Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which premieres at Sundance on 24th January.
The life-changing trip into New York City is a trope we’ve seen time and time again on screen, from Home Alone 2 to Lady Bird. But when cousins Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder) set off for the Big Apple on a Greyhound bus in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it’s not in pursuit of adventure, but out of dire necessity.
Directed by Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats, A Lot Like Love), the movie will premiere at Sundance on Friday, and unfortunately, it couldn’t be more timely. Forty seven years ago, the Supreme Court ruled on the landmark Roe v. Wade case and made abortion legal in the United States. And yet today, its future is far from certain. In 2019 alone, 25 new abortion restrictions were signed into law in 12 states. So when 17-year-old Autumn realizes she’s pregnant, she’s faced with very limited options. The only readily available care comes from a pregnancy crisis centre, where she’s presented with pamphlets about the joy of motherhood, is made to listen to the fetus’ heartbeat without prior consent, and told that the only alternative solution is adoption. What’s more, as a minor living in rural Pennsylvania, she can’t get a legal abortion without her parents’ consent.
Hittman’s film takes the audience through the gruelling and emotional process of obtaining an abortion as a young woman with few resources and even less support. And watching these two young women fight to create a safe, loving space for themselves in a world that seems like it’s designed to grind them down, it’s easy to see why Hittman describes this movie as the “anti-Juno,” the quirky, quippy 2007 film about teenage pregnancy, penned by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman.
Refinery29: You’ve been working on this film since 2012 — how did you first become interested in telling a story about abortion?
Eliza Hittman: I was editing It Felt Like Love and reading the news, and I was really shaken by a story that I read in Ireland about the death of a woman named Savita Halappanavar. She died of septic miscarriage in a hospital in Galway after being denied a life-saving abortion. At that moment I started reading about the journey that the women would take from Ireland to London and back in one day who needed an abortion. Initially, I wrote a version of the film that took place in Ireland that I felt was too ambitious. They weren't going to let me make a movie. I started thinking about what the U.S. version of that story was like. I started to do my own research and driving through states where there was restricted access, and just trying to imagine if I was somebody in this small town in Pennsylvania that's three hours from New York, what would my obstacles be?
Then I put it aside actually because in the middle of all this research I was pregnant. I had a high-risk pregnancy, and it just felt like it was not the movie that I should be working on at that moment. Then Donald Trump was elected, and I definitely felt a sense of urgency around that movie and a call for action.
The title Never Rarely Sometimes Always comes from a questionnaire that Planned Parenthood counsellors read out to women choosing to have an abortion to gage their emotional and physical situation. Did you always plan to name the movie after that?
Originally I called it ‘A.’ I was thinking of The Scarlet Letter, and it was a reference to that feeling of stigma. Then I was doing research, and I started talking to counsellors about just the personal violence test that they ask women to pick when they come in to try and assess the circumstances with the pregnancy. They're able to check-in and vocalise. Some clinics offer support, and wanting women to be safe is one of them. We talked a little bit about the tests and they found that for half of these women, "yes or no" didn't quite open up the dialogue that they wanted to have. I wanted a beacon of hope as a potential title, but it also speaks to the larger themes of the film, and the way that the country tries to create a criteria for whether women should or shouldn't be allowed to have an abortion.
I was really thinking about approaching the narrative here not as a narrative about choice, but about necessity. I wanted to really explore the minutiae of getting [an abortion] and how hard it is. For me, there was constant poetry to be explored in that journey.
That particular scene between Autumn and her counsellor is very quiet and very emotional. What was it like to film?
The atmosphere generally was very intimate. I like to clear away as many bodies from any room as possible. When we shot that scene it was actually just Sidney and my director of photography, and the sound person. I was just outside for it, actually. We filmed it with two cameras on Sidney for her part of the dialogue and two cameras on the social worker. It was very intense. Sidney was performing the scene actually with a real social worker who I met doing research from a clinic in Queens. Initially, we were looking at an actor, but there's something about creating the right space for the performance that I thought would only be successful with a real social worker.
The way women create safe spaces for each other in a world that is often violent towards them is a big theme in the film. Was that also the case on set?
It’s a movie that's very much about not having a navigational tool for growing up, and about someone finding out and discovering all of the obstacles that she's up against. It was important for me to make a movie that explores the unspoken bond between two young women, and in order to really create that energy I thought it was important to hire as many women as possible.
I think [Juno] represents a certain perspective and I think it's both challenging and re-evaluating. It's very cute, it's very charming. It's very seductive in its precociousness. But I don't know if that will speak to young people in 2020. I don't want to bash that movie, obviously. But I have questions about what it says.
Autumn’s first stop when she realizes she’s pregnant is her local pregnancy crisis centre, which is eventually shown to have given her erroneous information. Why did you feel an important element to include?
For me, the odyssey was the bus trip to the city but it was also the navigation of clinics. Part of my fieldwork and my research was going to small towns and asking, If I was this character where would I work? What clinic would I go to? How would I navigate this issue? There's one of those centres in every town in America. I went through the counselling, and I took the pregnancy test. I tried to get a feeling for what it would really be like.
Was there anything that surprised you?
I think it was important for me to go because the easy thing for me to do with this work would be to villainise them. Obviously there are things that they do that are misleading, but ultimately they want to help, and their desire to help comes from a religious perspective. I tried to let myself unpack and rethink my assumptions. It was very important for me not to kind of veer toward the Christian caricature.
Sidney Flanagan and Talia Ryder have such amazing chemistry! How did you cast them?
I met Sidney when she was 14 at a backyard wedding in south Buffalo. A very fringe, informal wedding. There was just something about [her] that really struck me. The wedding was a total disaster, and I felt like she was in over her head. I wanted to call her mother and tell her to take her home. She had a curious presence, I would say. I was working on another film at the time and followed her on Facebook to talk about it in 2013. She didn't write me back because she was grounded. Flash forward, we're casting and we're looking at 400-plus young women for the role. I kept thinking about Sidney and contacted her mom via Facebook. She trusted us enough to come down to audition. We cast her and were looking for this character to play her friend and her cousin. Talia had a date for the callbacks, and she was also from Buffalo, so they already had something in common. They got along really well, and that was the kind of chemistry we were looking for.
There’s a lot of tension and sadness in this film, but also levity — I’m thinking specifically of the moment where Autumn and Skylar spend a night in a Chinatown arcade. What inspired that?
I grew up in New York and one of my childhood memories was going to the Chinatown Arcade. There used to be that game called Tic Tac Toe Chicken, [which you see in the film], and I think that's a little bit the experience of being a woman in the film industry, trying to be successful in a system that's rigged. For me, it was [partly that] metaphor and [also] it was nice to have them spend a night in a city where you're reminded that they're just kids.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I hope that it opens up their perspective to what women go through. I hope the movie plays in urban areas to teach people a deeper understanding of what it means to be confronted with so many barriers.