Lenny Abrahamson is the definition of an actor’s director. The performances he captures are unfiltered and unflinching. With Conversations with Friends, Abrahamson returns to the world of literary sensation Sally Rooney.
Ex-lovers and best friends Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Frances (Alison Oliver) become enthralled in the lives of an older married couple (Jemima Kirke and Joe Alwyn). Affairs unfold and one central question remains unanswered—Can you love more than one person at the same time?
Abrahamson is a master of naturalistic filmmaking. Read on as the director takes us inside his process and details how he creates riveting, yet intimate television.
Awards Daily: Lenny, thank you so much for your time. I got to talk to you for Normal People, which was one of my absolute favorite interviews. And at the time, you mentioned that you guys were in the very early stages of working on Conversationswith Friends, but you weren’t able to tell me anything!So, I remember I was like, ‘I hope I get to talk to him!’ And here we are! [Laughs].
Lenny Abrahamson: Well, it’s funny, because as you say, we were having the conversations, the early kind of like script work, happening over Zoom around the time that Normal People was released. Which was really odd because, you know, Normal People was such a kind of phenomenon, and there was a kind buzz around it and I was doing lots of interviews and press, generally. And then, at the same time, we were trying to break this new story into episodes, and get our heads around what is actually a really complicated novel. And it’s in a really good way, quite messy and gnarly.
But I think it was great, because I find doing publicity for something…I enjoy it, but it’s not so good for you, I think, to only talk about yourself and your stuff. You can get a bit kind of – you can go a bit crazy I think if you’re doing that all day every day. So it was really healthy to have this other project that was bubbling along at the same time. So that’s how long ago? That’s like two years ago or something – no, it’s probably more.
And it was long, the process was really long; I think, partially because it’s a hard adaptation, but like largely because COVID kept delaying us. Every time we thought we were going to be ready to shoot, the COVID situation would get [bad] and everything would go crazy, and we’d just have to postpone. And I think that was tough in the sense that it makes the process really long. You know, with Normal People, we got the green light based on our acquisition of the novel – and no treatments or anything, no pitching – just straightforward, straight into a green light situation. And we made the show a year later, and there’s a lot to be said for that. But on Conversations, we had loads of COVID delays; but I think in the end it was good, because it just gave us more time with the scripts. So what the last couple years have been like for me, was like a lot of Zoom conversations with the producers and Ed and Emma, and everybody at Element [Pictures], and the writers. And then casting was online a lot of the time. And then it sort of started to ease, and I got to meet people in person, and then we dived into shooting it, which was pretty grueling in the sense that it was under COVID restrictions, you know? Not much fun when you’ve got to be tested all the time, wearing your mask and all that. But again, [it was] a really joyful experience in terms of working with those actors and on that material. But now that I’m at the other side of it, it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t working on it. You know, it just seems like it went on for a hell of a long time.
AD: And as you mentioned, this is a really difficult novel to adapt, because it’s so internal, and there’s kind of a lack of action, if you will, because you’re just dealing with these relationships and sort of these like, subtle nuances. So, as the director, how did you approach that? These are things that you’ve dealt with in your other work, but how was this different for you? Did it require a different approach?
LA: You’re right. It is always the problem, in every piece of screen storytelling. which is, like, unlike writers, we can’t just go inside somebody’s head and tell the audience what they’re thinking. And you’re always trying to make things – [well], the way I like to work anyway – [is] it can’t just be in the dialogue. It has to be in the atmosphere and the mood and the faces of the characters. But I think this is a particularly… it’s quite an extreme example of that, because Frances’s character is so kind of withholding. And so is Nick’s really, you know? And so you’re watching people who don’t like to express themselves and you’re watching people who kind of like to retreat. And I think, again, it’s just like a commitment to really close observation of really good actors, you know? It’s casting somebody like Alison Oliver and someone like Joe Alwyn, and Sasha and Jemima as well, but I suppose above all, Alison, who sort of anchors the whole thing. She’s just got – there’s so much going on on her face. There’s such a kind of…I find the way she plays Frances really moving. You know, even though she can be infuriating, I feel that Frances is kind of ultimately very young and kind of struggling. And I felt that with Alison’s performance so strongly; I felt very emotionally connected to her; and also to Bobbi and the other characters. And so it’s really committing yourself to trusting in the spaces and in the ideas – that they’ll be there. And also bringing the presence of the characters, as played by these great actors, to the audience. And I think that approach is not for everybody, because I think unless you really become seduced by and captured by those people, you’ll miss what’s happening in the spaces. And they may just look like pauses. But I love the challenge of working that close to the edge of the dramatic. You know what I mean? Like, there is drama, there is incident; but it’s very slight. And I like that – I’m more drawn to that than I am to the pounding beat of a kind of piece that’s based on action or incident.
AD: I was lucky enough to speak to your quartet of actors.
LA: Oh, great.
AD: And I didn’t ask them about you, but inevitably, they all talked about the relationship that they had built with you over time, and how working with you really helped them unlock these performances that were very quiet, yet nuanced. I was just wondering from your perspective – if you could talk about the relationships that you had built, and your approach to directing and communicating with them in such a way that allowed them to sort of unlock these performances.
LA: I mean, that’s lovely to hear and I’m glad they feel that way. And I loved working with them, you know genuinely loved it. It’s hard to kind of reverse engineer how that relationship works. But for me, so much of what makes a project really live or die, is the quality of the relationship between me and the actors – but also me and the key crew as well. It’s about trust, I think, and it’s about kindness, and the creation of a kind of space and an atmosphere – a calmness. That already gets you quite far. And then it’s watching what the actor is doing with a really open mind and an open heart, for me, so that I’m not just trying to, you know, look at what the actor’s doing and give a sort of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, [or] ‘Is that what I want?’ It’s not about that. It’s not about them ticking a box that I already have. It’s sort of about me really listening to them and, and talking and trying to understand what it is that’s happening that may not feel right. You know? And then going [and] finding it with the actor – with the actor – rather than like just throwing the solution at the actor. And it’s very difficult to describe, and it’s quite subtle, and when it works, it’s great. But there’s no way out of it; you can’t kind of storyboard your way towards a great show. You can’t give a kind of…it’s not a blueprint-based sort of activity. It’s about building trust, and for me, it’s sort of getting to know the actor as a person. I don’t mean, like all their private history or anything like that – it’s not that. It’s more like getting a feel for them as a person and feeling where their most interesting qualities lie, and where they’re at their most vulnerable, in terms of performance, and then bringing things towards that. You know what I mean? And if you do that, then sometimes something really amazing happens, [rather than] if you [just] went to the camera, where you feel like you just witnessed something, rather than you just manufacturing it.
AD: You know, when I was speaking with Jemima, she mentioned something really interesting, which is that she had this scene, this moment, where she might have been feeling a little nervous and whatnot. But she looked over at you, and you weren’t watching the monitor, but you were watching her. And she said that that sort of perfectly encapsulates the relationship that you had in your style as a director. And I was just wondering, when you’re in these moments, how do you allow yourself to be in the moment and see these performances and not sort of worry about the granular, small things as a director?
LA: That’s the biggest challenge. And anytime I talk to filmmakers, if I’m doing a class or anything like that, that’s exactly the thing I talk about. That is the hardest, but it’s the most important thing. When you’re rehearsing a scene or working on a scene, how do you stop yourself from being in that kind of managerial, or critical, or kind of oversight relationship? Because you can’t do that, and at the same time, actually watch. When a performance is happening for me or when a scene is happening for me, I try to watch it like I was just some person who stumbled into the set, and didn’t have, like a two-year history with the project. It’s really hard, because you know, you do have to go through all this process of thinking hard about what you want to achieve in a scene, and what it’s about. And you’ve probably had infinite conversations with the designer and the DP [director of photography], and so you’ve engineered lots of what’s in front of you, but then you have to sort of step away from that, and just watch. And what I found good about shooting on film – which is what we did this time – is it’s even less tempting than usual to watch the monitor, because the monitor’s really just a very crude guide as to what the camera’s seeing; unlike when you’re shooting digitally, and the monitor is really [showing you] what everybody at home is gonna see. But it just seems so wrong to look at this small screen when the person is right in front of you. It’s a bit like going into a gallery and filming a painting on your iPhone and looking at the iPhone screen. So, I try to be present for the actor, and then I’m useful to them because I can kind of see what’s happening. I’ve said this so many times, but it is interesting to think about: when you’re watching something at home on TV or you go to the movies, you have no difficulty in detecting when something is kind of false, right? You’re watching it and you go, ‘That doesn’t work,’ and you don’t know anything about the show. You’re not like an expert; you’re just a human being watching it. And yet, when you’re on set, with all of the noise, and the hassle and the pressure, sometimes the people who know most about the project will miss that falseness, you know? And I think that if you can divorce yourself from your professional role, and your own craft and really just watch what’s happening, it’s usually when I make the best decisions or discoveries when I’m directing. And you know, you kind of see what’s really there, rather than kind of what you thought was supposed to be there.
AD: That’s fascinating. There is a third Sally Rooney novel. Have you thought about…
LA: I’m aware of its existence, for sure.
AD: Are you looming an adaptation?
LA: At the moment, no. At the moment, I am really committed to making an as-yet unspecified feature. Lots of really interesting things come in and I’m often tempted, but I’m doing some writing and I want to work towards shooting something that I’m writing. As of yet, I haven’t read the new novel, because while finishing Conversations, I thought it would be impossible to hold another Sally Rooney novel in my head. It would probably be confusing. So actually, I’m looking forward to reading it. And never say never. [Though], Sally may not want to do it as a television [series]; she may not want me to do it. She may decide to… So who knows, but if in the future, it was a thing, and I read the novel and it made sense for me to do it… like I love her writing and I would never say never…
AD: Going back to the show – you mentioned something earlier about how messy Conversations with Friends is. You know, there’s a lot of things that the characters do that are quite frustrating. So I was wondering, what is your read on who these people are, and this time in their lives, and how did you sort of allow this messiness? And that’s something that, again, I like about all of your work, is that you find compassion for those messy moments and you allow them to exist and you sit with them. And so how did that work with Conversations with Friends?
LA: Yeah, the challenge is, how do you do that, and still give it enough forward momentum? And it is demanding of the audience in that sense – to enjoy this journey, you really have to like lean in and really let yourself become connected to these characters. And they can be quite difficult to love on occasion – you know, all of them. I think we just, in a really lovely way, accepted that and said, Right, let’s do what we believe in,’ – which is that real people are messy, and yet ultimately when you look at them or you’re close enough to them, there’s always compassion to be found, if you look closely enough at somebody. The thing that myself and Susie talked about – and the writers and Emma Norton, Catherine Mahee, Ed Guiney, all the people involved, Chelsea Hoffman, Alice Birch; you know, all of them – was just trying to find the human truth underneath the selfishness, or the insensitivity, or the kind of recklessness, or occasional cruelty that you see in them. And the only way you can do that really, is by working with great actors, and watching them really carefully and closely. And I love the fact that people will be divided, I think, to some extent. Although, it seems written in a really lovely way, [and] people are watching the show. But some people watching the show will find them very frustrating, or find the show itself, in its quietness and its slowness, frustrating. And other people will find themselves deeply connected because of those things, not in spite of them. And that’s what makes something interesting to me, you know? I think that’s a sign of something which has a strong flavor. And so much material out there on television is kind of tasty like candy, in that it’s immediately zingy; but it kind of goes quickly. And I think this show is more like really good slow food or something. And there’s great rewards to be found in spending time with it.
AD: And Lenny, my last question for you: you’ve touched on this a little bit in your last answer, but I wonder if there’s maybe a lesson to be learned for you, as the filmmaker working on this, and living in this world for so long; and also for audiences watching – what are you hoping that they take away from it?
LA: I’m hoping they feel they’ve been in the company of interesting and well-observed people with all the complexities that real people have. That’s like the baseline. But I think the show asks questions about the assumptions most of us make about the shape that love should take, you know? There’s lots of talk about unconventional models of relationships, and non-monogamy, and why do we assume that the monogamous couple is the only kind of okay relationship type? I think those are good questions to ask. I think for most people, it will still remain the case that monogamous relationships are what suits. But not for everybody: and trying to understand that it’s possible to live in a way which is unconventional, but still ethical and truthful and respectful of others – that that’s possible. So I think that’s something. And then, maybe the deepest lesson for me is really around Francis’s journey – if there’s any sort of big movement in the show, it’s [that] her attention is focused inwards for so much of the story. you She thinks about herself and how she’s coming over, and whether she’s good or bad, and whether she’s loved or not. And there’s no solution to unhappiness to be found in that orientation. It’s only when she starts to look outwards at other people, and not think so much about herself, [that she finds happiness]. And it’s in relation to other people, that I think happiness can be found, and Francis’ journey is that: from inward-looking to outward-looking. And that’s a kind of growing up that I think not all of us do, you know – even much older people have not always gone through that shift.
AD: Lenny, thank you so much for your time. You’re such a pleasure to talk to. And in two years, we’ll get to talk about the project that you won’t be able to tell me about [laughter].
LA: Yeah! I really look forward to it. I’ve enjoyed our chats very much.
Conversations with Friends is streaming on Hulu.