Brooklyn filmmaker Eliza Hittman found out the month before Sundance that her abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was also invited to the Berlinale Competition, where her film quickly topped the Screen critics’ jury grid, beating Christian Petzold’s popular “Undine,” and wound up taking home the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize from the Competition jury, despite chairman Jeremy Irons’ once-stated pro-abortion views, which he distanced himself from at the Berlinale.
“I don’t think I make crowd-pleasing Grand Jury Prize movies,” Hittman told me ahead of the premiere. “Everything I do is a little off to the side. I didn’t come here with any expectations. Juries are always wildly unpredictable. I did not make the movie to preach to the choir either. This is an art film, but I knew at some point we would be met with people with different ideas about women’s reproductive rights. I didn’t expect it to be the head of the Berlinale jury!”
Hittman’s third movie showcases her strengths as a writer-director who knows how to ground her stories in reality. (At Sundance, the film won a special jury prize for “neorealism.”) The abortion drama has been evolving since 2013, when she was editing her first micro-budget feature “It Felt Like Love,” and read a newspaper article about the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who died in Ireland of blood poisoning after being refused a life saving abortion. “I was devastated,” said Hittman. She started reading articles about the story of the eighth amendment in Ireland and bought a book, “Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora,” about all the women who traveled from Ireland across the Irish Sea to London and back on one day.
“I read a story I had never seen before,” said Hittman, “about a lonely powerful and brave journey.” She initially wrote a treatment set in Ireland about two au peres working in countryside who become friends when one become pregnant. “Suddenly they have to find a way to come back in one day.”
Hittman tried to get funding and was met with no interest. “Everyone said, ‘Why would anyone make that movie?'” she recalled. “We were in the Obama presidency. Nobody saw the relevance of it.” She figured out that “nobody is ever going to let me make this movie — I’m a little Brooklyn filmmaker making movies in my backyard. I asked, ‘What is the U.S. narrative equivalent?’ I thought about all the women who travel from rural areas into urban areas.”
But first she went ahead with “Beach Rats,” starring her discovery Harris Dickinson, partly because she was having a baby and needed to stay close to home; she couldn’t commit to shooting a road movie. After “Beach Rats” premiered at Sundance and she participated in the Sundance Women’s March, when she was asked about her next project, she said she was making her abortion movie. “I knew it at that moment,” she said.
This time, Hittman pitched “a poetic odyssey about a girl in rural Pennsylvania who travels to New York and spends 48 hours navigating a personal crisis in a city she’s never been to.” She was able to fund that movie, although her films are “always challenging,” she said. “They’re never easy. They take a passionate team around you to help push forward.” She found support from Cinereach and the BBC, which commissioned her to write the script, as well as “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski, with whom she had made friends on the festival circuit.
And just as the movie was heading to production, the script came to the attention of Focus Features production executive Rebecca Arzoian, who got her entire office to read it; Focus picked up distribution rights to the funded project.
The next obstacle was finding Hittman’s young ensemble. The casting agents launched a huge untraditional casting search “that went off the rails,” she said. “We were flying into rural Pennsylvania looking for young women for a film project. People thought we were sex trafficking. I also at looked at every young actress in Hollywood. I was very open-minded.”
Back in 2013, Hittman’s partner, editor Scott Cummings — who edits her films and is the father of their five-year-old child — was working in Buffalo on his documentary short “Buffalo Juggalos.” Cummings met future “Never Rarely” star Sidney Flanigan at a “debaucherous” backyard wedding. “She was there, 14, with an older guy,” Hittman said. “‘This is a girl who is in over her head,’ I thought. There was something about that moment that is hard to describe.”
Courtesy of Focus Features
They watched Flanigan grow up on Facebook for the next six years, as she posted her reinventions of punk songs in DIY music videos. “There’s something magnetic and authentically teenage about her,” Hittman said. “The videos captured heartbreak and feelings of anger, sadness and disillusionment, and also a fire.”
Somewhere close to the start date, Hittman became worried. “I didn’t feel the movie in the young women we were seeing,” she said. “I needed visual complexity. Sometimes you see people who are green but they are good actors, with good impulses. It’s hard to find young people with something underneath.”
She needed an actress for the leading role whose face had depth, who could transmit her thoughts without dialogue. “It was important that we find someone with a story inside them,” she said. With a production date looming, she asked Cummings to write Flanagan, who was now 19, on Facebook. “She said, ‘I’m busy with my music thing in South Buffalo,'” Hittman said. “He wrote her again. She agreed to read the script, agreed to Skype, and we talked. Once she began to go through the audition process, I never felt she was going to turn it down. Getting her to take the initial leap was the challenge.”
Soon Flanigan made her first airplane flight to New York since she was a toddler, and rather than give her the usual audition, Hittman and her cinematographer Helene Louvart had Flanigan walk around the subways, Port Authority, and professor Hittman’s office at Pratt, reacting to a new environment. The edited video Hittman showed to the BBC to convince them to let her cast the non-professional musician. Hittman had something else in her back pocket: a deal that gave her casting control. “There was lot of anxiety over the decision,” she said, “but people had to go with my impulses, I’d say.”
The night of the Berlin premiere, Flanigan was all smiles in an elegant black and gold frock and dangling gold earrings. She admitted to being scared at first, but she liked the script and jumped in with both feet. Sundance was her first flight out of New York and her first premiere. Now, she’s fielding acting offers.
So is her costar Talia Ryder. In order to cast the role of Autumn’s cousin and friend who travels to New York with her, Hittman went back through all the casting tapes and made a short list, including theater actress-dancer Ryder (“Mathilda”). “She had a levity,” Hittman said. “She had not been through things in a way that you could feel with Sidney. She had never done film before.”
The two young actresses also screen-tested casually on real locations. It turned out that Ryder was also from Buffalo–so the two girls bonded instantly. “The two of them had to have chemistry,” said Hittman. “It was kind of magical. I felt we had found her! We back went out into the world, broke out of the room, and shot them lugging around a suitcase in subway stations in Brooklyn.” The videos were a valuable asset as Hittman could show her backers where she was heading.
Once the shoot was under way in rural Pennsylvania and New York City, the pivotal scene they had to nail was a Planned Parenthood session. Hittman reached out to clinicians and counselors who worked in pregnancy centers. “What’s in the film is reflections of the kind of dialogue I had,” she said. “I asked them, ‘What would you do if I was a minor and I walked into this office? What would your concerns be?'”
That’s when Hittman came upon the intimate partner questionnaire that inspired the title. “It’s meant to open up a dialogue, giving people a spectrum to reply, a way of getting to something deeper,” she said. “There was something about the lyrical repetition of those words that stuck with me. It was painful and intimate.”
By having Flanigan in the room with a real social worker, Hittman created a safe place for her to be vulnerable. “Kelly Chapman had trained at Planned Parenthood and also worked at a clinic called Choices,” said Hittman. “I spent a lot of time with her refining that scene, making sure with Planned Parenthood that it was authentic and also true to the story. It’s very specific to how I write. I’m not trying to replicate a conversational realism. There’s a rhythm, to it, the way the dialogue is written on the page, it’s very minimal. Real people don’t talk that way.”
While Hittman admires Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” as a film masterpiece, she questions the filmmaker’s politics. “I didn’t love the way the pregnant character is treated,” she said. “She’s naive and careless and helpless, and the movie is not sympathetic to her. Not all movies are about empathy. I am big believer that characters can be unlikeable. We are not trying to win popularity contests in making movies. But in the context of that movie, she is seen as irresponsible. It feels like a man’s judgement on a woman in this situation.”
In June, with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” launched, she will start writing her next film about a middle class family in Manhattan coping with the coming death of a matriarch in her late 90s. “She’s so old that nobody is logically or emotionally prepared for her death,” Hittman said. “You think it’s about family and paralysis. But they hire a home-care worker and once they give her the keys to the apartment the point of view shifts. It’s about the woman’s story and her survival and her daughter left behind in Eastern Europe.”
This one may prove to be easier to make. “It’s not been easy,” said Hittman. “I’m an outlier.” Maybe not so much anymore.
Focus Features releases “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” on March 13.