Lenny Abrahamson On The Unique Intimacy Of Normal People [Interview]

Lenny Abrahamson hasn’t taken the road you might expect for the director of a Best Picture and Best Director nominee. After “Room” earned four nods and saw Brie Larson win Best Actress in 2016, Abrahamson segued to the gothic thriller “The Little Stranger” which didn’t earn quite as euphoric a reception. Now, he’s back as an executive producer and helmer of Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novel “Normal People.”

Set in contemporary Ireland, the mini-series follows a couple from a small town, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), from a secret romance in secondary school (high school on this side of the Atlantic) to Trinity College in Dublin where their social standings flip upside own. Like the source material, special detail is taken to depict their intimate moments. A unique challenge for Abrahamson, who directed the first six episodes and Hettie Macdonald (“Beautiful Thing,” “Howard’s End” mini-series) who tackled the back six.

Earlier this month Abrahamson jumped on the phone from Ireland where, like most of the world, he’s in a stay at home isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic.


The Playlist: Hi Lenny, how are you doing?

Lenny Abrahamson: Fine. I mean the same as everybody I suppose, just getting used to this odd new form of life.

Did the stay at home orders stop you from working on anything?

We were pretty lucky. I mean we were just finishing off some kind of online-y final mix stuff on “Normal People” But we were able to do everything remotely, I mean really by the skin of our teeth to get the last episode through. And so that week we were very lucky. Four or five weeks earlier, it would have been hard to deliver the last bit. But now, I was heading into development phase anyway. That’s just all happening as normal except over Zoom or whatever.

Speaking of “Normal People” how did this come your way? What made you want to tackle this?

Well, it came my way, because of this longstanding connection I have with Element Pictures. Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe and the whole gang there. But I’ve been friends with Ed since we were teenagers. Pretty much done everything I’ve done with those guys. And Ed had, an early edition of “Normal People,” actually prepublication, it was a hot property at that point. People loved her first book and the word was that “Normal People” was really amazing. But it was sent out to a select number of production companies. And Ed loved it and thought it would appeal to me and I just absolutely loved it. And what about it appealed to me? I think just primarily just the sense of intimate connection to the two central characters that Sally manages to create with her perceptively direct style of writing. I mean it just really moved me. And I felt that there was something particularly relevant to now. I’ve been trying to not do the literary adaptation for the last while. Sometimes, really brilliant things come along and you just can’t say no. This was one of them.

One of the interesting things the fact you directed the first six episodes and Hettie Macdonald helmed the last six. What prompted that decision?

We came up with what felt like a very natural 12 episodes shaped to it. And I felt without breaking in the middle of shooting for a whole second plot phase and for various reasons, as well as having other things that I was trying to keep moving at the same time, that it felt right to not do all of it. Two questions [came up:] Who would really do this? And then, how would it break up? And I think the idea of doing two blocks felt right. It felt like we would have two directors both, we hoped, with strong voices. And that single split in the middle of the story, which I think does mark a tonal shift in the book. And therefore, it felt like a natural divide to break things into two. And then, Hettie was just such an established and excellent director with an amazing catalog of work. And we wanted somebody with that kind of voice who would bring her own sensibility to it. Which she really did. And it was an exciting way of working.

To be clear in context, you directed episodes one through six. And then, seven through 12 is directed by Hettie. In episode seven there are shots and scenes reflecting back to what has happened at the end of your last episode. In a situation like that, does the same crew show up the next day just without you? How does that work?

No. We really shot it in two very distinct blocks with, I think, a one week hiatus between my block and Hettie’s block. I shot for about 10 weeks including the scene you’re talking about where I shot the aftermath of something which we don’t see in my block. What leads up to it and what comes away from it. And then, everything finished and stopped. And then, Hettie took over after we finished the whole block and she shot her own schedule. It wasn’t at the beginning of her schedule that she shot that stuff. She went back to that location for a whole bunch of things. And one of them was that scene which, in the timeline, occurs within my block.

Oh, that’s interesting.

Yeah. We didn’t try and double back. We didn’t swap in and out for each other. We each shot a complete shooting block. I worked with a DP named Suzie Lavelle. And Hettie worked with Kate McCullough [as her DP]. Actually, but it was really interesting to see how that would work. Obviously, we’ve been involved in the prep and all that. Hettie was able to see what I’d done. But I didn’t try and say this is how you should do it or anything like that. I wanted her to feel free to do it in a way that made sense to her.

Normal People, Lenny Abrahamson

In terms of the casting, I feel like whether this is a hugely popular or not, it will be something that people go back years from now and be like, “Oh, yeah, that was the thing that I first saw Paul Mescal in or Daisy Edgar-Jones in.” Can you talk about the idea of casting relatively unknowns in the leads here?

I mean I suppose one thing is, when you’re casting people who are the age they are, characters from the age about 18 to about 23, sort of that’s around where they are, and [when] we cast Daisy I think she was 21, Paul was 23. As it happens, you’re going to find that there aren’t that many very established actors in that age group. They’re so new. And you could cast older, but I think that somehow your feel that. I really wanted the actors to be within the ages that the characters have in the stories. And also, it’s really not about anything other than finding the right person. In other words, I wouldn’t have ruled out somebody with a profile if they happened to be just absolutely right, but it turns out that the people who were the most electric when we auditioned were Daisy and Paul. And there’s a lovely sense of excitement around bringing brilliant actors to an audience for the first time. You could feel it on set.

What made each of them the right choice?

With Paul, he was one of the first self tapes I saw for Connell. And it felt like pretty amazing that when we put on his tape, it really felt like the character was there right from the beginning. Right from all the choices that he made in his prep in his audition. They were just so clever. They were so insightful in terms of the kind of mood the character creates, this character sense of uncertainty and masculinity at the same time. He felt like he came from a small town and, at the same time, he felt like this charismatic presence. Just an amazing series of choices that he made, so intelligent. He’s a really intelligent actor. He’s capable of great gentleness, and thoughtfulness, and delicacy. And he’s also very masculine. And that’s just a really interesting combination. And he’s very beautiful looking without being anodyne. And then, Daisy, she came at the other end of the casting process. We had auditioned lots of amazing women. But we didn’t find anybody that felt like the counterpart of Paul. Didn’t feel like anybody else had completed that couple. And Daisy, I think, had, for whatever reason, she’d slipped through the net of all the casting people that we had working with us in different places. She even read with some other actors just friends of hers for their auditions but hadn’t auditioned herself. I think I must have heard her voice on casting tapes without ever seeing her. And then, luckily, somebody asked her and she read. With her, as well, I think she brought a kind of interiority and a softness that really compliments the spiciness of the character. Daisy, again, an incredibly intelligent as an actress. And then, it was just this wonderful thing when we got the two together. And we played some scenes and worked with them. And I worked with them for a day. And I came away just feeling extremely excited. Because it felt like the couple was really interesting. When you saw them together, you just wanted to keep watching.

The other thing that’s interesting is, both of these actors don’t have that many film or TV credits. I don’t think Paul had really any except maybe a guest star.

None. None at all.

There’s some very important to the story – not salacious sex scenes – but the characters are making love. So, now you’ve got a situation where it’s inherently important to the story and two actors who have never really done this before. How do you tackle something like that?

I mean, I think you just tackle it carefully and with, you hope, openness and kindness and inclusivity. You involve everybody in the conversation. From very, very early on in the audition process, right at the beginning, we said, “Look, this is an essential component to the story. It is a story about first love and it’s a story about a really intense physical relationship that this couple have. It’s not sort of an added extra. That’s really essential to the way the story works.” And I think because everybody was familiar with the book, all the actors, a lot of them are fans already, but certainly anybody who hadn’t read it before the audition. I think that was very clear. And then, we talked very openly with people about that and about the fact that that would be an important component so that it never felt like we were suddenly landing it on anybody. That was the first stage. But then, it’s about finding a way for people to feel happy and comfortable in the making of those scenes. What we tried to do is just talk about the scenes in terms of what they were doing in the broader drama. It didn’t feel like you were going in to shoot either an ordinary scene or a sex scene. It always felt you were shooting a scene that was part of either the psychological development of the characters or the story itself. And you think about what’s necessary or what is appropriate for the piece at that point under those headings. And that takes it away from being, I don’t know, gratuitous in any way. Everybody can understand what it’s trying to do.

Beyond that, we also worked with a wonderful woman Ita O’Brien, who’s an intimacy coordinator. She has developed a way of talking about and working on intimate scenes. A bit like a stunt coordinator might step in when you’re designing action sequences. This is entirely different in one way but it’s another person who has a way of working safely and positively around that sort of material. Ita came in. She talked to about how she worked [to the cast and crew]. It’s around consent. It’s around how you speak about these things. It’s about openness. It’s around understanding that what you’re doing is representing states of feeling and physical patterns and how that can be done in a way that feels safe and empowering for the people involved. And then myself, Ita and the actors would talk about each sequence and design it together, always having a process of consent and a way [in which] nothing would happen if [the actors] didn’t feel comfortable. And here’s a big advantage. I think, like a lot of directors, I like to be in control. And I was worried if somebody’s going to get between me and what I need this to be and to feel like as a filmmaker. But actually, it worked in a really positive way. Because the danger for me, I think, if we’d worked the traditional way. The “old way” where you just muddled through in interaction with actors. In fact, as an established director 30-years-older than the actors, I would worry that they feel pressured to do things because they thought I wanted them to. In a way, that would stop me from asking. Because I’d hate to feel like they would feel any pressure because I’d asked. However much I said, “Listen, it’s totally up to you but here’s how I see it.” I was worried that they would not want to say, “Listen, I don’t really feel good about that.” That they wouldn’t want to disappoint me. Having Ita there just meant there’s this other layer. And it means that they have a process and a context in which they can say when they don’t feel right about something or that they would like to think about it a different way. I hope people like the series. But I think one thing you’re going to have to admit if you see it is that those scenes are very natural, feel, I think, very real.

This is an Irish novel, but I felt like this story could have taken place anywhere, in a way. But is there something inherently Irish about it that, perhaps, that I might have missed?

I think there’s a couple of things to say about that. The first thing is, I think that generation of people, people in their early 20s, they probably have more in common with, Irish people of that age group, probably have more in common with people the same age group in Boston or New York or wherever than they do probably with people two generations away from them in Ireland. The world is so transparent, especially for that generation. I think that’s one reason why it translates so well. And the other thing is, I would hope that the experience of being in Ireland in terms of landscape, and accents, and language even didn’t change anything. And it feels like [a contemporary] Irish person, I think they will see a pretty accurate representation. But it’s not closed off to other people. It’s still pretty universal. And I’m glad that you feel that there was nothing in it that was cloudy for you. I’m really glad. We didn’t set out to change things in order to make them easier for an international audience. We just stuck to what we thought was true and hoped that that would translate to an audience anywhere.


The other thing I wanted to ask just was about the music. Were some of them contemporary Irish acts?

We listened to just an awful lot of contemporary stuff that felt like it lived in the world of the story. And I think I was just keen to listen to a lot of contemporary Irish acts. There are so many really amazing people making music here. Some of the pieces that you’re hearing, which I think are beautiful and could play anywhere, are by young Irish musicians. But then, there are also tracks by international artists and similarly interesting niche artists from all around the world. But there is probably like 30 to 40% of the stuff, of the tracks, that we cleared would be from Ireland. I was just blown away by how good the stuff is here. It’s amazing. It’s always been a strong part of the culture here. But I think, at the moment, it’s a golden age of new people making just great music. And then, I worked with Stephen Rennicks who’s a composer that I’ve worked with on everything that I’ve done. And he did the score. I mean there are more tracks on this [project] than anything I’ve done. In fact, I don’t think in any of the films I’ve made I don’t know if I’ve ever used a track. This was a big change for me.

Do you remember the names of any of these artists? I did see that you included a Carly Rae Jepsen track. That made me quite happy.

Yeah, she’s amazing. Lisa Hannigan is a brilliant Irish singer/songwriter. And Fionn Regan. And let me think who else. Another great, Orla Gartland. There’s many others as well. But had three people that we use. I think we’ve probably used Lisa and Orla more than once.

Do you know what you’re working on next?

Having said that I was trying not to make a literary adaptation, I’ve got two film projects. Neither of which are literary adaptations. But I’m actually going to do Sally Rooney’s other novel “Conversations with Friends.” Same setup with the BBC and with Element Pictures. And that just got the green light a few weeks ago. We’re working on it now. And the writers are working on this end. And as soon as we’re able, we hope, we had hoped to shoot it in the autumn. And that just depends on where the world is with the coronavirus.

And lastly, what has been your most memorable binge while you’ve been stuck at home with your family or movie that you’ve caught or anything?

“Succession.” Which is great and just compulsive and just what we need. And what else? You know what? I’m trying to watch films with the kids that they would not otherwise have watched. Because we’re all at home. And there’s quite a bit of time. I’m going to watch, tonight, I’m going to watch “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” with the kids. He’s about to be 12. And she’s nine. And myself and my wife, who’s a complete cinephile, are basically trying to get our kids to slow the expectation of how many cuts per second, how many cuts per minute, there are on screen and educate them out of YouTube and into the history of great cinema. Been watching the Laurel and Hardy films with them. And we’re picking out stuff that we think they might like. Which will help just, I don’t know, give them a taste of really good filmmaking and really good cinema.

“Normal People” premieres on April 29 on Hulu.