A million years ago, or what feels about that long, Berlin got away with one of the last major film festivals before Covid-19 halted not just life as we know it, but also the film industry’s long-established protocols of using festivals to generate hype for new releases. Filmmakers who made it to Sundance or Rotterdam or Berlin have found their momentum suddenly plummeting into an uncharted chasm between festival reception and streaming services. The bridge of theatrical exhibition that normally links the two has given way beneath their feet. At least their films have left a paper trail – something I will attempt to further here on behalf of Eliza Hittman’s stunning third feature Never Rarely Sometimes Always. In these upended circumstances, Hittman could be considered one of the lucky ones. On the other hand, those who had festival premieres lined up for March, April and May of 2020 are either debuting their films in a digital void (Is anyone watching?) or seeing their opportunities to reach an engaged public sphere vanish altogether, the potential impact of their cinematic contributions cancelled.
A million years ago, the Berlinale celebrated its 70th anniversary under the leadership of new artistic director Carlo Chatrian, formerly of Locarno, and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek with new figures heading up some of the other sections, notably Christina Nord in Forum and Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck in Shorts. The departure of Dieter Kosslick, a maestro of red carpet pizzazz, had sparked a highly politicised turnover and visions of what the festival could be (or become again). As German filmmakers demanded a more aesthetically rigorous programming ethos, the festival in transition also proclaimed its aspirations to transparency and gender parity. Critics were thus especially attuned this year to changes in program structure and the overall orchestration and rebranding of the Berlinale. Unfortunately, Potsdamer Platz, the festival’s flashy postwall headquarters, languished in poorly timed U-Bahn and mall renovations as well as the temporary shutdown of Cinestar, one of the multiplexes that usually hosts Panorama and Forum screenings and serves as an important physical conduit and networking hub between festival sections. Yes, festival geographies matter. For business. For buzz. For the prospects of each and every film. For the future of every filmmaker.
Allow me to slide into the past perfect and past perfect progressive. As in every year, except perhaps more so, I had been hunting for my pathway through the various sections, trying to find a meaningful route through hundreds of possible films. Part of this is a desire to be moved, to be surprised, to be challenged, to see something that changes sight, to intersect with cinematic urgency.
Sequence matters in the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional journey of each festivalgoer as films compound throughout the day, the week. In the span of three days, I saw Kitty Green’s The Assistant (in Panorama), about a young woman’s moral discomfort as the personal assistant to a Weinstein-like figure we never actually see onscreen; Josephine Decker’s Shirley (in the new section Encounters), a consummately crafted and audiovisually playful biopic about the American writer Shirley Jackson, women’s explosive interiority, and the creative process; and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (in Competition) about a seventeen year-old girl’s fraught odyssey from smalltown Pennsylvania to New York City to obtain an abortion. Though different in their technical and artistic means, these films shared a desire to render visible aspects of women’s experience that often go unspoken, unseen. Drawing on the specific properties and potential of cinema, each filmmaker had achieved some new level of truth – not just in her content, but also in her method. Green had moved away from documentary, concentrating her realist efforts on the visual and narrative perspective of her female protagonist, the young, lowly assistant to a powerful man. Decker had swapped out her old talent pool for a handful of people – including indie and streaming-era goddess Elisabeth Moss, screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, Victoria cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and musician Tamar-Kali (who also did the music for The Assistant) – who could help her reach her greatest haptic heights. And Hittman had raised the stakes of her distinctive tales of youth and place with new producing partners, including Rose Garnett of BBC Films and Adele Romanski of Moonlight, who gave her the tools and budget she needed to reach her potential as a storyteller of subtle and profound moments. I was rooting for all three of these women. I was proud of what they had achieved. For themselves. For us. I saw their films in the same span of days in which Harvey Weinstein was convicted.
Yet as so often happens when women achieve anything, male voices will chime in to discredit, question, and dismiss their merit. Upon hearing that I had seen The Assistant, a male producer friend said, “That was nice of you.” Nice? I like her work! At the press screening of Shirley, a block of male critics I knew were all sitting together. When the lights came up, I fled. I did not want to be asked what I thought of the film. I did not want to hear Decker disparaged in that moment. I wanted to go home and quake privately at how good the film had been. It only took a day before I started to hear, “Yeah, but she abandoned her indie credentials.” She finally had the resources to make the film she was trying to make all along! At the press screening of Never Rarely Sometimes Always I sat in the middle of a massive, packed theatre. This was a film I had wanted to see properly after the beauty of Hittman’s tender coming-of-age debut It Felt Like Love (2013) and her follow-up feature Beach Rats (2017), a Brooklyn summer tale about a teenager exploring his sexuality. I was surrounded on both sides by men in their 60s. The one to the left fell asleep and was snoring loudly above the film’s relative silence. I was irritated. The man to my right whispered, “Just wake him up. He is too loud.” A few minutes later, this guy, too, fell asleep. I spent about 20 minutes of the film waking men up. During a film I found important, revealing, transformative! Why was I the one tasked with waking them? At the end, the man to the right tried to speak to me as I watched the credits. I didn’t respond. “Oh. I’m disturbing you,” he said. As the lights came on, he asked me if Hittman’s film was a world premiere. I said it had been at Sundance. “It’s like all Sundance films,” he muttered and walked away. I wanted to run. Or scream.
For those who open their eyes, Never Rarely Sometimes Always masterfully balances a depth of character with virtuoso visual storytelling. Against the backdrop of her blue-collar Pennsylvania town, Autumn (played by Sidney Flanigan) navigates the ambient misogyny of boys from school, her grocery store manager, and her stepfather alongside the discovery – a secret – that she is pregnant. But the story does not centre on her relationship to any of these men. Rather, Hélène Louvart’s camera remains close to Autumn, close to her face and gestures, close to her point of view, ready to micro-pan across Flanigan’s features, to catch the little movements that speak. Flanigan, a non-actress, maintains a mystery, holds her cards close, conveying a stoicism and reticence in the face of the camera’s constant, albeit gentle glare. The relationship that matters is the one with Autumn’s cousin and friend Skylar (played by Talia Ryder), who once she learns of Autumn’s predicament, is ready to embark with her on the daunting quest for the kind of abortion that does not require parental consent. The intimacy of their relationship means that the two girls barely need words to communicate.
Hittman, who also wrote the script, constructs her narratives via actions and reactions, things seen and done, granting import to looks, to touch, to the spaces between people, to the environments in which they move and feel. In the scene that follows her positive pregnancy test at a pro-life clinic, Autumn pierces her nose with a safety pin. It is at once an act of self-care and defiance. At another point, somewhere in the depths of Lower Manhattan, as the girls pass time until a morning abortion appointment, they happen upon a garish arcade. Autumn plays tic-tac-toe against a chicken and loses. Later she glides her hand around one of the Port Authority’s large columns, reaching for her cousin, who is locked in an ambiguous embrace with a guy who might give them the money they need to get home. These moments are neither commented upon, nor do they come across as heavy-handed.
Hittman’s sensibility for place and respect for her young characters run deep. What they do or don’t do is a function of their surroundings, their limited life experience and the slippery grit of their internal compasses. Hittman does not exploit her characters, who maintain their agency and self-preserving choices. Things never get impossibly lurid. And even though Autumn has access to the Internet, to digital information about her options, her obstacles to getting an abortion are physical, geographic, medical and bureaucratic – very much analogue. Like Lila in It Felt Like Love and Frankie in Beach Rats, Autumn is out of her depth, a girl teetering on the precipice of womanhood, but not quite equipped for the adult world. She is tough, but vulnerable. In one pivotal scene, almost entirely played in an uninterrupted close-up, she drops her guard, her individual life intersecting with a series of questions on a standard woman’s health form. In a tour de force of raw, unvarnished emotion, Flanigan reveals Autumn’s duality, the duality of women’s lives: the big and small secrets we keep below the surface.
A million years ago, this film, which isn’t so much about abortion, as one minor’s efforts to get one, would have resonated in a post-#metoo world, a world that had sickened at the 2016 US election, the 2018 Kavanaugh hearings, and all the toppled prominent men across professions who had made a sport of inappropriate behaviour (and worse) to their female colleagues. As the 1973 US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, granting American women the right to abortion, comes under attack from conservatives, girls and women in the US feel a once-secure freedom starting to slip. But that’s not why Hittman’s filmmaking is political. Never Rarely Sometimes Always does not advocate abortion. It bears witness. It gives Autumn’s situation significance. It grants girls’ lives, emotions, and friendships narrative weight, screen time and screen space. It compellingly makes a cinematic case for complex representations of girls and women. Perhaps we should be asking what this film is not about. It is neither about the incident that led to pregnancy, nor the relationship, nor the emotional and physical pain of the procedure, nor life afterwards. That is Hittman’s radicality.
In Covid times, both Hittman’s achievements as a director, for which she won the US Dramatic Special Jury Award: Neo-Realism at Sundance and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale, and her film itself are in danger of falling through the cracks of an entertainment industry not yet equipped to handle a fully digital release of a film (actually shot on film) that was destined for theatres. In a way that could never have been anticipated, Hittman has found herself at the centre of an industry-wide challenge. Perhaps that’s yet another way that her work has become political. Will she and the film get the audience and reception they deserve? Never Rarely Sometimes Always is currently available for digital rental on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video in the US and should hopefully expand its geographical reach in the coming months.
This interview took place in two parts: during the Berlinale on February 26, 2020 and during the worldwide Coronavirus lockdown on April 6, 2020.
One of the most striking aspects of your work is how you tell your stories visually.
I never in my entire life thought of myself as a writer. I didn’t keep journals as a kid. I worked in the theatre for a little while and thought of myself as a director. And one day someone said to me, “Well, why don’t you write a play?” And I was like, “I can’t do that.” When I was younger, I had a lot of undiagnosed learning issues, so I felt a lot of pressure around writing. I just never thought of myself as creative and inventive in that way, in that space. When I went to CalArts, I was exposed to a lot of incredible landscape filmmakers like Lee Anne Schmidt and James Benning. One of our early assignments in fiction class was to go out and shoot a landscape and go and spend time in one space over the course of a day and document it and then come back and present the landscape. The idea was to come up with three story ideas for fiction that could come from or merge with that landscape. There was something about that assignment that was so crucial in me finding my voice as a writer. So much of the work that I do as a writer is in the world, and it’s about connecting to spaces and landscapes and really writing them into the story.
It’s interesting that you say “landscape”. Your past features are set in Brooklyn, where many US indie films take place, but you access local spaces and cultures more deeply than a lot of your New York peers. At a screening of It Felt Like Love at BAM Cinemafest in 2013, I remember thinking, “This woman really comes from here and knows this world intimately.” In Never Rarely Sometimes Always you use a lot of close-ups. As if bodies, too, were infinitely fascinating landscapes.
Yes, the body as a canvas is something that I think a lot about. All my films have a very strong sense of place and where I choose to ground them. Places become really, really crucial for me in building the production. Part of what I love about working with Hélene [Louvart] is that she’s really interested in the connection between the screenplay that’s been written and the real world. So, we spend a lot of time in spaces together. With Beach Rats we spent hours in a parked car in a dark parking lot off the beach, watching . . .
What is that collaboration like?
When Hélène comes to New York to do a scout, what excites me most is showing her where the story takes place. She has an incredible curiosity. She doesn’t step on foot with the air of this experienced DP. She shows up with the energy of a curious human.
Why did you decide to write – at this particular burning moment – a story about abortion?
I first started thinking about this film in 2012. I was reading a newspaper, and I read about the death of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died in a hospital in Galway after being denied a life-saving abortion. I was really sad and devastated about her death and just for my own education and knowledge began reading about Ireland’s history and the 8th Amendment. And I asked myself where this woman would have had to travel to save her life? And then I began to think about the journey that all these women take from Ireland to London and back in a day. And I thought to myself, “That’s a story I haven’t seen before.” This untold journey that’s shrouded in shame and secrecy. And who can afford it? How and when? Not only are they going through this emotional process, but there’s this external journey simultaneously happening.
I initially wrote a treatment for a film set in Ireland 2013, and it was about two young women who were working as au pairs in a place that was very foreign to them. They meet in a playground and become friends because they’re both doing the same job, and the kids know each other. One of them mysteriously becomes pregnant, and they have to find their way out of a country and back in a day.
Yes. I was making microbudget movies, and I didn’t think anyone was going to give me money to make that movie. I didn’t have any agents. I didn’t have any management. I was just this up-and-coming filmmaker in Brooklyn. So, I was resourceful and asked myself, “What’s the US version of this narrative?” It’s essentially just a story about women going from rural areas to urban areas and navigating all of these bureaucratic and legal obstacles. How is that different from the United States?
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is such a timely film, and one of the painfully beautiful qualities of your writing and directing is your respect for your characters. How you introduce Autumn’s predicament. How you show the journey, personal and physical. The importance you give this often hidden experience. Somebody else might make a film about abortion, and it would all be about how it came to pass, what happens afterwards, etc. But that’s not the story you’re interested in. Why did you choose to avoid certain kinds of drama?
I didn’t want to make this a film about a character having a moral dilemma. It’s about a character who has grown to realise all of the complexities around her because she’s pregnant. And that’s a different story. We’ve seen the relationship drama about getting pregnant and making a choice. We saw that movie. It was called Juno. I was always interested in the journey and knew that I had to give the audience some understanding of Autumn’s life, but that we would just be dropping them in for a few hours in a day and that the film wasn’t going to be constructed like a kitchen sink drama. The challenge was really finding a balance between the procedural, bureaucratic aspect of it, the character study and the story of the two girls’ friendship. There were a lot of strands to try and weave together.
Throughout the film you also pepper Autumn’s world with a kind of “ambient sexism”.
I like that. “Ambient sexism.”
You could have hit those piano keys really hard, but you didn’t. I was moved by how you filmed those moments, how restrained and, well, ambient they were.
I think it was more important for me to put the audience in the girls’ shoes, to feel what it’s like to have to constantly deflect the male gaze and these male interactions. The way that you, as a young woman, learn to tiptoe around them.
And, in some ways, not even acknowledge them. We all know it happens and how it happens, yet to see it in a film and not even have it be that big of a deal in the dramaturgy is interesting. That’s what I mean by ambience. The supermarket manager. The stepfather with the dog. There are several moments that just rub you – literally in that case – the wrong way.
A lot of those moments are extracted from my world. Small moments. Someone touching you on the bus to ask you something that didn’t really need to involve touching. Why is that charming? Or the moment in the supermarket when Skylar is making small talk, and the man perceives it as flirtatious conversation. Those small, male obstacles were about the way in which they threaten our larger safety in the world.
You create narrative options for your characters that, in another story, could quickly overrule any subtlety. Skylar could just run off with the guy from the bus and leave Autumn in the lurch.
People always ask, “Why didn’t they get robbed in New York?” But that’s not the story. I don’t know how you arrive in that place, but it’s a compass. For me there’s a sort of internal compass that says, “Too much, too far, too externalised.” And I just had to keep trying and navigating within the writing process. I had to hold on to the story I was telling. To learn its rules and logic as I went. Like, how far would she go to try to terminate this pregnancy? It’s really about that internal barometer. Oh, no, she wouldn’t get a hanger. We’ve seen that. It’s too brutal.
That’s not who she is as a character.
Yeah. It’s about what would be true to how she feels in this moment.
As with Gina Piersanti in It Felt Like Love, you have once again landed upon a lead actress, Sidney Flanigan, who is phenomenal. How did you find her?
My partner Scott Cummings, who edited the film, is also a filmmaker, and we take turns. After I made It Felt Like Love, he was working on a film called Buffalo Juggalos. We were in western New York in kind of a rough neighborhood in South Buffalo at a Juggalo wedding, getting to know people in that community, associated with that scene, and Sidney was there, 14 years old, at this backyard wedding with a shaved head and her face painted like a clown and dating an older guy. And we felt she was kind of in over her head. We followed her on Facebook, and she was sort of around that shoot a little bit because her boyfriend ended up in the film. She posted a lot of videos of herself playing music, and I was really captivated by them. I reached out to her in 2013, when she was 14, and was like, “Would you like to discuss a movie project?” She never wrote me back. And then, when we were casting this movie, we went through hundreds of young women who were all talented but not bringing the level of intimacy and authenticity that I felt would make the movie.
It sounds like she kind of haunted you.
Yes, yes. And I kept saying to my casting director that Autumn was “kind of like this girl named Sidney.” And finally, I was like, “We have to get Sidney!” We wrote her on Facebook and begged her to read the script. There wasn’t really much time to get her ready for the role. There was like a day and a half.
So, she’s not a professional actress. How did you prepare her for this process?
We did very conventional things, where I sat with the script and answered all her questions and made sure that she understood each of those clinic scenes and gave her context about the research I had done and made sure she had enough information about the project. In terms of performance it was limited. Her first day acting was her first day on the set. So, the first two days were tricky. We tried to start light and just shoot walking shots and build up her confidence. But I think because she’s a musician and plays in bands, there’s something very much like the atmosphere of a set. Like everybody has their own instrument. And the crew was young.
But more than rehearsing Sidney and getting her into Autumn’s headspace, my main focus was creating the bond between the two women, between Sidney and Talia, and that was where the energy went. Because the movie is so much about their bond, and we didn’t talk about character and back story. I just tried to connect them to each other as young women in the world as much as possible. The bond you see onscreen is not so much the bond of the characters. It’s the bond of the girls…
[Conversation resumes during the Covid-19 lockdown.]
It seems like ages ago that we spoke in Berlin – a much more innocent time. Before we get to the elephant in the room, I want to pick up on what we were discussing then. You were talking about the importance of creating a bond between your two actresses Sidney and Talia. How did you create this authentic connection between them?
I had about a day and a half of rehearsal for the whole movie. One of the biggest challenges in making an independent film is that the prep period is never a creative time. It’s always a period where you’re trying to hire everybody and lock down locations. It’s not as dedicated to developing the vision of the movie as it should be. So, I really had no time to rehearse. They came over to my apartment, and I gave them each a marble notebook. I wrote three personal prompts in the notebooks, and I just left. I let them write for about an hour and then share with each other.
So, you weren’t present when they were sharing their writing?
No, because I wanted them to know each other better than anybody else. I knew some personal things about each of them that I knew would create a bond. They had certain things in common. They both have complicated relationships with their real fathers. One of the prompts was “The Last Time I Saw My Father.” And then there were happier, more get-to-know-you kind of questions. I don’t know what they wrote in those notebooks. But in a day and a half, I wanted to bond them as deeply as possible.
One of the most powerful aspects of Sidney’s performance is her restraint. Although the camera is close, she manages to hide her character’s inner life in plain sight. To maintain her mystery. Was this something you wanted for the character? Or was it something Sidney was doing, something she brought to the film?
In my mind the audience has this intimate access to her. They’re in her bedroom. They’re in her private bathroom, where she pierces her nose, and we’re in this most intimate space of all with her when she has her abortion. She’s dodgy with other characters and is obviously hiding so much, but she is revealing to the audience. But there is some stand-offishness that I associate with being a teenager.
The nose piercing was such a thoughtful way to follow up on Sidney’s discovery that she’s pregnant. That act combines a capacity for self-harm with self-care. She’s both doing something to herself and for herself.
It’s both because it sets up the fact that she could maybe harm herself, but it also shows a character who’s taking control and agency over her body.
A pivotal scene takes place when Autumn is alone, being questioned by a healthcare worker. In that moment she is visually alone in the shot and narratively separated from her cousin. Away from her family, everyone she knows, in this strange place, more vulnerable than we’ve seen her, she reveals the most she ever will in this film. How did you get Sidney through this emotionally loaded scene?
It was a scene that I spent a lot of time on. I developed it with a social worker. The questions really do come right off the intake form at Planned Parenthood. I spent a lot of time talking to her about it. And then, when I was casting the movie, I had this social worker’s voice in my head. I was trying to cast someone like her and then just ended up casting her. There’s something about the scene that’s so effective, and I think it’s partially because Sidney is in the hands of a real social worker.
It’s a long take, uncut for that key stretch. How many takes did you do?
That’s Sidney’s first take. She nailed it. But I couldn’t play the whole scene in one take because I wanted to establish some context and introduce the social worker, the woman she’s acting with. But at a certain point it just becomes a long take. One, I think Sidney is a very good actor. Two, I think she felt a lot of pressure and build-up to do that scene. We shot it with two cameras. One was frontal, and the second camera was ¾. I never used any of that footage. But it meant that Sidney was very trapped by two cameras.
On the day that we filmed it, I made a real point of making sure that she had a quiet room to sit in for about an hour before we filmed. Because a lot of times the environment of shooting independent films is like a construction site. There are no trailers and private spaces for actors to get ready. She sat there and got into a headspace, and then we did it. She’s doing what she does well, which is bringing such a deep level of sincerity to the film, and she’s drawing from some dark personal places. And she’s in the hands of somebody who’s really trusting, who’s also acting, but drawing from her professional and personal experience. We shot the scene in Planned Parenthood. The social worker had trained at a different location, but she had had that conversation all day every day for years.
That scene has really remained etched in my mind, and I think it will stay with a lot of people who see Never Rarely Sometimes Always. There’s something about the intersection of that impersonal form with an individual. And something relentless about not looking away. We’d feel it if Sidney weren’t authentic in that moment. As a spectator I felt that this was the one time that Autumn is breaking in front of the camera.
When she was done, Sidney said it was cathartic and that she couldn’t do the same performance twice. We did a couple of other takes, but they were more stoic. She brought something different. But we knew that this was a character who was carrying around a crisis, and this was the moment when we’re supposed to understand more about why she’s here and why this is so important to her.
Had you always intended to have this medical interview play out in real time?
I originally thought the scene would play in an 11-minute take. But there were slightly too many questions. I initially thought we would just end when the reel ends, like you’re turning a page. But it felt outside the language of the film.
Just a few days after we spoke, Never Rarely Sometimes Always won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale. It was your first time screening a feature there. How did that feel?
Well, I had flown home. And right when I landed in New York, I got an e-mail from Carlo [Chatrian] that said, “Would you be able to come back for the awards?” And I really wanted to do it even though I had more press and a screening planned at Barnard. I had to beg our distributor to let me go back. I didn’t want to miss it, and I’m so glad that I was there for it. The award had been renamed this year since it had some Nazi history.1 To be a Jewish woman receiving this award was very moving for me.
It was amazing to see an American woman with an indie film background win the Silver Bear with a film that really stood out in the field of competitors. While many of the films in the Berlinale competition line-up tend to be world premieres, both Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow celebrated their world premieres at US festivals. How has Sundance contributed to your career and to fostering and supporting the work of independent American directors, particularly women?
I owe my whole career to Sundance. They have supported me every step of the way. I screened a short film there in 2011. I wasn’t somebody who was getting any attention from the industry. I didn’t get an agent. I didn’t get a manager. Who knows who saw the short film after that. But it gave me some stamp of recognition. I made friends with a couple of programmers, who were championing my work. Then I went home and made a microbudget feature, and by the time I was ready to submit it, those programmers had become feature programmers. My microbudget feature screened in “Next”. The movie was made for like $30,000, nothing. There’s something about the warmth and support from Sundance that has kept me motivated as a filmmaker in lieu of having any support from the industry. And even with a feature, I didn’t get an agent. I didn’t get a manager. People would reach out to ask to see the movie, and I would look at their agent rosters. And they were all male. No agents were interested in me. In the time between 2011 and 2020 the needle has moved forward in the industry, and it’s allowing me to have more and more of a career.
And I feel the same way about Berlin. Having a new festival and Carlo, who had championed my film Beach Rats at Locarno. It was very bold of him to put the film in Competition. I’m deeply appreciative, and I think the Silver Bear is a triumph – not just for me, but for female filmmakers.
Sometimes the pathways are different that women have to take. It really depends on who’s out there, who likes and understands your work, who champions and supports you. Obviously, you had a very good reason for premiering at Sundance, and that line of pristineness between a world premiere or an international premiere seems less important when it means getting the film to Berlin at all …
We had target goals, and screening at Berlin was one of them. And we probably would have played anywhere [in any section] because Focus [Features] wanted to release the movie in March, and they didn’t want to wait for Cannes regardless. If it had been in Generation, if it had been in Forum – that was the plan. And then it was totally unexpected that it was in Competition.
You had so much energy and good buzz coming off those two festivals. The whole future of your film must have looked amazing.
And then the whole world shut down.
Take me back to that moment. What was the original plan?
The first thing that got thrown off course was that I was supposed to come back to New York. I got home on Sunday and was supposed to go to LA that Thursday to do press for a weekend. Then the movie was going to open in New York. An hour before I was about to get on the plane to LA, I got a phone call from the head of the publicity department and a bunch of other people from Focus, and they said, “We can’t advise you to travel right now.” And I was like, “Okay, this is interesting. There’s a liability in me getting on a plane to go to LA at this moment.” So, we rerouted things, and I ended up doing all the press from New York. But that was the first moment, where I was like, “Uh-oh.”
Never Rarely Sometimes Always went into limited release in the US on March 13 – so you technically had an opening…
Yeah. It was an opening right when the theatre restricted access and said, “We can only fill half the theatre.” So, we had a big call, and everyone was like, “What do we do? Do we open to a half-empty audience, or do we pull the movie and reroute, relaunch the theatrical since we don’t know what’s going to happen?” And they decided that they couldn’t pull the movie because it would probably compromise their relationship with the Angelika [Film Center]. So, they opened the film, and three days later the theatre was closed. New York shut down. They ended up putting the film on streaming platforms over the weekend. And I have like 20 e-mails in my inbox with some reporting and statistics. We’ll see how it went. I don’t have any sense of it. It’s uncharted territory.
It’s almost as though your situation is a litmus test for the future, for the industry, for other filmmakers.
I think so. I think Universal has some vested interest in seeing how this goes and whether or not they could have their own streaming platform.
One aspect of film festivals that non-industry people aren’t always aware of is the amount of networking that goes on – formally and informally – about future projects. Has Covid-19 interrupted this momentum?
It usually takes more time for people to see the movie. After the opening, I probably would have gone and done a couple of trips to LA. It takes the industry a minute to see things. So, there was nothing happening, no hustling, beyond putting the movie out into the world. But of course, there are partners on the movie who are investing in me as much as they’re investing in the movie, and the press and the reception matter in terms of shaping their perception of whether or not it’s a success and whether they would work with me again.
For Never Rarely Sometimes Always you assembled a powerful constellation of female talent – from your cinematographer and actresses to a small role by musician Sharon Van Etten, who plays Autumn’s mother, to an amazing team of female producers. How did this group of women come together?
The first key player was Rose Garnett, who’s the head of BBC Films. I met Rose right after Beach Rats premiered at London BFI, and we had a very nice coffee. I almost had no idea who she was. I went to the meeting thinking that this person is never going to be interested in me, and she asked me what I wanted to do next and said, “We’ll support you.” It was the most casual agreement that I’ve ever had. She’s been one of the biggest champions of the movie and one of the most trusting collaborators – all about the artist’s vision. She commissioned the script, and after I had written it, I was allowed to hire producing partners. I hired Adele Romanski, who produced Moonlight. Adele had been a friend and was sort of cheering from the sidelines as I wrote the script – offering to read stuff and being helpful. She and her partner Sara Murphy came in, and they were the muscle in putting the financing together. It took a lot of work and determination and passion. They set the bar for the budget and didn’t waiver. There are a lot of people who would have made the movie kind of cheaply, like for what we made Beach Rats for. And they said, “No.” It’s rare as a female filmmaker to find producers who are willing to fight to raise the budget and raise the bar.
A lot of other financing partners came in. It was all cobbled together, which can be a dicey way to put a film together, but we ended up with really warm, supportive team players. As for Sharon, I just like her music, and I was listening to it while I was writing. Sharon was on set for a couple of days in the middle of a big year for her as a musician, and she really wanted to do it. And we wanted her and made it all work.
We can think a lot about how a traditional theatrical run could influence the way that people see your film – also as a piece of art to be viewed with total concentration on a large screen. But there’s also the importance of the story you’re telling. A story about young women. A story about the challenge of seeking an abortion. Early on, as states in the US prepared for the onslaught of Covid-19 cases, the medical establishment called for the postponement of nonessential operations. Pretty quickly it seemed that a handful of states considered abortions to be nonessential. Could there be a new relevance for your story in these times?
This is what makes me feel like we made the right choice in putting the film on VOD because I think there are a lot of women – and young women like Autumn – who are at home with less access. In states like Texas and Ohio, where they’re playing a very dangerous, political game with women’s bodies in deeming abortions nonessential. It’s an unfortunate revelation of the pandemic.
- Katja Nicodemus, “Alfred Bauer: ‘Ein eifriger SA-Mann,'” Die Zeit, January 29, 2020, https://www.zeit.de/2020/06/alfred-bauer-filmbuerokratie-nationalsozialismus-berlinale. ↩