“I loved Sally Rooney’s book” Lenny Abrahamson explains. “I read it with Ed Guiney, the producer, and I was part of the pitch to the BBC. I considered directing all of it, but I didn’t think I could do it all as well so I just did the first half. Plus, it would have slowed everything down, I’d still be directing instead of putting post to it. The interesting thing about working with a director as talented as Hettie Macdonald is how they continue the story with the same characters and the same locations. The initial handover was hard, but I think the series actually benefits from it. But being there from the beginning, I think I helped to set the tone of the show.”
Normal People is a clarion call for television. It’s one of three series that has exposed the innermost human desires with clear, unshackled honesty. There’s Fleabag, Phoebe Waller Bridge’s diaristic ritual of confessional clearance; there’s Pose, a chamber piece of disparate minorities clinging to their idea of America; and then there’s Normal People, a celebration of an Ireland unbothered by clerical politics. “It’s interesting that Sally didn’t write about Catholic Ireland. She didn’t write or make reference to that sort of society. It’s very much part of that change. It’s a vivid example of a Post Catholic society.”
It might not be Catholic, but Normal People is still tellingly Irish in tone, texture and feel. The story begins in the rural, pastoral Sligo, before directing the narrative on the student bubble that inhabits Dublin. Sally Rooney writes of a couple caught in the excitement, indolence and frustrations of love. Rooney chose not to decorate the work with silvery ribbons of promises upheld, but instead illustrated a fable of how tiring love is for many of us. It’s been a common passage in music, John Lennon’s Two Virgins and Plastic Ono Band are replete with expressions of resigned hesitancy, but it’s a topic surprisingly underrepresented in literature.
“I think Sally captured the intimacy very well,” Abrahamson replies. “She seemed to get the teenage romance. It wasn’t sensationalistic, it was very honest and truthful. Her book took the experience of young people very seriously. It’s about people in their late teens and early twenties. Our challenge was to capture that.”
Rooney captures this with her pen, Abrahamson does so with his camera. In one of the series most exuberant silhouettes, the series captures Trinity College with all her majesty, splendour and diversity of people. Ireland’s most fondly remembered university is also one of the Emerald Isle’s most gloriously cinematic. “It was interesting going back to Trinity. I’ve been back a few times. I’ve given some talks there, and I know some of the Film Studies people. I spent a few years in Trinity, because I changed my mind as to what I wanted to do. And it was nice to film Trinity as Trinity. Many films use it as a stand-in for another beautiful place. It was interesting filming by The Rubrics, the red-bricked buildings, because I used to live there. I spent a lot of time in Berkeley Library when I was in Trinity.”
He graduated from crafting a trade to crafting his own visual works. Abrahamson remains the most original Irish filmmaker of his generation. Laced with lyrical beauty, his idiosyncratic wheelhouse is comparable to Joel and Ethan Coen’s. Abrahamson worked with Domhnall Gleeson on serio-comedy Frank (2014) and The Little Stranger (2018), and it was Abrahamson’s deeply moving Room (2015) that won Brie Larson her first Oscar. “It’s a tough question to answer about Room [regarding his popularity]” Abrahamson says. “I think it changed my place in the industry. But I hope people realise it wasn’t a complete change of pace. I think it carries back to my other work. A lot of my work is about people who are stepping away from society. I think it’s fair to say that I look at those marginalised, or feel different, in society. It helps us to empathise with the characters if they’re outsiders looking in. That’s definitely there in my work. Films like Adam & Paul, Garage; they’re about marginalised lead characters.”
Normal People might be his most ambitious work yet. Starring Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal, the show is uncompromisingly animal in its display. Lilting over the two lovers, the camera regularly sweeps with a balletic precision that recalls Nicholas Roeg’s handiwork. “I wasn’t directly inspired by Don’t Look Now, but I see what you mean” Abrahamson replies. “Maybe subconsciously it was influential. It’s such an excellent movie. We worked with Enda Bowe. Enda is a photographer, but also a very good fine art photographer. Edna was our onset photographer. We had so many conversations with the two actors from the beginning to make sure they were as comfortable and as creative as possible. It helped that we had Ita O’Brien, an intimacy coordinator, there from the beginning. We had so many discussions to make everyone feel creatively involved with the intimate scenes. We talked about the purpose of the scenes and how we should shoot the scenes.”
Abrahamson, when asked how he approaches television, pauses with a thoughtful silence. “It’s from the same school of thought as directing film” he responds. “The funny thing is, if you’d asked me fifteen years ago, I’d have said it would take a different approach. But the landscape has changed. There’s so much excellent television out there now and a lot of filmmakers, who would normally make films, are now directing for television. The clever thing about the people behind Normal People is that nobody was saying ‘make it broader’. Nobody told us to water it down. We had to be clear about what we’re doing. It always depends on who it’s for.”
Normal People is one of many stories being enjoyed by viewers during this Pandemic. Just as the series is a landmark of art, the COVID-19 Pandemic is a landmark that will be forever remembered by those who lived through it. Audiences have been congregating movie theatres for over a century, but now there are voices in concerned corners who suspect that tradition may end. “I hope not,” Abrahamson says. “I do think it will take a while before people return to the theatres. This will end, there will be vaccines. But it will take time before people return. Eighteen months, maybe. It also depends on what people want to see. If it’s only superhero movies that people go to, then that will be a shame. If it’s only for that, it’ll be like what Martin Scorsese said. People will be going along for the entertainment and the roller-coaster rides. If people are doing their ‘thinking and feeling’ watching at home, then that will be very sad.”
It’s fitting that Abrahamson should mention the Italian-American film director. Normal People is cloaked from head to toe with the very thing Scorsese holds most dearly. It has truth; and how!
Normal People is available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Alternatively, episodes are being shown weekly on BBC One.