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Sculpting Realism: Eliza Hittman Discusses "Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

The American director talks about her prizewinning drama of a teenager traveling to New York to seek an abortion.
Aaron E. Hunt
Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always has and will continue to be called “an abortion film” as if it were high concept and merely academic. It does find shape in the contents of its “issue,” the cumbersome process its 17-year old-protagonist Autumn sustains to get an abortion without her parents’ consent. But Hittman has concentrated these details to integrate them into the stylization of her film. Information doesn't just facilitate a procedure that might feel daunting to young viewers, it also steers Autumn’s orbit and alludes to the film’s grander scope and emotional intentions. The accents of its naturalismalso allude to more than just a sense of realistic spontaneity.It’s not enough for Hittman to know the implications of the film’s minutiae. But by placing them in the context of Autumn’s “fragile” reality, she makes those allusions felt because the small things feel bigger in a sensitive space where nothing is parsed and everything is internalized.
Autumn has no one to confide in, so she sings. Her father resents himself and so her. The boys at school taunt her. There are no decent male outliers, so men dissolve into atmosphere and their harsher invasions are shot in close-ups just off-speed from its regular framerate. There are women who help her. The handheld camera will calm itself to a dolly and track to reveal them connected by their hands. Her world wavers from stylized default to bouts of heightened sensitivity. When she feels a wave of nausea at work, Hittman fabricates an awful grinding sound off screen and amplifies the grocery store customers’ clamor. The effect is felt, but subtle enough that its construction hides behind the film’s naturalistic photography, non-professional actors, and location. Hittman harnesses documentary adjacent styles, filming her stars Sidney Flanigan (Autumn) and Talia Ryder (Skylar, her cousin) in live spaces with non-actors and framing scenes in such a way that Sidney is often responding to them real time as she would herself. Some viewers may find Never Rarely Sometimes Always seeming realism at odds with its stylized slant towards men, but that Autumn’s perception might bow and lean does not invalidate the impact of the men in her life.
Before the film’s theatrical release, Eliza Hittman spoke to us about finding the equilibrium between naturalism and realism in her writing process, production apparatus, and her work with actors and non-professional actors. 

NOTEBOOK: There’s maybe an expectation that naturalistic films portray a character’s reality in a flat affect, not something that’s perceived in peaks and valleys. Not everyone will necessarily notice what you’re doing to heighten it here, but they’ll feel it. The harsh grinding sound we hear off-screen when Autumn feels nauseous at work pushes her malaise. Are the heightened elements always shaped from things captured on location? Or are you bringing some things in, and do you have any rules about that?
ELIZA HITTMAN: I think it’s a little bit of both. We’re working mostly from a diegetic space, but we kept asking ourselves if we could make it more subjective or psychological. It’s a very fragile film, I think. It’s a subtle story and the performance is so internal that it’s hard to weigh it down too much with sound or score. It’s a delicate process, I would say.
NOTEBOOK: Was there anything you pushed that you had to reel back?
HITTMAN: I think it was interesting, when we got to New York, to figure out how much we should sort of elevate the sound of the city around them. There’s not too many wide shots, so we’re feeling the city very much through the environmental sound. But we didn’t want to make it feel too dangerous there, so it was definitely a balance.
NOTEBOOK: The day to day details really sell your naturalism, like when Autumn’s heavy sleeve catches on the corner of the sign in sheet at the local crisis pregnancy center. Aseptic studio sets seem impervious to these kinds of random details and happy accidents. Do you create an intimate space that opens itself to them? Or are they even accidents?
HITTMAN: No, I don’t think anything is accidental in the film. The only thing that’s accidental, I’ll tell you, to be honest, is the scale of the protest that they encounter in front of Planned Parenthood. We knew before that there was a monthly peaceful protest and we scouted it the month before we shot and there were just a few people there.  Then when we showed up there was a massive crowd, so that was really the only unexpected thing. We kind of adapted and worked with the chaos and the energy that day. The details were all really crafted in the script. A lot of the times when I write the first draft I’m just putting down the story. Then like a sculptor I’m going through the script and trying to sculpt in more point of view and more details.
NOTEBOOK: This reminds me of when Haskell Wexler shot his actors amidst a real protest in Medium Cool. Were there other instances of you placing the production in a live setting? What’s the effect of doing so? And are you “stealing” shots in New York and how much of that can you really do with this budget range, obligations to SAG, et cetera? How did you maneuver things like that?
HITTMAN: There aren’t many other instances in the film where something like that really happened. We were very good about using background in places because that’s the expectation in some of these spaces. Like in Port Authority, those are all hired, paid, SAG Backgrounds. We shot at Port Authority from 12am-4am, so there were real logistical challenges to shooting that and we were there after hours. With regards to the subway, that stuff was all largely stolen. But it’s a tight lens and we’re not seeing everybody. But actually the moment when it’s the night montage and there’s the couple kissing and there’s a masturbator, those were all background. So it’s a mix, I guess, of it being real world and using background where necessary and essential. [Regarding stolen shots] we didn’t get that stuff approved. We’re just not that big of a movie to be able to film whole streets in New York and populate them with background.
NOTEBOOK: Some directors surprise their actors by throwing surprises into the scene for the actors to respond to. Would that be a betrayal to the trust and openness of your approach? Is it more about giving Sidney and Talia something real to work with?
HITTMAN: I don’t believe in shocking actors. I think that’s sort of unethical. My job is to make them comfortable and not give them curve balls. It’s also hiring people I trust to give me the depth and emotional performances that I need on screen.
NOTEBOOK: The way you make every commonplace detail symbolic and functional to the plot, character, and ideas, makes quotidian actions feel epic. When Autumn pierces her nose it has massive implications, it’s a big story beat for a story this fragile.
HITTMAN: I think the nose ring specifically was complicated for me. I don’t know, she’s reclaiming her body after finding out that she’s pregnant. But it also shows so much about how she feels about herself, and it alludes to something sexually violent. So, yes, it’s a small act, but it resonates and speaks to something larger.
NOTEBOOK: On one hand, this film is talked about as being an informative/educational dialectic on abortion. But like the audio/visual details, the information has been shaped emotionally and always communicates its thematic connotations. Can you talk about how you took raw research and shaped it into something that fit the stylization of the film?
HITTMAN: You know, I was very worried that the film would end up being too informational and didactic. It was a fear I carried with me through the writing process. I knew and Planned Parenthood knew that I wasn’t making a documentary and that I wasn’t going to show—and didn’t have time to show—everything in the process that a woman would go through. So I just tried to explore what was essential to the story I was telling, if that makes sense. Really exploring it subjectively was key. Like, for example, there’s not a lot of medical information in the second part of the procedure that she undergoes, it’s all about the anticipation she feels before she goes under.
I think the story is a character study and it’s not a documentary. The movie is a lot of things for me; it’s also a coming of age film, a road movie, a procedural drama, and a story of female friendship and sisterhood during an emotional crisis.
NOTEBOOK: I love the scene where Autumn tells Skylar to “fuck off” near the end of their trip, but after a short walk to the restroom, not once acknowledging it, they’re back to normal and doing each other’s makeup that quickly—which is something people experience with their close friends all the time but probably never see on screen.
HITTMAN: I think it was important to show that. I wanted there to be some friction between them, but I didn’t want it to be artificial. It’s not so easy to take this long of a trip with someone and for the challenges of it to not somehow put a wedge in the relationship. 
NOTEBOOK: There’s a lateral move on a Steadicam in Autumn’s first sonogram that introduces a more subjective head space and sets itself apart from the default language. And then there are a couple more of those moves sprinkled throughout the rest of the film.
HITTMAN: We used a Steadicam in that first sonogram scene to show her resistance to looking at the fetus. It was sort of an unconventional choice to bring a Steadicam into a small exam room. You don’t usually think of using a Steadicam for a small space. And then we used the Steadicam again in the final part of the procedure where it roams over all of the characters standing around her at the table until the pivotal moment when they ask her what procedure she’s there to have. And we used a dolly in the first part of the procedure that tracks along her as they put in the laminaria.
NOTEBOOK: In the climactic scene where Autumn is asked a series of questions before her operation, it feels like Sidney is reacting to these questions for the first time. How did you arrange the scene for her?
HITTMAN: It was the only scene that I rehearsed multiple times. And, just for you to know, the woman that she acts with in the scene is actually a counselor. So I spent a lot of time developing the scene with the counselor and Planned Parenthood to really honor the work that counselors do, but then aligned the scene to the style of the script, because [the film’s] obviously not a documentary. So a lot of work went into that scene on the page and then to prepare Sidney for it—one thing I suggested she do was to just answer as herself for many of the questions. So when [the counselor] asks, “Is there a history of heart disease in your family?” she’s really thinking about her own family. It deepens the scene. I think Sidney is a very good actor and she knows acting is about making a gift of yourself. She’s acting but drawing from a very personal space.
NOTEBOOK: In Beach Rats your one unmotivated formal element was the front facing light behind the camera that shone bright on its characters faces at night. I didn’t notice any kind of rule breaking component like that in Never Rarely...
HITTMAN: We actually used that same handheld unmotivated light because it’s an economic and efficient way to light at night without lighting huge areas. We’re just lighting the face. So we did actually use it quite a bit. I think because we’re in the city [where there’s more available light at night] it’s not as noticeable as at the beach at night where it popped. Here it’s a little more frontal and fill.
NOTEBOOK: When I talked to cinematographer Hélène Louvart about Beach Rats she said you guys shot listed and prepped as a blueprint to figure out more what you did not want to do during production rather than what you would and wanted to.
HITTMAN: I would say the process here was similar to Beach Rats, in that we came up with a sort of loose shot list that set a groundwork for the work we do [on set]. From that we change, add, and edit, and because Hélène is such an incredible DP, she’s so in tune with the emotions of the story, there were a lot of spaces where I gave her free range to operate as if it were a documentary.
She had a special rig that she had built, and a lot of the film was shot on her personal rig that is a little hard to describe and she’ll have to tell you more about it. 
NOTEBOOK: I’ve encountered men that reject Autumn’s reality passionately, even angrily. Chiefly, they reject the reality of the men that surround her. Have you witnessed that reaction yourself and what do you make of it?
HITTMAN: I mean, Harvey Weinstein is rejecting the reality of his circumstances and thinks that women have misinterpreted him. So, they can join that club as far as I’m concerned. The club of delusional men who think their behavior doesn’t cross a line.

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