A sensation at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the new drama from Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) shines a light on the cultural stigma and legal challenges that prevent access to reproductive care in America. In following Autumn, a pregnant teen from a small town in Pennsylvania who decides to secretly take a bus to New York City for an abortion, Hittman manages to present a deeply human if grim portrait of how this country betrays its own.
EW spoke to Hittman about the film's origins (and post-2016 development), as well as what she hopes viewers take away from what she calls a fundamentally "human story." Read on below. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now playing in select theaters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Talk a little bit about how the idea for this film first came to you.
ELIZA HITTMAN: I first had the idea in 2012 when I was in post-production on my first feature. I took a break and was reading a newspaper and saw a headline that was "The Death of Savita Halappanavar," who was a woman who had died after being denied an abortion. It's a sad, awful death. I went down an internet hole of reading about Ireland's [law], which prohibited women from having abortions. I started to ask myself how far she had to travel to save her own life, reading about the journey that women would take from Ireland to London and back in a day. Women going on this stigmatized journey to find reproductive health and gain access.
I also began to ask myself, "What does that journey look like in the U.S."? Obviously, we have incredibly restrictive laws in place that make it very complicated for women to get access. I looked specifically right outside New York, and began taking little mini road-trips to Pennsylvania — a Pennsylvania that felt particularly stuck in time. And began to think about what the diaspora of women traveling in the U.S. looked like. I went to a lot of clinics in Pennsylvania and I went to a lot of pregnancy centers, and began to try and understand the difference between federally-funded pregnancy centers that don't actually offer accurate options or counseling. They're just fronts for communities against reproductive rights.
Every beat of this film felt so considered as to what this girl's journey would look like. Did research feel crucial to executing the film as you'd intended?
It did. I wasn't trying to construct a narrative that was really didactic. It was really important to me to create an emotional journey for the character and for the audience. That's my primary goal as a filmmaker. I'm not a documentary filmmaker. So it's all this research to consider the experience of the character.
You mentioned this is often a stigmatized journey. What tropes or blatant inaccuracies did you want to avoid here?
I try always to avoid exposition when writing. I really try to make the story as experiential as possible. It's about the personal obstacles that you encounter as well as the bureaucratic. It was as interesting to explore them figure out the subway turnstile as it was her navigating the inside of the clinic.
That's one of my favorite details, and the movie is full of them; these really small, lifelike moments. How did they find their way into the script?
They find their way into the script through me walking in my characters' shoes. Not only did I do research in clinics and other places, I also took the bus from the town in Pennsylvania where I felt the story began, and looked at who got on, and where the bus stopped, and intricacies of the journey. What would it feel like if I was a girl arriving in Port Authority? The drummers playing at Port Authority are the first thing I encountered when I got into the bus, so they worked their way into the story in that regard.
How long did you spend researching? What did a day in that experience look like?
I took maybe five or six trips to Pennsylvania. But I only took the bus once. As I was writing, I would have more and more questions. I didn't always know 100 percent the story I was telling when I began. When I would encounter a question, it would spark another trip or visit to another clinic. I looked to research to unlock the next step in the writing. For me, I don't love sitting in front of a computer. I love being out in the world, taking a more anthropological approach.
Your previous film, Beach Rats, builds to a more violent conclusion, but both that and this film play straightforward, even at times mundane stories like a thriller. Can you talk a little bit about that tension?
It's the tension between the characters themselves — what they're hiding from friends, from family, from the world — and simultaneously feeling the tension that exists around them. It's very much a story about a character with a secret navigating a world that is potentially hostile to them. I'm very interested in cinematic tension both internal and external. It's very much about having a taut narrative, having a balance between visual poetry and beauty — I think that's important to me — but also this underlying dread that the experiences watching them navigate this potentially hostile world.
I wanted to go back to when you first had the idea. That being several years ago, why was now the time to make this movie?
I initially put the movie away. While I was researching it in 2013, I was pregnant, and I knew that I needed to be working on something that was more localized and closer to home. I thought it would be a little bit harder to execute in the first couple of years of motherhood. I decided to come back to it after I premiered Beach Rats at Sundance, and Trump was elected. I felt a call to action. I felt like this was an untold story — there are so many women who are going to suffer with that man in office. All of the restrictive legislation that's out there hurts people who are most vulnerable.
Did you feel a weight, a responsibility, in telling such an untold, important story?
Yes. Obviously the circumstances needed to be accurate and I chose the obstacle that someone who's under 18 would encounter; I could've chosen a different character with a different profile and different set of obstacles, but this was the one that made the most sense to me, given the work that I'd made. I had to show this as accurately as possible. And I'd have to bring a medical credibility to it.
It struck me that the film is about access, but it's also about culture in a lot of ways. This young woman's complicated relationship to her family and her community are also what lead her to New York.
The story is about the isolation that she's going through, and how lonely she feels in her body. Not everybody has a family that you can confide in. It's very much about emotional isolation. Even though she has her cousin on this journey for support, she's still very much alone in that clinic. That was important for me to communicate through the film. It can be a very lonely journey.
The movie received an electric response out of its Sundance premiere. What was that experience like? It's not your first festival, of course, but did this time feel different?
I was so nervous because it was my movie. It's not dialogue-driven. It's so much on the audience to empathize with the main character. It took me a few days after the premiere to process the reception. The heightened state of nervousness at the premiere. I'm very pleased that people have written about it so thoughtfully, in a way that's so detailed and engaged with the movie I was hoping to put out to the world. They responded so much to the world as well as to the issues.
As it reaches a wider audience, is there something you particularly hope that a viewer not as familiar with these things takes away?
I'm hoping it gives emotional insight into one human's experience. I'm not attempting to change people's minds on this issue, as much as I'm hoping to give them insight into a human story.