Her Decision: Eliza Hittman on Her Observational, Intimate and Necessarily Political Never Rarely Sometimes Always
“It’s so important for me to be thinking about a movie all the time,” says writer-director Eliza Hittman, reflecting on her creative process. “I don’t spend so much time sitting at a computer. I want to walk around, be in locations, spend my Saturday on a handball court or in a park or in Port Authority and respond to the environment.” Evidenced by the authenticity and truthful immediacy—laced with deeply neorealist touches—of her films, there must be something to this observational method of writing the burgeoning American auteur calls “experiential.” It births a singular high-stakes quality that guides It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman’s first two narrative features about young Brooklynites at perilous crossroads. It also charges her third film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a powerful, quietly heartbreaking drama that follows an underage small-town-Pennsylvania woman (Sidney Flanigan), who, accompanied by her best friend (Talia Ryder), travels to New York for an abortion. (Both actresses deliver scarring, stunning peformances).
Winner of a Special Jury Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and screened in competition at the 70th Berlinale, Never Rarely tells a contemporary story set in the present time but one with painful reminders of the past, when women were denied reproductive rights and had to seek illegal, unsafe abortions— if they could afford them. Unfolding her tale over a couple of anxiety-ridden days, Hittman persuasively demonstrates that those female-centric hardships many consider to be a thing of the past are not far from the reality a lot of women face in today’s America, where Roe v. Wade is threatened in ways both blatant and veiled. And yet, Hittman had a hard time convincing people of her project’s urgency in the early days. She was met with disinterest when she first came up with the idea, while Barack Obama was still president. “People at that time weren’t thinking about the profound effect all the state-to-state restrictions has on [American] women,” the director recalls. “They were oblivious to the story I was trying to tell at that moment.”
The origins of Never Rarely were rooted in the devastating case of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died in 2012 after being denied an abortion following her incomplete miscarriage, by Irish law. Distressed and inquisitive, Hittman bought Ann Rossiter’s book, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, and started reading about the country’s history with abortion. “Women would take a journey from Ireland across the Irish Sea to London and back in one day. I just started asking myself, ’Who can afford that?’ and ’Why has nobody written about that?’” Recently catching up with Filmmaker at a café around Flatbush (the neighborhood she is from) only hours before taking off for Berlin, Hittman broke down the making of her latest and discussed the themes and methods that inform her work. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is slated for a March 13, 2020, theatrical release from Focus Features.
Filmmaker: How did you land on an American story after reading about Halappanavar’s death?
Hittman: I began feeling like, “Oh, I’m just this little New York filmmaker. Nobody’s ever going to let me make a movie in Ireland.” So, I started investigating what the New York equivalent of that film would be. And I had a fellowship at Cinereach, which is a nonprofit in New York. The fellowship doesn’t give development money, they don’t commission scripts, but the fellowship that’s run by Natalie Difford is geared to give filmmakers a space, resources to explore any project idea. It’s really about supporting the space between projects. So, in that fellowship, I was like, “I think I want to take a trip to rural Pennsylvania because I know that there are all these pregnancy care centers that are these ambiguous spaces run by volunteers with federal funding, but [have] no doctors or medical staff employed.” It was kind of the convergence of [Halappanavar’s] death and thinking about a next film that really inspired a lot of the process and research.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting—women in Ireland crossed a border to a different country. And then when you look at New York and Pennsylvania, they are in the same country but feel like separate lands completely, which is crazy.
Hittman: It’s an entirely different place, like traveling back in time. That’s why I decided to make the talent show at the beginning of the film like a 1950s homage. I wanted to disorient the audience for a moment in a playful way. So much of this country is just fighting to turn the clock back. I did a lot of these little research trips to small towns, walked around and took things in. I went to a few centers and took pregnancy tests. And I [did] a counseling session while the test was processing.
Filmmaker: And it was a very anti-choice counseling, I would imagine.
Hittman: Anti-reproductive rights counseling. They are nice people speaking from a different place, but of course, it’s illegal, problematic and unethical. They would ask what your plans are, what your beliefs are. Because I was older, I was less vulnerable to allowing for the conversation to go into certain places, but the agenda and the values of those centers was very clear. When you walk in, they’re filled with donations. It’s as if having a bag of clothes will make motherhood somehow easier.
Filmmaker: How did Pastel Productions and Oscar-winning names like Adele Romanski and Barry Jenkins come on board as producer and executive producer?
Hittman: I made Beach Rats first. I put Never Rarely Sometimes Always aside after becoming pregnant in the process of doing the early research. Then, Trump was elected, and I went to Sundance [with Beach Rats]. Adele Romanski, who had been a pal for a long time, showed up unexpectedly to see Beach Rats [at] the premiere. It was a very warm gesture of support. In a way, she was showing her interest and wanting to be a collaborator on the next project. We really began a dialogue then. I sent her these articles and used her as a sounding board for the development of this screenplay. She lives in LA, I live in New York, but we would always have these long conversations at transitional moments of the day. We didn’t commit to working together until there was a script, and the project was real. She read the first draft and really wanted to do it. She was inside the script before the script had been written.
I met Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski at very different times of my life and didn’t know that they were connected. I made a short film [Second Cousins Once Removed] in grad school, like 2009, and it premiered at a really incredible festival in Germany called Oberhausen. It was the first film I ever submitted to film festivals. I submitted to Telluride and Barry was doing shorts at Telluride, so he saw my short. I didn’t get in, but he wrote me immediately and friended me on Facebook. So, that connection was really through a short film that nobody in the world has seen but Barry Jenkins. Thematically, that film and Never Rarely have things in common. I don’t know if he’s seen Never Rarely yet because he’s been in production on this TV show. But if he saw it, I know that he would [make the connection].
Filmmaker: Your work has a throughline: youth in peril, in a decisive moment of their lives. Do you think of your films in a cohesive sense like that?
Hittman: I think that the connections are clear. It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats are obviously much closer in spirit—the characters in Beach Rats could’ve been in It Felt Like Love; it was very much a choice to go into this same world but [from] a masculine perspective. What was exciting to me about [Never Rarely] was this untold journey—wanting to make a road movie and look at New York through an outside perspective. It’s such an intimate and political journey. I could’ve explored it through a character at any age. [But] I thought about it in connection to the other films and wanted to make this kind of loose trilogy about youth in crisis.
Filmmaker: Your shooting style in all three favors intimacy. You stay close to the character and do long takes. It’s almost like you’re invading some emotional space.
Hittman: In between films, I had done a bunch of TV work. While I’m happy that those opportunities exist, I really felt a little lost in bringing myself directorially to those shows I did. Particularly with 13 Reasons Why; it’s a very big show, very stagey and kind of melodramatic. There [were] certain expectations directorially that were challenging. When I got back to being on my own set, I didn’t want to hide anything. I wanted to be as stripped down as possible; it was very much a reaction to the stagey expectations of doing TV.
Filmmaker: On that note, there’s something very lived-in about your movies.
Hittman: With TV, I would get these two-character scenes, and they’d say, “Use a crane, use this, use that.” But why? It’s just two people sitting across a table, talking to each other. [When] I was going back to my own film, I really [wanted] to embrace and trust performance and naturalism.
Filmmaker: That places a huge amount of trust in the performers. Your actors are usually fairly new to the game.
Hittman: I think the challenges of working with them are no different than the challenges of working with experienced actors. You get people with very different backgrounds, and your job as a director is to assess what they’re doing, to try and make them feel comfortable and bring everybody into the same world. Talia had done Matilda on Broadway, she comes from a certain performance background. Sidney had never acted before but is a punk musician in South Buffalo, went to a massive public arts high school in Buffalo and had been performing since she was a kid.
What was key was the audition for Sidney and Talia. When I audition, I never want to be in the audition room with a casting director and producers hovering because I feel a lot of pressure. So, I took Sidney and Talia out on the street with a big suitcase and filmed them navigating turnstiles and subways. Obviously, I wanted them to be different. One is full of optimism and has a youthfulness, the other is an old soul and has something inside her. She’s seen things, and you can feel that in her. It’s like, “How do I build this relationship as a director and pull them into this same world, knowing that they’re different people?” One of the true challenges of a director of an independent film is, you don’t get a rehearsal process. So, I had two very brief days with Sidney and Talia. It was a massive risk to cast Sidney, to put the pressure of an entire movie on her shoulders.
Filmmaker: They have such believable, wonderful chemistry. Did you give them any exercises, or do any kind of back-story building between the two?
Hittman: We didn’t do back-story character building. I am not a fan of that. I think you want the film to feel immediate and alive. It’s about the active obstacles that the characters face; films aren’t about the past. But what I did do? We had Sidney cast first. Part of the reason I cast Talia was, when [she] came in the room, she said, “I’m from Buffalo.” They immediately had this connection over place, started asking each other about restaurants they liked or places they grew up. I felt like that was a foundation for their history. I didn’t need to form an artificial character history. It happened organically. They also started talking about their fractured relationships with their fathers very off-handedly.
I knew that building their empathy and understanding for each other was most important. So, the first thing I did was, I gave them each a notebook and very personal writing prompts: “The last time I saw my father…,” “My most cherished family vacation…” And I left. Their instructions were to write for an hour and just share. And they shared without me. They said they laughed, they cried. Then, we sat and read the script out loud. I answered their questions about the story, about the production, and that was it. And we did little things together like we sat on a bed, and they put on makeup.
Filmmaker: The eye makeup scene is a great one. Talia is good with eyeliner.
Hittman: She’s very good at putting on makeup. Then, we had them do the lines, just to try and understand; it was nice. You could feel the beginning of the movie there. Then, Sidney played guitar for us. She picked the song she wanted to cover for the karaoke. So, there was a real sort of bonding, friendship-building—a few hours together but vital to the film.
Filmmaker: No wonder everything feels just so real and lovely between them. Another vital aspect must be your creative partnership with cinematographer Hélène Louvart. You’ve also done Beach Rats with her, shot on 16mm.
Hittman: [Never Rarely] is also 16mm. Similar technical specs, same camera, same lenses—Zeiss 35 lenses.
Filmmaker: There’s something about that film grain that injects the picture with a level of intimacy.
Hittman: For me, 16mm is the best at capturing human emotion.
Filmmaker: There is this misconception about film being more expensive, more difficult. But interviewing DPs and directors, I always hear one common thing: that it brings discipline to the set that makes things easier in some sense. Everyone knows you can’t just do trial and error. It’s more planned.
Hittman: There’s no trial and error, and I like that about film. It intensifies the stakes. It forces you to plan and shoot in an economical and thoughtful way. Especially because I knew that we were going to be doing some long takes in a pivotal scene, I thought it was really important that it be on film. With video, there is no risk. It’s meaningless to just shoot long takes digitally. You can just delete them and start again. Here, there’s an energy and an intensity.
Filmmaker: And how did you and Hélène Louvart build a dialogue together through the two films?
Hittman: The process is usually that I have a collection of books, appropriated images from Facebook and a bunch of photo references. The first conversation is usually just us sitting down and looking at images. Hélène really gravitates to a certain kind of story and comes from an authentic place. Part of the pleasure for us is to walk through the world of the film: The character works here, this is where her town is. When we did Beach Rats, we sat in a car together in the cruising spot for hours in the middle of the night, like two schoolgirls. Hélène is so curious. That curiosity is piqued by every project she works on. She never assumes to know the story or the world. That’s what I love about working with her.
Filmmaker; Do you think about female gaze at all? Do you think it helped, having two females behind the camera capturing this womanly experience in Never Rarely Sometimes Always?
Hittman: Yes. [Hélène’s] impulses are very different than men I’ve worked with.
Filmmaker: Like Sean Porter, who was the DP for It Felt Like Love?
Hittman: Sean is a lovely collaborator. I think about him and that experience of making that movie very fondly. He was so game to work within the micro-budget limitations of that production. And Sean was like, “I don’t need any ACs. I’ll just do it myself.” Whereas other male DPs would be like, “I need this, I need that.” But you know, after that movie, Sean—I don’t know how to describe it—broke up with me, had his sights set much higher and didn’t prioritize [that] relationship. It was all about whether or not the project fit into his needs in his life at that moment. Hélène is very different, all relationship driven. [She] goes back to Brazil every year to shoot with filmmakers that she loves.
Filmmaker: The reason that I asked, there was this program at Film at Lincoln Center a couple of years ago, programmed around female DPs. Beach Rats was part of it. Watching those movies in close proximity encouraged me to ponder, “Is there a female gaze?”
Hittman: I think there is. It Felt Like Love is very much this kind of anti-Lolita story. It’s about a girl and the pain of feeling undesired. Those guys she sets her sight on, her hope is that they’re predatory, and they’re not. They don’t want to have sex with her, and that’s the tension of the film. I was very cautious not to sexualize her. It’s all about her gaze on their bodies. The audience doesn’t look at her and want to see her have sex. I was very conscious of the gaze of the camera.
With Beach Rats, it was a different kind of tension with the camera. It was about his body, and the tension between capturing something that is erotic but also hypermasculine. It’s not just prettiness and visual pleasure. There’s a tension that could erupt in violence. You feel that in his body from the opening shots. It [plays] with our ideas of pornographic imagery, of the dialogue around visual pleasure. I think that the mainstream is now more attuned to that dialogue. People like Jill Soloway have taken that conversation and brought it into the mainstream. And Never Rarely Sometimes Always [has] really an intimate camera. It very rarely has this subjective gaze, except with the boy in the end.
Filmmaker: How did you shoot in Port Authority on a tight timeline and budget?
Hittman: Port Authority was an immense challenge. I didn’t know it when I wrote it as a central location in the script. It’s very expensive. I think it costs close to $100,000 a day to shoot there—I don’t remember. And because it’s a public space and there’s a police station there, you could only shoot from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. The hours were so compressed and limited. I knew I was kind of fucked when we found all this out—my desire was to capture this busy terminal that’s full of life. It’s really their only experience of the city. There are stores and shopping, and it becomes this microcosm for the city, for the characters. I had to really scale back my vision. Also, Talia is a minor and couldn’t shoot past 1 a.m. There was no bigger crisis during the production. We wrote a letter to the state and got permission to shoot longer hours with her. Talia’s mother is an incredible superwoman. She’s a physician and a single mother of three, and she wrote a letter as a doctor and as a mother begging SAG to give us permission to shoot [longer], saying that she knows what is best. We were shooting on the weekends, also. Talia goes to a professional children’s school, so they’re flexible with working around children who have careers. But it was a nightmare.
Filmmaker: The long-take centerpiece that gives the movie its title is probably one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Sidney goes through quite a journey, written on her face. How did you get that kind of performance and emotional commitment out of her?
Hittman: [During] casting, you go through lists of actors agencies submit. It’s like seeing different versions of the movie. How I wanted to approach the casting for this pivotal scene was something I went back and forth [with] in my head. While I was researching, I went to all these clinics, sat with different counselors, some at Planned Parenthood and others at a clinic in Queens called Choices. I asked some questions like, “What would happen if I was a minor, and I stepped into your office? What would your concerns be? What would you ask me? How would you deal with someone minor from out of state?” I tried to just really understand the experience from the point of view of a counselor. And I met a really incredible counselor named Kelly Chapman at a clinic in Queens.
And [during] the casting process, I was like, “I think I’m just going to cast Kelly.” And everybody looked at me because I put everybody through hell thinking of every possible actor to play this role. Everybody had to say yes because I had all approval over the casting of the movie. And I really spent a lot of time with Kelly workshopping the scene on the page. I couldn’t have gotten that performance from Sidney with an actor playing the social worker. I got it because of Kelly, because she’s a social worker who is sitting in the room with a young, vulnerable woman. She’s had versions of that conversation a hundred times a day, in the job that she does.
Filmmaker: Was it a challenge to access the clinics, assuming they were real clinics?
Hittman: Those are real clinics we shot in. There’s a really incredible woman who works at Planned Parenthood called Caren Spruch, their arts [and entertainment] engagement person. And she really advocated for us to shoot at Planned Parenthood, at every facility that I wanted to shoot at, and was a tremendous supporter of the movie.
Filmmaker: There’s a big #MeToo and sexual assault dimension to this story. It comes out in various places, including this one pivotal scene that we just talked about. But who the predator is is unknown. It felt like you wanted to leave the bad man out of the picture and focus on her experience of the trauma.
Hittman: I made a choice to leave it a mystery for the audience and to explore the tension between her and a lot of men in the world. It was a choice. It was more about the impact and how isolated she is in dealing with it because I think that reflects the truth of many experiences. And there’s no going backwards to accuse or to confront. You’re only left with the isolation and the impact.
Filmmaker: That isolation, that impact, that damage will be seen by people during such a crucial time in our country. Watching this movie, I was inevitably thinking about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. I thought, “Well, that was oppressive Ceaușescu-era Romania, but this is today in the United States. And that’s kind of messed up.”
Hittman: I know. We’re here. Well, that’s what I thought about because I really loved that movie. [But] I have questions about that movie, especially with the treatment of the pregnant character, who is depicted as being very careless and stupid and helpless. I feel that the film judges her. I really wanted to explore how hard it is to get a legal abortion, not an illegal abortion, and really look at it from a female perspective. It’s a reversal. [That movie] is a masterpiece, and it left me wondering if it was morally ambiguous. I mean, he’s a genius. I’ll never make a movie as expertly executed as that.
Filmmaker: I think that you already have. Is there anything you’re working on next or are you not even in that zone yet?
Hittman: I have something simmering inside my head.