- 24 Apr 20
Lenny Abrahamson on adapting Sally Rooney’s Normal People for television; making sex scenes safe for actors and realistic for viewers; and how this era is highlighting how vital the arts are for survival.
The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s international bestseller Normal People is finally about to air, and rarely has a series been so highly anticipated – all the more so because of the involvement of feted Irish director, Lenny Abrahamson. That the story of the intimate, complex, tumultuous relationship between students Marianne and Connell is making it to our screen at all, however, is a minor miracle.
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, the twelve-episode series is directed by Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson and acclaimed television director Hettie Macdonald, who helmed episodes of Doctor Who, Fortitude and the recent adaptation of Howard’s End. The directors took six episodes each, with Abrahamson directing the first six, showing how privileged, spiky and intelligent Marianne and shy, popular Connell forge an intense but troubled connection in their final year of school – a connection that continues twisting and turning in their college years. As sex, class, depression, popularity and emotional difficulties affect how these characters interact, Rooney’s novel and this adaptation ask whether intimacy is enough to sustain a relationship.
Shooting finished just before Ireland went into lockdown, and a lot of post-production has been done in isolation. Abrahamson reveals that he’s spent the past few weeks “watching cuts, listening to mixes and having endless conference calls on Zoom trying to finalise the edit.” But as it turns out, splitting the series with another director helped post-production enormously. Working on Normal People has also stopped the director losing his mind in isolation, with the post-production, reviews, press and upcoming television premiere giving him something to think about beyond the current dystopia.
“In the most basic sense, it’s been really nice to have something to think about and do," Lenny Abrahamson reflects. "The anxiety around what is happening in the world – which I’ve always felt – has been sharpened so much in the past few years, and that feeling that we’re heading towards an avoidable catastrophe. The terror is made worse by the anger and frustration that we’re so shit as a species at doing the sensible thing. We’re awful.
"There is no bad faith intervention that somebody won’t make. There’s no lowest you can go. You see it all the time. Then you add this pandemic, which at least has the virtue of being a natural disaster and not something that we made – despite the conspiracy theories. So there are some positives, in the sense that if we could just galvanise ourselves around climate change and equality and decency in the same ways, everything would be fixed. It’s so depressing.”
I remark that there are often tests for a country that define their future: in this regard, I always think of losing faith that America would ever implement proper gun control after Sandy Hook. If children are killed and you still insist on the right to bear arms, there is no hope for you. You have decided what you want your country to be.
In the same vein, this moment feels like a test for so many countries, including Ireland. Will we take this opportunity to change the systems that devalue and endanger the most vulnerable people in society, that perpetuate inequality? Will we take this opportunity to transform for the better?
“That’s it,” Abrahamson agrees. “And you know there are people out there thinking ‘How can we use this to further increase inequality, further concentrate power, further disenfranchise people' – there are people really actively doing that, and I hope we wake up and use this to try and make things better. That has not tended to be our way, but let’s hope we decide to be better.”
He sighs. “Anyway – I think the good thing about Normal People, selfishly, is that we managed to finish it and get it out into the world. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for people who are three quarters of the way through a project and had to stop. It’ll be tough when the release and reviews and press will all be passed, because that’s been distracting me and has kept the oddness of the current situation at bay.”
THE HUMAN TOUCH
However, while the production of Normal People has miraculously survived the coronavirus, it might not necessarily make it easier for viewers to survive our current existence in isolation. Watching the first six episodes is a deep dive exploration of emotional and sexual chemistry, as Marianne and Connell become intoxicated with each other and start sleeping together.
Shooting with intimate close-ups of his lead’s lingering glances, capturing every electricity-creating touch between them, and with a soundscape that makes you feel like you can hear the character’s skin, the show is incredibly sensual. Basically, it’s torturous for people who haven’t touched another human being in a month.
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to satisfy people’s cravings, I think it’s going to sharpen them!” Abrahamson laughs, half sympathetically, half sadistically. “I was thinking about everyone who is isolating alone or with a pal, how are people coping? Because you start to miss the human touch, people’s skin – and that is all over the show. God help everybody! It should come with a warning!”
Abrahamson and Element Productions knew they wanted to adapt Sally Rooney’s novel before it was even published, but on paper, it isn’t a natural choice for TV or film. Marianne and Connell are two characters who live inside their minds and connect through their bodies, and the interiority of the novel could be difficult to capture onscreen. But Abrahamson saw its potential immediately.
“I have done a few adaptations, and I keep saying I won’t do anymore – but then other great things keep being written. But when I read something, I can either see it or I can’t see it, and with Normal People I really felt like I could see it. There’s great interiority to it, but the challenge of representing the interiority of a person is there in every single piece of screen storytelling, whether it comes from a book or not.
"Where the book lends itself really well to adaptation is in the things that people say and do; the choices they make; and the relationships they have. Sally doesn’t write in an abstract way, she writes in a very concrete way. And it’s remarkable how direct her writing is, considering how deep she gets. I could feel what it was like between these two characters in my imagination, because I do see things visually.”
FROM DIALOGUE TO SEX
Abrahamson, known for his films such as Adam & Paul, Room, Frank and What Richard Did, also felt that this project lent itself beautifully to television, as the twelve 28 minute episodes allow audiences to linger in these characters’ relationship.
“With a movie, you might feel under pressure to intensify the movement, to give it a more intense dramatic arc, but television allows you to hone in on each key phase of their relationship in an almost forensic way, and particularly with short episodes, and really craft these dual-like engagements with the characters, without the pressure of one single experience. It gets to be mapped out over time.”
The only moment of intimidation for Abrahamson came when the book was released to universal acclaim.
“What’s scary really is that when we read it, it hadn’t been published, and then suddenly it becomes this global phenomenon and you can’t move without seeing someone reading it. Then you think, ‘Oh god, this is going to be really scrutinised!’”
Having worked on What Richard Did, Abrahamson has experience of not only mentoring a young cast, but also tackling the emotions of teenagers, which is vital for Normal People. Though teenage romance is often portrayed as cutesy, comedic or schmaltzy, Normal People meets its characters where they are. It not only takes their emotions and desires seriously, but reminds older viewers of how intensely theY felt at that age.
“That’s exactly it,” says Abrahamson. “I often think that about small children, people dismiss it as, ‘Oh he’s upset because he’s lost his thing’ – but you never feel that intensely again in your life. And I agree with you, what Sally does is take those characters seriously. It’s amazing. Relationships at that stage of people’s lives are played as funny and gauche, or they’re pathologised as ‘Oh my god, look at the crazy, emotionless sex kids are having, look at the drug use'. So just to say, 'No, all of the fundamental dimensions of human experience are present in these characters, this relationship is deeply fundamental to them, and will be for the whole of their lives, and they may never feel as acutely and intensely again'. That, I felt, was such a great and refreshing approach.
"The best thing about this process for me was getting to work with the young cast. They’re all amazing, but particularly Daisy and Paul are incredible," he continues. "I haven’t done it since What Richard Did, but I got the same feeling of that injection of energy and loveliness. They’re so special. I’m such a Dad at this point, I kept thinking things like ‘God, your parents must be very proud of you'. Because they’re so intelligent and thoughtful and sensitive and just massively talented. People say it all the time: ‘Such and such a person’s a star’, whatever that means – but they’re a joy to work with. I would listen to their instincts because they’re always so good."
I ask the director about the challenge of capturing the emotional intimacy and physical chemistry onscreen, and Abrahamson believes that the success of Normal People is challenging the coyness of how films in particular have often handled sex scenes. There are no sudden cuts between couples kissing and curtains billowing or fires flickering. He stays with his characters throughout their experiences.
“Generally, on the physicality and then the sex scenes, we tried not to distinguish between them. How I shot, if we were moving from dialogue to sex, there’s no point where we enter a different dimension; it’s just a continuation of their interaction. We didn’t want to be coy, or arch, and didn’t want to make it conventionally beautiful, but to be truthful to who they are and what they’re doing, whether they’re talking or making love. The reasons the sex scenes are so powerful is probably because we are just trying to continue telling the story of this relationship, and we’re not just going into sex mode. In some movies, they treat sex scenes like they treat car chases or gun fights, like an opportunity to try a different form of filmmaking.”
The first sex scene is notable for how it stays with the characters throughout, showing them clumsily taking their clothes off, getting a condom, talking about consent and their comfort levels – “All the stuff that you normally don’t bother with in conventional screen storytelling.” In a moment that I want immortalised and shown to every young person in the country (and a lot of adults, to be honest) Connell asks Marianne, who hasn’t had sex before, what she’s comfortable with, and assures her that if she’s uncomfortable, in pain, or just wants to stop, they can.
As they begin to have sex, he asks her if she’s okay, if she wants to keep going. The fact that these basic fundamentals of consent feel so considerate and refreshing is an indictment of how little we see consent discussed onscreen.
“Dealing with consent, which Sally does so brilliantly in the book, we wanted to quash that ridiculous idea that consent has to be some sort of passion-killing PC nonsense. It’s just bollocks,” Abrahamson asserts. “And they deal with it so well – he deals with it so well. He’s terrible at so many things in their relationship, but there, he’s brilliant, and I thought that was such an important thing to show. I wouldn’t show it to my kids now, they’re too young, but I really like the idea of them watching it when they’re a little bit older, because it is a good account of that.”
Abrahamson also had another reason for wanting to show emotionally connected, consensual sex onscreen.
“At a meta level, people always say Irish people can’t do sex onscreen. Then from my point of view, every time I’ve dealt with sex, the act of making love, it’s been in the context of really fraught, dark relationships and worlds – or funny, like in Frank. I remember a French critic interviewing me and raising her eyebrow and saying: ‘You don’t like sex'. I remember going, ‘Hang on a sec!’ But I did think in my mind, at some stage I would like to tackle love scenes in a way that is authentic and good, so this was my chance to set the record straight with her and deal with Irish people having sex in a good way. I thought, this should deal with that for another while!”
I’ll make it the headline, I promise. ‘Lenny Abrahamson: I Like Sex.’
He laughs uproariously. “‘Sex Addict Lenny Abrahamson Confesses! Setting The Record Straight.’”
To plan and film the sex scenes so that everyone knew exactly what would happen and so that everyone was safe, the production employed an intimacy co-ordinator – a role that has become more popular on film and television sets since MeToo. Intimacy co-ordinators’ jobs are multi-faceted. They start by speaking to the directors and producers to establish what the scene is trying to do for the story; to establish what kind of tone, dynamic and acts the scene requires. They also deal with actors’ management, checking contracts for nudity clauses. Ita O’Brien acted as the intimacy co-ordinator on Normal People, and Abrahamson can’t sing her praises highly enough.
“When I heard about this role, my first reaction was to be sceptical, thinking, ‘This isn’t stunts or car chases, it’s just human behaviour'. And then I thought: is this just like having a health and safety person on set, or just a response to MeToo – and of course I’m totally responsible and would never do anything to make anyone feel uncomfortable. But then I met Ita and she’s so great, funny, down-to-earth and brilliant at setting up a way of working that gives you space as a director to shoot in a way that’s really safe and positive for the crew and cast.”
The director reveals the simple tricks and communication techniques O’Brien used, and notes her skill at processing consent and being tuned into whether something is comfortable or not for an actor.
“She has brilliant tricks for making it look like things are happening when they’re not, she has pads and devices to make people comfortable but to make it look like things are real. She also has brilliant videos of all different types of every sort of animal having sex, so that if it’s useful for the actors, they can say, ‘Oh this is like slugs, it’s about twisting and turning around each other'. It gives a vocabulary and gets rid of that fear of people being asked to express things about their own sexual life, which is not something that anybody should be asked to do. It turns it into choreography, and we can talk about it very clearly, with no euphemisms, every body part is named. And after a while, it just feels real and grown-up and not silly and coy and worrying.”
For Abrahamson, this role is also vital for ensuring that the inherent power dynamics on set never leave his actors feeling under pressure to do anything they’re uncomfortable with – a reality all directors should be aware of and account for.
“As a relatively well-known director working with young actors, I don’t want to think that they’re doing things just to please me, or that they’re ever uncomfortable and don’t want to say. It creates an environment where everyone is totally tuned in to what everyone else is feeling.”
It’s remarkable to think of how many film sets have eschewed using intimacy co-ordinators, and what a vulnerable position it leaves actors in. Apart from the possibility that actors will feel physically violated, not being given clear direction puts them in a very vulnerable position as their options are to try and create an entirely new dynamic onscreen – or do what they personally would do in bed, which is an incredibly violating expectation of vulnerability.
“Exactly. And people say, ‘Oh, don’t actors do that in other dimensions across the board?’ and no, actually. Character is key, always. Of course, you draw on aspects of your experience but you’re doing it in a way that actors do that it’s only if it works for the characters. I know of a very shy director who literally says, ‘I hate doing these scenes, so I’m just going to set the camera, leave the room and you do what you feel is right'. How fucking crazy is that?
"So I feel what we achieved was very visceral and real and beautiful, but we did it in a way that felt like real, and not like porn. There is a an old-school, machismo-fuelled approach to filmmaking which is just ‘Let’s drink loads of whiskey and get over the embarrassment and go for it, let’s feel it for real'. I would put my scenes against any scenes done by them and say mine are more authentic, realer, more true than any of those ones.”
Abrahamson considers himself lucky that before the coronavirus hit, he was heading into a development phase rather than production, so no projects have been hugely delayed as of yet, though question marks linger over how shooting schedules will recover given the amount of projects that have been postponed.
“I hope there is the bandwidth in Government to get into the practicalities of re-opening the film industry because there are things you could do, but I do know there are other priorities. I know it’s another discussion, but our support for the arts here is so shite. Disgracefully shite. The one area where we have been better is in screen: film particularly. That’s paid off and there’s a thriving film industry and some really amazing stuff has been made. But even that’s underfunded – but nothing like as underfunded as the rest of the arts – theatre, visual arts, etc.
"It’s such a fucking disgrace. I hope this is an opportunity for us to look at the possibilities of what can be achieved if people really want to, and we don’t just go back to business as usual, only worse because of more austerity. And if we’re not careful through this crisis, we will lose our artists, we’ll lose our actors, we’ll lose our film industry. And you can’t just switch it back on again, it doesn’t work that way. It takes ages and community to build.”
Abrahamson says he’s been disgusted with the State's reaction to arts funding during Covid-19, criticising the band-aid approach.
“Oh my god, I was barely able to comment on it because I felt so sick. Here’s €500,000, and ‘Cheer us up on Facebook, but only if you haven’t applied for any other subsidies’” Abrahamson says. “I’m okay, I’m in a lucky position that I get plenty of support and can operate outside of Ireland and that I didn’t need to apply for emergency support – but it is an eco-system. And apart from the fact that it’s just stupid to throw away everything we’ve invested in, it’s also a cultural disaster. We’re so quick to use our artists to sell ourselves abroad and we pull out all the cultural history of the country as a selling point – but actually we treat our artists as an optional, decorative extra.”
That Normal People will have viewers glued to their television screens seems inevitable – not just because of its compelling performances, beautiful directing and prescient emphasis on intimacy and connection, but because turning to the arts is how we are surviving this crisis. Art has always been how we survive.
“Exactly! What do people fall back on in times of crises, but books and music and things to watch? It’s art that keeps us going.”
The first two episodes of Normal People will air on April 28 (10.15pm) on RTÉ One.