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In conversation with Normal People Director, Lenny Abrahamson

Laura Plumley talks to Normal People’s Lenny Abrahamson about trust, the emotional potency of silence and the key to on-screen chemistry.

Normal People is not something we commonly see in mainstream TV. It’s one of those rare phenomenon which manages to hook its audience from the start yet doesn’t rely on gimmicks and bravado to achieve this. In a day and age where there’s so much TV to consume, generally series that do well are glossy, dramatic and heightened in style, where the viewer’s attention is grabbed and held. By contrast, Normal People’s subtle, quiet approach to storytelling remains faithful to the stark prose of Sally Rooney’s book. This is perhaps unsurprising since Rooney had a large role in adapting the book into the 12 part series. This was an intense and lengthy process in which director and executive producer Lenny Abrahamson tells me he played a large part.

Even at this early stage, the creative team knew that the truest way to tell this story was to maintain the simplicity. “I had thought that we would be much more playful with timeline, that we would flash back,” Abrahamson tells me, “But the more we laid things out, we started to see, and therefore trust, that the straightforward telling of the story would hold you.” This idea of trust is one that permeates our conversation – both trust in his own creative choices and in his audience. Fortunately the BBC trusted the team and gave the project the green light immediately. The only stipulation was that the whole book needed to be done in one series – everything else was left to the creative team.

Set in Ireland, the series follows the lives of Marianne and Connell as they move from school in a sleepy regional town to university in Dublin, and studies the progression of their relationship throughout this period. Irish culture and concepts are a key part of creating an authentic setting and one which Abrahamson was anxious not to soften or internationalise. He was concerned that American broadcasters would push them to change fundamental elements, like a softening of accent or change in vocabulary, to make the series more easily accessible to a broader audience. But no one did. Broadcasters in the States had the same trust in Abrahamson, his vision and Rooney’s story as the BBC, testament to how simplicity in storytelling is often the most powerful tool.

Exposing the essence of a story seems to be a hallmark of Abrahamson’s work. Normal People bears his mark in its stark, paired back dialogue and low key action, allowing him to explore character and relationships. While there’s the challenge of ensuring that the silences don’t become one dimensional, lack of conversation or action provides an opportunity to allow events to unfold gradually and naturally. The audience works out issues for themselves, instead of being told what to think. Naturally Abrahamson and his fellow director Hettie Macdonald navigated this challenge with great skill. “It’s about trusting the capacity of the actors,” he tells me, “but also the ability that human beings have to read each other. We do it all the time, we put together very strong pictures of how people are from very little.” 

His seemingly innate understanding of the human condition and his profound skill in his craft allow Abrahamson to take these calculated risks, knowing that they will pay off. This is beautifully demonstrated in the handling of the sex scenes. While onscreen intimacy is no longer taboo on TV, the way Abrahamson directs the scenes in Normal People allows us to see into the very souls of Marianne and Connell.  There is no holding back in these scenes but their honesty develops the story and the characters. The framing and camerawork in these scenes are beautifully artistic, with Marianne and Connell at times looking as though they’ve been pulled out of a Titian or Rubens painting.

The skill needed to infuse these scenes with added nuance is especially evident in Episode 5, for which Abrahamson is deservedly nominated for an Emmy. Despite previously separating, and dating other people, Marianne and Connell seem bound to return to one another. There are generous stretches of silence towards the end of the episode as Marianne is driven home by Connell, after agreeing it would be unwise “if one of us kept trying to sleep with the other one”. These allow for the quiet, inevitable progression of events leading up to and culminating in them sleeping together. The sex scene which ends the episode solidifies the fact that they have to be together. The choice to add Ane Brun’s delicate cover of “Make You Feel My Love”, as they lie together in bed and as the end credits roll, layers the scene with deeper meaning and allows the viewer to understand the care and mutual respect within their relationship more clearly.

The double act that propels the story forward is spectacularly cast by Louise Kiely (Emmy nominated here for best casting). The energy and understanding between Paul Mescal (who’s also Emmy nominated for his performance) and Daisy Edgar-Jones is palpable from their first scene together. Yet there was always the worry that the perfect pair of actors wouldn’t be found. “You’re just hoping that people will come through with that quality that mesmerises. With Marianne it was really difficult, there has to be that vulnerability. You realise that Marianne is described through other people’s eyes in terms that 18-year-old school kids would use. What would that person really be like if you as an adult walked into the room and saw them? That made Marianne a much softer character but in a way where you could see how other people would read her in a different way. So when Daisy came we were so happy.” It was immediately clear to Abrahamson that this pair of actors would work perfectly together. “We got them together and there was that incredible chemistry. People think chemistry means attraction and it doesn’t, it means a creative connection.” It’s this creative energy between Mescal and Edgar-Jones which ensures their completely truthful presentations of the characters and relationships. 

Normal People is a truly refreshing dramatisation of young relationships, which are so often treated in a crude, heavy handed and simplified manner on screen. Abrahamson’s incredible insight and skill as a director delicately sets the tone in the first six episodes, which Hettie Macdonald beautifully develops to finish the series. Everything about this project is subtle yet truthful and comes from the heart. It delves into your soul and leaves you questioning whether this pair, who seem made for each other, will be able to weather the difficulties of their imminent long-distance relationship.

Image: Element Pictures / Edna Bowe

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