Many in Hollywood regularly applaud abortion storytelling. So when one of their own – filmmaker and Oscar voter Kieth Merrill – declined to watch a film about a teenager’s abortion journey, his actions challenged their narrative.
Merrill especially captured the attention of Eliza Hittman, who wrote and directed the abortion-centric film he refused to see: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Released last year, the story follows 17-year-old Autumn as she travels to New York City to obtain an abortion without parental consent. Hittman publicized Merrill’s decision when she posted an email from him to social media where he recognized abortion as an “atrocity” and stressed that there is “nothing heroic about a mother working so hard to kill her child.” In response, Hittman condemned Merrill as one of “the people that are holding back progress.”
Hittman’s made her comments during an interview published on March 25 with Yahoo Entertainment.
While the “critical response” to her film is “overwhelming and positive,” she admitted, there’s also “a lot of people who won’t watch it, who protest it, who think it’s like propaganda for Planned Parenthood.”
That included Merrill.
“I wonder how many Academy voters refused to watch it for political reasons because it doesn’t align with their ideology,” Hittman said. “It’s sad to me because if you won’t watch a movie about abortion, then, you know, will you watch a movie about homosexuality? Probably not. Will you watch a movie about Black Lives Matter? Probably not.
She concluded, “these are the people that are holding back progress.”
In February, Variety first reported that Merrill, an Oscar-winner and Academy-Award voter, wouldn’t watch the film “due to its subject matter.”
“I received the screener but as a Christian, the father of 8 children and 39 grandchildren. AND pro-life advocate, I have ZERO interest in watching a woman cross state lines so someone can murder her unborn child,” he wrote in an email to an awards publicist. “75,000,000 of us recognize abortion for the atrocity it is. There is nothing heroic about a mother working so hard to kill her child.”
In a since-deleted post, Hittman made his email public by posting it to Instagram.
“As we reach the homestretch of awards season, I am very aware that the film is still on the edges of being a true contender,” she commented. “This email came in last night and was a harsh reminder that the Academy is still so painfully monopolized by an old white puritanical male guard.”
Merrill later responded to Hittman in an email to Variety. He stressed that he recognizes her “obvious talent, passion and opinions” and that he does “respect her right to express them however she likes.”
But while she could have her opinion, he could also have his.
“Her film is an expression of who she is. My absence of interest in watching her film is an expression of who I am,” he urged. “We are equally valid in our choices, what we do, and how we choose to live our lives.”
He also addressed Hittman’s claim that the Oscars are “monopolized by an old white puritanical male guard.”
“Wow! Ok Eliza, I am ‘old.’ You got that right. I have been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 46 years,” he responded. “‘Puritanical?’ I go to church, pray to God and believe in Jesus Christ. I embrace traditional values and believe in moral agency. I try to love my neighbors—hard as that is sometimes. Does that make me ‘puritanical’? Maybe, but if you knew me, you would need to take away the adjectives that give the word the negative connotation you intended. I am not prudish, austere, stuffy, stiff, rigid, narrow-minded, bigoted or fanatical. I am in fact, quite the opposite.”
He added that he wasn’t singling out her film.
“For me, there is nothing entertaining or inspiring about killing unborn babies. I chose not to watch Eliza’s film because it legitimizes abortion,” he said. But also, “I don’t watch horror films or movies with graphic sex or gratuitous violence or radical social agendas.”
He also stood by his comments challenging abortion as a grave evil.
“I believe abortion is wrong in all but the most extreme circumstances,” he explained. “Not only wrong, I believe it is an evil, and incomprehensible atrocity.”
Not only did Hittman center her film on abortion, but also she worked closely with the nation’s largest abortion provider – Planned Parenthood – to create it. She went so far as to film parts of it at a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, she told Yahoo.
“I went through a really long process of gaining trust from Planned Parenthood and being allowed to have access to the facility, to tour it, to talk to social workers, to meet with doctors, to meet with nurses, and to just walk through the experience from the point of view of the character,” she said.
And the main character’s interview with Planned Parenthood’s psychotherapist Kelly Chapman, in the film, inspired the movie’s title.
For Hittman’s efforts, Planned Parenthood presented her with a 2020 “Media Excellence Award.” In particular, Hittman consulted with Caren Spruch, senior director of arts & entertainment engagement at Planned Parenthood, for her advice on “research and accuracy.” Spruch has been involved with other pro-abortion shows and films such as “Obvious Child.”
“So when Eliza came to me and it was at the early stages of this story, I was beyond ecstatic to get the opportunity to work with her … she is just so committed to getting it right, ” Spruch told Variety in March.
In other words, committed to telling Planned Parenthood’s perspective. But Merrill is right – and courageous – for giving voice to the pro-life movement and recognizing abortion for what it is: the intentional destruction of an innocent human life.