Q&A: The Fits Director Anna Rose Holmer On Making A Movie About 'The Dancing Disease'

The first-time director talks gender identity, race, and what exactly happened to those girls in Le Roy, New York

Premiering in New York and L.A. on Friday, the new coming-of-age drama The Fits turns adolescence into a mystery and a crisis, centering around Toni, a young girl from Cincinnati played in a striking and memorable performance by newcomer Royalty Hightower. Toni is caught between the boys' boxing team and girls' drill team, but her indecision escalates into horror when the girls in her community center drill team start to break out into seizures — cause unknown. Made on a shoestring budget, The Fits walks the line of drama, horror, and dance with more confidence than its neophyte protagonist, which is all the more impressive considering that the woman responsible for the movie was nearly as much of a beginner to directing as Toni was to dance.

The Fits is the first narrative feature film from director Anna Rose Holmer, who worked in documentaries and on camera crews for films from Twilight to Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture before stepping into the director’s chair herself. Working in a closely collaborative team with her co-writers and co-producers, Holmer saw The Fits through from its very first financing pitch to directing on set and now taking it to theaters. Ahead of the release of The Fits this weekend, she joined MTV News to talk about gender rage, dance, intersectionality, and how to stretch a Venetian dollar.

How did you get this film made?

Anna Rose Holmer: Early in the scheme for this film, I found out about the Venice Biennale Cinema College, which is a micro-timeline, microbudget initiative for first- and second-time filmmakers from all around the world. They invite a director-and-producer team to pitch for financing. My producer Lisa Kjerulff and I developed the film with the idea of pitching them and going through their process. We felt like the style of development, the way they embrace experimentation, the diversity in the films that they were finding, and even the exploration of what cinema was or should be was on the table with them, and it felt like a really exciting way to make a film, free from maybe the commercial constraints of going through a conventional financing route here in the United States. So we got accepted into that program, [and] we went forward quickly; from first draft to the premiere of the film was 11 months. We eventually took on some additional support from the Sundance Institute, Cinereach, and from Rooftop Films to really bring the film from Venice to Sundance and prep it for distribution.

Can you explain a little bit about what it means to be a microbudget film?

Holmer: We were tied almost exclusively to the 150,000-Euro grant from Venice, and that carried us from pre-production to our world premiere. We also sought out grant support from organizations here in the U.S. who would continue to allow us to create the film in our vision. It was very freeing for us to have grant support because it meant that at the end of the day, we were the ones with creative control on the film. We really pushed ourselves to embrace that and say, “This is our film, this is our chance to define our voices.” And it gave us a lot of freedom.. I think a lot of the time in independent film, you make and you make and you make and you don’t know if it’s going to reach an audience, and that could be really disheartening and very hard to overcome, especially because amazing films fall through the cracks all the time. So it was very powerful knowing that we would have a premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and I think it motivated a lot of our crew and the way we made very key decisions. We shot in a single location, we limited things where we could, and the script was written with those constraints in mind, so we really tried to embrace that process but it still required tremendous amounts of generosity from a lot of people.

How did that creative freedom enable you to explore tricky subjects like gender?

Holmer: Exploring gender, how we perform gender, and how gender is perceived externally is a huge theme in the film. We made a really clear, almost too-binary world, where there’s this very male gendered space in the boxing gym and there’s a very female gendered space in the dance gym, and Toni as a character is really the one who is able to move between those two spaces. Just by walking from one room to the next — nothing changing about her — she’s perceived differently. We were trying to play around with how groups project identity onto you, whether it’s boys' boxing or girls' dance teams. We wanted to make a nuanced portrait of what it meant to be a complex 11-year-old girl where these two gender spaces can merge in a unique way. That carries a lot of the questions about gender identity and gender performance. I’m still negotiating that. It is a part of how we identify and it doesn’t go away just because you grow up and are more confident in your body — those questions still remain. With Toni, we really wanted to portray a nuanced individual who moves in both spaces and benefits from both spaces, and who sees herself as a fusion of elements from both worlds. We tried to disregard what’s verbal — which is really just our filmmaking style — but I think it’s rare to see an 11-year-old, complex, thinking, individual girl on film.

Would you call this a queer film?

Holmer: Definitely in terms of feeling fringe and questioning these rules that seem to be unspoken, it’s part of this film. And thinking about gender in a more fluid nature is something we were examining with Toni in particular.

All of these themes are sort of expressed through movement. How did incorporating movement influence your approach to the story, and how did you come by the dance teams in the film?

Holmer: We see this as a dance film, from frame one to closing credits. I co-wrote the script with my editor, Saela Davis, and my producer Lisa Kjerulff, and our script was really about exploring movement and choreography as a way to express these unspoken questions and codes that we were looking at. But in terms of dance, the original script did not dictate that we work with the drill community or film in Cincinnati — that came through searching for a dance form that we really felt like could be expressive and infused with the narrative elements of the film.

What's beautiful about drill is that there’s all these mundane movements that can be embedded into these dance battles, and there’s an inherent call-and-response body-mirroring element to the dance battles as well. We decided to cast the Q-Kidz dance team from Cincinnati, Ohio — we found them on YouTube — and they became real collaborators; their founder, Marquicia Jones-Woods, came on as an associate producer, and she was such a generous and supportive voice throughout the entire process. There’s a couple hundred girls on those teams in real life, and we cast 45 of them in the film, including our lead, Royalty Hightower. Then we worked with Mariah and Chariah Jones — they’re identical twins, they’re the head coaches — and they choreographed all of the drill sequences in the film. We brought on Celia Rowlson-Hall, a movement consultant and modern dancer but also a filmmaker, to work with us on tone and body movement. The way Toni carries herself through the hallway changes throughout the film, and Celia helped with that. We really examined all of these things, but ultimately the film is expressed through movement of Toni’s body and all of the narrative elements expressed through the physical actions of her character. That was our heartbeat and that’s the thread that carried me throughout the film.

When you’re working with kids who are this young, and they’re still developing in so many ways, how much of the film do you explain in terms of themes? Did you talk to Royalty about things like gender performance?

Holmer: Royalty was 9 when we cast her. She turned 10 on set, so she was very young. And Alexis, who plays Beezy, is the same age. They were the two youngest, and then our cast went up to 17.

We shot this film completely out of order, so Royalty needed to be fully aware of where we were. She’s a trained dancer, and has been dancing with the Q-Kidz since she was 6. This is very different from Toni, so it was a performance on her part; she’s an incredible actress. The way we talked about it was through movement. We would say, “OK, so, you’re sad, you’re disappointed, you’re still a boxer in this, how is this going to affect your shoulders, how is this going to affect your breath, how is this affecting your eyes?”

There were other things in terms of the process, especially in terms of the fits themselves, that we wanted to protect. The girls all designed their fits in isolation with Celia Rowlson-Hall, but they had no visual reference for what a fit was or should be. That was something we really wanted to protect and provide them with a safe space to explore. They only performed the fits for each other on the day that we were shooting, so eventually we saw a kind of a group dialogue about the fits, and what they meant, and if they were real. We never capped that discussion or made a really complete statement, because I think it’s important that each performer was identifying that allegory or that real moment for themselves.

The most work obviously went into working with Royalty. It varied throughout, but it was never about hiding things, it was always about giving freedom — because my interpretation is just one interpretation, and as I said, I think the film benefited from allowing all these other voices into the process. We really wanted the kids to feel like co-authors in this process. They rewrote some of their own dialogue and embraced what it means to meet collectively in the middle and create something together.

Were there any real-life inspirations for the fits in this movie? I know there was a great New York Times article a couple years ago about a similar case of seizures on a dance team in Le Roy, New York.

Holmer: Yes, Le Roy, that’s one of the cases. This started from researching real cases. Some of the ones we were looking at happened in the 1500s, and some of them happened in cases like Le Roy, so we started to look at trends and patterns. The idea of examining these types of hysterics or hallucinogenic episodes through choreography and through dance was really the seed. One of the cases from the 1500s was literally called the “dancing disease,” and it was an outbreak of hundreds of people “dancing” in fits.

When we talked to the girls about what the fits were, one of my favorite explanations came from the head captain of the real team. She plays the captain in the film, Makyla, and she said the fits are something that is caught emotionally or mentally, but it ends up manifesting physically. There are so many ways to interpret it, but our theme came from looking at real pieces in history and extracting from those things what we felt like was our vision.

As a white filmmaker, why did you want to shoot this film with a black cast? That incident in Le Roy, for example, happened in a mostly white neighborhood.

Holmer: Our original theme for the film had no racial requirements, and it did not take place in a drill community or in Cincinnati or have an all-black cast. Davis, Kjerulff, and I come from really different backgrounds, and we were always making a Venn diagram about our shared experiences; what landed in the middle felt like it belonged in the film. We chose drill because we felt like it was a beautiful dance form to explore our themes. We were originally looking at doing it with cheer, but that grew and changed and shifted. We really wanted to work with girls who all knew each other, so we were looking for a big team.

I think a lot of the questions and themes of the film, certainly in terms of feminist theories, are complicated and compounded with race. The intersectionality of those elements is complicated, and it required us as filmmakers to include many voices and I really see it as a collaboration with the Q-Kidz. So much of the specifics about setting the film in the west end of Cincinnati came through amplifying their voices as much as possible in the film. That being said, there’s a universal quality to the story that we’re telling and I hope that many people can find access points into it.