Summer 2020


Channeler of the Young and Restless

With her third feature, indie provocateur Eliza Hittman solidifies her reputation for unvarnished drama and truthful performances

By Thelma Adams

Director Eliza Hittman (Photo: Victoria Stevens)

Director Eliza Hittman, 41, is on a roll. The Guggenheim Fellow's third feature, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, won a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award at Sundance before nabbing the Silver Bear at the 70th Berlinale in March. Her drama, which she calls the "anti-Juno," follows a pregnant Pennsylvania teen (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) who hops a bus to Manhattan for an abortion. Shot on 16mm in 27 days, the movie represents the third in a loose trilogy that frankly and provocatively chronicles the lives of restless youth.

Hittman may be known for casting non-actors and discovering newcomers, but the Brooklyn native suggests that "there's this misconception that I'm someone who gravitates to working with non-actors or first-time actors." Instead, her extensive casting search can take up to six months, with the aim of identifying performers who can deliver the most depth and sensitivity. "It's all about emotional authenticity," she asserts.

Never Rarely lead player Sidney Flanigan's Autumn is a case in point. Although she'd never acted onscreen, the Buffalo-born teen was already a performer who "always has a guitar by her side, she's always singing," observed Hittman upon reviewing Flanigan's audition tape. "There's so much pain behind her eyes and in her performance. I believed that she was an actress; I didn't have to train her. I had to make her feel comfortable and boost her confidence, but the intuition was all there."

For the Brooklyn-set coming-of-age indie Beach Rats, which won the directing award at Sundance in 2017, Hittman cast unknown Harris Dickinson. "I threw everyone a curveball with casting a British actor," recalls Hittman, "but he brought authenticity. I want to immerse the audience in a world that they haven't seen before. The discovery of new faces is an important aspect of that immersion."

Hittman's eye for talent is rooted in her own experience: She started as a theater geek at Edward R. Murrow High School (famed alumni include Darren Aronofsky and Marisa Tomei). At Indiana University, she continued studying drama. But in grad school at the California Institute of the Arts, she shifted her focus to film.

It was also at Cal Arts where she met someone who became an essential part of her personal and professional crew: her editor, and son's father, Scott Cummings. He's cut all three of her features, including It Felt Like Love, which debuted at Sundance in 2013.

This dynamic supports Hittman's creative process. "It's an intimate space where you're alone with the footage," she says, "a reflective time full of processing the shoot's intensity. There's something nice to go through the pain and agony of embracing the movie I shot. He fills that space with a positive and reassuring energy."

For Never Rarely, Hittman collaborated with Planned Parenthood. She shot in actual clinics to "capture those spaces for audiences, [particularly] male audiences that have never been there…. I'm not showy with spaces, either. I'm not shooting a wide shot to show off the value of it. I want the audience to experience them, and move through them, with the characters."

Hittman, on location filming Never Rarely Sometimes Always, opted to shoot on Kodak 16mm, saying that film "documents human emotion in a way that digital can't." (Photo: Angal Field/Focus Features)

Manhattan's Margaret Sanger Health Center housed the pivotal presurgical interview that inspired the film's title. Hittman prepped by settling Flanigan in a private space by herself before they shot—a luxury on an indie location. At nearly 10 pages, the scene was the script's longest. While Flanigan had her lines memorized, "At this moment," recalls Hittman, "she was worried about the scene's length and doing it in one take."

Hittman told her star to "forget about the character's answers at the scene's beginning," instead advising her to respond as if talking about her own family. Then, from a certain point, the actress would follow the script. "Something about that bit of direction started Sidney in such a personal mindset that it pushed her to go deeper," says the director.

French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, another Beach Rats alum, shot the scene with two tight cameras, interrogation-style. "They were very close to her. She knew we weren't going to cut. And there's more risk. It's more thrilling when you shoot in 16mm in long takes."

Opting for Kodak 16mm underscored the intimacy and discomfort. "Film documents human emotion in a way that digital can't," Hittman says. "For example, in this scene you see her face change colors just so subtly."

It's this kind of visual strategy that ties her films together. "It's about staying close to the protagonist, the proximity between lens and lead," she says. "I don't know if I've ever shot a master shot. I don't shoot in a standardized way."

If intimacy and urgency define Hittman's style, just don't label her aesthetic "neorealist," a term that was bandied about by the jury at Sundance. "In retrospect," she says, "my concern was that they were setting the film's style as somehow dated, or an homage, not something that was incredibly timely and urgent."

In the director's feature debut, It Felt Like Love, Lila (Gina Piersanti) experiences "the pain of feeling undesirable and trying to compensate by forcing herself into sexual situations." Beach Rats exposes the pain of living a double life; gay teen Frankie (Dickinson) copes with internalized homophobia while forcing himself to perform in hypermasculine spaces. And, as for Never Rarely's Autumn, she's alone with the burden of her pregnancy.

"All of those experiences explore emotional taboos around shame and humiliation," says Hittman. "They reflect a truth about what we carry with us as we navigate the world." That vulnerability haunts Hittman even as she breaks through and attracts accolades: "I never walk away from a film shoot like I nailed that. I always feel like I blew it."

Gen Next

Stories profiling feature film directors about

their life, work and approach to making movies.

More from this topic
More from this issue