While the combination of Sally Rooney’s best selling novel with the talents of celebrated filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson clearly promised the potential for quality content, few people (including the Oscar nominated director himself) could have anticipated what an audience and critical juggernaut the Normal People series would become – surpassing more than 16.2 million requests for the series in its first week of availability on BBC Three. Today Abrahamson makes a most welcome return to DN for an in depth conversation about how this beloved project moved from page to screen, the crucial role of Intimacy Coordinator Ita O’Brien in staging those much-discussed sex scenes and his techniques for making subtle stories land with the emotional resonance they deserve.
For me a deep appeal of Normal People was how it depicts a story that would typically be thought of as inconsequential in the larger scope of things but is of course epic to the characters who are experiencing it.
I think maybe that’s why it’s had such an effect because it’s not big and noisy or dystopian or hilarious or any of the hooky things that lots of other TV shows use to grab an audience. It’s sort of low-key actually and intimate, which I feel is a large part of the reason why it’s been so meaningful to people. I’m really heartened by that. Going into this I would have said, look I think it’s very good and we’ve all done something lovely and special but I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences who are very used to a bit more crash, bang and wallop, watch a bit of it and go, “Well it’s kind of interesting but it’s a bit slow and these are a bit ordinary in terms of characters, I think I’ll just watch something else instead.” I really didn’t think we would have the audience numbers that we’ve had. I just could not have predicted it.
Back when we spoke about your second feature Garage, you mentioned that you would view regular life situations as if through a cinematic lens. I wondered if that’s an aspect of what drew you to this project?
I think it was Henry James who said that a really good writer should be able to glance through a window as they walk down the street, see a couple of people standing there and be able to make a novel out of that, just on the basis of those details. I feel there’s a truth to that. Every world, every group of people, every character contains an infinity of richness. I regularly have the feeling of doubly experience something. Experiencing it as a person in the situation there and then in my life and at the same time, watching it as something more abstracted, as something that is the basis for a cinematic construction of the same thing. That still happens to me regularly.
Every world, every group of people, every character contains an infinity of richness.
There’s also part of me that just went, wouldn’t be amazing to do something really different on television. Something which doesn’t feel like everything else. Of course, there’s some absolutely amazing stuff on TV but I think what there hasn’t been for a while is something as naturalistic, which has had a similar reach in terms of the media and audience response.
One of the things the series captures so brilliantly is how vivid the emotions and memories of those formative years feel even decades later.
It’s interesting, if you were to take a bunch of things that have been made about that period in people’s lives, that crucial step into adulthood and first love the broad sweep of it tends to either be: oh look at how naive and silly we were in comparison to the wisdom we’ve gained now. Or it’s dystopian or nihilistic – meaningless sex and drugs and what are our young people doing? What doesn’t often happen on television particularly is taking that phase of life seriously. It is far from being a period of naive transformation or stumbling, it’s actually in a way maybe the most intense phase of life. It’s a part of life where people are usually very awake, feeling things very deeply and struggling with questions of identity. I thought what Sally’s book did so well was to take those characters seriously and really capture the richness, depth and seriousness of that phase of life.
How did you first come across Sally’s book?
Ed Guiney (who I work with and has produced all my films with Element Pictures) was sent a pre-publication copy and shared it with me which is how I got involved. There was quite an intense bidding situation at the time due to a large amount of interest around the book because of Sally’s first book being very well liked. It was tricky to try and think how we could get it because there were some pretty big players who were after it. So we went to the BBC and said look, we want to do this and on the basis of my interest in directing and on the book they green-lit the series right there. Pre-script, pre-writers, nothing other than us and the book which was amazing. They didn’t even specify the number of episodes or how long the episode should be, it was just a completely really trusting decisions that they made. That let us go back to Sally’s representative and say if you go with us then this is happening next year. Luckily Sally, who’s Irish as well, knew my films and liked them so altogether that made a very compelling case and we got the rights.
Was Sally immediately interested in doing the adaptation or is that something you came to slowly?
She was interested pretty early on. I’d worked with Emma Donoghue on Room which was a really happy experience of working with a novelist on her own novel adaptation so we were very up for that. Sally teamed up with Alice Birch who’s obviously a superb playwright and screenwriter and the two of them were a great team to have at the centre. To have Sally as the novelist be a part of the process was such a gift for us.
Given the free rein provided by the BBC, how did you find your way to the structure and length of the individual instalments as well as the 12 episode count we get across the series?
The short episode idea was something that came quite early because I’ve really liked watching things on television that are short. They’re pretty much always essentially comedies but actually, if you look at some of the shows like Fleabag, there’s a tremendous amount of depth and pathos there as well. It felt to us that the story in Normal People is quite slight and you could lose its power if you tried to force hour-long dramas out of it. Instead, if you go with these shorter episodes you could concentrate in real detail on the crucial things in their relationship without having a massive plot pressure. The results of that are it feels that each one is a deep dive. Ultimately our guess was that it would be a stronger experience to have these chapters in this way than it would be to go with the more conventional TV hour.
You could lose its power if you tried to force hour-long dramas out of it.
You’ve said in the past that a way to make smaller stakes count even more is to get really quiet. Is that a technique you deployed here?
Yeah, it was. If small things are happening and you really want to see them you’ve got to shush the room. You have to be able to lean in and watch things that are happening in the smallest kind of ripples in people’s behaviour and reactions. It always felt that to let the audience find the intensity, we should present things with a subtle and quiet voice as the way to make this really strong.
Where did you look when you were developing the style and feel of the series? Were there any particular references that fed into that.
Our references for this were mostly photographic. The filmic side was kind of just a feeling I had and shared with Suzie Lavelle the DP. We did watch things. One thing which we thought was just really beautifully done was Apostasy, a recent British film about Jehovah’s Witnesses. That had a quietness that we both liked and a very simple approach to shooting. Also, something that was really useful to us is there’s an Irish photographer called Enda Bowe whose photography is very beautiful. Mostly portraiture of people in their communities in Ireland and in London where he lives. And Nan Goldin the great photographer, her pictures were very important as well.
The quietness comes out of the material. If you’re listening to somebody sing quietly it’ll make everybody else be quiet. It’s the same thing if you’re watching something that is subtle. The filmmaker will have to make sure that that’s the thing that comes through so it naturally evolves if you’re trying to be authentic and truthful to the material.
Much of the commentary around Normal People has spoken about the absolutely amazing emotional chemistry between Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell. How did you find them?
Paul came to the project very quickly as part of the first self-tape trawl by Louise Kiely a brilliant casting director I work with here. I think got him within a day or two of the tapes coming in and everybody in the office felt he was super special immediately and completely understood the character, even on that tape which was not remotely directed by me. I then met Paul and felt, yeah this is going to be our Connell. Daisy took a couple of months to find but eventually, I saw her tape and I got very excited by that.
It’s hard to cast the second person of a pair because you’re not just casting the character, you’re casting the couple and you’ve already nailed one side which then the second person has to fit. We’d seen brilliant actresses but there was just nobody that felt like they were really the character. Daisy’s approach was very subtle and quite gentle actually which somehow brought a vulnerability to Marianne behind this spikiness. When we eventually got the two of them together in the same place it was really clear because there was this amazing creative chemistry between them. Just a great rapport and ability to play off each other which was amazing.
Another great strength of the series is that the sex feels authentic and engaging but not at all exploitative. You were initially concerned that working with an intimacy coordinator might be a barrier between you and the actors, how did that role integrate into and assist the production?
Yeah, I was concerned about that. I had never heard of that role so I thought, what is this and are we sure we need it? There have been great sex scenes shot in the history of film, we do lots of difficult things so do we really need a special role there. But actually, when I met Ita O’Brien my feelings changed. What she’s trying to do is to take away all of this fumbly embarrassing conversation and provide a really open forum where you can all talk like grown ups. What are the images that we’re trying to create and how do we go about doing it involving everybody in a way that makes them feel heard. Ita’s very practical as well. She has all these garments and padding and she’s very good at devising how to support the actors’ body weight in ways that make it look like they’re in insanely close proximity but in reality not so much. She also provides a forum for us to talk. For example, for me to be able to say, “Oh I think this would be good”, without the actors feeling any pressure to say, “Oh yes of course. I’d love to do that.”
If you’re an established filmmaker, it’s understandable if young actors feel like they want to please and say “yes of course”, and do something because I think it’s right, not because they feel right about it. It would make me anxious to ask if I felt they were going to say yes just because they didn’t want to disappoint me. Ita’s brilliant, she has a way of talking about this stuff which makes it really clear to the actors that they are central to this and that we’re all working in a collegiate way around what they’re comfortable with. And so I never felt that there was ever any pressure which was a great thing to be able to know.
Did Ita’s presence and the back and forth between the four of you lead to the restaging of any of the planned sex scenes?
Well I tend to be pretty flexible, at least around script anyway, so I move things to different locations, I change dialogue. I do all sorts of things all the way through production including on the day. So actually that fitted with me really well because Ita would suggest that something might fit better with the meaning of the scene as she’s very involved in discussing character as well. We talked about every intimate scene in advance and if it ever felt like, it would be better to do this here or this doesn’t feel like a scene that should happen in this way as written let’s do it that way, we would always make that change.
It’s part of the original book but I wondered if you had any concerns about suggesting a correlation between Marianne’s exploration of alternative sexual practices and the damage which stems from her familial relationships?
I wanted to be really careful about it because I don’t think that sexual fetishes are a bad thing at all. I think that for a lot of people they’re really wonderful. Human beings are very complex and even if there is a relationship between what you’re interested in as an adult and what happened to you when you were younger, that doesn’t mean that you haven’t transformed that negative into a positive. It can be a way of re-owning those things which were at one point stressing. So it was very important to try and be subtle with it and to have it be something that Marianne herself pursues. Somehow she is excited by those power relations but what she learns in it is that while that is powerful with somebody like Connell who she loves, it’s not going to work with somebody who she just doesn’t like all. She’s not going to find that fulfilment in her relationship with Jamie. I hope we managed not to demonize fetish in any way.
I thought what Sally’s book did so well was to take those characters seriously and really capture the richness, depth and seriousness of that phase of life.
Why did you decide to only direct the first half of the 12 episode run rather than the whole thing?
We talked about it internally and the thought was that by doing six I would have imposed myself pretty intensely, and hopefully successfully, on the show – getting to cast it, largely crew it, etc. Then with the pressure of other projects I’m developing, it was a matter of trying to get myself that space at the other end. Having said that, being an executive producer I ended up being very involved across the whole thing. There was a delivery issue as well. We wanted to deliver it by a certain date and it would have pushed it out if I’d done all of them.
But actually the positive reason to go with someone else is that there is a natural shift in tone between the first and second half of the season. To bring Hettie Macdonald on board who has a very strong aesthetic and allow her to impose that on the second half felt like it was an interesting thing to do. Everything I did was available for her to watch (all of my edits, all of my rough cuts), so we knew she would be working within something that had been set up but then get to see what she would do with it and how she would reemphasize different aspects. She shot the second half in a slightly colder style and that suits the material. It was really for those reasons that it felt like it might not just be a practical thing to do but an exciting thing to do.
I know that you’re already on the road to making Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends into a new show which is fantastic news. How’s that progressing?
It’s started in the sense that the adaptation process is underway with a great team of writers with Alice Birch at the centre again and the same production team. We’re hoping that we can shoot, in a brilliant world, towards the very end of this year but that might not be possible for all the obvious reasons so maybe next year instead. So it’s early stages in that sense. I’m going to work with Suzie Lavelle again as DP so that’s very exciting. I really enjoyed everything about Normal People, it was a really really pleasurable experience. I work with a producer called Catherine Magee who I go back a long way with who was sort of my righthand person on Normal People and she’s brilliant. It’s just like friends working with friends and people that you really respect.
And finally, what have you got on the boil feature or otherwise?
There’s a feature about a boxer called Emile Griffith who was a boxer from the 60s through to the 80s in the states. He was an immigrant from the Virgin Islands, he was gay and was outed by one of his opponents. It’s an amazing story about all sorts of things – rape, sexuality, masculinity. Then with Mark O’Halloran, we’re working on a project which is based somewhat on his own childhood of growing up in Ennis, County Clare. I really love it. It’s a period for me that’s really significant in Ireland, the early 80s where things were really beginning to change. There’s also an American Civil War story based on a novel by Laird Hunt. And then there are few other television projects that are closing around as well, so there’s plenty to be done as soon as we can get out and start doing it again.