Never Rarely Sometimes Always
[…] I always said it was «a poetic odyssey», so that was something that I was striving for in both the writing and the execution of the film.
[…] I think we live in a culture with a lot of ambient sexism, and I wanted to bring people into the experience of being a young girl who was constantly navigating small moments of misogyny, and how much part of growing up as a young woman is learning to deflect and to accept.
[…] It’s a divisive topic and there’s so much at stake at the moment, but I would like to think that it’s an important film not only for young women who are becoming more active and vocal in our country, but also for men to understand the impact of both trauma and restrictive bans.
Screenings in Swiss cinema theatres
Pamela Jahn (PJ): In your film you’re creating a very special, very beautiful atmosphere between a very naturalistic approach and an almost dreamlike experience. How much of this was intended, and how much of it evolved during the process of filming?
Eliza Hittman (EH): It’s so interesting that you see it that way, because when we were trying to get financing for the film - and people asked me how I would describe it - I always said it was «a poetic odyssey», so that was something that I was striving for in both the writing and the execution of the film. I think that while it was important to me that there is accuracy regarding the procedural journey of the story, it was also important to me that the physical journey has a poetry to it, so on the one hand I was trying to balance the realness of those clinics and that experience, the harshness and the bureaucracy but, at the same time, I knew the physical journey needed to be infused with beauty. It’s that mix of reality and beauty I was always trying to achieve all along, and I’m glad people see it that way.
PJ: Looking at Never Rarely Sometimes Always in line with your two previous films, there is a theme, a common thread running through them in that they all deal with young people and sexuality. Did you set out to make a vague trilogy in that sense?
EH: This movie was something that I had begun working on even before Beach Rats, so it was sort of in my archives in a way. I started working on it after It Felt Like Love and I originally had a treatment for a film set in Ireland about an au pair who is foreign and working in the countryside, and she is forced to go to London and back in one day for an abortion, but after It Felt Like Love, I was making micro budget movies, and I didn’t have any agents or any representation, and I thought it would just be impossible to pull off. I started to explore options for shooting it in the United States instead, though keeping the key element of the journey of going from someplace rural to someplace urban, but then I put the movie aside and ended up doing Beach Rats instead. I sort of thought I was going to move on from films about youth after Beach Rats, but when Trump was elected, and I was at Sundance going to all these meetings and everyone asked me about my next movie, this one just kept coming back to mind. It felt even more relevant than when I had tried to make it years ago, so in a way it’s intentional and in a way it’s accidental.
PJ: Talking a bit more about the climate in which you are trying to finance a film like this, how difficult is it to make a film about abortion in America these days? Do you think it would have been different if you had continued with your original plan five years ago, before Donald Trump became president?
EH: When I went out pitching the film in 2014 in the Obama era, there was like a delusional optimism and people didn’t see the need for a story like this to be honest, and it was like me saying: «Oh, but this does actually happen every day.» Even though abortion is – quote unquote – legal in the US, abortion laws and restrictions vary by state, and it is very difficult. There are so many bans and there are so many ways each state tries to chip away at a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, but nobody saw the relevance back then. I even brought it to Cinemart back then, which is a marketplace in Europe. Then, when Trump became president, the conversation, in cultural and political terms, became all about access, and I think people understood the project more in a Trumpian America, but it was still hard to finance. I think part of the problem is also that, when you make small movies, people just want you to make small movies. However, the budget that we put on the film was higher than what I used for my previous films, so that was also an obstacle, but I had two very determined producers, Adele Romanski and Sara Murphy, who really fought for it, to keep the budget where it was.
PJ: We don’t really get to know Autumn through the film, because she has a very quiet, introverted character, which makes it quite hard to root for her, but at the same time, it’s such an intimate story. How did you find Sidney Flanigan for the lead role? How did you work with her to inform the performance that we see on screen?
EH: I met Sidney in 2013 when she was 14 years old. I was working as a producer on a kind of performative documentary set in Western New York. We infiltrated a group of kids who were part of a subculture, and Sidney was hanging out with those kids, but she was intriguing and in over her head with the crowd. She was running with it, if that makes sense. In the end, we connected with her on Facebook. She is a musician, so she posted a lot of DIY videos of her alone in her bedroom making music, and there was something very rough and raw and heartbreaking about her music. Very authentically teenage, in a way. Over the years, I watched her grow up on Facebook. I always had her in mind when I was writing this character, even though I didn’t know her at all, but then, when we started auditioning for the movie, we cast a wide net first. I auditioned young women from Stranger Things, from Hollywood and from London. We also did a non-traditional search around Pennsylvania, went to high schools and theatre clubs, but I didn’t see anyone that I felt really confident in. I didn’t want to do a version of the film with an “actor actor” from LA, I just couldn’t see how this would work, so I thought we have got to reach out to this girl and see what happens. We got in touch with her on social media and begged her to audition. But she was like, «No, I am really busy with my music and I am working.» but we kept trying and she very, very nervously came to New York to meet with me. Very tentatively. We spent a day auditioning her, and I knew as soon as she arrived, that she was the movie. I mean, I hadn’t even really seen her in person for very long, so I didn’t know what to expect, but then, to work with her, to get her ready for the movie, really what I focused on was creating a human connection and bond with her and Talia, the other actress who plays her cousin. I wanted to create a friendship between them, so, the bond that you see on screen is the bond between Sidney and Talia.
PJ: What is also interesting in this regard is the way you place men around them and how they approach them. More often in a negative way than a positive one, which I presume was intentional?
EH: I don’t think the work that I make is message driven - I’m not trying to send a message to men about their behavior - but what I wanted to do is ask them and invite them to walk in her shoes. I think we live in a culture with a lot of ambient sexism, and I wanted to bring people into the experience of being a young girl who was constantly navigating small moments of misogyny, and how much part of growing up as a young woman is learning to deflect and to accept.
PJ: You are also, in a subtle way, very critical about the American healthcare system. In your view, what are the biggest shortfalls?
EH: I guess one thing that I didn’t include in the film, because it I felt it would have been too much, is to look at someone who is under 18, and to look at the problems that they would encounter in trying to access reproductive care and getting an abortion. We have all these parental consent laws, so you can’t get an abortion unless you ask your parents and they agree to accompany you, but of course, that’s not really an option for so many young women in this country. The alternative to that, if they don’t travel, is to go to a judge, and the judge can give them permission. That said though, the judge’s job is to evaluate the maturity of the young woman, to see if she is mature enough to have an abortion, and to me, this is so cruel and ironic, because nobody is evaluating whether or not young women are capable of being mothers. So that’s something that I found very harsh about all of this, but I didn’t think it would work in the film. It was a sequence I had in mind that I never ended up writing, and maybe I have some small regrets about that now, but on the other hand, for me, it was so much more about this young woman learning the complexities that are around her, all the obstacles that sort of keep her away from having control over her own body. Even though her journey is sad and painful, I think it takes a certain kind of woman to persist and do it – and of course, women do it every day.
PJ: Are you worried at all about the film getting caught up in the recent discussions about abortion that are still going on in the US every day?
EH: I hope the film is engaged, and plays a part, in deepening the conversation. It’s a divisive topic and there’s so much at stake at the moment, but I would like to think that it’s an important film not only for young women who are becoming more active and vocal in our country, but also for men to understand the impact of both trauma and restrictive bans.
PJ: It seems like a small fact, but Autumn is a girl from Pennsylvania, and I believe you are from New York. How did you approach the family situation she is growing up in, because it feels very much like a cliché yet, at the same time, it is the reality, and there’s a fine balance between the two?
EH: My partner, who I have been with for 13 years, is from a very small town in Western New York and he worked at a supermarket. I asked him to discuss with me how to authentically construct that part of the story. I think he spent a lot of time taking in and being observational about the town that I thought the movie was set in, even though it’s not about the town per se, but just to capture the feeling, and we are really just dropping into her world for two days, three days, so it was about having a feeling for her world and a slice of life portrait of what it means to be growing up in Pennsylvania without veering towards clichés about poverty. They are just a struggling working family and that’s what was most important to me to bring across.
PJ: Your films so far are all themed around youth and you worked with a lot of young actors…
EH: I love it, I love working with young actors, first time actors.
PJ: What do you love so much about it? Do you think it’s because of a certain rawness in their performance?
EH: The immediacy they have, yes. They understand that they are just doing something, and they haven’t begun to sort of overthink it. I did television and a teen show, and the actors there would always ask to see playback of the footage, but the kids in my films, they are bringing themselves into it in a very real and vulnerable way.
PJ: And so, the next film is going to be…?
EH: Not about youth. I’m done, the door is closed. Well, maybe.
PJ: Do you have a project in mind yet?
EH: Yeah, it’s about a middle-class family in New York City. They are coping with the death of the matriarch, who was in her late 90s and her children are emotionally and logistically and practically totally unprepared for her death. If you think a little bit further, the story is about their paralysis and about making all of these end of life decisions. Then they hire a home care worker, who is an immigrant, and when they give her the keys to the apartment, it becomes her story and the point of view changes and it’s very much about the tension between death and survival.
PJ: Sounds like another “big theme” movie.
EH: Yes, definitely.
Text: Pamela Jahn
First published: October 04, 2020
Never Rarely Sometimes Always | Film | Eliza Hittman | UK-USA 2020 | 101’ | Zurich Film Festival 2020