Creators often speak of living their creations, as in experiencing their emotions, thinking their thoughts as if they are their own. That’s the job; to get inside these imagined personalities and pump life into where there once was none.
Filmmaker Eliza Hittman takes it one step further. She doesn’t just float down into their realm upon the page; she literally walks the streets that her character walks. She goes where they go. Says what they say. Imagines what they imagine. She gets as close to their being as possible, then she goes and makes her movie.
Her latest effort, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, tracks the journey of two friends as they quietly escape their Pennsylvania hometown by bus and travel north to New York City, where one can terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Before she ever went behind the camera, Hittman made the same trek in the same fashion. The expedition solidified her characters’ experience and her confidence in telling their story. There was no denying their environment because it was anything but an ephemeral fantasy. She lived it. Therefore she knew it. Making the film was merely a matter of translation.
“That kind of research informs the backdrop,” explains Hittman. “The type of world that I’m creating onscreen, but it doesn’t really inform the character. It does minimally, but the character comes from me.”
Autumn, the central figure, rests atop the frame of Sidney Flanigan, a first-time actress who initially encountered Hittman at a wedding in Buffalo. The young musician infected the director’s consciousness, and she began to track Sidney’s creative pursuits through her Facebook videos. After a little while, Hittman knew Sidney was the only person who could bring her character to life.
Scott Cummings, Hittman’s partner and editor on Never Rarely Sometimes Always, was the first to friend Sidney on Facebook after the wedding. He was just one of the hundreds of mutuals that hid on her page. “I’ve been a local musician in Buffalo for so long,” explains Flanigan. “Just playing in bars and cafes and basements and houses. I never thought anyone was watching. I always thought my life was always going to be small. Then, it’s kind of wild.”
As careful as she was to bring an authentic vision to the screen, Hittman did not want to do so at the expense of her performers’ sanity. She was careful to establish a barrier between reality and the fictional reality being constructed. That contrast is not tiny.
“We spent time talking about this girl, and Sidney’s world,” says Hittman. “That’s different than the character’s world. It’s important to differentiate. You know? Sidney is not the character; she’s representing the character. I think that’s important for an actor to know and to maintain those boundaries.”
“Personally, I tried to use myself plus the character,” says Flanigan. “I tried not to think too hard, and I didn’t want to distance her, the character, too much from me. But I also didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, she is me, and I am her.’ I didn’t want to confuse it like that. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that it seemed natural in the sense that I wasn’t trying too hard to be somebody else.”
The balance is a nearly impossible task, but ethically essential for Hittman. Her relationship with her actors and characters needed to be established from the jump and the director did so by embracing a non-traditional method. There was no need for gloss or pretense. As she did for herself, she dropped Flanigan into the world. Then, hit record.
“When Sidney came to New York to audition for the first time, my DP [Hélène Louvart] happened to be there,” says Hittman. “I didn’t want to put Sidney through a conventional audition, because she’s not an actor and she’s never been through that process. I knew if she was in a conventional audition that producers would be there and casting directors would be there, and they would be judging. And judging somebody, I think unfairly, because they don’t have that know-how to approach an audition.”
Louvart and Hittman crafted a video sketch as Flanigan’s test before the cameras, and the result was a no-brainer success. They shot her on the subway. They took her to the bakery that would eventually make its way into the movie. They watched her order a meal, and they watched her consume the meal. Clearly, Autumn was there in Flanigan.
“I work very closely with Hélène,” says Hittman. “It’s a partnership, and it is very much a question of who are we going to bring into this partnership? We both knew after that day – immediately – that it was Sidney.”
The realization that Flanigan was now tapped for the gig came just as quickly to the actress. “I remember being in the car with Hélène,” says Flanigan, “and going to the airport. I’m thinking to myself like ‘I have no idea how that went.’ As Hélène was getting out of the car, she squeezed my arm, and she gave me this look that was like, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to do this, aren’t I?'”
In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Hittman traps her characters (and her actors) within the frame. She’s not a strong believer in the establishing shot, the wide-shot, or even the mid-shot. The story happens in the close-up where there is no escape for the viewer. Do you want to understand what it’s like for Autumn to go through this situation? Here it is, right there. There is no quarter.
“At first, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is very weird.'” says Flanigan. “But over time, after like a day or two of doing it, you just go, ‘This is my life for the next two months. You become okay with it.”
Hittman did not design the camerawork, or the narrative, to rally troops to a cause. The purpose rests in character and pulling her audience into Autumn’s long trek north. Our job is to take it in and consider the factors that went into driving her journey.
“I’m not trying to be persuasive and change people’s minds,” explains Hittman. “I’m really coming at it from the point of view of a character in crisis. It’s a real story that people experience every day. It might have the power to open people up to an experience they haven’t seen before. We want the movie to be received as a movie – a film experience. I think, at some point, it will become more part of an activist conversation, but right now, it’s our movie. We just finished it, and we’re happy to celebrate it.”
Never Rarely Sometimes Always opens in theaters on March 13th.