Director Eliza Hittman’s latest feature Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always takes its name from a series of responses patients can give during a counseling session at Planned Parenthood. “Your partner has refused to wear a condom,” lists one. “Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to,” is another.
That Hittman took her title from a Planned Parenthood document is just one example of the film’s dedication to accuracy. The story follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenager from rural Pennsylvania, a state where minors must obtain parental consent to get an abortion, who must travel to New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to get the procedure. Along the way, the two face an anxiety-inducing series of small hardships that stack up over the course of the film: leering bosses and random boys, state laws, expenses, and pro-life centers masquerading as abortion clinics.
While it’s nearly impossible to portray what abortion looks like in the daily lives of women across race, age, economic status, and location, the startling minimalism of Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always keeps it from feeling like a sanitized advertisement for a woman’s health clinic, or on the darker end of the spectrum: a torturous, violent depiction of abortion in a country where for many women it’s just a routine procedure. Hittman spoke with Jezebel about researching the movie and the weight of depicting abortion.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Why this story now?
ELIZA HITTMAN: I originally began writing the film in 2012. I was inspired to start reading about abortion rights in Ireland after the death of Savita Halappanavar. And I began thinking about the journey that a lot of Irish women would take across the Irish Sea and to London and back in one day. I was really compelled by the idea of that journey and thought it was an untold story. It evoked a lot of images for me of women traveling in secrecy, sort of on the run.
But at the time when I had the idea for the film, I wasn’t making very big movies. I was making micro-budget movies. And I didn’t think anyone would let me make a movie set in Ireland. So I began thinking about what that journey looks like here when women travel from rural areas into urban areas to get access.
I did a lot of work on the project and started pitching it, but because it was 2013, at the time nobody really saw the relevance. People were living a little bit in this kind of delusional, sort of progressive, moment of Obama. I put the project down and I made another movie that was much closer to home, which was Beach Rats. That premiered and then Trump was inaugurated. I was at Sundance and just organically began talking about this project as my next film. It was actually an old project that was sort of living inside me for a number of years.
How did it feel to have to put that the project aside because people weren’t seeing the relevancy in it?
It was sad. The reaction was, oh that could be an interesting documentary. I tried to do an international film market with the project and didn’t get any interest from co-productions. But to be honest, I think maybe it was a good thing for me to put the project aside. The version that I made is maybe stronger than the one that I was working on then, so maybe it needed to gestate. The other version was more solitary, but I realized it didn’t feel credible that she would go alone.
When you were kind of shifting the story and looking to America instead of Ireland, what drew you to focus on a trip from Pennsylvania to New York?
My partner who edited the movie, Scott Cummings, he’s from a town like a small city in western New York called Lockport, which is near Niagara Falls. And whenever we drive home to visit his family, we go through the region of Pennsylvania where the film was shot. We became kind of captivated with a few small towns that were really trapped in time, like in central Pennsylvania, where there was a coal-mining region and the towns were built to be temporary, to support the industry. But people stayed longer than they expected, and then when the industry collapsed, they were just there, kind of stranded. There’s not a whole lot of exteriors of this town and it didn’t end up being a film about a town, but the place to me was symbolic of what so many places in America that look like it have become.
What kind of research were you doing for this movie? I’m thinking about the scene where Autumn goes to what she thinks is a clinic, but it’s clearly a fake clinic with a pro-life ethos.
We went to those clinics, or what we would call centers. I went in, I took many pregnancy tests, and I also did counseling sessions. So at least the initial conversations that you see are conversations that I had, not verbatim, but in essence.
There are so many moments in that process that are kind of infuriating, how did it feel to do the research you did for the film?
I think for me it was an incredible process. It was really moving to be allowed into Planned Parenthood, Keystone and to be allowed into Planned Parenthood in New York and other clinics like Choices in Queens and to just sit and talk with people about what they encounter every day in their jobs. I was touched just really thinking about the real-life obstacles that women encounter and thinking of the film as an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless, the face to the faceless.
You have that really intense scene in the film which inspires the movie’s title, where Autumn is being asked very specific questions about her sexual history in Planned Parenthood. We see her break down and it’s kind of the first moment we get a sense of everything that’s behind her decision. Can you tell me about shooting that scene?
I spent the most time working on that scene out of every scene in the film. I consulted with a woman named Kelly Chapman, who trained at Planned Parenthood as a social worker and then worked at Choices in Queens. And then when we were casting the movie, because I’d spent so much time consulting with her, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the scene. So I cast the real social worker that works at the real abortion clinic, and I think part of what makes that scene so effective is her. I mean, obviously, Sidney [Flanigan] is phenomenal, but also Kelly’s empathy on-screen created the emotional safe space for Sidney, who was a first-time actor, to really go to some deep places.
To shoot it, we used two camera bodies to film. It’s sixteen millimeter film, which is different than shooting digitally. When you shoot digitally, you can stop and start, there’s nothing wasted. But there’s more tension and excitement in doing a long take on film. It means more, more is at stake. So all of those factors and the proximity of the camera to Sydney’s face intensified what she was feeling. We waited to shoot that scene. In a four-week or five-week film shoot, it’s not a scene you do week two. It’s a scene you save to the end. And a lot of people don’t think this way, but sort of how you schedule a film can shape the performances that you get.
I did tell [Sidney] to personalize the answers to her life as much as possible, even questions just about her smoking and her family having any history of heart disease. I also kind of quarantined her a little bit on set that day, because when you work on a film set, it’s a little like a construction site. I hate it, and I really insisted that that day she have a quiet room to sit in alone.
When you’re depicting abortion on-screen, it’s a very loaded subject. You’re dealing with a history of it being portrayed incorrectly or the weight of depicting something accurately. Going into this film, did you have very specific ideas about how you wanted to depict abortion?
It was challenging. I had a lot of anxiety about how I was going to film it because I was working with Planned Parenthood and I didn’t want to increase a stigma and make it seem traumatic. But on the flip side, I think it’s very realistic that a 17-year-old would be very nervous and fearful about the physical aspects of the procedure, even if they’re not doubting their choice. That was something that hung over me, that I wanted it to be true to what I felt the character would feel and not make women think, god I would never do that after they saw it. I hope I found a balance because there is anxiety going into it and doing it alone. That’s really what is at the core of her experience, doing it alone.
Skylar and Autumn have to deal with a lot of leering, predatory men in the movie, whether it’s a man masturbating on the train or father figure. Why was it important to you to include those moments and that culture of toxicity?
When you think about a conventional story, a hero’s journey, which is something they talk a lot about in screenwriting which in some respects the film is, there’s always an antagonist. I didn’t want an antagonist, I didn’t want to explore who had gotten her pregnant. But I was thinking about how I could explore an atmosphere and an environment that is antagonistic to women because that’s so true to our experiences. In a way, the film explores the kind of ambient sexism all young women learn to navigate and deflect and ultimately become sort of desensitized to as you get older.
You work with young actors or first-time or non-actors. And clearly, with this film you care a lot about the accuracy of the clinic conversations and the realism of the story. What’s your relationship like with realism as a director?
I think it’s funny, the concept realism. What is real? You know, because obviously real is as much constructed as any genre is. And I think ultimately realism is what feels authentic to me as the creator. Was it real or authentic to cast a British kid to play a teenager from South Brooklyn in Beach Rats? No. But was he most authentic emotionally to me, for the character? Yes. So realism is ultimately what feels real to me.