Eliza Hittman’s US abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always addresses the issue of a young woman, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), travelling from rural Pennsylvania to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), to seek a termination. The film, which won a Special Jury Award in Sundance, is now part of the Berlin competition.
Originally there was a lack of enthusiasm to make the film in 2013, Hittman notes.
“Under Obama there was a false sense of progress, but I came back to the idea once Trump was inaugurated. Since making the film, more and more bans are in place from state to state, unfortunately coinciding with an attack on our constitutional rights. But it wasn’t planned that way.”
The film features strong performances from the two leads.
“There really shouldn’t be such a stigma around it,” Flanigan says of abortion. “It should be a health procedure.”
A musician from Buffalo who specialises in feminist lyrics, Flanigan admits “so many more young people are getting involved and caring because we’re being forced to at this time.” She was never trying to be an actor. “This is all extremely random and surreal. It’s been really transformative.”
More of an old hand in the performing world, Ryder, who will soon be seen as part of the Jets chorus in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, appeared on Broadway at the age of 12 in Matilda and at 15 produced the Mia Michaels PSA on gun violence using dance as a way to tackle social injustice. Her new film’s abortion themes resonated with her.
“There’s an urgency to the issue and it shouldn’t be something that continues to be swept under the rug,” she says.
Sally Potter presented the UK/US/Swedish co-production The Roads Not Taken, which was in development before she made 2017’s The Party, a wonderful film starring Kristin Scott Thomas that also premiered in Berlin. While The Roads Not Taken is far from wonderful, it features strong performances from Elle Fanning as the American daughter and Javier Bardem as her Mexican writer dad who suffers from early onset dementia.
For Potter, the story started in a personal place. “My brother had early onset dementia and I learned an enormous amount about how the mind works by being with him. I kept wondering where he was going as he seemed so far away. So, this film started from the enormous amount of love I felt for my brother and a respect for anyone looking after someone in that state.”
Fanning, 21, had starred in Potter’s 2012 film Ginger & Rosa alongside Australia’s Alice Englert.
“I had the honour to work with Sally when I was 13,” Fanning recalls. “When she asked me to read this script, Javier was already attached and I’d never met him before. Obviously, he’s Javier Bardem!” she says, going all girly as she recalls the moment.
“[I’m a] scary monster!” Bardem interjects.
“Obviously it wasn’t scary being on screen with him,” Fanning notes, “but I was a bit nervous to be part of that intimate relationship. We had to develop a connection and I knew Sally liked to do rehearsals and to dive deep. We ended up feeling like two souls in those roles. I felt safe to be able to go to vulnerable places with him.”
“I was worried about getting to a place where I cannot control myself,” Bardem says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. Sally was so generous and brave in allowing me to go where I needed to go. For that, you need a lot of security in the person you were going to play the scene with, and Elle was there for the journey. I felt loved by you.”
Mexican fireball Salma Hayek plays Bardem’s former Mexican sweetheart in flashback scenes. “I got used to hearing him speaking Mexican but we’re very good friends, because he’s married to my best friend,” Hayek says of Penelope Cruz. “He really got into the Mexican part.”
Bardem: “We shot it in four days, and you go boom! It was a really dramatic story that we are sharing, so there was no time to waste.”
For Fanning, her character was about making choices. “I felt she was always trying to find this balance to calibrate her choices between her role as a carer, her work and her personal life. At the end, you see another version of herself going off in another direction. The concept to me is so beautiful, because so many of us dwell on making the right choices in life. It’s beautiful to think of other views and making those choices you were too scared to make.”
Fanning jumped at the chance to work again with Potter. “If I could just work with Sally for the rest of my life I would. Ginger & Rosa was a very big turning point in my life, and I guess my career. As a young woman, what I learnt on that film is irreplaceable and so precious to me. There’s something about how Sally looks at you; there is this connection between us. Just thinking about it, I get emotional. I just love her so much. You just want to give yourself over and surrender.”
Potter admits she loves Fanning too. “When I first auditioned Elle for Ginger & Rosa, she was 12 and when we were shooting, she was 13. She was one of the most professional actors I’ve ever worked with. She has an extraordinary capacity to dig into experiences she hasn’t had, and her capacity to use the imaginary to empathise with other people’s experiences is quite extraordinary. She makes you feel that everything is possible. She will go very deep into the character and afterwards she will just come out it. At the end of the scene where she had to cry a lot, she just went ‘Ahh, that was so refreshing’.”