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.