Academy Award-nominee Lenny Abrahamson directed the first six episodes of the Hulu limited series Normal People. In a conversation with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Abrahamson discussed his vision for adapting Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel— a show about the depth of human connection told through a modern love story.
As the credits rolled on the first episode of Hulu‘s Normal People. I stopped watching. Not because I didn’t want to keep going, in fact, I was desperate to get back to Marianne and Connell [the brilliant Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal]. I stopped watching because I knew, even after those first thirty minutes, that Normal People was going to be something extraordinary. Something worth savoring.
I was right. I ended up finishing the 12-part limited series over the course of one week in early May. I have thought about the show every single day since then. I’ve thought about the way that Normal People so perfectly captured anxiety. Or feeling like you want to be someone else. Or somewhere else. The depression of your first year of college. Of feeling lonely even when surrounded by friends. Or a first love that is so strong you can’t find even find the words to articulate it.
Our lives in the States seem a world away from Marianne and Connell’s upbringing in the Irish countryside. But, in truth, the feelings that the show conjures are universal. That’s what has, ultimately, made Normal People into the phenomenon that it has become. We all know Marianne and Connell. We all, at some point in our lives, have felt those same emotions as we navigated through youth. Normal People is raw, real, and profoundly moving.
Of course, no one person can take credit for the success of the show. And across the board, the caliber of talent involved is astounding. But Normal People would not be the masterpiece that it is without Lenny Abrahamson’s vision. Abrahamson executive produced the series, and set the tone, directing the first six episodes. Abrahamson’s work is a masterclass in establishing human connection on camera. He takes his audience into the inner lives of these characters and shows us life as it is, not as we want it to be. Normal People is, as I said, an extraordinary experience —one worth savoring, and one worth rewarding.
Read our complete interview with Lenny Abrahamson below:
Awards Daily: The first question that I had for you is that, in my opinion, all of your projects are, on some level, an exploration of intimacy, whether it is the intimacy between a mother and her child [2015’s Room], or the relationship of a family deconstructed through a ghost story [in 2018’s The Little Stranger]. And now this. What is it about that idea that appeals to you and how do you think Normal People fits within that arc?
Lenny Abrahamson: I mean, I think intimacy and connection are so central to everybody’s experience. It’s presence, or absence is a huge factor in determining whether you’re living a good life, or a life that’s satisfying and complete, or not. And it comes in all sorts of different ways. It comes in friendship, and in love, and in parental relationships. So, it is something that I think a lot about.
I also think that film and screen storytelling can be particularly good at capturing that physical presence, texture, and feeling of another person. I’m really interested in that, in how to capture that presence and texture of human contact on screen. I don’t know why, but it is something that I go back to.
And when I read Sally’s novel, I just had this feeling. It’s a novel, a novel about intimacy. But it’s also written in this way which is particularly intimate when it comes to the experience of the reader. She manages to bring you so close to the characters and I found that moving. I also found it a beautiful challenge to try and find a tone, and a style of working, that gave an audience the same feeling of a real presence of the characters— an insight into that intimacy that they have with each other on the screen, as opposed to on the page.
AD: And there’s been a lot of talk about how the show uses sex to explore Marianne and Connell’s intimacy and their relationship to one another. But I’d like to use this opportunity to discuss some of the other ways the nature of their relationship is examined.
AD: Can you speak to some of the other ways you were able to visually manifest their bond?
LA: Yeah. Well, there’s a scene in episode 5 where Connell [Mescal] and Marianne [Edgar-Jones] discussed what happened back in school for the first time. He apologizes to her and says he doesn’t know why he acted in that way. He confesses that he had a kind of social anxiety, and they really speak candidly for the first time. And for me, that’s a really important scene because it’s an example of a very particular honesty that they can find with each other.
Even though there are misunderstandings; and they make terrible mistakes; and they fail with each other, often— there’s still, on occasion, this incredible truthfulness. I found that moving. And I also found that scene [to be] almost as intimate as any of the sex scenes in the show. And they’re sitting on opposite ends of quite a large room. They never walk to each other. And yet, there was a sense that they are absolutely tuned into each other. There is this deep connection, psychologically and emotionally. That scene in episode 5 is what leads her to break up with her existing boyfriend. It’s what ultimately brings them back together.
Capturing the honesty of how they talk to each other— it’s a real challenge as well because it’s not a conventional dramatic scene where somebody is trying to hide something from somebody, or where you have these different agendas, which is what you’re often looking for in a quote-unquote ‘drama.’ They are speaking truthfully. In a way, that’s not supposed to be that interesting. And yet, I think we managed to do it in such a way that you feel you’re listening in on something so private and significant for both of the characters.
AD: There are many different ways that I think intimacy and character development are portrayed, whether it is independently, or Marianne and Connell together. For example, there’s a scene in episode five where Marianne is in the shower and we see her makeup melting away —and with it, this persona she’s created.
AD: That was a really fascinating moment for me. I wanted to ask you about how you visualized the breaking down of walls, or emotional barriers, in ways that were not just through their sexual experiences.
LA: That’s a really good question. I think in the working with the writers, and I’m always right down into the detail. Based on conversations with the writers and also working with the actors, then going back and saying, ‘We think we found this thing, which is interesting.’ And exploring that in the script. I love that part of the process.
And I was very much encouraging scenes without dialogue as well, and the inclusion of the private worlds of the two characters— studying on their own; or Connell lying in bed —scenes which also described, or implied, the absence of the other person. And, Marianne taking her makeup off; cleaning your teeth at the mirror before she goes to bed on the night that she rings Connell. Being with both characters in these situations where nobody normally sees you —where you really are alone and unobserved. Then contrasting those scenes with the social persona of the characters.
And you’ve got to be careful with them. They have to really carry something. Otherwise, they would feel like filler scenes that aren’t doing anything. And it’s a real challenge. I think, in making any piece for the screen, it’s a challenge to be able to observe seemingly unromantic action in a way that still carries meaning for the audience and still contains tension. And I feel like a lot of that’s also down to the cinematography [Suzie Lavelle], it’s also down to Daisy and Paul because the performances are so good that you always feel that something’s happening, you know?
When you have such a charged relationship at the center of a story, it really does mean something when you observe life outside of that relationship. Seeing Connell and Marianne together is only powerful if you also understand what they’re like, and what their lives are like when they’re separate from each other.
AD: Earlier, you talked about the visualization of Sally’s novel. Can you dig into that a little further in terms of your decision-making processes and Sally’s involvement?
LA: It’s such an organic thing, really, because we went back to the novel itself quite often — and that would be myself, Suzie Lavelle, and the producers. It was a really lovely team in Element Pictures that worked very closely together. Of course, there’s Alice Birch as well, who had such a big influence on the writing. The writing is, and I love this about Sally’s writing, it is quite spare. She doesn’t go into long, detailed descriptions. She leaves a lot of it very open. So, what you find in doing any adaptation — particularly a book which is as spare in its writing as Normal People —there was a massive amount that you have to imagine.
I mean, the only thing that’s there on the page is what the writer puts there. Whereas, the filmmaker, once you turn the camera on, the world floods in and you have loads of questions to answer —the backsides of things that you only see the front sides of, in the novel.
AD: So how on earth do you decide what that’s going to look like? [Laughs].
LA: Yeah! [Laughs]. I mean, that’s the process. That’s the instinctual part. Working with bright people, but also then feeling your way towards what feels the most three-dimensional, has the most weight, and feels the most real.
We did a lot with characters, like Gareth [Sebastian De Souza], who in the novel, is very much a particular type of college guy. But I think we gave him a sweetness and almost like an innocence along with his annoying, entitled traits that are present in the novel. With great actors like Aislin McGuckin who played, Denise, the mother of Marianne —we gave her a dimensionality that you can do when you’re outside of the sort of strict points of view of the novel.
AD: You know, I had the chance to interview your dear friend [and Normal PeopleExecutive Producer] Ed Guiney. And one thing that he said to me about the show, that has really stayed with me, and changed my perspective, is he said that Normal People is a show that is ultimately about kindness. And the way that these two people treat each other with such care.
What do you think about that? And what do you think that the show is trying to say with these intimate moments that you’re describing? About the nature of relationships. Or human nature in general?
LA: I think it’s a really good thing that Ed said because what you realize is that both characters, let’s say, Connell, he can be incredibly hurtful to Marianne, but all of it comes out of his own confusion and difficulty. And he, ultimately, takes responsibility for that. With Marianne —her kind of spikiness and her inability to settle into a life, and feel good about herself —leads her to behave in ways which are damaging. And she begins to understand and take ownership of that.
And what you realize is that the impediments to kindness, and to that feeling of true selflessness for somebody else, those impediments are usually carried in yourself. They’re not malicious. They are failures, which come out of one’s own baggage and damage.
And I think that why we love them when we watch this, is that we can see how much they care about each other. We can feel the desperate need [for them] to be with each other in a way that is open, truthful, and full. And we want that so much for them. I think over the course of the show, we see them wrangling their own difficulties. And eventually coming to a point that, even though there’s a breakup; there is an honesty, and kindness, and care between the two of them at the end. And that’s so moving.
Normal People is a show which says it is possible to love and to do good for one another. And that does not require a happily-ever-after or a for-the-rest-of-your-life relationship. That in all of our interactions with each other, we can bring goodness.
AD: Beautifully said. There’s an interview that you gave where you were asked about the possibility of doing another season or picking up the show in the future. And you said that you’d be interested in possibly exploring what their lives look like down the road.
I’m curious, what are some facets of their relationship that you think haven’t been explored that you would like to dig into? Maybe not even to film necessarily, but just to think about?
LA: Yeah. I mean, for me, it feels like we’re leaving them. Even though they’re in their early twenties and they’re properly grown-up. I think, in a sense, we’re leaving at the point at which they’re entering adulthood. And that whole part of life brings with it a different set of challenges; potential compromises; like the sorts of things that one gathers around oneself like marriages and children, which you can’t just walk away from.
They’re still at this point in their lives where they are claiming an identity, which they can freely claim. And what’s really interesting is as you get older the decisions you make come with you in forms which cannot be wished away.
How do people keep themselves still alive and good for the people around them? What would it be like if they meet in five, 10 years’ time with a lot of living behind them? How would that encounter look? That interests me.
AD: When I spoke to Ed, I said: You know Lenny way better than I would or anybody really, because you’ve known each other for so long. I said: What should I ask him? What should I dig into with him?
And one thing that he mentioned was that Normal People is a representation of contemporary Ireland. And that you wanted to present an Ireland that, maybe, somebody who’s stateside doesn’t know.
LA: Yeah. Absolutely.
AD: I’d love to know your thoughts on that.
LA: I think there’s a picture of Ireland, which exists in amber; from the history of movies, particularly. These, I suppose, cliched ideas of Ireland —the beautiful landscape, sweet people, fun, and music. And, there is truth in all of that, right? But it’s also a contemporary, liberal society, which has transformed a lot in the last 20, 30 years. I mean, unrecognizable to the way it was when I was a kid. And it’s so interesting when you look at the generation of Marianne and Connell, you see that they probably have more in common with U.S. teenagers or young adults than they do with an older generation of Irish people.
So it was interesting for me to show an Ireland that was urban, even in a small-town sense, in which the cultural references were very global —in which the hang-ups around sex, and the church, and all the things that would have been the [old] stories of Ireland —is no longer really operating in the lives of those young people.
And yeah, it felt nice to be able to go out to the world with what I hope still looks beautiful but still feels contemporary.
AD: Oh, it does. It does look beautiful. [Laughs].