movie’s characters.
If your friends and acquaintances watch the film, will they be able to recognize which characters they are?
Rogers: I don’t think so. We don’t want to get specific. There are a few anecdotes that are definitely drawn from life that we have a blood oath not to reveal. But generally it’s more like, “The sarcasm of ‘Brittany’ and the face of ‘Paula.’” We also wrote ourselves into it. There’s more of us in the movie than anything.
Sarah-Violet Bliss: I have a friend who asked me if one of the characters was her and it totally wasn’t. It seems like people who characters might be based after would never recognize it, but people who it’s not based after are afraid it could be them.
Rogers: I feel like we made people a little bit afraid of us. We had a lawyer and she said, “I’m so afraid that you guys will turn me into something. I feel like you’re always watching the people around you.”
I think that’s inherent in comedy. People who hang around comics are often afraid that they might be fodder for a bit at some point. In a movie with as much bite as yours, I can’t blame people for being paranoid.
Rogers: I think that’s true, but I also think that once you put something out into the world it becomes public domain. Whatever personality thing you’re putting out there, if you said it, don’t be surprised if people repeat it.
There are no real heroes in this film. The focus is primarily on the selfishness of privileged millennials. Do you think that your audience will be able to be honest enough with themselves to connect with the characters and learn something from them?
Bliss: I think that some people will and some people won’t. But when they do they’re like, “Oh God. That’s me.” They kind of delight in the fact that they recognize things in the characters that they don’t like about themselves. Some people don’t want to recognize it at all and will be like, “Ugh, why am I watching this?”
Rogers: It’s been an interesting experience to see who of the people we know don’t like the “unlikable” aspects of the characters and who does like them.
If you had to categorize this film and put it in a genre, how would you describe it?
Rogers: It’s a satire. But we like to say that it’s sympathetic at the same time. It’s a sympathetic satire.
As the characters’ day starts to devolve, the movie changes pace emotionally. In the early stages of creating the film, did you plan to have a dramatic shift in the narrative, or was the plan to keep things light throughout?
Bliss: We discovered it as we were writing it. We’re really proud of that shift and how it’s not just funny. There’s a dark side. When we first started writing, we thought it would just be funny. When we said it would be about two girls who go to Fort Tilden, we immediately knew what those two girls would look like. But as we wrote more and more, we wanted to make it more layered, interesting, and complex.
As a co-writing/co-directing team, how do you divide the labor? What are some of the strengths and weaknesses that each of you bring to a project?
Rogers: Our process is very collaborative. We write side-by-side. We both have acting backgrounds, so we do the voices of the characters. For whatever reason, I was Harper and she was Allie. Directing is the same experience, in that we’re both inputting together at the same time. We had a teacher tell us once that the difference between us was that Sarah was good at subtle drama and that I was good at making moments. We have different sensibilities, but we have places where we overlap.
Bliss: Somehow when we work together it becomes this unified thing that is working well.
A lot of the actors and cameos in this film – Reggie Watts, Will Hines, Alysia Reiner, Neil Casey – are people with improv backgrounds. Was there a lot of improvising on the set?
Bliss: It was mostly scripted, but there are specific scenes that had a little more improvising. Mostly it was all scripted, but we had a lot of great improvisers who add this kind of looseness to the language that made it feel like improv even though it was scripted.
How did you go about choosing your two lead actors for the film?
Bliss: Claire, who plays Allie, is a friend of mine from college. We’re close friends and she’s acted in a lot of my short films as well. Bridey, Charles showed me some videos she posted on the internet and I thought they were so funny. We just fell in love with her. Even though what she was doing online wasn’t exactly in line with the character of Harper, we could see that she was really smart and special. We invited her for drinks and we asked her to be in the movie.
Rogers: We were so lucky to find out that they had such amazing chemistry too. They immediately took to one another. The first take of the first day was like this operatic relief of, “Oh God they’re great together!”
Do you feel like your lead characters have any redeeming qualities?
Bliss: I don’t know about redeeming, but I think they have sympathetic characteristics. They don’t get away with anything in the film. They’re young and even though they’re privileged, they’re not living the lives they want at all. I think they’re really stuck because of themselves and that can be relatable. Sometimes in your mid-twenties you’re like, “I have everything I need to be successful but I’m in my own way.”
Rogers: The concept of redemption kind of goes over my head a little bit. I don’t think about these people in terms of whether or not they have redeeming qualities. The world of the film is sober about they way that people interact and the way that people perform with their personalities to get what they want out of people in the moment. There’s no place for redemption in a world like that. It’s all about the surface.
Bridey, Clare, what were your thoughts when you first read the script?
Bridey Elliott: I thought it was so funny. I laughed out loud. I mean, I LOL’d, sorry. It had my attention the entire time.
Clare McNulty: I also LOL’d. It’s very funny, even just as a straight read.
The film is a biting portrayal of privileged white millennials. I’m not saying that’s you, but did you find yourselves identifying with your characters?
McNulty: Definitely. The line where Allie says, “I’m going to go to law school. Or do acupuncture.” That’s something I’ve actually said. I recognize the privilege of that and the ridiculousness of it.
Elliott: Just the anxiety of being in your 20s in New York and trying to figure out your “thing” is a very relatable thing in my life. I was 23 when we shot this. Now I’m 25. The plates have shifted for me mentally where I’m not quite as anxious as I was. Also, in your 20s, you keep thinking that you’re starting from scratch every time.
McNulty: I wanted to point out that you’re the first person who has used the term “white millennials.” I think that’s so interesting, because every time people ask us questions they say, “your generation,” “millennials,” and “hipsters.” All of those terms are interchangeable. This is the first time anyone has ever made that distinction.
That’s one of the things about this film that I found interesting. There was no attempt to speak for a broad cross section of people. These are two young, white, privileged millennial females. It’s very niche. It’s a narrow slice of life. It’s not just based in New York, it’s based in Brooklyn. But not just Brooklyn, but Williamsburg. A lot of the references you used I’ve never heard used in anything else. A part of me worried that the jokes were too “inside baseball” for a broader audience to get them.
McNulty: Well, we showed the movie in South Dakota, which I just feel like is as far from this community as you can get. People really responded to it.
Elliott: It’s just so honest. My mom, when she saw it, was like, “Oh that barrel scene reminded me of my sister and I.” She’s 55 and from Iowa. You can relate to it because the truth is there, despite it being niche in places.
There’s a scene at the beach that features extended non-erotic toplessness from you and two other actors. With so much attention being placed on body image and censorship – like Instagram’s ban on the female nipple – did you feel that there was a statement being made in that scene?
McNulty: I’d like to think that now. I didn’t think about it before. I think they were just trying to make the characters vulnerable. That’s such a low point for these characters. Part of them being topless was them being challenged in so many ways in that moment. Their shirts are off. They’re with these young women who are so much more comfortable than them.
Elliott: They’re having to get out of their comfort zone to seemingly fit in or impress the people they’re with.
I was reminded of what Lena Dunham has done on Girls in terms of embracing nudity and celebrating bodies. The two girls you meet at the beach are very comfortable in their own skin, not worried about sitting a certain way so as to look sexy or hide anything about themselves. They were just there in their natural state. I may be reading too much into it, but I saw it as a statement on how the younger generation tends to view sexuality in a more fluid way and is adopting the messages of body acceptance and just being comfortable with who you are.
Elliott: I think that’s really on point.
McNulty: You should say all of those things.
Do either of you have a favorite scene from the film?
Elliott: I think my favorite scene in the film is when the bike gets stolen.
McNulty: I love that scene.
Elliott: It was the first one that leapt out at me when I was reading it. But my favorite one to shoot was with the ladies in the iced coffee scene.
McNulty: That was the hardest one to keep it together during. They were so good, so funny, and so sweet.