Eliza Hittman interview

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the third feature film from writer/director Eliza Hittman, was released in theaters on Friday, March 13 – one of the unluckiest release dates in the history of Hollywood. Theaters began shutting down due to the coronavirus crisis, cutting short the film’s box office prospects and its ability to continue riding the wave of acclaim that began cresting when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Thankfully, after a short break, Focus Features has decided to make the movie available on VOD beginning today, and this morning I caught up with Hittman on the phone to talk about her film’s unusual release, how she captured this movie’s particular texture, and more.

Eliza Hittman Interview

I was reading an interview with a couple of your producers about the making of this movie, and Barry Jenkins was talking about how he can really feel the texture in your work. How did you go about capturing the texture you were looking for in this movie?

You know, I think for me, it all happens on a script level. Texture and details. When I start writing a script, I know sort of what the story is and you begin to write scenes and there’s a risk sometimes of things becoming too much about just people talking. And that’s not at all what I’m interested in. So I think that I try to go back and do multiple drafts of the script that really emphasize points of view and the points of view of the main character and details and texture. Because ultimately, I’m not making a dialogue-driven work, and it’s about immersing the audience in the subjective experience of a human being.

Movies like this – relatively small, focused character dramas about tough subject matter – do not get made as often as they used to. So at the risk of asking a stupid question: how did you get this made?

Well, I had a wonderful team of people who were incredibly dedicated to trying to get it made, I will say. It started with Rose Garnett, who’s the head of BBC Films. She is an incredibly trusting figurehead and producer, and she met with me after [Hittman’s 2017 film] Beach Rats and said, “What do you want to do next?” And I said, “This is what I’m thinking.” And she said, “OK, great,” and she immediately commissioned me to write it, which is the first time in my life that’s actually happened. Then I got to bring on Pastel, and Adele Romanski and Sara Murphy. Part of why I was so excited about working with them wasn’t just because we had been friends for a while, but they also said off the bat, “This is how you should make this movie. We want to secure a budget that’s bigger than you’ve worked on before, and we believe we can do it.” And they raised the bar. There’s a lot of people, I think, who would have made a very, very small version of this movie for under a million dollars, but they were raising the bar. It took a long time and we eventually found all the right partners, but it’s really because of their persistence.

I read that there were a lot of different companies involved before you even started production – BBC, Pastel, Focus, Cinereach, etc. How do you maintain your personal voice and your vision as a filmmaker among all of those additional voices?

I think the biggest challenge was casting the movie, and that’s where I took the most risk. Obviously I put the entire movie on the shoulders of a young woman who had never acted before. I think that, had I been in different hands – had I not been working with BBC, had I not been working with Pastel – I could have felt easily pushed in a more conventional direction. But making a discovery and casting somebody who I believed in and believed would bring the most depth and intimacy to the role was really important.

I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but I want to talk to you about the film’s release for just a second. While acknowledging that there are more pressing concerns in the world right now than a movie coming out, do you feel slightly cheated by fate because of the timing of the coronavirus and how your movie was pushed to a VOD release?

(long pause) Sure. But I’ve made peace with it.

Oh, good. I was just curious what your mindset was.

I feel really fortunate that the movie premiered at Sundance, and that we received a special jury prize and then we had an incredible experience at Berlin, where it was my first big European competition and we won the Silver Bear. So there’s so much good energy around the movie. Obviously there’s a lot of films who have more unknowable futures.

This film seems to be not only about a girl trying to get an abortion, but also about how young women have to put up with so much garbage just to exist in the world. In addition to the never-ending societal pressures being put on women every day, in many areas of the world, they can’t even get the care they need to make decisions about their own lives. What kinds of conversations do you hope to inspire with this story?

I hope the film inspires a lot of conversations with regard to what you’re talking about. I think that it’s important for men – young men, older men – to understand the sort of pervasive experience of walking through the world with pervasive male attention. And how that type of behavior can easily cross a line.

I thought that aspect of the movie was exceptionally well done. Ratings probably aren’t quite as much of a barrier for entry on VOD, but are you pleased with the movie’s PG-13 rating? It feels like there have been several films released over the past few years that should have gotten that rating but were kicked up to an R for questionable reasons.

Yeah, initially I didn’t really know that much about the MPAA rating system and I just assumed the film would be rated R because of the content and because it deals with abortion. I assumed there would be this conservative approach to rating the film because we see a girl get an abortion. But when they watched the movie, they came back and initially the rating was R, and I was like, “OK, that’s what I thought.” Then they said, “But if you take out two F-bombs, you can have a PG-13 rating.” So it was actually really a win for the movie that we were able to do quick dialogue edits and be able to widen the audience for the film so much. I really hope young women are able to watch it on VOD.

When you’re writing, are you able to write from a place of freedom in terms of throwing caution to the wind and telling whatever story you want to tell, or does the director side of you sneak in and rein you in during the writing process?

[Hittman is interrupted by her young child, resolves the situation, then returns to the interview.] Yeah, this is an ambitious script. Usually the work that I make is so localized and I’m really shooting in areas that I can take the subway to in ten minutes, like Beach Rats. This was a much more sprawling, ambitious script that needed to be shot in two states. So it was more ambitious and I allowed myself the room to dream bigger, I would say.

What do you think about the future of independent cinema? I realize that’s kind of a big question, but is that something you’re talking about with filmmaker friends and colleagues right now?

Right now, no. I think everybody’s just trying to get through the days and stay heathy.

Can you tell me a little bit about finding Sidney Flanigan. You mentioned how important that casting was.

It’s a very random story, but I was working on another film I was producing called Buffalo Juggalos, and I met Sidney in the bowels of western New York. She was 13 at the time, and we ended up following her on Facebook because we were casting this other movie, and we ended up just watching her grow up on Facebook. She posts a lot of videos of her playing cover songs of punk music, and we were just charmed by her videos and her music and thought that they were very authentically teenaged. She was performing, so obviously I felt she was a performer in some ways and those skills would translate to acting. But those little videos that she made had a lot of pain and angst and hope, and I didn’t want the character to be a victim. I just felt like it takes a certain kind of young woman to take this journey.

Did you approach her out of the blue with this or did she audition for it?

Totally out of the blue.

What was her reaction?

She thought it was bizarre. But she was aware of the other movie that we’d made, so she knew it was legitimate.

Did you have to talk her into it?

Yeah, my partner who edited the movie, he talked her into it. She was like, “I’m really busy, I’m playing in a band, I’m working in a supermarket.” And he was like “Sidney, all of those things are going to be there in a month when you finish shooting the movie.” She was reluctant. I don’t think she really ever thought about acting before, what that meant. But once she read the script and once we began Skyping about the project, I knew she would do it. [laughs]

Do you have anything lined up or that you’re thinking about making next?

Nope. At the moment we’re just trying to survive the pandemic and I’m home with a five-year-old and a puppy. Just trying to take it day by day.

***

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on VOD now.

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