The ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Producers on Changing the Abortion Conversation

"The film is inherently political and yet purposefully not polemic."

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Focus Features

The eponymous scene of Never Rarely Sometimes Always does not arrive in a highly charged screaming match, a shocking reveal, or any sort of manufactured melodrama. Instead, it’s taken from a medial intake questionnaire, where a 17-year-old must provide background information: Has she ever been hospitalized before? How many sexual partners has she had? Has she ever been forced into a sexual act against her will? Her options in one-word responses—never, rarely, sometimes, always—tell us everything we need to know.

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Sundance Film Festival hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always, written and directed by Eliza Hittman and arriving in theaters this weekend, follows two teenage cousins from Pennsylvania as they embark on a journey to New York City following an unplanned pregnancy. It arrives shortly after 12 U.S. states passed abortion restrictions in 2019. While producers Sara Murphy and Adele Romanski insist the film isn’t a direct response to the current administration’s approach to reproductive rights—Hittman began writing the film back in 2012—they do acknowledge that there is “intent behind the timing.”

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The film, minimalistic yet devastating, is very much of today and in a conversation with Observer, Murphy and Romanski revealed the thinking behind its intent and execution.

Observer: We are living in a time in which reproductive rights seem to be under assault. The film doesn’t name specific policies, but is it in some ways a response to the Trump administration? How do you tell a personal story colored by politics without delving into them?
Eliza’s goal in telling the story I think was more specifically from a personal standpoint, personalizing it and making it more about a human choice and exploring human rights. Reminding an audience that at the core of what this issue is, I think, that a conversation and a dialogue in a political environment they’ll often times forget. The film is inherently political and yet purposefully not polemic. The purpose of the film is to expose the difficulties in front of women today as they get used to some states and particular counties that have disabled an ability or access to reproductive help.

Romanski: I would add that there is certainly intent behind the timing. I don’t think it would be honest for us to portray the film as a direct response to the current administration. It’s something that Eliza started thinking about back in 2012. She learned about a woman’s death in Ireland who was refused a life-saving medical abortion, but I do think there is intent behind the timing as to why she came back to this story now in this political moment and climate and why she also rallied behind making the film.

What are the challenges of marketing and promoting a so-called “abortion movie” in today’s political climate? Various organizations protest or target Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics with violence. To what degree is that a concern?
I think the first step is not to market it as an “abortion film,” and I don’t think that’s for fear of any sort of violence towards the film or the filmmakers. But we want the film to potentially engage all walks of life in a dialogue about women and healthcare and women’s reproductive rights. The way to change the conversation is to make the thing personal and specific and try to take it out of the big, scary, dramatic conversations that are ongoing about abortion rights and make it really just about one person. Very specific and still dramatic but dramatic not for the reasons that are being adjudicated on the national stage if that makes sense.

This is a deliberately uncomfortable film to watch in certain scenes. Yet was writing and conceiving the movie as a PG-13 film a conscious decision?
 In the making of this, I think Eliza went in with a lot of freedom. She simultaneously tried to portray the experience and the vulnerability and the nakedness literally and figuratively of a young woman that has to go through this experience and how that affects their body. I think that being said, the film came to what it was at a creative standpoint and then there were a couple of minor changes that didn’t really affect the story that would have allowed it to be PG-13 and I think that was an important thing for Eliza not to limit the audience and anything to purposely target a younger audience about an important audience today.

Romanski: It is difficult to watch and we’re not apologetic for that. I think it’s difficult to live, and that’s hopefully a little piece of the takeaway.

Between you both—Moonlight, GeminiIf Beale Street Could Talk, now Never Rarely Sometimes Always—your resumes are dotted with these minimalist films that are attentive and emotional. Are you drawn to this specific type of storytelling and if so what is it about these types of tales that you guys find so alluring?
I think that the stories really originate from a place of specificity and authenticity, and that’s what we’re looking for first and foremost. Are we stepping into a world that we are curious to better understand and then can a larger audience share our enthusiasm for meeting a character and seeing a piece of their lives? I think from there then you hope that it becomes somehow universal through specificity I guess.

Murphy: I think we’re also drawn to specific filmmakers. The sort of people that you can like somebody with very specific goals and again uncompromised visions and I think I just have been huge fans of [Hittman’s] previous work. I think we were excited at the idea she would be telling this story in the way she tells stories, not even knowing necessarily where we would land or what this film was going to be. I think that there’s something huge that draws people into a vision we can sort of get behind.

Speaking of that tier of directors, you both are producing Barry Jenkins’s Underground Railroad Amazon series. What can fans expect from that and how does that differ from previous takes on the material?
You’re just going to have to wait to find out. But I will say I’m speaking to you now from that set and we’re six days away from wrapping. I feel the same tingling excitement that I felt at the end of each one of our projects together. I think it’s going to be pretty cool and I think that Colson has already brilliantly built a world that’s anchored in history which is already a departure from how we’ve experienced that history before. I think we’re just hoping that we’ve done our best to take the baton from him and further extend from the world he built and further imagine the possibilities in a cinema landscape. 

Is there anything I didn’t ask today that I should have?
Our hope for Never Rarely Sometimes Always is that it really does incite dialogue above anything else. I think it’s been really interesting coming out of movie theater screenings and people want to talk and people want to hear what Eliza wants to say and they want to ask questions and they’re confused because they don’t know things and I think that’s our greatest hope. That it causes people to ask all questions and bring to light issues that unfortunately are ever relevant today so yeah all the questions. Ask all the questions.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Producers on Changing the Abortion Conversation