Eliza Hittman tells stories about New York—but not the romantic idyllic kind. Her 2017 film Beach Rats follows a teenager who escapes his bleak Brooklyn life by causing trouble and flirting with older men online. Her latest, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, tells the story of two teenage girls from rural Pennsylvania who embark on a journey to New York City after one of them is faced with an unintended pregnancy.
As told to A.frame
I grew up in New York City, so I had access to a lot of movies. I wouldn't have called myself a cinephile, necessarily, but I grew in an exciting moment in independent film in New York and I definitely took advantage of it. I saw Kids, I saw Requiem for a Dream, I saw Pi. I saw early Hal Hartley movies.
Those movies definitely had an impact on me at an age of independence when I was in my early teenage years.
Location is really, really important to me. The central location in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is Port Authority, and I wrote so much of this movie thinking about it as a safe haven for the characters. When we went to try to shoot there, we found out it was really challenging, but I couldn't compromise. I refused to look at other locations to try and cheat it, because I felt it was impossible. Once I have the image, it's really hard for me to substitute.
A lot of times, I'm telling stories about people who are from New York, but are pushed to the margins. With this film, I wanted to take the outsider perspective of somebody who's coming in for a really short period of time and confronted with challenges around how difficult it is to navigate.
I had to walk through the film as if I was a character, so I had the geography of the locations charted in my head, from the Planned Parenthood to the bakery to the arcade.
Most of the story is in Midtown, and it's not an area that I think is particularly fun. So it was an interesting challenge for me. Some of my films aren’t particularly romantic looks at the city, so it was consistent in that regard.
The barometer for what is authentic changes from project to project. It’s about things feeling emotionally authentic to me. For example, I cast Harris Dickinson in Beach Rats. He’s not from Brooklyn, he's from London. But for me, he brought the most emotional authenticity to the role. We didn't know he was from the UK, since he did the entire audition in an American accent.
I think it's really about what feels true to me. There aren't hard and fast rules.
There are many different directorial approaches, and it's really just about my instinct and what version I want to put on the screen.
I met Sidney [Flanigan, who stars in Never Rarely] when she was 14. My partner was working on his own project, and we met her in passing and followed her on Facebook. For years, we saw YouTube videos that she would make, performing cover songs. She's an aspiring musician. I was captivated by her videos, to be honest, and I kept thinking about her when I was working on the movie.
We started the audition process and saw a lot of young women, and I just kept thinking about her. Then, my producer invited her down to audition. It was her first acting experience. It was a big role and a stressful shoot. We were always moving around and we never got comfortable in one location for very long.
I think the biggest challenge as a director is working with people who have all different backgrounds, regardless of whether they're first-time actors or not. You arrive on a set and people come with different experiences and training.
My job is to make sure that they understand the tone of the film that you're trying to create, and give direction in a way that everybody understands. Everybody's different and every role is different.
Cinematographer Hélène Louvart (who worked on Never Rarely and Beach Rats) is a beautiful collaborator, and she comes into the process with a curious mind and a curious approach. The beginning of our process is always about getting to know the world of the story and the script and my vision. I tend to bring a lot of references, images, photographs, paintings into the conversation, and we tend to do a lot of scouting together. And then we sit down, and we go through it page-by-page and make a very general shot list, but then becomes more and more specific.
She's very tuned into the emotions of the character. And she's a phenomenal operator. This film is an extension of our collaboration.
MORE: Eliza Hittman: My Top 5 New York Movies
Reporting by Nadine Zylberberg