Interview: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ director Eliza Hittman and star Sidney Flanigan
Never Rarely Sometimes Always deftly tells an often untold story; Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenage girl in rural Pennsylvania is faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support. With her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), the two embark across state lines to New York City on a fraught journey of friendship, bravery and compassion.
The spark for the film first came in 2012, when a woman named Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning in a hospital in Galway after being refused a life-saving abortion. Out of devastation, Hittman began to research the history of abortion rights in Ireland. In a country where abortion was criminalized, she became fascinated by the journey that women would take from Ireland to England to access legal care and an image of a woman on the run crossing the Irish Sea formed in her mind.
I talked with director Eliza Hittman and the film’s star, first time actor Sidney Flanigan, about the creation of safe spaces, making an independent film about female friendship and a little bit about Thelma and Louise.
Erik Anderson: I want to congratulate you right off the bat on both of your Gotham Award nominations, adding to the Sundance and Berlin wins from this year. It was really great to see the movie brought back into the conversation since the pandemic hit as the film was set for release in the spring. To that point, how have you both been managing since then?
Eliza Hittman: I think it’s been an intense stretch of time for all of us. I feel lucky to be busy. I teach full-time, I’m a professor, so I’ve been on Zoom classes since we shut down last March and this fall I’ve been working, doing publicity and I’m happy. I’m happy to have the momentum of the film to keep me going during these dark times.
Sidney Flanigan: Yeah. I’ve just been trying my best to stay occupied and keep my mind, my hands busy while I’m unemployed and haven’t had much to do. So I’m working on music and like taping auditions and stuff, and just like trying my best to stay busy while everything’s kind of in limbo right now.
Eliza, going right into the film, was the current state of abortion rights in the United States the impetus to write this story or is it kind of that it always feels relevant?
EH: I started working on it before Trump was the President of the United States of America. I think that there was less awareness at the time when I first began working on it and pitching it at about the lack of access for women of certain socioeconomic classes in certain geographical areas of this country. Then all of a sudden when he became president and women’s reproductive rights were under threat again. People were more aware of the conversation around reproductive rights and access. Honestly it was something I was working on for a long time. It just became more and more urgent by the minute.
Were there any major changes to the story during that time?
EH: This is sort of the same story; a girl from Pennsylvania going to New York City. I tried different iterations of it, like in one version, she went alone. There was a version that I explored that was a girl and a boyfriend and that wasn’t interesting to me either. I decided that, in the end, what would make most sense would be like a friend or a cousin or a peer, someone who was nonjudgmental in the process.
Sidney, I’m always incredibly excited by, by first-time performances and actors. I think you were absolutely incredible and I just rewatched the movie again last night and I’m overwhelmed by how great you are. Can you tell me a little bit how you came to be in the film as your first feature.
SF: Thanks so much. When I was about 14, I met Eliza on the fringes of a shoot her partner was doing in Buffalo, called Buffalo Juggalos. We met in passing around that time and Eliza friended me on Facebook and followed me on Facebook over the years and would watch my videos of me playing music in my bedroom and stuff. When I was 20, they emailed me and asked me to come audition for Never Rarely. At first I was skeptical, not sure if I wanted to do it. And after some thought I decided to take a chance and kind of go for it and see if it was something I could do. And I really didn’t have that high of hopes or expectations, but then I ended up getting the part and it was really awesome and a really awesome experience.
Did you have actors that you admired or were inspired by? What was it that got this performance from you?
SF: I don’t really have any specific actors that I was drawing from or anything. I’ve never really watched actors in that way, I guess until recently, because I was more of a musician and I was more appreciative of other musicians because that’s the kind of a world I was existing in. So the film world is still new to me. And playing that role was just kind of, it was an entirely new experience. So I just tried my best to put as much of myself into it, I guess, especially with playing music.
A great part of the film, too. Eliza, was that something that was created a bit for Sidney or was that already there?
EH: It was always in the script, it always started with this talent show. I thought it would be a good way to kind of introduce the audience to the tone of the film, you know, and kava, I have an experience of the place like this big high school in this small town. And we definitely worked with Sydney to find music that she responded to, uh, cause she has very strong opinions about music and taste and what songs speak to her that she would want to play. So I always gave her options, uh, and you know, that I thought could work with the film and we let her, her intuition guide us about which song, you know, would fit
One of the things I really like about the film is the look of it. It felt very 1970s. Was there an intention to kind of obscure when it takes place? Because it feels like it could be seventies or nineties or now it’s, it has a really timeless nature to it.
EH: Yeah, that is definitely the intention, especially in the part of the film that takes place in Pennsylvania. I wanted to disorient the audience with regard to the period of the film. That’s why I chose to begin with like with a 1950s talent show. Is this a period movie, like where are we in time and space? That’s often how I feel in this country, you know, in terms of our ideas and our politics being disoriented.
Exactly. I think the scene that draws the people in the most or will, when they see it, is the scene that gives the film its namesake, at planned Parenthood. Can you walk me through creating that scene and a safe space for Sidney for such an intense moment?
EH: When we were shooting the film and when we were in pre-production, I kept begging my producers to make sure that there were quiet spaces for actors to prepare. You know, when you make an independent film, there’s no trailers, there’s no, little like makeup rooms or things for people to go into dressing rooms. And the chaos of the shoot can be a bit distracting. On that day I made sure Sidney had a private room and I didn’t want her to have to be exposed to the commotion of the lighting and the department heads running around. I just wanted her really in a quiet space. I remember I went into the room where she had been sitting for a long time and we read through the scene and the scene was obviously intentionally very long.
I think Sidney knew we were going to shoot it as a long take and were shooting 16 millimeter. So it means more when you shoot on a long tape, you know, it doesn’t have the same risk when you shoot digitally. And I think she was a little bit nervous at the length of the scene at first. And I remember telling her, just answer all the questions about your family history as yourself. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the script with the questions about, you know, heart disease in your family and all of the basic information. Then we focused mostly on the script for the last part, but I think that there was something about starting at a more personal place that allowed Sidney, I don’t know, she can speak for herself to maybe, like, begin the scene in a personal place.
It starts a little kind of innocuous with these general questions and then it does get more intense and more scary. Sidney, how was it shooting that scene, especially as a first time actor? What did you pull from and how did you pull it off?
SF: At the end of the day, I really just kind of pulled from my own emotions and experiences to climb into that head space. I don’t want to say what those are because they’re personal, but like that’s pretty where I was coming from.
Of course, one of the other great things about this film is the female friendship element and I’m glad to hear what you mentioned earlier, Eliza, about the different iterations about maybe a girlfriend/boyfriend version. I love the decision that it’s two female friends and they’re related. Sidney, how did you and Talia bond on the set so that your relationship was believable?
SF: So when I first met Talia I think one thing that was initially a good thing that grounded the two of us was that we discovered we were both from Buffalo. Coming from the same place was interesting and I felt like there was already a connection because of that. And then as we were preparing for the shoot, which we only had like a couple days, I remember Eliza had given us these journals with these writing prompts in them, like a little private personal type of things, and Talia and I wrote our answers in the journals. Then the next day we shared our answers with each other privately. That definitely helped create this initial bond between us and we just became really good friends, like outside of the film and offset and stuff. I think that really helped.
That’s really beautiful. I just keep thinking about the scene in the subway when you extend your hand out to her in just this moment of safety for her. It’s an incredibly moving moment.
Eliza, you have some really great producers on board here with you including Adele Romanski. What was her part in helping guide the production?
EH: I worked very closely with Adele Romanski on the script and she was really positive in the writing process, which can be very dark and lonely. It was nice to write knowing that she was reading pages as I wrote and could see it and was waiting for me on the other side of the writing process to complete a first draft. And then once we had that first draft, there was a real sense of teamwork between Adele and Sarah Murphy, who’s also a producer on the movie, in finding the financing for the film, which was not easy, but we had actually really great partners between a company called Tango, just run by Lia Buman and the phenomenal Rose Garnett, who’s the head of the BBC films. We needed to fill some holes in our budget and we were able to do that with another company called Mutressa, but it was a real team effort, I would say, to put the financing for the film together.
Sidney, (NRSA executive producer) Barry Jenkins had said that you and Talia reminded him of Thelma and Louise and asked if you had seen it. Have you seen the film yet since that conversation and what did you think?
SF: (laughs) Oh, yes, I loved it.
Eliza, because we are in a non-theatrical place right now and the movie is on video, on demand right now, do you think that a movie like this with its subject matter, that the viewer that needs to see it most might not feel they can go to a theater and see it and that video on demand might help more young women see this movie?
I think young people already watch movies at home and that’s a reality that a lot of cinephiles don’t want to admit. I think it does make the movie more accessible for people who fit the description of the character in the film, which is great. I think the fact that it’s on HBO Max has made it accessible for audiences. I like seeing movies by myself in a dark theater. So in the all of the chaos of the pandemic I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t miss being in a movie theater with people. I miss being in a movie theater at 2:00 PM crying and being moved and experiencing things in, some ways, in isolation. So I think people do like to watch things on their own sometimes. And I think because of the themes of the films that I make it’s not the worst way to experience it.
I completely agree with you there. I’d like to close, asking Sidney specifically, what’s been the most positive aspect since the film came out to now for you.
SF: Oh, that was a big question. The most positive aspect I guess I’d have to say is probably the people who have reached out to me, like on Instagram or something telling me their own experiences, like that are similar to the film and stuff. Telling me like how much it meant to them and seeing that it’s like having a positive impact on the viewers. So I guess that’s what I’d say.
I think that’s wonderful. I don’t think you could ask for much more than that for a film like this. I want to thank both of you so much for allowing me to chat with you this morning. I’m so glad that the film can be seen more widely now. So thank you both so much. Have a beautiful day.
EH: Thank you, too.
SF: Thank you.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is currently available on HBO and HBO Max as well as On Demand and eligible in all relevant awards categories including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress/Breakthrough Actress (Sidney Flanigan), Best Supporting Actress/Breakthrough Actress (Talia Ryder), Best Cinematography and Best Original Song (Sharon Van Etten’s “Staring at a Mountain”). You can also download a copy of the screenplay HERE.