chat room

Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski on Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Quarantine Movies

Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski.
Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski. Photo: Vulture and Getty Images

Never Rarely Sometimes Always gently — but keenly — observes a 17-year-old as she’s trying to get an abortion. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, the movie follows Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) as she and her cousin (Talia Ryder) leave their small Pennsylvania town for New York City, where Autumn can terminate her pregnancy without her parents knowing. We’re never told who the father is; the movie doesn’t explain the circumstances of her pregnancy, only that it’s not what she wants. In the scene from which the movie takes its title, a Planned Parenthood worker asks Autumn increasingly personal questions, and prompts her to answer on a scale from “never” to “rarely” to “sometimes” to “always.” The camera holds still on Autumn as she starts to consider how her relationships have diminished the quality of her life.

Hittman’s movie was produced by Pastel, the production company co-founded by Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski, who became friends while students at Florida State University. Over the phone ahead of Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ early digital release, the two producers considered the effects of debuting a movie like this, and the function of art generally while living under quarantine. “I think the reality is that we’re settling into what is going to be our new normal. People are really anxious and hungry to find ways to reassemble their old style of life inside of this new paradigm,” Romanski said. “If you are a person who wants to watch quality films, films that are impactful, or if there are certain filmmakers and artists that you want to support, I think we’re finding ways to adapt and embrace our lifestyles of this new normal.” Here’s what the two had to say about Hittman, her story, and where they found the movie’s captivating non-actor star.

I love this movie, I think it’s so beautiful. How did it come together?
Adele Romanski: We also think it’s beautiful. We’ve been enjoying Eliza’s work as fans. After her first film, It Felt Like Love, we were always hoping that there might be an opportunity to collaborate with her, and here it is. Barry, I think actually Eliza started developing this when you guys were going through the Cinereach fellowship together, right? That was maybe seven years ago.

Barry Jenkins: About 2012, yeah.

AR: There was a story out of Ireland about a young woman who was denied a medical abortion that would have been lifesaving, and she died. I think that was the impetus for Eliza to start to think about how she would interpret that in her art. I remember talking about it back then and just encouraging her, really as a friend and a fan. And then [the idea] came back, I think, in response to the [2016] election — the change in presidents. We had a change in political climate. We had a shifting Supreme Court. Around that moment, the story came back to her as having a renewed sense of urgency, and that’s where we were able to raise our hands. At that point, we were a company, we’d formed Pastel, and we were looking for ways to support other filmmakers. It was just a very aligned moment.

What did you see in that first draft or early drafts that made you excited about what Eliza wanted to do with this story?
AR: There was such a great sense of tension in the writing. You really felt their sense of fear and the hostility of the world toward a young woman who ultimately needs what is, medically, an incredibly simple procedure. While it’s spread out over the course of two days, it’s really like a ten-minute procedure. But there are so many roadblocks. Reading it, it was very easy to dissolve myself into [the character’s] experience in a way that I felt others would also be able to once it was onscreen.

There is something sort of excruciating about the lengths these two girls have to go through to just to make it to New York [to get an abortion].
AR: I know. It’s not a horror film, but sometimes it kind of feels like one.

It does have these thriller moments of uncertainty, but at the same time the movie is decidedly not political, if that makes sense. Or, it’s not a movie that engages with the political question of abortion, but of health care.
AR: It totally makes sense, yeah. For us and for Eliza, the politics are inherent to the piece. Meaning, I don’t think you need to go to great lengths to draw that out or overly sensationalize it. I think we were more interested in the human toll and the humanity inside of that experience, because the politics are going to be there regardless. We don’t need to necessarily take a clear point of view inside of the film and inside of the filmmaking when the politics of the filmmaker  are very clear.

Can you tell me more about your relationships with Eliza, how she works, and how you work together?
BJ: Like Adele was saying earlier, I know Eliza personally from this program we were both in a way back in the 2000s. I think we’d both made our first features, and were trying to figure out what we were going to do next. That program was kind of filmmaker therapy. I remember her working on Beach Rats, and I was in the early stages of Beale Street. It’s really cool to see somebody who at that point was so very sure of what their voice was. The process of making Never Really with her with was pretty similar to that process of watching her explore these early ideas. She has a very particular way of making her films. And that’s no matter what the subject matter, what the setting is.

AR: As producers, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with filmmakers who have such a singularity of vision and who are not afraid to challenge themselves and the people that they’re working with to achieve it.

How does it feel to be releasing this movie right now, in this pandemic? Several states are pushing measures to classify abortions as nonessential medical procedures.
AR: It is a wild time out there to be sure. I think initially it felt like there wasn’t room for — or I guess it seemed like, you know, inside of the conversation that is centered around COVID-19 — is there room for a film like ours? Or for any film, frankly? To the point that you just made, I think we found out very quickly that the movie is unfortunately as urgent as ever. You do have these governors in certain states seizing on the opportunity to limit women’s access to what we definitely consider an essential procedure.

How involved were you with the casting of the Autumn character?
AR: That was a pretty extended search. We sort of initiated what we thought was going to be a very extensive search going through both traditional casting routes and also through the sort of nontraditional, or non-actor route, if you will. Sydney is somebody that Eliza had known for many years. Eliza’s partner, who’s also a very talented filmmaker, directed a documentary, and that’s when Eliza met Sydney at a younger point in her life. And I think it was immediately clear to them that she was somebody in over her head at that particular moment. They stayed in touch with her. They sort of took an interest in her and just wanted to see how she grew. And she grew into this sort of beautiful musician-performer, but not an actor-performer.

That’s a very longwinded way of saying that we went on this extensive casting process only to wind up in our own figurative backyard. Sydney had always been someone who inspired Eliza when she was writing a script and when she was thinking about how Autumn can feel and sound.

This is my final question for both of you. What resonates with you the most about this movie and this story. Is there a particular scene that you find really striking?
BJ: I’ll go first, because it kind of reminds me of something [we] were saying earlier, about how the idea of watching a film as observational as this feels important at this moment. I was trying to unpack that. Lulu and I watched Terminator: Dark Fate the other night. I just wanted something big and loud, so we put this movie on. I actually enjoyed the movie, so this is not a slight, but I kept finding myself, throughout the movie, predicting what was going to happen. Even if you’re not as familiar with the movie, you’re used to watching movies in that mode. You know what’s going to happen. But you know, it’s what you’re here for, in the same way that you know what a burger tastes like every time you eat it.

But with something like Eliza’s film, all of her films, you can assume that this is going to be about real life. What’s going to happen? Why watch this? Because the way it’s realized is so powerful and so intimate. The characters behave like real people do, which is: We’re all over the damn place! When we’re faced with certain situations, the way we respond is oftentimes a shock to us. And I think you watch this movie about what these young women are going through, particularly the gendered microaggressions in the supermarket [where they work]. You really start to go, Wait, this is real life. And I’m not as far from this life as I thought I was. If I found myself in this situation, how would I react? And that triggers this very activated response I think makes it even more of a roller-coaster ride to watch than something like Dark Fate. Which I did like, so no shade there.

AR: The title scene, of course, is devastating. One of the scenes that really affected me in the making of the film is actually outside of the second Planned Parenthood, when they go to Margaret Sanger in Manhattan. You see this large protest that’s happening outside — a group of Catholic priests and protesters. We didn’t stage that. That’s actually a protest that happens monthly outside of that Planned Parenthood, like clockwork. We were limited in our resources and we had to do that thing that we do, which is, get creative about how we’re going to achieve something. We shot there when we knew this protest would be happening, without actually knowing what would happen. We hadn’t been able to rehearse it or block it. But we knew it should be there and we wanted to try and capture it.

That was a moment that sort of took me out of the process and I think just deeply affected me as a human being and as a  woman, to experience that. That this group of people are coming together, with a genuine intent to attack the people who are going in to get services from that Planned Parenthood. Not physically attack, but ideologically, emotionally.

My God. Did they inhibit filming at all?
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s a peaceful protest. Actually, now there’s like a counterprotest that happens — people who show up in support of Planned Parenthood. If anything, it’s become even more heightened. The protest was peaceful. It was just a reminder of the reason why you’re doing something, right? It was quite powerful.

Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski on Releasing an Abortion Drama