Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole


The WGAE Women’s Salon presents a series of four live recordings of OnWriting in honor of Women’s History Month. In each episode, we’re speaking with women screenwriters whose latest projects center on women’s stories.

For the fourth, and final, installment in the series, Geri speaks with Eliza Hittman, the writer and director of the acclaimed 2020 film NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.

Eliza Hittman is an award-winning writer and director from Brooklyn, NY. She is the writer and director of the 2013 drama IT FELT LIKE LOVE and the 2017 drama BEACH RATS, the latter of which earned her the 2017 Director Award at Sundance Film Festival. She is also the recipient of the Emerging Artist Award from Lincoln Center and is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow.

Her latest project is the drama film NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS. The film follows Autumn, a 17-year-old who, after learning that she’s pregnant but unable to get an abortion without her parents’ consent in her native Pennsylvania, embarks on a trip to New York City with her cousin Skylar in order to get an abortion there.

The film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award for Neo-Realism. It also won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently available to stream on HBO Max.

Listen here:

Seasons 7 and 8 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country.

OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East.  Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. In each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes, and so much more.

Geri Cole: Hello. I’m Geri Cole and welcome to a live taping of On Writing for Women’s History Month. In these special episodes, we will be talking with women writers telling women stories. Today’s episode is being presented by the WGAE’s Women’s Salon and our guest is Eliza Hittman, writer and director of one of the best films of 2020, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, currently streaming on HBO Max. The film follows two teenagers in rural Pennsylvania who travel to New York City to get an abortion. It premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award for neo-realism. It also won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. Hittman is also the writer-director of the 2017 feature film, Beach Rats, and 2013’s It Felt Like Love, both of which had their premieres at the Sundance Film Festival. Please welcome Eliza Hittman. Thank you for taking time to talk with us today.

Eliza Hittman: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Geri Cole: Thank you for making this film. Literally, the first thing that I wrote in all caps was, “GIVE ALL THE MONEY TO PLANNED PARENTHOOD.” I finished watching the film, I went to Planned Parenthood, and set up a monthly donation and was like, “How have I not done this before?” So, thank you for doing this film.

Eliza Hittman: Thank you. Thank you. I got a lot of nice emails from people after they watched the movie that they made donations in my name, so that was a real surprise, kind of reward, that came out of the film is that it inspired people to donate.

Geri Cole: Yeah, absolutely. So, I guess I do want to get into the specifics of the film, but first of all, how you doing? How you holding up? Congratulations on all the recognition this film has received, also.

Eliza Hittman: Thank you. Thank you. I’m okay. I mean, in spite of everything. Lucky to be working and busy. Just trying to stay focused, which is challenging, obviously, but working on it.

Geri Cole: This story. What drew you to these characters in particular and made you want to tell this story? Where did the idea come from?

Eliza Hittman: I first had the idea for the film a long time ago. I was just reading a newspaper and there was an article that really resonated with me about a woman in Ireland who died because she was denied a life-saving abortion. From that story… Her name is Savita Halappanavar and, from that story, I started reading about what is insensitively known as abortion tourism. This horrendous journey that people take all of the world when they’re denied access where they live. That can be from country to country, from rural areas to urban areas. One of the articles I found was from New York Magazine. It was specifically about New York City and how it always had this reputation of being the abortion capital of the United States. The article was talking about how expensive it is to get to New York and how a lot of people come in for care and end up sleeping on the streets. That image haunted me. I asked myself. Who is that person? Where are they coming from? And how stressful and horrible to put the burden of this journey on a person in need.

Eliza Hittman: That was the beginning of the movie for me. I went down a lot of different rabbit holes, doing all kinds of research and field work. Because the body of work that I had made before Never Rarely was… I made two features that explored themes around youth and identity… I decided to explore this film through the perspective of a minor. Because we have 36 states across America that will not let a minor get an abortion without the consent of their parents or going to a judge. For me, it opens up a lot of questions about your body and when is your body your own and who gets to tell you what to do with your body? If you’re 17 and someone tells you you don’t own your body, it’s like a harsh way to begin adulthood.

Geri Cole: After watching the film, it made me think of folks that I would see holding signs where it’s like, “Need $34 for a bus ticket,” which I think, in my jaded New Yorker self, always just assumed was bullshit, but I feel like now have… Maybe they do need $34 for a bus ticket.

Eliza Hittman: I thought about putting that in the movie at some point, I’m sure.

Geri Cole: You said you did a lot of research. Can we talk a little bit about that? About the pre-production that you did for the film?

Eliza Hittman: I guess my… My father is a retired anthropologist and I grew up doing all this field work with him as a child. He works specifically with a reservation in northern Nevada and I spent a lot of my childhood just on a reservation, watching my father document a language and conduct all these interviews and try and preserve this culture that’s fading. There’s something about that experience that has really had an impact on how I write. I really need to be in the world and taking in as much as I can and interviewing people. For me, the development of the film was doing that. I’m not somebody who loves to sit at a computer. For me, I feel a lot of pressure to sit and stare at a computer. It causes a lot of stress to just be looking into a blank white page.

Eliza Hittman: So, I did a lot of field work, which meant that I toured every facility… every Planned Parenthood facility… in New York City. I met with social workers and providers. I just tried to ask as many questions as I could about their work. It took some trust to get in the door, but I sat with a social worker and I said, “Tell me what it’s like to meet with minors. What are you concerned about? What kind of circumstances have you encountered with people traveling from out of state? Tell me how it would work. Walk me through the procedure. Walk me through the intake.” And then I did that in Pennsylvania. I went to pregnancy care centers. The place that’s represented in the beginning of the film that she first goes to in her town. I took pregnancy tests and I had counseling sessions. I rode the bus to Port Authority from rural Pennsylvania. I walked through the city from the point of view of the character.

Eliza Hittman: I think that was… It’s sad. I can’t do that right now in COVID. I’m working on a new script and I’m just sitting at the computer. I really miss and long for that firsthand experience. And then I think the writing process for me is coming home and just thinking about all of that through the point of view of the character. Because we’re seeing and going through it and walking in her shoes. What would that be like from a 17 year old’s point of view? Knowing this is the most terrifying experience of her life.

Geri Cole: Or one of them, at the very least.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, one of them.

Geri Cole: Wow. That’s very interesting. I really want to hear more about your dad and this reservation because that sounds fascinating, but I guess that will be for another time. I’m really intrigued by the field work. This idea of immersing yourself in the world and then taking little notes, I suppose, as you…

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. Taking notes. Recording where people will let me record. And then I make a lot of visual sketches on my iPhone, which I think is your most important tool at the moment as a filmmaker. And to document the journey just on my iPhone. I have a whole library full of videos that I just took on the bus and of the town. Trying to build the world that you see on screen.

Geri Cole: Because, yes, you have written and directed all of your films, but also written and directed on other things. But your three features. Do you feel like you’re both a writer and director at all times, essentially?

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. Not in the TV space, obviously, with those other experiences. But yeah, I’m the writer and director.

Geri Cole: And that’s how it works in your head, where it’s like you’re taking the video and-

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. Yeah. I’m always thinking about the energy and the editing and what would make an interesting cut and how to create difference. Thinking about the rhythm of the film in a way. Are there too many subway shots? Or trips. We want to go from something that’s stagnant to something with energy. Thinking about-

Geri Cole: As you write.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, as I write. Thinking about the film as in directing… Directing it on the page, essentially. But I don’t write and I would never write camera direction on the page. Because, for me, a screenplay should just read very… like an elegant story. An audience who reads it should just be able to lift it off the page quickly and not be bumped against some convoluted camera movement. Slow motion this or dolly in on that. I find that language interferes with telling a really good story.

Geri Cole: I feel like you’ve actually already answered my next question, which was this film felt like a documentary and how did you achieve that? But it sounds like it was through all this field work.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. Because there’s actually nothing in the camera work that we would associate with documentary filmmaking. There’s no interviews. There’s almost nothing that’s handheld. It’s really important for me, actually, to erase the presence of the camera person. That it’s really… Everything is motivated by character. So, yeah. I think that this sort of documentary realism is actually just in the credibility and the emotional credibility of the performances and not in the camera work. Because, actually, we’re fighting against that idea the whole time. It’s not just a shaky camera. You don’t feel somebody moving or walking with… The camera tries to be invisible.

Geri Cole: Actually, let’s jump to talk quickly about those performances. Because I read that Sidney Flanagan… This was her first-

Eliza Hittman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geri Cole: … time acting, which feels crazy. Yeah, that feels crazy. Also, Talia Ryder, who plays Skylar. What was it like directing these two young actors who… I mean, again, their performances were incredible. They were so natural. Again, it felt like I was watching a documentary.

Eliza Hittman: Thank you. Yeah, Sidney Flanagan I met when she was 14. She was actually 20 when we shot the movie. She’s a little bit older than the character. There’s no way I could’ve shot the movie with a minor. It was too hard with SAG. But I met her when she was 14. I was working on a nonfiction film and we ended up following each other on Facebook. I always used her… She’s from western New York. She’s from South Buffalo, which is a bit of a blue collar area of western New York. On Facebook, she posted a lot of things that were very vulnerable. Like, of herself playing music and these emotional posts that felt really authentically teenaged. I always thought of her when I was writing as the character. Like, it’s someone like Sidney.

Eliza Hittman: And then when we were casting the movie, I was like, wait a minute. We have to ask Sidney to audition. I don’t know if she’ll ever do this, but let’s just ask this girl I met like 10 years ago who doesn’t remember me at all. And she auditioned. I’ll say it. She’s a first-time actor, but I don’t train actors. That’s not what I do. I just discover talent and she was always good. She was always so, so sincere. It was almost impossible to cast the rest of the movie because her performance was so sincere that if anybody else was acting too much, slightly, it was like they felt like they were in another movie. It shattered the tone of the film.

Eliza Hittman: So, yeah. I cast Sidney. And Talia Ryder had done Broadway. She was a Broadway kid, but coincidentally, was from also western New York. From Buffalo. There was something about her when I met her where I felt like she was still not from New York. There was still an innocence. Still a small town-ness to her. Which is hard to find in 18 year old, 16 year old, actresses in New York and LA. Neither of them in the movie feels like somebody who’s lived in New York. And that was really important. They had to have a lightness and a darkness. A levity and a sense of inner crisis. They just both captured that complementary yet conflicting energy that I needed to drive the film. So, I don’t know. I don’t train actors, I’ll say. I just love discovering the right people. They were always good.

Geri Cole: This film does an incredible job also of showing what it feels like to be a young woman. There were several moments where I was like, oh. That feels so familiar to me. It wasn’t really anything specific. It was like a moment of how they’re dealing with something and it’s like, oh, I didn’t know that I remembered that. Like of either feeling that anxious or that powerless. Were there any specific moments that you wanted to highlight to show, as you were writing this, this is is what it’s like to be a young woman? One of the things in particular that I… was this sort of street and/or work harassment felt very, like, oh right. I remember that. It was just like a thing… It was just like a thing that was allowed. That feels crazy.

Eliza Hittman: I think even when we think about a conventional screenplay, we always… and particularly a hero’s journey… we think about there needing to be an antagonist. And I didn’t want that character. Nobody was trying to stop her. There wasn’t one character who was trying to stop her from getting an abortion because that felt like a trope. But I kind of asked myself as a writer, if you’re not going to have the conflict that comes from having an antagonist, is there a way to just show how the environment creates conflict around these young women all the time? And that’s what I did. I was like, I’m going to try this. In every environment that they’re in, there’s some sort of microaggression, whatever you want to call it, hostile, male character. I was trying to punctuate it in a way that was subjective but also playful. Because I think when you’re younger, you’re learning how to build a defense against those energies. So, yeah. I tried to punctuate all these small moments. Like the hand kissing. The guy hitting on her relentlessly at a checkout counter. The kid on the bus. The masturbator. Someone, in the script notes, was like, “I know this really happens, but do we have to see it?” And it’s like, yes! Yes, it really happens! If we hide these things from audiences, nothing will change.

Geri Cole: Wow. Also, wow, but do we have to see it? Oh, is it too much for you?

Eliza Hittman: Is it too much for you? Because it happened to me like 100 times as a teenager in New York. Someone goes like this, “Psst, psst, psst,” walking down the street and you look in a car and someone has their penis out. Or in a park. I’ve gotten trapped on a subway with a masturbator. There’s nothing more disempowering than those experiences. Why should we omit them from cinema? Because I’m afraid of an audience calling me a misandrist or something? Misandrist. Am I pronouncing that right? A man-hater.

Geri Cole: Actually, can we talk a little about the character of Jasper? I was like, is he a good guy or a bad guy? It’s like, yeah, he was-

Eliza Hittman: That’s what I want. People to ask that question. I didn’t answer it.

Geri Cole: I mean, initially, it was like, ugh. Of course. And then when I heard him sing, I was like, oh, maybe he’s a good guy. Beautiful voice. But yeah. Ultimately, it felt like… Again, it felt so familiar, where it was like, oh, I remember that… It’s like, I wasn’t really into that guy, but he just kept pestering me and so… and it was at that time where I didn’t know I could say no. Kiss or do whatever. It felt like, oh right. Maybe he wasn’t necessarily a bad guy but… Yeah.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. The idea for that character come from one of my little bus trips to Pennsylvania. This kid got on with big earphones and it was the middle of the winter and he was wearing a jean jacket. I secretly made a little video of him. It was like choose your own adventure in the writing. I was like, well, what happens if he talks to them? Yeah, it was really… I want the audience to decide. Because, obviously, he’s relentless, but he think he’s charming. But he doesn’t actually take no for an answer. Just because he’s charming doesn’t make his behavior acceptable. It’s, in a way, a little tragedy that’s written in subtly to Talia’s character’s arc, Skylar, that she uses her attractiveness in this moment to get the money that they need to get home. It’s kind of tragic.

Geri Cole: It is a tragic little story that she’s understanding in that moment-

Eliza Hittman: That she does have a power in a way. I don’t know. It’s more about asking questions. In another person’s version of this movie, he would’ve been a hero.

Geri Cole: Because he’s the one who ended up helping them get the bus tickets home.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. But I think as a writer, I’m always mining gray zones and the in between and the complexity of that behavior. He’s neither good nor bad. Obviously, he doesn’t rape her. He’s not cruel. But he’s relentless and he doesn’t take no for an answer. For me, it’s more interesting to have the audience ask questions, like you did, than to paint him one way or the other. That’s the gray zone.

Geri Cole: I’d like to talk a little bit about two things. One about Skylar and Autumn’s relationship and then also about Autumn’s emotional journey. But let’s start with Skylar and Autumn’s relationship because it also felt like such a beautiful and natural thing. Yeah. That’s not really a question. It just felt like such a beautiful and natural thing. But I guess what were your… Did you have an inspiration for that relationship? Was there something you were necessarily trying to achieve?

Eliza Hittman: I think what I was trying to achieve comes from a lot of places. One, I felt like the person who would go with her on this trip would be the least judgmental person and I like the idea, in this kind of small town, that she would have a cousin who she was close to and wasn’t like an archetypal best friend. I think for me as a writer, I’m not really… Even though the film feels realistic, I don’t really write realistic dialogue. It’s very pared down and, I would say, stylistic. They only say what’s essential. There’s almost no spoken exposition. I don’t try and capture the way teenagers really talk. Like, I can’t do that. I’m not that writer.

Eliza Hittman: So, it’s very sparse, the dialogue, but I think that there’s another way to write. Because I know that’s not what I do. It’s not a strength. I think that I’m writing thought in a way. I’m charting this unspoken dialogue that they’re having throughout the narrative and making sure that that’s written through the script. It’s another way of writing. Not dialogue, but unspoken thought and communication. I think that’s palpable on screen and I think that Talia’s dance training, in a way, kind of helped that. Because she has this sense of movement and gesture in a small way on screen that became very… I don’t know… fluid and connected to the way we moved the camera. The camera’s kind of always moving back and forth between the two of them as they communicate things to each other in an unspoken, almost telepathic way.

Geri Cole: But you get it. But you do get all of it.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, you get what they’re thinking in all these moments. They never really have to say all those things that I never want to hear in a movie.

Geri Cole: Also, Autumn’s journey. I feel like… Again, Sidney did an incredible job. Because I felt like the character started in this very shut down way, but then towards the end and that diner scene, you see a little bit of the door crack and it was like… It made me feel so happy. So, yeah. I guess I just want to talk a little bit about writing that character and if there was a specific… I mean, I guess it was based on Sidney in some ways.

Eliza Hittman: Well, no. The character isn’t based on Sidney. Just the type of girl I was thinking about. Somebody who had a lot of roughness, but was vulnerable. That there’s a defensiveness, but a fragility. She needed to have both. You needed to believe that she could take that journey. Because if she was too fragile, we wouldn’t believe she could do it. I think that Sidney has the strength and she has a real fragility. The arc of the character, for me, was always simple, in a way. It’s like this girl who’s on this journey to reclaim her body. There’s, like I said, these kind of gray zones. The liminal spaces that I’m exploring. For me, she… A lot of the characters I write are kind of inarticulate, but that’s because they’re forced to be and they’re silenced. She doesn’t know how to talk about wanting or needing an abortion because it’s so stigmatized. There’s so much stigma around it, so she can never say it.

Geri Cole: And then when they make her say it in that moment in the operating room, which is like… Yes, of course, they make you say that so that you… That’s procedure.

Eliza Hittman: It’s the first time she says it in the whole film. It was an important moment. I’m impressed and grateful that you remember it. Because it’s the first time-

Geri Cole: It hit so hard.

Eliza Hittman: … she has permission to say it. So, I was playing a lot with this character who’s silenced around all these issues. Because they are taboo and that is so much of our country still. To talk about sex. To talk about pregnancy. To talk about abortion. We have a long way to go before we’re allowed to talk about those things all over this country. After Sundance, I met with a group of teenagers who work for Planned Parenthood and do teen education. In Utah, there is no sex education. Whatsoever. In the whole state. So, they have to talk about healthy relationships, but secretly, they all pass out condoms. That’s the reality of what a lot of this country looks like. And her arc… The bakery scene. It’s the only scene where there’s a little bit of improvisation around the sweets that they order in the Chinese bakery. I wanted you to feel like her… She was becoming her normal self again. Because she’s… The weight of everything is slowly lifting.

Geri Cole: Actually, we don’t have to talk about this, but I’m going to ask this question. Because this is a film about abortion, have you received a lot of… or any negative… I read somewhere that there was a man who refused to watch it. What was his name?

Eliza Hittman: We don’t have to say his name. It’s okay.

Geri Cole: Okay, sorry. We don’t need to say his name.

Eliza Hittman: That guy. Let’s just call him that guy.

Geri Cole: That guy. But have you received any negative feedback and/or-

Eliza Hittman: I think that that kind of hostile exchange was representative of the way in which the film won’t break through. There are just people who won’t watch it. It doesn’t align with their ideology, so they won’t watch it.

Geri Cole: I’m always like, hm, that’s a lie. You’re lying.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, you’re lying. Exactly. I’ll tell you something about that later, which is interesting, but on the record. Yeah, he’s lying. He’s lying. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I think the film is more divisive than people want to acknowledge and I think there’s a lot of people who won’t watch it.

Geri Cole: That’s insane. I mean, but also, a surprise? No. But insane still. So, what types of stories do you find yourself attracted to? You were saying previously that it’s personal character stories, but do you feel like there’s a common theme or a thread to all of your work?

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. I mean, it’s always… It’s almost hard as the maker to look back peripherally and draw and connect all of the dots. I think my films are very unsentimental… or thus far have been all very unsentimental portraits of youth and looking at the ways in which people’s relationship to their identity is formed through their relationship to their bodies. It Felt Like Love is this story of this girl who realizes that her value in the world is defined by whether or not men are attracted to her. And then Beach Rats is this story of a very inarticulate 19 year old who’s in a world in which he’ll never be able to come out. That kind of repression causes internalized homophobia and it sparks violence. But it’s all about the connection between our bodies and ourselves. Pivotal moments in our development, I guess.

Geri Cole: I remember those moments of learning… Even though it’s in… obviously, in the culture, in the air, that you’re taking your entire life, but those little moments where it’s like, oh. You recognize where it’s like this situation is happening to me because I look this way. So, you’ve also made several short films and they’ve been through festivals. I’m a big fan of short films even though I feel like there’s not really a venue or a place for them. I’m hoping… Vimeo, I suppose. But there’s no home for them. I believe that they help you tell little stories, but I’d like to hear how you feel about short films and how they’ve helped you develop as a storyteller.

Eliza Hittman: Mine are available, I think, online. They’re definitely messy, but I think they’re an important part of my development as a filmmaker. Because it was a space where I could learn how to write, learn how to direct, and develop a sensibility. The sensibility that you see in my short films is the sensibility that you see in my features. It’s just like building blocks. I think really beautiful short films for me are cinematic explorations of small turning points in characters’ lives. That’s how I’ve always approached them. They’re not big turning points. There’s not that much time to tell a big story. They’re these little poetic explorations of characters’ lives. Moments where the way that you see yourself or the world changes.

Geri Cole: So, we’ve talked a little bit about your process of doing field work, but is there… When you do sit down to write, do you have any rituals that you care to share?

Eliza Hittman: I keep saying this. I’m not a great writer in the sense that everybody always thinks of as a writer. I don’t have journals. I don’t have diaries. I spend hours trying to agonize over what I’m going to put on an Instagram post. I just don’t… It doesn’t come easily. I think, for me, the first step is always taking this main character and some of the ideas I have for scenes and just writing them. Because I think you have to have the character’s voice to write a screenplay. You have to find the mechanism. Who is this person? How do they speak? What are they hiding? What are they revealing? This sort of mechanism. Sometimes I feel like people are trained to sit down and write treatments and outlines and they have the whole thing in their head and then they sit down and they’re missing the most essential thing, which is the character’s voice. So, I always feel like it’s a really good exercise to just sit down and write the scenes that you have in your head. It doesn’t have to be in any order. It doesn’t have to end up in the film. But can this character drive your film? Do you know where they are located within yourself?

Eliza Hittman: I took those pages… they’re like sketches in a sense… and I sent them to my producer, Adele Romanski, and she just gave me her feedback and thoughts about it. And then I went back and tried to think about the structure and blah, blah, blah. I mean, I knew it in my head. I knew she was from a small town. I knew she was going to get on a bus. And I knew the last shot was her getting on the bus going home. I knew it was going to be two nights in New York. I always had the Chinese arcade in my head. I had all of the elements swimming around in my head and the skeleton in my head, but I never overworked the treatment. But I’m also lucky that I didn’t have to. There was nobody I had to deliver it to. But I do think that it’s really important to locate the characters within yourself and write pages and just get them out and try and work out how they sound and who they are on the page.

Geri Cole: This is not the first time I’ve heard the not wanting to overwork that outline. Because it does feel like you lose a little something when you’re suddenly trying to rearrange the furniture, essentially, and you haven’t-

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, there’s a big leap that goes from a treatment to a screenplay and it can be really a terrifying leap. Because then you’re all of a sudden like… You’re missing these people.

Geri Cole: Which is also good to hear because… It’s like, great, I don’t have to write outlines. Because I do always feel… I mean, again, it depends on, I suppose, who you’re writing for.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, it’s sketching. Little sketches. I don’t overwork and make this perfect document out of these supplemental materials.

Geri Cole: We have a few moments before we go to questions from the audience. So, also, audience, if you would like to ask questions, please feel free to throw them in the chat now. I like to talk a lot about success. Especially since this is a podcast with, obviously, noteworthy creators. I feel like… especially when you’re a creative professional… it’s like at what point do you feel like have achieved some level of success? And then how does that change? Because once you’ve achieved this certain level of success, well then what’s the next success? So, I’m curious as to what feels like success to you and/or what success looks like?

Eliza Hittman: Well, I think… I’ll just be honest and say that my journey hasn’t been easy. I did go to graduate school. I did take out an exorbitant amount of loans. I live under the weight of a lot of debt. I got out of graduate school. I made a very micro budget feature. We shot it with a few investors for $25000. I’ve very much been proactive in my own career. It took a feature and a lot of work to get an agent. Nothing was handed to me overnight. I took an academic job. I’m a professor. I’m still hesitant to give up my academic job and embrace a freelance lifestyle because I didn’t grow up in a household with freelancer parents. My parents needed to work and had full-time jobs that they were at for 30 something years. So, there’s still this feeling of not being totally able to embrace where I maybe am in my creative career because of a lot of financial debt and fear of not having stability.

Geri Cole: Health insurance.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, all of those things. But I’m definitely at a moment where I do feel like teaching is holding me back a little bit. Even though it’s also created a lot of stability and allowed me to make a certain kind of work that doesn’t pay a lot and have some sort of creative control. But I don’t know. Does that answer the question? What was it? What does success look like or what is…

Geri Cole: I guess if that’s what it looks like right now. In an ideal world, what would success feel like? Would it feel like being able to have that freedom of not-

Eliza Hittman: Probably. Yeah. I think maybe it’s part of being a woman also. Since this is our Women’s History Month chat, I think it’s harder. I think it’s hard for me to see and experience the success that has come with the work I’ve made. The struggle to make those films has been real. There is always a climate of devaluation around the work that women make and that’s part of the journey. So, I don’t know. I don’t know if success sticks for me. When I start over to write a screenplay, I have a crisis of confidence.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Oh man. That also sounds very familiar to my feeling on success. The reason why I always like to ask this question is because it feels like… I’m always like, oh, am I in it? Am I in success? It doesn’t feel like it.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, I don’t know. Am I in it? You tell me. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Geri Cole: Because it does feel like… Yeah. I think a part of it is being a woman and not feeling like I’m secure in enough… The world will never be secure enough for me… to just let me to do whatever I’d like to do. Yeah.

Eliza Hittman: Same.

Geri Cole: You also started talking a little bit about your next projects. Is there anything that you can share with us about what’s coming up next?

Eliza Hittman: Too early.

Geri Cole: Too early to share. Okay, then I will go questions from the audience. Did you think about other depictions of abortion in film or TV when you began to write? Were you consciously working against those things that we’ve seen before?

Eliza Hittman: Yes. I was. I’m a big fan of this Romanian film, which many people have seen, called 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu. It was a very celebrated movie, deservingly so, but it’s very much through a male point of view. It’s about two friends in college and they’re trying to get an abortion in communist Romania when it’s illegal. It’s very thrillerized and the pregnant character is totally unsympathetic. She’s represented as being kind of careless and not very bright and the friend is the real hero who has to sacrifice everything for her friend who’s pregnant.

Geri Cole: A good girl. Sure.

Eliza Hittman: Yes. Exactly. So, I was thinking a lot about that movie. I respect it and I think it’s a masterful film and I just think that… There’s a lot of movies about abortion. They’re largely directed by men. They all run into the same kind of tropes. I was just thinking about how to reclaim that narrative and just build more understanding, I guess, into what it really looks like and how hard it is to get a legal abortion. Because I think a lot of those narratives in film tend to focus on the illegal abortion and fetishizing the danger and forcing the audience to sit through something that’s dangerous and gruesome when I think we’re beyond that narrative.

Geri Cole: What makes you gravitate towards teenage and young adult characters in your films?

Eliza Hittman: I need to grow up. No. I mean, I’m done and I have to move on from that.

Geri Cole: You don’t.

Eliza Hittman: I do. I do. I’ve done it three times. At least in film. I think I’m giving myself permission to maybe still do TV about youth. I think that it’s rare and hard to find films that really depict how painful it can be to grow up. I think we either have these overly romantic, idealized coming of age stories or we have the more extreme nihilistic coming of age stories. I just wanted to make something that feels really honest and true to how I felt growing up. I think it’s, in a way, not about a transformation but a process of disillusionment.

Geri Cole: That sounds very true.

Eliza Hittman: That’s what I tried to capture and I think, in a way, it’s allowed me to make work and three movies within a short span of time. Because I’m not waiting on busy actor schedules. They’re all made not for much money. I’m not attached to a system, waiting for big celebrities to attach. Even though they’re not big movies, there’s a freedom in the process that I’ve been allowed to have because I’m not trying to cast movie stars.

Geri Cole: You are operating sort of outside of that system. Even though I feel like you’ve had success, like at Sundance and at Berlin, it feels like… That is a tricky thing. Honestly, being in New York, always being New York-based, always feels like I don’t know that I understand… I recognize that there’s a full system happening there and I don’t really understand it and I’d like to believe that you don’t necessarily have to engage to still make work.

Eliza Hittman: I don’t know. Yeah, I have my toe in it. This film was mostly independent and then Focus Features bought the film right when we went into production, but they didn’t have oversight in how it was cast. It was already done. They were like, okay, Sidney Flanagan and Talia Ryder. And they didn’t buy it for a crazy amount of money. It was a different experience to have a distributor attached before the film had really been shot, but they weren’t involved in hiring and key creative decisions. So, it was little bit of an independent world and a little bit of a studio world. But I haven’t gone through a full studio process.

Geri Cole: How did negotiate that? That it was… I mean, I guess it was sold and then, in that negotiation, we’re still going to operate the way that we were planning on operating?

Eliza Hittman: Yeah, it was called a negative pickup deal. I don’t know. It’s for the producing webinar. I feel ill-equipped to answer all those questions. But yeah. It means that they bought it for a negotiated price as we were moving into production and they just weren’t a part of the creative decision making process. They did give notes on the edit, but it’s a different way of selling a movie because you’re not at market and you’re not at a festival where you can have a competition over the price of the film or nobody can buy it. It gave us some hope that there would be a future for the film even though it wasn’t… There wasn’t a bidding war over the movie.

Geri Cole: Speaking of the edit, I read somewhere that there was things edited out of that intake scene. Were there things that you cut out of the film that you wish could have made it in and/or things that you cut out for reasons?

Eliza Hittman: No, the intake scene is fairly close to what was written. There were a couple things that were cut. There was a scene after the long night of karaoke and the transaction where they fall asleep on the train and they end up at Rockaway Beach in the morning. But it was a little cheesy and I wanted to keep the tension going into the procedure and not let the air out of it. Because she has the second part of the procedure and I felt like the scene at Rockaway Beach… this accidental digression from… It felt like too much. A journey too far away from the story. What else got cut? There was this one sequence that was cut in the beginning, where she goes to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She goes to a real Planned Parenthood and they tell her she can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania. I was like, do we really need 10 minutes to… Because a lot of people just find out that information online anyway.

Geri Cole: But without having to go… step through all of it.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Yeah, it’s pretty incredible that you can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania as a minor and/or that women’s bodies still don’t completely belong to them in a lot of states. That feels like a weird place to end it, but I didn’t know that we were out of time. Thank you.

Eliza Hittman: Thank you.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at And you can follow the guild on social media @wgaeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening and write on.


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