After a few years silently working and gaining more momentum with each film, Eliza Hittman has become a strong contemporary cinematic voice. Backed by Sundance’s artistic belief and support in her work ever since her short “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight” in 2011, through to the mesmerising “Beach Rats” in 2017, and right up until her haunting return this year with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”, Hittman has honed her voice and eye on specific stories that garner universal connection.
With the film’s U.K. release online this past week, the prolific director has been giving back-to-back interviews, and I was lucky enough to ask her a few questions over the phone. Knowing that both of us were in quarantine created a peculiar energy, as we, along with everyone else, were trying to go about our lives according to the new normal. Below are Hittman’s wonderful answers, about a film that deserves to be seen, of which the experience of watching also happens to bring us a little bit closer to other issues in the world, and back to a problem that’s still going to be here after the global pandemic has gone.
An interview you gave in Pearl Snap Discount in 2011 particularly resonated with me, as I agree very strongly with it:“I especially hate it when people say, “save the money you would spend on film school and make a feature. A practical and formal education lasts a lifetime. An unmemorable, amateur feature disappears forever.”
How did you use your time at Cal Arts and how does it seep into the way you see the world and your process of making films?
Before I went to Cal Arts, I was working in theatre. So I had a lot of experience working with actors, reading plays, and some experience directing. But in terms of film, I was pretty illiterate. So by the time I went to graduate school, it was about translating one language to the other. I’d never taken a film theory class, or ever constructed a frame before. And there was something about Cal Arts that took a very ethnographic, landscape approach to filmmaking. It was much more academic and experimental than devoted to making a picture perfect narrative. And that made an imprint on what drove my approach, because it was such a great place to begin thinking about film as a narrative form.
One of my first assignments at Cal Arts was to go out and shoot a landscape film. And my instructor who also turned out to be my graduate mentor, was a filmmaker named Lee Ann Schmitt, and after we shot that film, the assignment was to come up with three narratives that could live in that space. And there was something about that early assignment that I’ve carried through all of my work and that has definitely become part of my process.
What was the catalyst for you telling this story?
I think what really hooked me into the story, is that it’s a real journey that women all over the world take and it had never been explored on film. An everywoman’s journey, but one shrouded in shame, and secrecy, one that she will never talk about again, because of how stigmatised abortion is. And obviously, a lot of my work explores how our self-identity is shaped by taboos and stigmas that exist in the world.
Being a mother your self, did Motherhood bring any specific perspectives whilst making this film?
Let's see... Yes, in the sense that I thought a lot about the way my body slowly began to change, and those moments are definitely part of the film and part of her struggle with her body. There’s the moment when her bra is too tight, her jeans are cutting into her skin, those are all things that I experienced.
The film captures a strong New York energy and its simultaneous darkness and never ending brightness from the city lights – did you have any cinematic images of New York in mind that you wanted to draw from?
Not so much, I was mostly writing from my own first-hand experience, and I even tried to take the journey myself as much as possible. I took the bus from rural Pennsylvania into New York, so the landscapes outsides the window are the ones I saw, the lights in tunnels, they’re all part of little video sketches I made throughout the journey because I wanted it to be grounded in authenticity. It’s very much the way that I write, you know, I spend way less time in front of the computer and more time out in the world.
As an independent filmmaker, what has it been like getting your films made and seen?
It’s always so unexpected to me, how much of an intenational audience the work has attracted! Especially coming from the theatre world where you make a small play in a black box, and it’s very much a sandcastle [laughs], you know, you put all this work into it and build it and it exists in that ephemeral moment. But with film, it’s still quite surprising to me how much of a life they have outside of the country, because they seem so specifically “U.S”. I never imagined having the audience that I have!
Sundance seems to have always been very supportive of your work ever since “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight” in 2011 – How much has being apart of the festival circuit helped your career?
[laughs] Yeah, I owe my entire career to the Sundance film festival and the Sundance Institute. I’ve participated in the Screenwriters’ Lab and another programme called Catalyst, a Women in Film one... there are so many wonderful programmes to support artists, and it’s not just about launching a career with one film, there is a feeling of long-term, institutional support.
Do you have any favourite anecdotes/memories from making this film?
Let me see. I guess one unexpected moment in the shooting of the film was outside Planned Parenthood. I knew there was a monthly planned permitted protest that took place. So we sent a scout out to take a picture of it; so he did it was, like, five people the month before, so I said let’s shoot it, it might add something. And when we showed up, it was massive. And yes, that’s what’s in the film. [laughter] And it was moving in a way because it wasn’t just people who were anti-reproductive rights, there was also a counter-protest happening at the same time. So that was, I would say, one of the more “unstaged” moments of the film.
And how are you doing during this lockdown?
Well, in addition to making films, I’m also a professor in filmmaking at Pratt in Brooklyn, so that’s winding down this week. So when that’s happened, I’ll be able to go back to watching and daydreaming and writing.
Thank you for speaking with me today Eliza, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Thank you, be safe!
Watch the trailer for "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" here.
The film has been available on EST since Wednesday 13th May and will be released on VOD from Wednesday 27th May in the UK and Ireland. The film will be available through various digital retailers such as Sky Store, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and Apple TV, amongst many others.