Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski on the "Urgent" Message of Abortion Drama 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'

Director Barry Jenkins and Adele Romansk - Getty - H 2020
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The Oscar-winning producers reteamed for Eliza Hittman's timely tale of the challenges that face a teenage girl as she seeks an abortion.

As theaters shuttered across the nation amid the coronavirus pandemic, the filmmakers of Never Rarely Sometimes Always had a tough decision to make — wait to release the movie when theaters reopen or release the film on digital platforms to capitalize on an audience confined to their homes.

Ultimately, for Adele Romanski and Barry Jenkins, who produced the film under their Pastel Productions banner, the story about a teenage girl's journey to get a safe and legal abortion was resonant with the current state of women's reproductive health in America, and so they, along with writer-director Eliza Hittman and distributor Focus Features, opted to release the movie on VOD platforms.

"What we do know is that we have a film that’s very urgent right now," Romanski tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There continues to be a war on women’s health and certain states saying abortions are non-essential medical procedures in response to COVID-19, so we know we have a film that matters."

Written and directed by Hittman (Beach Rats, It Felt Like Love) and made for under $3 million, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the story of the teenage Autumn, played by first-time actor Sidney Flanigan, who decides to travel with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) from her rural Pennsylvania town to New York City to get an abortion. The pic delves into the real challenges that the two girls face within the medical system and an unfriendly big city.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury award, and then went on to win the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film was slated to hit theaters on March 13, but with theaters closing down, it was released on demand on Friday.

"We all believe we have a very powerful piece of art and a very captive audience sitting at home," says Jenkins. "The movie’s rated PG-13 and it’s really powerful because there’s all these kids sitting at home right now trying to figure out what to watch, and while they’re doing that, there’s states all across the country saying that an abortion is not an essential procedure."

Jenkins and Romanski talked to THR about how Hittman tackled highly politicized issue of abortion with nuance, the biggest production challenges and the decision to bring Never Rarely Sometimes Always to home screens early.

How did your collaboration with Eliza Hittman come about?

Romanski: We had been fans of Eliza’s work since It Felt Like Love, which also debuted at Sundance, and struck up a friendship as one does on the festival circuit, and when we were coming together years later and forming Pastel and thinking about who were the kinds of artists and filmmakers we wanted to support beyond supporting what Barry’s doing, Eliza was on the top of that list for us. The desire to collaborate was always there and this particular film, it’s an interesting path that these things take sometimes, she started working on this idea at a time when she was in the same type of creative incubation program that Barry was in.

Jenkins: Back in 2011, I was in this program at Cinereach, and I was developing Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, and Eliza was starting to work on an early iteration of Never Rarely, so it’s very cool to be a part of the project now. 

Romanski: [Hittman] went on to make Beach Rats and the world continued and we found ourselves in a different political climate than we were in when she started developing it, and felt that it was absolutely the right time to come back to the story of Never Rarely. 

What was it about her way of telling the story that spoke to the both of you and led to your involvement?

Romanski: Even though I haven’t had the exact experience as these characters have had in the film, it still felt very personal, just as a woman that’s been living in this world and this idea of the micro-aggressions we experience from the outside world and, in particular, sometimes from men, and most confusing to me, the aggression we feel towards our bodies. That was a key entry point for me in connecting with the story that she was telling.

Jenkins: There’s so many movies that get made in this era of filmmaking, which is great, the tools are more accessible and a lot of people are making some really interesting stuff, but Eliza’s work is very distinctive — there’s a certain feel, tone and look, and in this era, for me, it distinguishes itself. As crucial as the narrative of the story that she’s telling was to our company and vision, I also just felt that as a work of art, there’s something quite singular about the way Eliza makes her films, and I wanted to be a part of that. 

It struck me how much she was able to convey without words and dialogue, and it's a very intimate and quiet film. How do you feel she was able to convey the pic’s message effectively? 

Jenkins: I do think that film is a pretty young medium, but it’s at the age now where most people who might go to Sundance have seen a lot of films, and so you get a third of a way through a scene and you kind of know how it’ll conclude, you get part of the way through a story and know how it’ll conclude. So finding a way to watch something, a story that you assume you know what the pattern is going to do, telling that in a way which allows the audience to experience and feel those things with the characters, that’s what distinguishes the way Eliza approaches the story that she tells. When you watch this film, the politics of the film were very clear and are very worthy, but artistically, the experience of watching this is just as clear and worthy. 

The two leads are newcomers. As producers, that’s a risk to take with a lead who’s never acted before, but why did you feel that was the right way to go with this film?

Jenkins: I mean, it’s not Eliza’s first film, so the proof was in the pudding. I think the way we work at Pastel is that you hire filmmakers that you believe in and create the space for them to do their thing, so that was the easiest part.

Romanski: She’s certainly established herself as someone who can discover and curate talent, especially younger — I wouldn’t even say non-performers, they’re just younger and maybe haven’t even had a chance to perform yet, I think that’s certainly one of Eliza’s strengths. We did some, not camera tests but exploratory improvisational rehearsal type stuff with Sidney playing her character, which gave her opportunity to become comfortable in front of a lens. Eliza was always convinced it should be Sidney and she was gracious enough to help show everybody else involved, including ourselves and other producers and financiers, that this is how this will be in front of the camera. And ultimately I think it came down to another one of Eliza’s strengths, which is authenticity, and I think Sidney brings that to the film in a way which perhaps, clearly not drawing a conclusion, but someones a more polished or seasoned performer might just lack a little bit of that texture. So all of those things together work in concert to give us something that’s a really raw and phenomenal portrait by Sidney. 

What was the most challenging part of the production?

Romanski: It was shot on location in New York with a week spent in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, where the girls come from in the film. There was certainly a nuance of how we approached the community of Shamokin to get access to film there; we certainly didn’t hide the story we were telling and the themes of it, but there’s a delicate balance of how you introduce yourself to a community that you’re hoping is going to embrace you, especially when you’re not sure exactly where that community’s politics are going to fall. And that’s true on many of our films, because of the kinds of films we’re making, oftentimes we’re on that line where you have to go into uncharted territory. 

What was specifically hard?

Romanski: It’s hard to make small movies in expensive cities like New York. Planned Parenthood and their support was absolutely essential to making the film. They opened up their clinics to us in New York, both in the initial research phase consulting them and then ultimately as locations for us to film. One of the more interesting feats of acrobatics was that there were a lot of sequences that happen in the [New York] Port Authority and they have a specific structure in place in terms of filming, and they only allow it overnight, between the hours of midnight to 5 a.m. Talia is a minor — she was 16 at the time, and SAG doesn’t allow minors to work between midnight and 5 a.m. — so that was a great feat of negotiation and compromise on part of ourselves and SAG and working closely with Talia and her mother. The Port Authority was really not able to bend much of their policies, so everyone else had to find a way to work. That still leaves a scar in my mind. 

Why choose to release the film on-demand now, rather than holding it back for a theatrical release later?

Romanski: What we do know is that we have a film that’s very urgent right now. There continues to be a war on women’s health and certain states saying abortions are non-essential medical procedures in response to COVID-19, so we know we have a film that matters. It matters as much as it did when the Supreme Court was open, it matters now during the pandemic, so I think we felt there was a need to find our audience, and if they’re not going to be in a theater, they’re at home and how do we get to them? We made this film for as many people as possible, and that’s always the intention and hope. I think we still felt that's our mission objective in making the film, so now we just have to adapt in how we reach them. 

Jenkins: The uncertainty of what that window might be in the future, who knows? Maybe when that window opens up, it’s not impossible for a film to come back in theaters, who knows? But right now, we’re living in the present moment where the issues in this film are very urgent, and also too, when we all believe we have a very powerful piece of art and a very captive audience sitting at home, the movie’s rated PG-13 and it’s really powerful because there’s all these kids sitting at home right now trying to figure out what to watch, and while they’re doing that, there’s states all across the country saying that an abortion is not an essential procedure. So I think the combination of all those things just felt like it was a good time to have the movie in a place where people can see it. The most important part of a movie is that it is seen; the idea of format is debatable. The ultimate point of art is to be engaged and be seen, and right now the audience that can truly see themselves in this film are sitting all over the country looking for things to watch, and I’ll be damned if we don’t have the perfect thing for them to see. 

Looking broadly ahead, do you see more studio movies, especially critically acclaimed smaller movies, finding a home more often on VOD as opposed to theatrical screens?

Jenkins: I don’t think so. I think this is a very particular moment and a very particular circumstance, and I don’t think the release of this film is advocating for one way or another on either side of the divide. I will say that a piece of art that is potent … my experience of watching the film was on my flatscreen in the den in the dark with surround sound, and it was an Eliza Hittman experience, it truly was, it’s still harrowing and engrossing and deeply empathetic right here in my den. Right now, in the present moment we’re living in, there are no movie theaters, and the theaters that do exist are like the ones in my den, or my iPad or Android, and there is a captive audience that is eager to see the content that reflects the world that we’re all going to return to.