February 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Getting non-actress Sidney Flanigan into ‘Never Rarely’ was key

I am a fiction filmmaker, but on some days, when I’m being nice to myself, I reluctantly admit that I am also a screenwriter. I’ve never fetishized the writing process — staring at a blank white page, pots of coffee, a tidy desk, complex color-coded index cards. It’s too stagnant for my restless personality.

When I started researching what is insensitively known as “abortion tourism” in 2012, I began with extensive fieldwork. I visited Planned Parenthoods in every borough of New York City and one in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. I interviewed abortion providers and social workers. I toured operating rooms. I delved into the specifics of a second-trimester abortion. Even more thrilling, I went to a handful of pregnancy care centers, signed in with a fake name and said I was concerned I was pregnant. (I was actually pregnant at the time.) I took pregnancy tests and was counseled by Christian volunteers who wanted to know if I had faith.

When it came time to write the actual script, I was drowning in information, personal experiences and interview transcripts — as if I were a documentary filmmaker with hours and hours of footage. It was a huge leap to go from researching to writing.

Although the fieldwork had been productive, I was unable to connect with anyone who had actually traveled from a rural area to NYC for an abortion. I had no one to base the film on. The absence of this connection was a reminder to me as to why the film was important in the first place. It spoke to the central issue of the film. That abortion restrictions force women to travel long distances with the burden of shame, secrecy and anonymity.

The character could have been anyone.… Why a teenager? According to the Guttmacher Institute, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rates of any developed nation. Parental consent or judicial bypass is required in 36 states to get an abortion if the patient is under 18. I asked myself, at what age does a woman own her body? What a disempowering message to send to young people coming of age in America.

In trying to generate an image for the character in my mind, I looked to Facebook for inspiration. For the last five years I had been following Sidney Flanigan, who I met in western New York while producing an experimental film. She was a 14-year-old hanging out with a group of juggalos. Even though we barely knew each other, her Facebook posts captivated me. They were authentically teenaged — drama, breakups, small family moments, rage and the desire to perform and be seen and heard.

I was mesmerized by this one video she posted: a cover of the Brian Fallon song “She Loves You.” I listened to it thousands of times while writing. It connected me to the emotional space of the character. I loved her unexpected strength and vulnerability. And who is Brian Fallon?

I set out to write the script without a formal plan, in the spirit of Sidney, a person I really knew nothing about. My first task was to find the character’s voice on the page. Writing without an outline or treatment automatically pushes me to organically prioritize character instead of worrying about making a bomb go off every 10 pages. I trust my sense of structure. I know I am moving towards a dark place; I can feel its pull.

My films all build to climaxes of personal and emotional confrontation, whether it be acts of self-degradation, internalized homophobia or sexual trauma. The obstacles creatively were dodging clichés, stereotypes, extremes, melodrama and didacticism. It’s an ongoing process of calibrating tension.

Whenever I hit a roadblock, I put myself back in the world. I spent hours in Port Authority observing the movement of commuters through the corridors and terminals. I used my contacts at clinics as sounding boards. One of my producers dropped me off at the bus station in Shamokin, Pa., at dawn, and I made video sketches out the window of the bus and of the people who got on and off. This is where I got the inspiration for Jasper, the boy in the film.

We started putting the film together after I completed the first draft. We hired casting directors with grant money from Rooftop Films. I was writing the second draft while casting. It wasn’t until I was inundated with hundreds of casting videos that I knew I needed the real Sidney in the film. On Facebook, we began writing to her. First we had to convince her that it was a real movie, a real opportunity and, most important, a paid opportunity.

She agreed to come to NYC to audition. It was the first time she’d been on a plane since she was 3. While auditions usually take place in a casting director’s office, I was allergic to that scenario. I knew that room would spook her. So, again, I went out into the world. We got on the subway en route to Port Authority. As an exercise and knowing she didn’t know the city, I let Sidney navigate our trip. We turned the camera on. With my director of photography, we began actively staging, directing and filming Sidney.

Riding on the subway, we got to know each other a little better, and she let me know that she appreciated the script that she had actually had an abortion but that it was accessible and she felt supported by her mom and partner. She understood that wasn’t everyone’s reality or the character Autumn’s predicament. I told her that I hadn’t had one but had gone with friends at different points in my life. I’d been there to keep someone company during a lonely experience, even if I didn’t quite know, or need to know, the circumstances.