Writer-director Eliza Hittman breaks down the scene that gives her intimate, moving drama its name.

By Jessica Derschowitz
February 17, 2021 at 11:08 AM EST
Credit: Focus Features

When Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) sits down in a social worker's office in a New York City Planned Parenthood in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it's a critical moment in the teen's desperate but determined journey from her small Pennsylvania hometown to get an abortion. "It's the first safe space [for her] in the entire movie, where someone cares about her well-being," writer-director Eliza Hittman explains.

An intense, emotional scene in her quiet stunner of a film (now available to stream on HBO Max), it's one Hittman strove to make as authentic as possible. She filmed inside an actual NYC Planned Parenthood and cast real-life counselor Kelly Chapman, whom she met while researching, to play the woman asking Autumn a series of questions about her relationships — with those titular four words as the possible responses — that turn progressively more difficult to answer.

"I got the title at the same moment when I realized the importance of the questionnaire," she adds. "There was something so lyrical and poetic about it, and I knew it would confuse the audience going into the film, and they'd be like, I'm never going to remember that title. But then after the end, it would sort of haunt [them]."

In a phone call with EW the week Never Rarely was nominated for seven Independent Spirit Awards, Hittman detailed her interest in telling this kind of story, the detail that went into shooting that pivotal scene, and how she came away capturing a moment of "pure honesty."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can we start with why you wanted to tell this kind of a story and do it in such an intimate way?

ELIZA HITTMAN: I was interested in the story, in the subject, because I had never really seen a film before about how hard it is to get a legal abortion in the United States. A lot of films about abortion, they deal with choice and morality and they don't really look at the barriers that prevent somebody in need from just getting the basic care that they deserve and are entitled to. I saw the film as an opportunity to tell an urgent story, a political story, but also a really intimate story, because I think that so many people suffer quietly because of all of these restrictions that exist from state to state.

Walk me through bringing Autumn and the audience to this moment in the story, because she's already gone through so much just to get to this point.

So much of the film is about how this character, this teenage girl, who's obviously carrying so much of the burden of what she's going through alone — even though she has a cousin with her, there's still so much about it that she's keeping to herself. And I wanted to represent the world around her as a space that was liminal and unwelcome and, at times, hostile. And so when we arrive in the social worker's office in Planned Parenthood, it's the first safe space that she's in the entire movie, where someone cares about her well-being.

You filmed this inside an actual Planned Parenthood, which lends another level of authenticity. Why was that important for you to do here?

You know, it's funny, I think that they would have preferred that I shoot in one of the newer clinics. But that one [on Bleecker Street] was really important to me, because it is where people from out of town often end up, and especially for a second trimester abortion. So that kind of authenticity is important. It's important to me as an artist, and it was important for the story.

And you met Kelly, the social worker speaking with Autumn, while you were doing your research?

Yeah. She was very captivating when I met her and very candid. I began to just hear her voice in the character while I was writing, I sort of modeled the character after her, and then I decided to ask her to do the scene. That was an essential ingredient in making it as effective as it is because she really created a safe space for Sidney, who was a first-time actor, to be that vulnerable.

How much rehearsal did you do with Sidney and Kelly to get it the way you wanted it to be?

I did no rehearsal with Sidney. I did a lot with Kelly because I wanted to workshop the scene with her so that it was a marriage between what Planned Parenthood does, what Kelly does, and that all had to fuse. I feel like I wanted Kelly to feel as comfortable as she feels in her own office, and the details of that to be true to her.

With Sidney, I made sure on the day of the shoot that she had a private office to sit in at Planned Parenthood, so that she was away from the commotion of the shoot. Right before she went in, I gave her one really key piece of direction, which was not to worry about the character's answers through the general medical history. I said, just answer as Sidney about your smoking, about your health, about the last time you were vaccinated. Beginning the scene from a place of the answers being really personal started her off on the right track to going much deeper, because she wasn't really answering at the beginning of the scene as the character — she was answering as herself and drawing immediately from her own personal history.

And then when it came to filming the scene itself, the camera is with Autumn almost the entire time, especially when you get into those final questions. How did that ultimately come together?

It seems simple, but there are so many decisions that go into all of it. We were very sensitive about the light — it had to feel true without being too sad or too harsh. And there were actually two cameras on her. One was locked down in front of her, and the other was almost profile, like 45 degrees. We shot as a long take, on 16 millimeter, and the only people in the room were Sidney, Kelly, the DP, and the boom operator, because the room was too small to hold anyone else. I was right outside on a monitor, and I'm usually not on a monitor, but I didn't want my presence to be a distraction. There had to be a perfect level of stillness in that room to achieve what we achieved. It's just a moment of pure honesty.

Credit: Angal Field/Focus Features

Did I read correctly that the version in the film was the first take?

Yeah, it's the first take. Afterward, I remember Sidney just took a drink of water and smiled a little bit. She was like, that was cathartic, but there's no way I could do that again. We did do it again, and the other ones are also moving, but they're more stoic. She didn't have the same access twice. She was sort of spent.

The film premiered at Sundance back in January 2020, and we're still talking about it now a year later. What has this experience been like for you, having it be received in this way and being talked about in the context of these awards conversations as well?

It's exciting, and I'm honored. I know I didn't make like a flashy film with a celebrity, it's very modest like me in some ways. And I also know that the film, whether or not people want to acknowledge it, it is provocative. It is controversial. And not everybody wants to look that closely at this experience. So I didn't expect it to have universal praise, you know, [because] it is sad. It's a rough film. But, knowing all of that, it makes me feel even more appreciative of the support.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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