In an interview with Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki, producer Ed Guiney, two-time Academy Award nominee for Room and The Favourite, discusses bringing Sally Rooney’s beloved novel to the small screen.
Hulu’s Normal People provided Ed Guiney with a plethora of golden opportunities: A chance to reteam with his frequent collaborator and long-time friend Lenny Abrahamson, a chance to bring to life a story he loved, and a chance to reintroduce international viewers to a modern version of his beloved Ireland.
Normal People should provide Guiney (and his cast and crew), with yet another golden opportunity, an opportunity name Emmy.
Read a transcript of our interview with Normal People executive producer Ed Guiney below:
Awards Daily: Ed, I came across a clip of you and you were talking about producing. You were saying that a lot of people think that producing is just about money. But it’s actually about finding the material and finding the talent.
What does that mean in the context of Normal People? The book was published in 2018. Less than two years later, the show is here. Talk me through what that process was like.
Ed Guiney: Well, basically we had already optioned [Sally Rooney’s debut novel] Conversations with Friends and we’d been working on that when we got the [Normal People] manuscript in spring of 2018 from Sally’s agents. And it went out to everybody. It went out across the English-speaking world because Conversations was a big hit. And we were, in a way, quite nervous about it because we thought well, ‘We’ve already got Sally’s first book, so she may not want to allow us to option her second book.’ You know, she may not want them to be with the same people, which would be understandable. So, I read [Normal People] nervously and absolutely fell in love with it. And, my colleagues read it, Emma Norton and Andrew Lowe, two of the other executive producers, and we all loved it. We have a very long-standing relationship with Lenny Abrahamson. We’ve been involved in all of his films and he’s really a member of our family. And a great friend of mine. I gave him the book and he absolutely responded to it as well. As I felt that he would. I mean, he and I first started making films together, more than 30 years ago at Trinity College, which is also the university in the book. It’s sort of our backyard in some ways. We know that world very well.
And at the same time, Rose Garnett, who’s the head of BBC Films, was reading the book and we were talking all the time because we were working on Conversations together and she fell in love with it too. But we knew it was a very competitive landscape. A lot of people were interested in optioning the book, so the BBC did a very bold thing. On the basis of Lenny’s interest, and the book, Piers Wenger, who’s the head of drama there, greenlit the show. In other words, he said, ‘Look, you can go back to Sally and tell her that if she collectively allows us to option this book, we are making this show. There are no hurdles, no ifs or buts, it’s a greenlit show.’
It was a very powerful and persuasive argument to get back to Sally with. Sally is a huge fan of Lenny’s work so she was very open to that. I think that was really how we got [the rights] in the face of a lot of competition from other people everywhere around the world.
AD: And as you said, you were looking at about a two-year timeframe from when you started working on it to now. Talk to me about some of the specific challenges that came with that fast turnaround.
EG: Yeah! You know, what was wonderful about it is once we knew we had the book, we knew we were making it, so there was just a real kind of urgency about getting on with it. And we didn’t feel we had to jump through any hoops or hurdles and the BBC was so keen that it come out. The book came out earlier in the U.K. than it did in the U.S. but they were keen that the show came out as near to the publication of the book as possible in order to keep that cultural moment alive. They also were very keen that we actually adapted the entire book in one go rather than split it into seasons.
But apart from that, they were very, very open about how we went about it. And we collectively came up with the idea of doing it in half hours. Normally BBC dramas are an hour-long, and as you know, comedy is more often broadcast in a half-hour format, but we kind of felt that because this is such a character-focused piece, we thought that half-hour bites would be better. And if it went out as a streaming proposition, which it has done [on Hulu] then [the episodes are] almost like chapters, which allows you to either decide to watch it in one go or however you want. But they’re almost like chapters in a novel.
We felt that, in a way, that the pressure on the plot would be too great in an hour-long version of the show. We felt that half-hours were the best version. And Sally was interested in having a go at writing some of the scripts herself. We were very excited and she took to it brilliantly and wrote first drafts of the first six episodes. And then she and Alice Birch completed those episodes together. And Alice wrote five of the remaining six.
AD: The show is split into two blocks with Lenny directing six episodes and Hettie Macdonald directing six. Why was there a decision made to split the episodes between two directors?
EG: Well, we had always thought that we would have two blocks of six episodes and have two directors, that Lenny would [be involved] at the very beginning. So, he would set it up and cast it, but also wanted to try and attract a well-known, reputable, and very gifted filmmaker to come and do the second block with us. And we always thought that we would ask a woman to do it. We just felt that would make sense for the nature of the material. And it would be good to have that kind of input, obviously.
We had seen Hettie’s work and just pursued her and were really keen that she joined us. But it was always our intention. At one level it’s kind of logistical. In other words, for one filmmaker to do 12 half-hours, or six hours of television, just means that it pushes out the delivery a lot later. And to have Hettie’s eye on it, and to have her input, really felt like it made sense.
And also, there’s a kind of tonal shift after the first six episodes. The second half of the book is slightly different from the first half. So, you could allow a filmmaker to kind of grapple with that in their own way and bring their own imprint and instincts to bear on it as a block of work.
AD: As you’ve mentioned, you’ve known Lenny for a very long time, 30 years! I spoke to [sound designer] Steve Flanagan and we talked about how you all are a group that has worked together multiple times and continues to collaborate, lovingly, with one another.
I wanted to ask you about coming together again for Normal People, what that was like, but also, I’m just so curious about how your relationships have changed over time.
EG: It’s a really good question and it’s sometimes hard to kind of pull focus and be very cogent about answering that question. I mean, Lenny and I started making films together. He’s not only someone that I’ve worked with, and he’s so important to our company [Element Pictures]. I’ve had the privilege of producing his work for, forever, really. But he’s also a great friend. He has an office in our office in Dublin, he very much feels part of the company.
But at the same time, he’s a very serious filmmaker, with very high standards, very exacting. So, we all have to be at the top of our game to properly support him and to properly help him do what he does so well. And that extends to, as you mentioned, Steve Flanagan and the sound guys that we work with. Stephen Rennicks, who’s a very old friend, composed the music for this show. There is kind of a group of us in Dublin who have worked a lot together on all of Lenny’s stuff, and that of course, gives you a shorthand.
But, I think, Normal People, in a way, was a particular pleasure because it was the first time that we’d done something back in Ireland in quite a long time. We’d done Room (2015). We did The Little Stranger (2018). So to come back to Dublin and shoot something there was really lovely. And the crews in Ireland are really good. And they’re also very proud of Lenny, they go the extra mile for him.
It very exciting for us to be casting very young actors in the roles of Connell and Marianne [the exquisite Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones], but also there’s also a whole group of young Irish actors who haven’t been seen that widely that have been introduced to the world now. And you can even see on social media that they’re all getting their own traction, which is wonderful. Sarah Greene is the kind of senior person in the cast in that sense, and she’s quite well known. But, was great to work with that cohort of young Irish actors, all of whom will go on and do incredible stuff in the future.
You’ll probably appreciate this, but [Normal People] is also presenting a view of Ireland that’s quite different, maybe, to what people expect. It’s an Ireland that’s quite modern and liberal. I often feel that maybe audiences around the world have slightly old-fashioned views of the country. They see it a slightly backward kind of country with, you know, carts wandering down, lovely little country roads and stuff like that. [Laughs].
But, it’s a very modern country. And Sally’s work is very much located in that. Where the literature of the past was to do with the Catholic church or dark stories of the IRA, immigration, all of the poverty, whatever it was. This is a very, very different view of Ireland.
AD: I do want to ask you about Conversations with Friends because that is a book, that like Normal People, is very beloved. Can you tell me anything about that adaptation? How is it coming along? What we can expect? Is there anything you can tease?
EG: I mean, there’s probably not a lot to say because it’s still quite early days. In fact, I just come off a call talking about it. Alice Birch is involved in writing the scripts. It’s Lenny again and it’s the team at Element. So, it’s a lot of the same creative team. But, we’re really aware that it’s a very different book to Normal People. And it’s not a follow-up, nor is it a sequel. It is its own thing. And we have to find a particular identity for it and a particular energy around it. We’re really excited to do that and try and find ways of, hopefully, bringing a real freshness to the storytelling in Conversations with Friends. As I said, they’re very different animals. I think you have to lean into the kind of spirit of the book in terms of how you tell the story.
Normal People is a very, very particular thing. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous story about this young love affair. Conversations is more complex in some ways in terms of the emotional landscape and the kind of relationships that are going on there.
AD: Returning to Normal People, this show has really captured the cultural zeitgeist.
AD: I mean, I’m a 25-year-old woman, in my world, it is THE show that people are just consumed with right now. [Laughs].
EG: [Laughs]. Right!
AD: I would even say the show has captured the zeitgeist in a way that the book hadn’t, necessarily. What has it been like, from your perspective, to see this explode in this way?
EG: I mean, it’s been pretty extraordinary and made all the more extraordinary because we’re all in lockdown. I’m in the south of Ireland miles away from my friends and doing all of my communication this way [through Zoom]. [Laughs].
One thing that we all feel like we’ve been slightly rubbed of is the moment to properly celebrate it. We were supposed to premiere it at Tribeca. We were all going to be at Tribeca [Film Festival] together. That would have been a gorgeous moment to be together and celebrate this thing that we made.
You know, the book is incredible. And it was a zeitgeist book. It grew in stature as we made the show. In other words, when we first optioned, it hadn’t been published. But as we were making the show, it became this thing. Like the book that everyone was reading on the subway or on the tube in London. it’s that book. I think we were also, always, very aware that [because of] the nature of television many more people will consume [the show] than probably will read a book. It’s just the nature of it. It’s just more available.
But it has been extraordinary to see how it’s captured the zeitgeist. And also really heartening. It refers back to what I was saying earlier on, we sometimes had a nervousness about it —Will people be interested in this book that’s very culturally specific? That is very much set in Ireland and maybe you don’t get all the references to ‘debs’ and ‘grinds’ and this and that. There are words that are used in the show that are, maybe, unfamiliar. And, to be fair to Hulu, they were really supportive of letting us own the cultural specificity of the show.
But, it’s interesting that it actually really translates. And you’ll know this as an American woman, but it’s the idea of the high school prom; leaving your small town to go to the big city; to a third-level college; and the chance to reinvent yourself; the chance to grow; and the intensity of your relationships. All of these things are deeply universal. And they’re the things that I think bring people together.
The other big thing that we set out to do when we read the book was to really honor the nature of their physical relationship —which is such an important thing in the book. And to try and really honor that in the making of the television series in a way that doesn’t feel coy, or bashful, or restrained in any way. That it’s told in the way that it’s told in the book — which is a very human, sometimes messy, sometimes joyful, sometimes complicated, sometimes awkward. But a very, very human set of physical encounters that are continuations of their intellectual encounters; and their emotional encounters; and their friendship; and their love affair. All of that exists in a continuum. And I think that’s quite fresh and different and, maybe, people haven’t seen that before.
AD: Absolutely. And to tie that to our previous discussion, with the show becoming such a phenomenon, there’s already been a lot of conversation surrounding Normal People’s depiction of intimacy. What do you hope could grow from that? From this show that has clearly touched people all over the world?
EG: Well, it’s a really interesting question. I’m in my early fifties and I find Connell and Marianne to be inspiring in terms of how they communicate with each other. And I guess the journey of the show is how these two people form each other. And with great frankness and candor are able to talk to each other in a really compelling way. And I think that’s something that I’ll take from it. I go, ‘God, if only we could all, in our personal relationships, find ways of being so honest and candid with each other and so humane with each other.’
I don’t think gentle is the word, but Marianne and Connell wish the best for each other. There’s a kind of very positive spirit inherent in their relationship. And I think that’s something for all of us to look at. And maybe that’s something inspiring.
And then in terms of, filmmaking and the practicalities, we’ve never used an intimacy coordinator before, and when it was first suggested for Normal People, we didn’t really understand what it would mean. We were worried that it might get in the way of the storytelling and [in] the way of the director’s relationship with the cast. But in fact, it just really helped it. It created a safe space. It gave everyone, the actors, agency. In fact, it gave the directors agency as well. There was just this candor around those scenes. The way they were built and executed meant that the actors could really concentrate on acting rather than being worried about what would be seen or not seen, or whether things were awkward, or difficult, or not feeling like they could speak their mind.
I think it really helped with the quality of the performances. And that’s certainly something that I would carry forward in the future when working in scenes of an intimate nature, I would always want to have an intimacy coordinator as part of it.
AD: Last question: you’ve spoken about the time and effort put into this project. At the end of the day, what does Normal People mean to you?
EG: On a personal level, I think Sally thinks we’ve done justice to her book. And I think, many of the readers of the book think we’ve done justice to the book. And I think many people who haven’t read the book but have come across the show, feel that it’s something fresh, and unique, and particular. And it’s maybe to do with the times that we live in. I mean, we’re all living in this very isolated, social-distancing world. I’m very proud that it has kind of hit a nerve. And I think that there is a lot to be learned from how Connell and Marianne interact with each other and help each other to be the best people in a sense, which I think they do. It’s a positive piece for the world that we’re in right now. And at a very simple level, if it offers people a bit of diversion in this time of great anxiety— well, I think that’s probably a positive as well.
AD: What’s a great note to end on! Thank you so much for your time. It’s been lovely to connect with somebody else in this time. I very much appreciate it!
ED: Yes! Absolutely. Thank you!
Normal People is available to stream now on Hulu. Awards Daily also has interviews with Normal People stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, sound designer Steve Fanagan and music supervisor Maggie Phillips.