Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski know more than most about getting difficult stories to large audiences. Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” which he and Romanski produced through their production company Pastel, came together on a $1.5 million budget and ultimately grossed over $65 million in addition to winning Best Picture. Since then, the company — co-founded by Sara Murphy and Mark Ceryak — has supported a handful of other filmmakers, including Aaron Katz’s L.A. neo-noir “Gemini.” Their most recent credit comes out this week on VOD, but it wasn’t supposed to work out that way.
Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won prizes in Sundance and Berlin before Focus Features released it in early March — days before theaters closed nationwide. The Universal subsidiary is now following a strategy it applied to movies like “The Invisible Man” and “The Hunt” by pushing “Never Rarely” into VOD on Friday.
For its producers, that unexpected outcome is only the latest chapter in a complicated effort to bring the filmmaker’s vision to a wide audience. Hittman’s taut, naturalistic story of a pregnant teen wandering New York City in a covert attempt to get an abortion was never an easy sell, but the Pastel team embraced the challenge. Old film-school pals Jenkins and Romanski had been working on the Amazon series adaptation of “The Underground Railroad” when the productions shut down and releases were delayed, but they continue to support Hittman’s film. In this conversation, edited for clarity and length, they talk through the process from developing the material to making peace with its unusual release.
When did you first encounter Hittman’s work?
ADELE: I became aware of Eliza’s work with her debut feature, “It Felt Like Love,” which was my favorite movie of the year when it came out. I was always hopeful about the opportunity to support her telling her stories. It was a patient game.
BARRY: Eliza and I were in the same sort of film therapy group at Cinereach back in 2012 or so. She was in the process of developing what she would do next while I was developing “Moonlight.” It’s been cool to watch the earliest scenes of “Beach Rats” and “Never Rarely” while talking about our goals and aspirations with Natalie Difford from Cinereach on the couch, way back in the day. She has been the same kind of singular voice from then until now. She has a vision of what a feature film should look like that she’s been holding onto ever since then.
There is a striking consistency between her three features — it’s not like one feels like an audition for the next one, there are no name actors, and the scale of the stories remains the same. As producers, how do you work with a filmmaker like this to maintain that approach rather than, say, chasing more financing or securing bigger names to get more resources?
Courtesy of Focus Features
ADELE: I’m always grateful to work with a filmmaker that really steps up in her artistry. It’s to the benefit of everyone collaborating with that person to have their very clear voice guide the process. Sometimes things are more challenging in certain moments because of that result; maybe things don’t come as easily because you have to stay true to the creative path that you’re on. But I welcome it, as opposed to somebody more flexible but more easily becomes creatively lost as sea.
BARRY: There are so many films and TV shows being made. You’d think that means there are all these really distinct things, but that’s not really the case. There are three or four highways that everything winds up on. Eliza is like her own thing. That’s an asset. I wouldn’t expect Eliza to go and cast a Hollywood starlet in one of her films. That’s not the way she sees the world she lives in.
The movie is a lot more engaging than any one description might suggest. Calling it an “abortion drama” doesn’t really do it justice. As producers, how do you encapsulate this movie when working to get people onboard?
ADELE: To call it an “abortion drama” makes it reductive, but putting labels on any of our movies — especially at a script stage — starts to feel reductive. Barry, remember when we had to figure out the pitch for “Moonlight”? It did not sound good distilled to one sentence.
ADELE: It’s hard to convey that sort of special, intangible thing. When we were putting Eliza’s film together, we had the benefit of her established body of work. That means it’s easier for someone potentially interested in supporting it through financing or joining the cast to find it on the page. There was so much tension in the first read of the script that is very much a part of the film now. Some of that stuff was palpable from early on.
BARRY: If you talk about Eliza’s work, the first thing anybody’s going to ask is, “Why does it look like that?” Oh, because it’s shot on film. “It’s shot on film!” Then you can explain the idea of texture in Eliza’s work. It goes beyond the story. Cinema is not literature; it’s a whole different beast. This is how Eliza applies the experience of texture to her work, and it creates this thematic aspect that deepens the meaning of it. Sometimes the filmmaker themselves are the thing you’re pitching. With this story, it’s not an “abortion drama” — it’s an abortion drama told by Eliza Hittman, which is a whole different thing.
How did the project come to you?
ADELE: We had incredible partners at the BBC through Rose Garnett, the patron saint of female filmmakers. The BBC supported the draft and they preceded us by a hair. Then we came in and worked from what was initially a loose framework into the first draft. Then we found folks in Tango Entertainment, Mutressa Movies, and Cinereach. Right around the time we were going to pre-production, but before we’d started, Focus came in on the script. There were a lot of folks involved in championing this one.
Barry, you had a deal with Focus a long time ago, before “Moonlight,” to develop a project that never came to fruition. It must have been interesting to return as a producer.
BARRY: That was a loooong time ago. That’s the difference between where Eliza is now and where I was back then. I’d only made “Medicine for Melancholy” at that point. I don’t think I could’ve made a film like “Never Rarely” back then, and I don’t think I could’ve convinced Focus Features to make it. This was the right film at the right moment. Would Focus have made “It Felt Like Love”? Probably not. The fact that Eliza has demonstrated this singular aesthetic gave everybody confidence that she could pull this off.
OK, so she’s an uncompromising filmmaker, but somehow this movie is rated PG-13. How did you help her make such a tough adult story while still finagling a rating that opens it up to more people?
ADELE: You’re right to wonder about that. We did not find ourselves in the middle of conversations about the rating, thanks to Focus. Eliza and her team were clear about what the film was going to look like and who was going to be in it. Focus and the other financiers supported that. We did holistically work to earn a PG-13 rating, but it wasn’t in order to temper the film. We just wanted to make sure it would be available to the demographic that really mattered and not wanting younger women to potentially be barred access because of a restrictive rating. We didn’t go to Sundance to shop; we went to Sundance to launch, having already gone through a lot of the release planning and the MPAA rating — things that are less accessible to filmmakers when they don’t have distribution partners.
Barry, does this make you wish you’d pulled off a PG-13 rating for “Moonlight” rather than an R?
BARRY: It’s an interesting question, but hell yeah, I would have loved to have had “Moonlight” rated PG-13. Look, this was the film Eliza set out to make. That’s the most important thing. Where that falls with a rating is neither here nor there. I do think there’s a wonderful opportunity with that rating and it would have been appropriate for “Moonlight” to be rated PG-13. It’s appropriate for this film, because the characters are an age where if you’re between the ages of 15 and 18, you can relate to them. But it depends. The same filmmaker made “Beach Rats,” which is rated R, and it doesn’t take more than five seconds to understand why that is.
ADELE: It wasn’t a compromise for us to achieve this rating. It was the vision from the onset that the film would be accessible to that group.
The premise was originally inspired by a woman died after being denied an abortion in Ireland. Now it has become a very American story. How do you feel about the international potential of the project?
ADELE: It’s much bigger than an American story. The inception of the story was international and I think even though the question of abortion access has been asked and answers in the U.K., it’s still an incredibly durable issue because other countries like Argentina where it’s incredibly restrictive. Women experience different degrees of aggression toward their bodies and it might be a sliding scale depending on the territory, but at some point, it is various stages of the same fight.
The movie was playing in theaters when it shut down; Focus has pushed it up to VOD way ahead of schedule, and Hittman herself has been vocal about her resistance to that idea. Where do you come out on this?
ADELE: Barry, you got pretty excited about it and were faster to take to the idea than I was when Focus approached us about the pivot.
BARRY: Because I’ve been in production on “The Underground Railroad” for the entire life of “Never Rarely” — through Sundance and all the test screenings — I never got the chance to experience it in a theater. So my experience of watching it was at home on my television. I think it’s 60 inches. I did watch it at home in the dark and I still felt like I had the Eliza Hittman experience. It holds up. I do think, on April 3, it will hold up for as many people as possible as well. I’m pretty sure more people in this country have seen “If Beale Street Could Talk” in a television rather than a theater.
ADELE: Our mission with this film was for as many people to see it as possible. That hasn’t changed for us. The methodology for how we find our audience has to shift, and we have to respond to the crisis, but our objective is the same. Unfortunately, the war on women’s health is still raging on alongside coronavirus. For us, it’s just as urgent now as ever to make sure that people can see the film.
BARRY: These are extraordinary and very difficult times. Eliza’s films were shot on film, and ideally projected on film or at least projected in a very big room. But this is similar to the situation with the rating. It opens the door to anyone who’s in the same age group as the character. Those people are all sitting at home trying to find out what to watch and what to do. That means this is a wonderful opportunity.
I think on a certain level this idea of access — how we engage our audiences — is shifting. Look at the moment we’re in right now. We have three states that have ruled that abortions are non-essential surgeries. So many things will happen in the next several months that are quite dire, but there are other things that will happen that we might not hear as much about. A movie like this, which can be in anyone’s living room in any part of the country, will ensure that won’t happen. Stories like the one with our protagonist will still be at the forefront of people’s minds.
Focus Features releases “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” on VOD on Friday, April 3.