By Iain Blair
Irish director Lenny Abrahamson first burst onto the international scene in 2015 with the harrowing drama Room, which picked up four Oscar nominations, including for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Abrahamson’s latest project is Hulu’s Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel of the same name.
The series focuses on the passionate, tender and complicated relationship of Marianne and Connell — from the end of their school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. At school, he’s a popular sports hero, while she’s upper class, lonely, proud and intimidating. But when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her cleaning job at Marianne’s house, a strange connection grows between the two teenagers… one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they’re both studying in Dublin and Marianne has found her feet in a new social world but Connell hangs on the sidelines, shy and uncertain as the tables are turned.
The series stars Daisy Edgar-Jones (War of the Worlds, Cold Feet) as Marianne and Paul Mescal, in his first television role, as Connell. Adapted by Sally Rooney alongside writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, Normal People is a 12-episode 30-minute drama series produced by Element Pictures for Hulu and BBC Three. Rooney and Abrahamson also serve as executive producers and Endeavour Content is the international distributor.
I spoke with Abrahamson — whose credits also include The Little Stranger, Frank, Garage, What Richard Did and Adam & Paul — about making the show, his workflows and his love of editing.
You’ve taken on quite a few book projects in the past. What was the appeal of this one?
It’s always an instinctual thing — something chimes with me. Yeah, I’ve done a number of literary adaptations, and I wasn’t really looking to do another. In fact, I was setting out not do another one, but in this case the novel just struck me so much, with such resonance, and it’s very hard not to do it when that happens. And it’s an Irish project and I hadn’t shot in Ireland for some seven years, and it was great to go back and do something that felt so fresh, so all of that was very attractive to me.
Rooney co-wrote the script with Alice Birch, but translating any novel to a visual medium is always tricky, especially this book with all its inner psychological detail. As a director, how challenging was it to translate the alternating sections of the book while maintaining forward motion of the narrative?
It was pretty challenging. The writing is so direct and honest, yet deep, which is a rare combination. And Sally’s perspective is so fresh and insightful, and all that was a challenge I tried to take on and capture in the filming. How do you deal with something so interior? When you really care about the characters as I did, how do you do justice to them and their extraordinary relationship? But I relished the challenge.
Obviously, casting the right actors was crucial. What did Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal bring to their roles and the project?
I feel very lucky to have found them. We actually found Paul first, very early on. He’d been making some waves in theater in Ireland, but he’d never been on screen in anything. What I saw in him was a combination of intelligence, which both characters had to have, and brilliant choices in playing Connell. He really captured that mix of masculinity and anxiety which is so hard to do. There is a sensitivity but also an inarticulateness, and he has great screen presence. Daisy came later, and it was harder in that you had to find someone who works well with Paul. She’s brilliant too, as she found a way of playing Marianne’s spikiness in a very un-clichéd and delicate way that allows you to see past it. They ended up working so well together and became good friends, too.
You co-directed with Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who, Howard’s End), with you directing the first six episodes and Macdonald directing the final six. How did that work in terms of maintaining the same naturalistic tone and feel you set?
We spoke a lot at the beginning when she came on board. The whole idea was for her to bring her own sensibility to it. We’d already cast and shot the first half and we knew a director of her caliber wasn’t going to break that. We had two DPs: Suzie Lavelle and she had had Kate McCullough. During the shooting I had the odd note, like, “It looks great,” but I was more involved with her material during editing, which is natural as the EP. We had a great relationship.
Tell us about post and your approach.
We did it all — the editing, sound and VFX — at Outer Limits, which is on the coast about 30 minutes outside Dublin. It’s run by two guys who used to be at Screen Scene, where I posted my last five or six films. I followed them over there as I like them so much. It’s a lovely place, very quiet. The editor and I were based out there for the whole thing.
Our VFX supervisor was Andy Clarke, and it’s all pretty invisible stuff, like rain and all the fixes. I also did all the grading and picture finishing at Outer Limits with my regular colorist Gary Curran, who’s done nearly all my projects. He knows what I like, but also when to push me into bolder looks. I tend toward very low-contrast, desaturated looks, but over the years he’s nudged me into more saturated, vivid palettes, which I now really like. And we’ll be doing a 4K version.
I love post, as after all the stress of the shoot and all the instant decisions you have to make on the set, it’s like swimming ashore. You reach ground and can stand up and get all the water out of your lungs and just take your time to actually make the film. I love all the creative possibilities you get in post, particularly in editing.
You edited with your go-to editor Nathan Nugent. Was he on set?
No, we sent him dailies. On a film, he might be cutting next door if we’re in a studio, but not on this. He’s very fast and I’d see an assembly of stuff within 24 hours of shooting it. We like to throw everything up in the air again during the edit. Whatever we thought as we shot, it’s all up for grabs.
What were the main editing challenges?
I think choosing to work with short episodes was really good as it takes away some of the pressure to have lots of plot and story, and it allows you to look really closely at the shifts in their relationship. But there’s nowhere to hide, and you have to absolutely deeply care about the two of them. But if you do, then all the losses and gains, the highs and lows, become as big a story as any you could tell. That’s what gives it momentum. But if you don’t get that right, or you miscast it, then the danger is that you do lose that momentum.
So it’s a real balancing act… to feel that you’re spending time with them but also letting the story move forward in a subtle way. It’s the challenge of all editing — maintaining the tension and pace while letting an audience get a deep and close enough look at the characters.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the show.
I’ve had the same team ever since What Richard Did, including my supervising sound designer and editor Steve Fanagan and sound mixer Niall O’Sullivan. They’re so creative. Then I had composer Stephen Rennicks who’s also done all my projects. What was different this time was that we also licensed some tracks, as it just felt right. Our music supervisors Juliet Martin and Maggie Phillips were great with that.
So it was a core team of five, and I did what I always like to do — get all of that involved far earlier than you’d normally do. We don’t just lock picture and hand it over, so this way you have sound constantly interacting with editorial, and they both develop organically at the same time.
Another collaboration with Sally on her first novel, “Conversations With Friends,” with the same team I had on this. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, who knows when we’ll be able to start shooting.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.