Filmmaker Eliza Hittman prides herself on being an economical scriptwriter, laying out the basic story in a way that is easy to visualize for a reader, who can breeze through one of her feature-length scripts in 40 minutes.
“I think my scripts are deceptively simple,” said Hittman when she was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast along with Scott Cummings, the editor of her new film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” “And then they expand in time in really unpredictable ways, because they have more of a natural rhythm and pace. It is about seeing somebody in private moments, and those private moments breathe, things breathe on screen in a way that maybe I don’t anticipate on the page.”
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In “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” those private moments are of Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) — a Pennsylvania teenager — who travels to New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) where she can get an abortion without parental consent.
As with her previous films (“Beach Rats,” “It Felt Like Love”), it is within Hittman’s collaboration with her editor (and husband) Cummings that the director is able to shape these moments that become “heavier” and more expansive as she shoots them with her young cast. As Cummings pointed out on the podcast, one line of dialogue on the page can turn into 45 seconds of screentime in one of Hittman’s films, but it’s oftentimes less about trimming those moments than it is finding the right ones.
“The scenes are generally covered very simply, but effectively and then there’s a lot of scenes actually, a lot more scenes than in a standard film,” said Cummings. “There’s a lot of short scenes, so that helps build a certain intimacy. And we cut a lot of scenes also, we cut like 50 scenes.”
Only one whole sequence from Hittman’s script didn’t make the final cut, but the film’s subtle storytelling — in which so much goes unspoken — called for careful pruning of this collection of smaller scenes.
“It’s a fragile film in a way. It’s like when you go too far, you feel it,” said Hittman. “It was all about pulling back and finding out how much was necessary. A good example would be in the supermarket.”
At the end of their shift as grocery store cashiers, Autumn and Skylar count the cash in their register before sliding it through a bank teller-style window to their manager, who never fails to grab and kiss their hands. In the final version of the film, the camera never leaves the two girls — the audience only sees and hears the manager through the obscured window.
“We do have the other side of that, and it was too much,” said Hittman. “It was better for it to be imagined, than it was to be seen on screen, and I think that was [true of] a lot of things in the film.”
Cummings added that particular cutting room floor outtake also speaks to a key ingredient of how Hittman works as a visual storyteller.
“One of the hallmarks of all of Eliza’s films is we keep it completely rigorous point-of-view, we never cut from the point-of-view of the main character, like ever. So to show the other side [with the manager] was problematic actually — it spiritually was problematic, but was just the wrong move,” said Cummings. “It pushes you further in the character’s head if you never leave [their point-of-view], there’s no relief from it, which is kind of the trick.”
Like with their previous collaboration, “Beach Rats,” the opening of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was the most difficult to cut. Hittman knew she would need to start the two girls’ journey to New York City by the 20-minute mark, leaving little time to establish Autumn’s life in the post-industrial town of Shamokin.
“That first 20 minutes can be the hardest to find the balance [of] introducing family, work, place, crisis,” said Hittman. “Showing the balance between her time in that care center [where Autumn is counseled against an abortion], her time alone, her time at work, and her time with her family — there’s a lot of things to incorporate into 20 minutes, to try to get a rich sense of her world.”
Cummings said those early scenes, including Autumn and Skylar’s bus ride to New York, were also some of his and Hittman’s favorite parts of the film, making the cuts particularly painful. An early rough cut included more scenes with Autumn’s mom (played by singer Sharon Van Etten), which they both felt were strong, but deemed too repetitive and slowed the story’s momentum.
There were also two scenes of Autumn’s family watching TV, which Cummings was able to combine by lifting the non-verbal performance by Flanigan that he and Hittman loved out of one scene and “cheating” it into the other scene that had the strongest story beat with her mother and stepfather.
Hittman’s collaboration with Cummings has always started in the scripting phase, but in the case of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” the film’s setting came from Cummings. It was on one of the couple’s trips to visit his family in the upstate New York town where he grew up, that Hittman — who had set her previous films in the working class Brooklyn of her own childhood — became interested in what became the film’s post-industrial setting. Later, the couple became fascinated by Shamokin when Cummings (also a director) shot a project there.In
In the research phase of script-writing, Hittman and Cummings would go together to Christian pregnancy centers in the neighboring areas in and around Shamokin to experience firsthand the process Autumn would go through of taking a pregnancy test and being counseled by the pro-life staff.
“The conversations Autumn had are very much a reflection of the conversations that we had as a couple in those centers,” said Hittman. “Scott is in the trenches with me from the beginning until the end of the process.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.