Naturally, Hulu’s latest Sally Rooney adaptation “Conversations with Friends” is going to draw comparisons to its very popular predecessor, “Normal People.” And there are similarities, especially in the intimacy of the story and of the filmmaking.
But there’s also some key differences. For starters, there are four central characters instead of two, which makes for a much more complex and, truthfully, messy story.
“It’s about attention to detail and really never having a cliche,” director Lenny Abrahamson tells TheWrap of working through the story. “There’s no shortcut. If you do the work, then you end up with something very specific, and I think that’s what audiences respond to.”
Below, Abrahamson breaks down what he took with him from adapting “Normal People,” how he worked to give “Conversations with Friends” its own identity, and what he hopes that audiences will feel about the finale (which will no doubt leave you wanting more).
Since this is the second Sally Rooney novel that you’ve adapted, what did you bring with you from adopting “Normal People,” and what were some of the things that you did completely differently?
I think the things that we brought with us were just, a confidence that it’s possible to sit in moments between characters, to give them space to to trust that audiences will really give time to stories if they’re done well, and if they believe them, and if the characters feel real, and if the filmmaking really puts them close somehow to what’s happening. When we made “Normal People,” that was the sort of thought. If that was a film, it would probably have attracted a small but interested audience. Whereas, it’s amazing that on TV, it really did a mass audience, and that gave us a lot of confidence to bring that same style and perhaps even push it further in “Conversations with Friends,” where you have a more complicated story. I think what’s changed was I think we wanted to challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone even more. For example, we shot “Normal People” on digital. To go back and shoot on film [for “Conversations”] just put me back into this thing where — I always try and watch the actors, not look at a monitor. But when you’re shooting, you don’t always succeed in that because it’s so tempting to look at what is effectively on digital the finished image as you work. On film, you just have this crappy guide monitor that doesn’t really give you much feeling at all. So it just puts you back into the room with the actors in a way that I think is so healthy. I just love the feeling of it. It just gives this real truthful, simple image that I find really powerful. I’m not a purist. I think digital has its place, but it was just good to do that. The other differences are just the inherent differences in the story. There are four central characters, there’s a messy configuration of relationships, desires, longings, insecurities, history, all of that. So by leaning into that, the show starts to have its own very distinctive flavor.
I was actually going to ask about the dynamics between those four characters and how you developed that on screen. They all just have such complicated relationships with one another.
It’s about attention to detail and really never having a cliche, never having just, “Oh, yeah, she’s a writer, she’s successful, she’s probably going to be like this.” You want to find that particular character and that’s work that starts right from the beginning in the writing, goes through the casting and the rehearsal. There’s no shortcut. If you do the work, then you end up with something very specific, and I think that’s what audiences respond to. Alison is just spectacular, and it’s her first ever film or TV role. Then Sasha is such an amazing person and such a charismatic force on screen. Jemima has all the terrifying power that she needs to have a as that character. And then Joe is this beauty, but there’s also tremendous soulfulness in him, and that’s what he brings to the character. So it’s, it’s all those things working together.
Something I really enjoyed about both series is the quiet intimate moments between the characters where you’re kind of just lingering in their space in their emotions. When you’re approaching a scene where you know that that’s the end goal, how do you go about that?
It starts in rehearsal, and I tend not to just run the scenes in rehearsal. It’s much more like we reanalyze the scenes, and then play them very gently and slowly and listen to the words and things and then suddenly make changes to the script based on that. We might go back to the writers and say, “This isn’t really working. Here’s an idea we had” So by the time you get to the set, hopefully the scene really has had a lot of interrogation. Then it’s so much about mood and creating an atmosphere on the floor when you’re filming that’s quiet and, even though you’re always up against the schedule, you want it to feel like when you’re making the scene itself, that goes away and you’re just all together in the room. One of the things I like to do and Suzie Lavelle the cinematographer is really big on, is keeping lights and equipment off the set. So, trying to light from outside, trying not to have stands everywhere, trying to keep us as close to a space that makes sense to an actor as you can, and then just monitoring it. I will shoot the first shot a lot, because I want the scene to really be up and working before we start moving the camera around and tying ourselves in. As the director, my key role is just watching and feeling, do I believe this or not? And if you do believe it, then the silences will work. The spaces will be charged instead of just flat. But until you get to that point, just don’t move on.
In terms of the physically intimate scenes, I assume you work with an intimacy coordinator to figure those out. Could you talk me through a little bit more of how you approach those scenes?
So that process was really kind of perfected on “Normal People.” It was the first time I worked with an intimacy coordinator, and it was a relatively new role in the filmmaking world. Ita O’Brien is one of the founders of the discipline, and I think what it does is it just gives you a vocabulary, which is simple, unembarrassed, direct and it creates an opportunity for the actors and the director to work together in a space where everybody gets to really say it if they don’t feel comfortable with something. That’s the core of it, is making sure that people are safe and feel listened to and creatively involved. So what would usually happen is that I have pictures in my head about how it will be blocked, talk to Ita individually first, and then discuss it together to understand what it is that we’re trying to achieve. And then let Ita suggest ways of physically blocking. We actively want to know if this doesn’t feel good, and are just encouraging that level of honesty.
Sally has a very direct way of writing. How does that make it easy and challenging to adapt that into six hours of television?
That way of writing, it fits very well with how I like to shoot and how I like to tell stories on screen, which is quite direct and feels simple to the audience, even if there’s loads of things happening under the surface. I think the challenge is externalizing things which in the novel are internal. In order to do that, you find all these clues and hints and things in the novel. Like, it references a day that they spend [together]. It might just be two lines in the novel, but it’s an opportunity to create a scene, which brings some of the things out which would otherwise be kind of private. It’s just about finding a way of extracting the depth and the richness of the novel and sometimes reconstructing it into scenes where people talk to each other, rather than passages of thought.
The ending of “Conversations with Friends” left me disappointed with the characters. How did you feel, and how are you hoping audiences will feel?
It’s such a big part of the novel, whether people feel good about it or not. We felt like we must make sense of it for ourselves, but we are going to stick to the ending as written, at least a version of it. But I think for us, for me, what was really important was that it shouldn’t feel like a choice of Nick over Bobbi. I think there is possibly that interpretation people sometimes make in reading the novel, because it is the last thing that happens in the book. I hope that in the way that we’ve worked it, and in some of the dialogue that we’ve constructed for that moment, you feel that it’s an expansion of a life that she’s very happy with, rather than “I’m not happy with my life, and now I’m going to go back to Nick.” So I’d be interested to know what people make of our ending.