If you want to get an idea of how well jokes about “Brooklyn” travel—at least within the monoculture of well-educated, unattached, media-savvy urban postcollegiates, I can’t really speak for the rest of Earth—look no further than Fort Tilden, which won the grand prize of the narrative jury at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. The first feature from cowriters and directors Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, the film wrings bitter laughs from the foibles of two Williamsburg archetypes, or stereotypes, on a terrible daylong bike odyssey to the Rockaways, one day at the end of summer.
These two romper-clad 25-year-olds are of the directionless trust-funded variety of North Brooklynite (as opposed to, like, brunching social-media managers and branding consultants). Allie (played by Clare McNulty) is “political,” having knocked on doors for Obama and dropped out of Teach for America; with vague plans of maybe someday applying to law school, she’s on the way to Liberia with the Peace Corps. Harper (Bridey Elliott, of the Beautiful Sun-Drenched Hawai’i Elliotts) is an “artist,” in that she doesn’t work; her patrician, condescending dad, the voice at the end of the phone line, sends money from wherever his global business empire takes him.
Planning, via copious txt spk, a rendez-vous with two cute guys from a terrible rooftop concert (featuring two twee glitter twins singing about the end of the good times), Harper and Allie wrangle an extra bike and a bag of Molly, but must also contend with their own selfishness and incompetence at city living, as well as with Cobble Hill helicopter parents, profiteering car-service guys, noise-complaining neighbors, “coffee-free” but scared-tiff gentrifiers, deli ladies who don’t know how to make iced coffee, and assorted other Kings County types. Leaning aggressively on the very foolish sides of very familiar characters, the film has been divisive since its premiere, but has some snappy (as well as frankly corrosive) one-liners. Whether Girls is fuel for your sense of self-deprecation or of aggravation, you’ll find something in the broader, sketch-comic Fort Tilden.
Rogers and Bliss now live in Los Angeles, but while studying at NYU’s graduate film program and working on Fort Tilden, the two lived in Williamsburg and Woodside, Queens, respectively. “Just within the two years of living in Williamsburg, I witness the amount of change that an emerging nation endures,” Rogers recalled when I emailed him questions about the film. “I was pretty sad when King’s Pharmacy closed on Bedford Avenue because I no longer had any idea know where to buy a simple plunger.” The film opens this Friday, August 18.
It’s clear by film’s end that Harper and Allie are dealing with uncertainties, traumas and fears that an audience might empathize, or at least sympathize with, but I don’t think that “contempt” is too strong a word for the way the film feels about them at times, or invites us to feel about them (standing in a traffic island on Flatbush Avenue, or the “ghetto,” as they call it, unable to find a cab, whining like babies for Daddy and an iced coffee). Maybe you disagree with that, which is fine and interesting; but I was thinking about whether filmmakers have any kind of obligation to feel a certain way about their characters. What do you think? We all know that characters don’t have to be “likeable” for a movie to work, but do filmmakers have a responsibility to find something relatable or redeemable in their characters, when thinking about them or dramatizing them?
In my opinion, the film does not feel contempt for Allie and Harper, though it definitely does not shy away from poking fun at them and their often inept behavior. We set out knowing we wanted to write complicated and difficult personalities and we knew what made them funny. Personally, if I find a character “funny” then I find them likeable. I do think filmmakers have a responsibility to make characters relatable – but I think that can often be an oversimplified and misunderstood concept based around some audience members’ desires to see the world and themselves in a favorable light. The only time I do not find a character relatable in a film is if they are not exhibiting believable human behavior.
Did the characters of Harper and Allie change at all, from how they were in your minds and/or in the script, to how they are on-screen, once Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty came aboard and started to interpret them?
We started out knowing the ways in which Allie and Harper were similar and as we got further into the writing process discovered more and more of what made them different. Sarah-Violet has been close with Clare since college and had cast her in her own short films so we wrote Allie in her voice, yet Bridey was an alien stranger to us and all we knew of her were her brilliant and weird shorts that she had online. We all had dinner in Chinatown prior to the shoot for a bonding night and were very fortunate to find out that these two had such incredible chemistry. I still kind of see them as Allie and Harper.
The film’s obviously a caricature, but based on recognizable tropes, both demographic and behavioral. Did you ever find yourself say, “Wait, we’ve pushed this too far past realistic for it to be satiric?” Or did you welcome those moments as absurdist? What would you say to someone who rejects the premise that a 25-year-old Brooklynite would watch her unlocked bike get stolen and do nothing?
We were always conscious of making sure every choice these characters made came from a consistent place. Though, when we started writing the script, we wanted Harper to have spent some huge amount of money by the end of the day, like two thousand dollars on petty and unnecessary expenses… but realized that was a little too hard to accomplish and still tell a story. The scene in which they stand idly in a check-out line, bystanders to a theft that could easily be stopped, is drawn from our own personal and embarrassing experiences—it’s an act of self-sabotage that we have all done something close to in some capacity. I would congratulate the 25-year-old who refuses to believe that they themselves have let something unfavorable happen out of idle laziness and self-delusion because they would be one-of-a-kind.
When was the film written, and shot? I’m curious because Brooklyn, and right now particularly North Brooklyn, is always changing so rapidly: even the “hipster garbage” we see here—in their endless early 20s, in faddish clothes, with time and unearned money to burn, coasting on the cultural capital of actual artists—is a late-breaking Williamsburg archetype, but one increasingly just decoration for condo developments. In developing the story and characters, were you thinking about balancing timeliness with timelessness? Or hopeful that the film would become a New York time capsule?
The film was written and produced in the summer of 2013, and in some ways I think that Williamsburg and its archetypes have changed a lot, but at the same time I don’t think so much has changed in just two years. Allie and Harper are intended to be both generational symbols and real, sympathetic people. If the type of people they represent have become cultural mainstays of New York City, then I’d like to think that the film is as timely as ever. Our aspirations in conceiving this film were no larger than that we wanted to draw inspiration from people we know and love (for better or worse). If anything, the film is definitely a time capsule of a community of very talented, funny, and deserving actors and comedians.
Did you shoot chronologically? The actresses’ sunburns (and progressively generally frazzled aspects) give the film a real sense of both intimacy and carefully structured scope; as does the weather. In general, I’d be curious to hear more about the logistics of your journey across the borough.
We shot as chronologically as we could, though the inherent restrictions of a low low low budget independent film meant that we had to bulk together some scenes—like all of the interior scenes in four consecutive days—for practical reasons. Luckily their sunburns progressed steadily and translatably, and the amount of bruises that the bicycle gave Bridey’s legs over the 18 shoot days believably corresponds to a day’s worth of growing bruisage. We shot at the end of August through mid-September, and considering we were outside for most of the shoot, we really witnessed the season’s change. That seasonal change culminated in the full day of freezing cold in-the-ocean shooting that nearly destroyed all of us.