The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
Eliza, when did you first start to think about making this remarkable film?
Eliza Hittman: I first began thinking about this film in 2012. I read a newspaper article that was all about the death of Savita Halappanavar, this woman in Ireland who died after being denied a life-saving abortion. And I was really shook by her death. I started to read a lot about abortion rights in Ireland, and the eighth amendment which virtually criminalized it for women in that country. And I started to read about the long journey that women would take from Ireland, many times they’d go across the Irish sea to London, when they needed an abortion… and back, in a single day. And I started thinking about all of the financial burdens of that journey, and the emotional burdens of that journey, and I began to ask myself, why haven’t I seen a film that explores this very real hero’s journey? But of course, I’m not Irish, and I’m not a UK-based filmmaker! So I started to ask myself what the equivalent was in the United States? And I began researching and doing field work, and looking into the real journeys that women take in the US, oftentimes from rural areas to urban areas so that they can access reproductive care. So that was early in 2012, or maybe 2013, and then I sort of put the project down. I made my second feature Beach Rats instead, and then when I premiered that at Sundance in 2017, Trump had just been inaugurated into office and I was at the Women’s March doing all this press and everyone kept asking me what I wanted to make next. And I just intuitively started to speak about this project again. Because I felt a call to action in that moment, and I knew that women’s rights would be under attack in the new administration. And I felt like it was the next film that I had to make.
I began to ask myself, why haven’t I seen a film that explores this very real hero’s journey?
There’s a remarkable scene between a social worker and Sidney’s character that we really need to discuss. Can you talk us through the preparation you did?
EH: I spent a lot of time developing and workshopping that scene specifically. And I worked with a counselor named Kelly Chapman who worked at an independent private clinic in Queens. And a lot of the film has very short scenes in different locations. But that scene was always ten pages and I knew it was going to be a sort of pivotal scene of the film. I knew we’d do it primarily in a long take as well. So those were the ideas I had had going in. Because I really wanted to put the audience in the shoes of the character, and particularly for males in the audience, put them in the shoes of a character, since they’d never have gone through an experience where they’re as vulnerable at what the character is going through. And for me, it had to be done in a long take to achieve that. And in working with this counselor, I had her voice in my head when I writing the script. And then when we went to cast the scene we were looking at lists of actors – some of whom were quite impressive and famous! – and I just knew it had to be the real counselor. There were a lot of things that made that scene as effective as it is; one of them is certainly Sidney. And one of them is that she’s in these hands, the safe hands, of this real social worker. There was a lot going on that day. We kind of quarantined Sidney before shooting that scene, which was really important to me. Because a lot of times, the atmosphere of working on an independent film set can be a little like a construction site: The actors are constantly being moved around, navigating equipment, talking to hair and makeup and this and that… and I really wanted Sidney to come to the scene after being in a private place where she could think about the scene. And I remember going into her private room and going through the scene with her a couple times, and because it was so long, I told her at the beginning of the scene – where the questions are much more general – to just try to answer like the family history questions and the smoking questions and the more general questions, just to answer them as herself. And then at a certain point, it becomes more of the script. But I think that starting her in a deeply kind of personal place lead her maybe put her on track, as an actor, to reach a certain place.
Sidney Flanigan: Like Eliza said, it was really helpful for me to have a sort of private, quiet place beforehand, because it did help me put my mind in the right place. You know, I didn’t really think about any of that before we started promoting the film and I heard her speaking about that scene. And I realized that, actually, I did have a lot more quiet time and personal space before we did the scene, as compared to other days. It definitely helped me to have that time to just contemplate a little bit. And then doing the beginning of the scene as I personally would served as a nice springboard into the acting part of the scene. Because then I wasn’t thinking as much about what I was supposed to say, and instead I was more immersed in the scene. I drew from a really personal place and that’s why I think it worked so well.
Talia, your character’s relationship with Jasper was fascinating and complicated. Can you talk about how you saw it?
I think from the moment on the bus where Jasper touches my character’s shoulder, from that moment on, I think Skylar understands Jasper’s character, and even if there was at the very beginning a sense that she was charmed by him or whatever… I think it all changes there, once he breaks that barrier of touch without asking her. And I think from that moment on, that affects how she looks at Jasper and what she wants from him. I mean, when those things happen, you can see the true nature of a guy like that from the start. And I admired that she was able to be around him and get what she needed from him even if it was uncomfortable.