The hipster buddy comedy won the SXSW Film Festival grand jury prize for narrative feature.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Film has always been a reflection of the times, especially when it comes to defining that particular period’s twentysomething generation. As Millennials grow up and come into their own, few films have successfully captured, even satirically, the voice of Generation Y.
Fort Tilden, the indie comedy that became the darling of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, taking home the grand jury prize for narrative feature, not only captures that voice, but wraps it in a beautiful sardonic bow and serves it on the most elegant, self-absorbed silver platter it could muster, with hilarious results.
Written and directed by Brooklynites, Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss, the day-in-the-life buddy comedy stars Bridey Elliot and Clare McNulty as Harper and Allie, two hapless hipster twentysomethings who need to navigate the treacherous enclaves of Brooklyn in order to meet up with a pair of guys at Fort Tilden, a beach located in the not-too-distant Rockaways. Of course, if getting there was easy, there would be no film. Instead, our two naive heroines embark on an epic journey through the New York City borough filled with bike stealing punks, ex-boyfriends, a litter of kittens and plenty of check writing.
The film has drawn comparisons to everything from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion to HBO’s Girls. The latter isn’t too far-fetched since Bliss went to Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn and Oberlin College, both schools also attended by Girls creator, Lena Dunham. Even though Rogers and Bliss wave off such similarities, the film’s flighty leads, who are equal parts endearing and annoying, could easily serve as comical poster girls for the Millennial generation.
Script spoke to co-writer/co-directors, Bliss and Rogers, at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin during the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, where Fort Tilden made its world premiere.
What inspired the story?
Charles Rogers: We were just kicking around different ideas and we had an idea for a Web series we wanted to make that would involve a different storyline every series. And we thought of this one really funny episode that was about two hipster girls trying to get to Fort Tilden, but they have a really hard time getting there. We really connected with that idea and we thought it would make a better feature. We started with that premise, those characters, and built from there.
Sarah-Violet Bliss: We knew that we wanted to do a project over the summer [last year], that’s why we were working on ideas. It was something that we really were excited to commit to and make happen. We had six weeks to write it, two weeks to prep and then we had to shoot.
This is the first feature for both of you. What were some of the challenges you faced in capturing this journey?
Rogers: When we set out to make the film, we thought it would be simple because it’s all exteriors and just two main characters. Then, as we wrote, we realized we had a million locations and what it means to go on a road trip means to actually go on that road trip. So we had to take the journey as the girls go on that journey through the different parts of Brooklyn. There were a lot of difficult things about making that work. The production was small, but because the pace was so quick we really couldn’t afford to do it any other way. So every day there was a new challenge that you’re not expecting, but at the same time there were really fun things about going to all these different parts of the borough. Just like the girls meet different characters throughout the movie, we actually did meet the actual locals who were part of our experience.
What was the process like writing as partners on this screenplay? No duo works the same. How did the two of you work?
Bliss: We were always sitting together and writing together. We never wrote pages [separately] in front of what we were working on together, which was great. A lot of it was like doing an improv scene. Literally, we would say the lines of the characters and act it out together. I was usually typing and he was usually telling me I misspelled something. (laughs)
Rogers: We were both talking. I think I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way, because when you’re both present then it’s all one voice. I think that if we had divided or separated it, I would watch the movie now and be like this is my scene, this is her scene, but the way we id it, it’s all our scene. There’s no separation in the voices.
I want to talk about the main characters. They aren’t exactly the most likable duo. Was that a conscious decision for the both of you to make them unlikable? There’s a certain lack of empathy for them on their journey. What’s your take on their character development?
Bliss: We weren’t consciously thinking they’re unlikable, but we were consciously thinking they’re always going to make the selfish choice.
Rogers: They’re very hypocritical. There are character traits that I think people might find a little uncomfortable. We set out to write something that was exploring the things about ourselves and people we know that we find to be frustrating. Those things are true and I don’t think it’s as simple as writing a likeable or unlikeable character. The film is a satire, but it does sympathize with the characters and you have to watch them endure the consequences of their poor decision-making throughout the course of the movie. So on one hand, they do say very negative things about other people and they do exhibit traits that you might find unlikeable, but at the same time you have to watch them struggle throughout the entire film. I think that is sympathetic.
Also, in the ways that they can be perceived as unlikeable, we always made sure that it was in a funny or interesting way. They don’t follow to some stock type that’s unlikeable. They say a lot of mean things about people, but they say really strange mean things or they whine, but they whine in a way that’s ridiculous. The film is always supporting their unlikeability because we wanted to make that fun.
Harper (Bridey Elliott) has this brilliant character trait of writing checks for everything. Where did that idea come from?
Bliss: (laughs) Well, Harper has all these resources and she doesn’t know how to use them properly. She hasn’t yet realized that she can’t just use checks for anything.
Rogers: Also, checks are even more mysterious than credit cards, because when you charge something to a card, it’s imminent, but there’s something about a check that’s like… if you hand this piece of paper over and it disappears and you just assume that all will be good. It’s in line with how they take their privilege for granted.
Without ruining anything, there’s a really interesting moment towards the end that required the main characters to go topless in a very unexpected way. In fact, the move is so subtle that it’s not even addressed verbally in the script. It’s just something that happens. What was involved in that storytelling decision? Why did you choose that direction?
Bliss: There are a lot of reasons. First, to make [the girls] uncomfortable. Then we wanted to put them in competition with these other girls in a way that they don’t quite know how to handle. And they’re not going talk about it.
Rogers: They also start off in a place where they’re vulnerable. Before, they are able to always protect themselves because of their privilege, because of their location, their neighborhood. They’re very protected. It was important that they’re stripped away of that as the film moves along. The climax of the film involves some ultimate vulnerability that they have to explore.
When you were setting up the journey and the obstacles the characters were going to face, was there ever anything you thought was too much? Or was it always about raising the stakes higher and higher?
Rogers: Well, there are two kinds of obstacles in the film. The ones that the girls create for themselves, which they have to go through and get themselves out of, and also the natural kind of unfortunate obstacles that come when you just try to get from point A to point B in New York and the way they react to those. So it was always important that one obstacle set up the next obstacle, or in some way it was connected so that it wasn’t just a series of random occurrences.
The film has received excellent buzz and looks to be a hit here at SXSW. What are you two hoping to do after this?
Rogers: We have ideas that we want to collaborate on. We’re kind of letting the festivals dictate what the next move is while we’re also planning our own course throughout. We’re definitely writer/directors and want to keep working with each other.
Fort Tilden made its world premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival as part of its Narrative Competition programming where it unanimously won the narrative feature grand jury prize.