Day 6·Q&A

Indie film director Eliza Hittman pins hopes on video-on-demand as COVID-19 shuts down theatres

Eliza Hittman's newest film Never Rarely Sometimes Always has joined a growing number of films available online for video-on-demand rental much more quickly than normal, after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theatres.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always opened in theatres days before COVID shut down public gatherings en masse

Eliza Hittman, winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for the film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, speaks at a press conference during the 70th Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 29, 2020. (Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images)

Independent director Eliza Hittman's newest film Never Rarely Sometimes Always opened in theatres on March 13 — days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down public gatherings across North America.

It's now joined a growing number of films available on video-on-demand rental services like Amazon Prime and iTunes, much more quickly than normal.

Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn, a 17-year-old girl from small-town Pennslyvania who travels to New York City to get an abortion without her parents' knowledge, accompanied by her cousin Skylar, played by Talia Ryder.

Hittman spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the challenges of promoting a movie during a pandemic, discovering Flanigan — who makes her acting debut in this movie — and more.

Here's part of their conversation.

What did you think was going to happen to your movie?

Oh, there was chaos and confusion. Ultimately, at the end of that week, we had done all this press and there was just so much coming out about the film.

And the decision was made to put it on paid VOD, and to hope that the momentum of all the work that we did carried over to the film on this new platform.

And has that worked out for you? Has on-demand been a blessing in disguise for your film?

I don't know yet. Is the honest to God truth, but I hope so. I haven't seen reporting. You know, there's not a box-office that's out there that I can look at and say, hey, that went really well. But from the chatter online, you know, the movie continues to be supported and championed and … it seems like people are watching.

And we continue to do outreach into communities that might not otherwise be able to afford the film. And I'm doing other things, too — Q&As and trying to connect with audiences in lieu of our theatrical plans.

I'm sure this film connects with people who see it. It's very powerful. It is beautifully filmed. There is terrific acting.

There is difficult subject matter — and it's also very quiet. Your protagonist Autumn is a total introvert. Why did you choose to go with that as a filmmaking choice?

I wanted to show a character who is carrying around a tremendous burden. And she's so alone in what she's dealing with. And I think that's true to what many women go through. And she you know, she's in crisis. Maybe that's not who she is in her normal life. But in this moment, you know, she has a lot on her mind. And she has a story inside her that begins to bleed out onto the screen.

It takes a while for that story to bleed out. She's so stoic in it; she's silent. I'm just curious about how much dialogue you left out in order to get what you wanted.

Not much. She was always quiet on the page, I have to say. I always try and find ways to connect the audience to what's happening inside a character versus outside. And I think it's something that's part of my approach.

The scene that has the most dialogue is also the one that gives your film its title. And it is essentially an interview at an abortion clinic. Let's listen.

17-year-old Autumn, played by Sidney Flanigan, visits an abortion clinic in a scene that gives the movie its name. Directed by Eliza Hittman. 0:40

Eliza, what makes that scene so powerful?

There's a couple of factors. You know, it's a very intimate questionnaire that she's asked about her sexual history, her family history and her current circumstances, which have brought her to New York for an abortion.

This scene plays largely in a long take over Sidney Flanigan's face. It's a very vulnerable performance that she gives. And, you know, there are moments when you're watching it where you see her face begin to change colours in places. And you can just tell that the performance she's giving comes from a very deep and authentic place.

And she's in really good hands. The woman who plays the counselor is a real counsellor. I think that the combination of this very, very talented, vulnerable young actress, you know, and this real, you know, licensed counsellor just created this space for an incredible amount of depth and vulnerability.

From left: Sidney Flanigan, Eliza Hittman and Talia Ryder pose for a portrait to promote Never Rarely Sometimes Always at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Taylor Jewell/Invision/Associated Press)

One of the advantages of watching this on-demand is that I went back and watched that scene at least twice. And I think the camera stays on Sidney Flanigan for about four minutes. It's about a four-minute take from what I can understand. [How did] you know that you had found an actor who could sustain that performance?

It's a funny story. She is not, you know, a trained actress. I met her shooting another film in western New York and Buffalo. … Sydney's an aspiring musician. And she just kept popping up in my Facebook feed, posting videos of herself, playing music alone in her bedroom. And I just felt the emotion in her music.

And it's what really led me to want to cast her, because I felt that she had a lot of like, rawness and anger. And, you know, even though the music she was playing was all of those things, she never came across as a clichéd victim.

A lot of your film takes place in the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, which is one of the rawest and greediest places in all of the boroughs. What is it like making a film there in the middle of the night?

Oh, it was logistically very difficult, I would say. I didn't know when I had written the script that Port Authority costs as much as it costs for an [entire] independent film shoot.

And I didn't know the hours that you could shoot there. We could only shoot in Port Authority from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. So there were some very late nights dealing with a lot of bureaucratic limitations.

And for me in the script, I always wanted it to be a microcosm for the city. These girls never get to see much beyond Port Authority. But that's OK, because to them, it's slightly safe versus what's outside it.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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