In her new film Beach Rats, director Eliza Hittman tells the story of Frankie (newcomer Harris Dickinson), an aimless, well-muscled Brooklyn teenager who spends his summer days hanging out with macho friends while, in secret, using his nights to meet men for clandestine sex. Even as he starts to fall into a relationship with a girl (Madeline Weinstein) who’s stymied by his hot-and-cold attention, Frankie struggles to figure out what he wants and who he really is. Well-shot by veteran French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Beach Rats pulls no punches when it comes to exploring sex and masculinity, and some audiences have been surprised to find it’s a subject that Hittman wants to tackle. As the director tells Vulture, she’s surprised that you’re surprised.
One of the primary inspirations for this film was a shirtless selfie you found, right?
Whenever I have an idea for a movie, I spend a fair amount of time being a Facebook stalker. I pulled a bunch of selfies from kids who were from Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn — they’re known as “beach rats.” One of the selfies was of a kid standing in a basement with ugly fluorescent lights and a dirty mirror and he was shirtless with a hat on that was covering his eyes. It looked like he was about to drop his pants and take a dick pic. There was this tension in the image between something that was hypermasculine and simultaneously homoerotic, a feeling that he was hiding something because his eyes were in the shadow of this visor. He was about 19 years old and he looked dangerous and fragile at the same time, and I try to use images like that as character introductions. What we shot is almost a direct reframing of the image.
You were beguiled by that photo, but what was it like when you were on set and Harris was taking those shirtless selfies?
The shift that came with casting Harris is that he was actually much more sculpted than I had originally anticipated the character being. It’s not like I asked him to take off his shirt in the audition, or anything like that. [Laughs.] It added a layer of armor. He was simultaneously more vulnerable because of his eyes, but also more defended because of his body and the amount of time he’d spent at the gym trying to build up a certain body type. It added something unexpected that maybe I didn’t quite realize until we were in the edit.
We’re used to a culture that pressures women to comport themselves as sex objects, but it’s fascinating as this awareness dawns on men to commoditize themselves.
I was thinking in terms of how we present ourselves. The authenticity of the self … what kind of truth is revealed in an image or a reflection, regardless of whether or not we’re aware of it?
Frankie says twice that he doesn’t know what he likes. But when he takes those selfies, he knows what people might like about him.
That’s very much part of it. He knows he is attractive to other men and women, but he’s ambivalent to show what he’s attracted to. It’s about being desired before he’s allowed to admit what he desires.
I’m always interested in how a director stages sex and nude scenes. What’s your approach? How do you get your actors into the right headspace?
I’m sort of against playing the role of therapist on set, and I like to keep some level of professional distance from the people that I’m working with. There’s a danger in talking too much, you know? You can get pulled into all sorts of neuroses that the actors might have about their performance or the other actors, and for me, it’s good to stand a little bit back. What’s important for me in a sex scene is that things could feel like they’re gonna grow in either a romantic direction or an unpleasant direction. I like sculpting scenes that could go either way, where you don’t know which way they’re headed.
In terms of directing actors in that type of scene, for me, it’s always important to go through he mechanics of it. Like, I would never rehearse two people kissing. I would just talk them through the physicality of the scene, we’d rehearse it at 10 percent, and then we’d turn the camera on and go for it at a 100 percent.
You’re afraid that if they kiss off-camera, you’re stepping on the moment?
You don’t want them to be too comfortable. I don’t want the tension between the two people to become too diluted in a rehearsal. As far as the camera goes, I’m usually trying hard not to objectify the female body and make it so much about her. In the scene we shot with [actress] Madeline Weinstein, we knew we wanted her wearing provocative underwear because she’s a little bit aggressive, but once the underwear came off, the scene was no longer about her body. You never see her chest [presented] square to the camera. It’s really more about what he’s feeling, rather than lingering on any part of her. The scene was much more about showing more than we would traditionally show of a man’s body.
What do you mean?
We never show those kinds of moments of masculinity in a dramatic context. We would show it in a comedy, but never in something that was dramatic and credible and real. Lots of coming-of-age movies have these scenes of boys masturbating, and it’s always, “Ha ha ha, isn’t it funny watching a boy masturbate?” But you would never show a teenage girl masturbating. I like to think about those teen movie clichés and what you would or wouldn’t do when you’re navigating those tropes and trying not to step on them.
You’ve been asked a lot of questions about why, as a woman, you would want to tell this story about a sexually confused man. Sometimes it seems to me that female filmmakers are damned for staying in what’s perceived to be their lane, but also scrutinized when they step out of it.
Is that frustrating for you?
I think it’s unfair, obviously. I don’t really understand where it comes from, to be honest, but I’m trying to understand where that feeling comes from and trying not to feel so taken down by it. It’s also very silly to me because so many movies that I love about women through film history have been directed by men. I’ve never owned my representation as a woman. To feel like there are things I can and can’t do in my career … it’s a bit frustrating, but also a bit motivating. I would like to have a long career where I tackle what people think I can do and can’t do.
That conversation about who gets to tell what stories extends to actors, too. Samuel L. Jackson tweaked Get Out for casting a British black man. I’ve noticed some murmurs about Call Me by Your Name casting straight actors as its leads. What do you make of the debate about how authentically you have to have lived that experience in order to portray it?
It feels like it’s limiting, that’s my response to it. There are actors in my film who are straight, and there are actors in my film who are gay. I don’t think people should be limited by their sexual orientation. You wouldn’t want to feel that a gay actor couldn’t play a straight male romantic lead, either. I think the conversation should really shift to, how do we create more opportunities for people who deserve to tell their stories? Let’s look to agencies and studios to diversify their rosters. I don’t think the conversation will lead to anything productive without examining the institutional powers that be.
I know that as you were trying to get the movie made, it surprised you how many people resisted this material because of its gay content. As you saw Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight become a very big deal at the end of last year, did that hearten you?
It did, and it also made me nervous. [Laughs.] Barry and I developed our scripts sort of in tandem through a fellowship that we both had at Cinereach. Neither of us knew what the other person was working on, and then his movie sort of exploded. I think there’s a part of me that always felt like he was sort of tapped for this other level of success, you know? I don’t think that women always have that kind of momentum towards their next project. So I felt like in some ways, it was inspiring that so many people responded to his film, but I also felt like I would inevitably be in its shadow in some way.
Obviously, they’re not the same movie at all. His is safer and it’s beautiful and it’s restrained and it’s deserving of all of its accolades. Mine is a little bit riskier and more provocative and less friendly. I thought I would always be a little bit in its shadow as a nastier version of the same conflict.
This interview has been edited and condensed.