At TV market Mipcom in Cannes this week the team behind BBC-Hulu series “Normal People” – led by Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar nominated director of “Room” – presented the first footage from the show, and explained how they approached the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel. Variety had exclusive access to the presentation.
Ed Guiney, one of the producers of Best Picture Oscar nominees “Room” and “The Favourite,” was an executive producer on “Normal People.” Element Pictures, the company Guiney runs alongside Andrew Lowe, started pursuing the rights to Rooney’s novel when it was at galley stage in the spring of last year, Guiney explained. Through Rose Garnett, head of BBC Films, Element then allied themselves with the BBC in their bid to clinch the hotly contested rights. Element then brought on board Abrahamson, with whom they have worked as the producer on all his movies. “‘Normal People’ and Lenny were meant for each other,” Guiney said.
“Very unusually, Piers Wenger, who is BBC’s head of drama, greenlit the show on the basis of the book and Lenny’s interest as part of our proposal to get the rights,” Guiney explained. This allowed them to promise Rooney that the show would get made if she signed over the rights.
After Endeavor Content came on board to represent the rights outside the U.K., their first objective was to find a U.S. partner for the show, Lowe explained. While he and Guiney were in Los Angeles for the Oscars for “The Favourite” they – together with Abrahamson and Rooney – did a “dog and pony show” in L.A., meeting half a dozen U.S. buyers and “were really impressed by Hulu’s enthusiasm and commitment so it was quite an easy decision to go with them,” Lowe said. At Mipcom, Endeavor Content was presenting the project to international buyers.
The novel tracks the tender but complicated relationship of Marianne and Connell from the end of their school days in small-town west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College in Dublin. At school, he’s well-liked and popular, while she’s lonely, proud and intimidating. A strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers. A year later, they’re both studying in Dublin and Marianne has found her feet in a new social world, but Connell hangs at the side lines, shy and uncertain. They weave in and out of each other’s lives. The book explores just how complicated young love can be.
“My response to the book was so immediate; it’s why the book has been such a phenomenon,” Abrahamson said. “When I read it I felt like these people are you and me. They are not in some extreme situation; they are not involved in some transgressive event. They are recognizably you and me, and yet at the same time the story is so compelling, so fresh, so original; it is about love, it’s about first love, it’s about how extraordinarily positive as well as challenging that can be.
“In the space at the moment where so much TV is often mining darkness in a cynical way, this for me was like a celebration and a deep and beautiful one.
“I wanted to make it like I was making a movie and I feel like every episode that we’ve done has that quality. So I wanted it to feel very live, very real, never to feel like studio, and primarily I wanted to bring people to a closeness to the characters that would allow them to fall in love with the characters on screen in the way I fell in love with the characters in the novel.
“For me it’s always about truthfulness, about access to the inner lives of people, it’s about emotion and it’s about cast. So the way I approach everything is to try and find the right people to help me get to the truth of what it is that this thing is about.”
Getting the casting of Marianne and Connell right was crucial. Abrahamson explained how they found their Marianne, Daisy Edgar Jones, whose credits include “War of the Worlds” and “Cold Feet,” and their Connell, Paul Mescal, in his first television role.
“There is no thing to be made about ‘Normal People’ if you don’t find the right Connell and the right Marianne,” Abrahamson said. “So we had a very extensive casting process, and Paul was among the first of the tapes that I watched, and we all felt immediately that we had our Connell. But we didn’t tell him that for about four months because we needed to find our Marianne, and make sure that the two of them lived on screen together. So we kept calling him back to read with different people.”
After seeing hundreds of actresses in the U.K., Ireland, Australia and the U.S., they found Edgar Jones in London. “When we got Paul and Daisy together I had that same feeling that I got when I had Brie [Larson] and Jacob [Tremblay] [the stars of ‘Room’]. I feel they are as extraordinary a pair and as perfect a pair as any people that I have cast in any movie,” Abrahamson said.
Mescal said: “When I read Sally Rooney’s novel, I thought: ‘God I really recognize this human being.’ It’s a really strong indication of how good the writing is that everyone recognizes themselves in both Connell and Marianne.”
Mescal said he could relate to Connell. “He is an outsider as he is not from Dublin – the outsider who comes to the Big Smoke and struggles… I can relate to that sense of being slightly ‘other’ with a lot of positivity going on in his life. It is just very delicately written by Sally. There are a lot of young people – not just in Ireland – who are struggling with their identity, and are being told to be a certain thing […] Things can be going really well in your life but there can be that slight disconnect. I think he suffers from that.”
Rooney opted to adapt the novel herself, alongside writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, and embarked on the process of breaking the book down into 12 episodes. Emma Norton, one of the executive producers, said: “What was important was the idea of giving the story space. It’s not an immensely long book. What the book does really well is take you into the emotional events of the love story, and pays huge attention to the miscommunications, the looks, the moves, the nights where they got together, and everything is important… there is nothing that is dismissed in this story. We wanted to give it time and the fact that each episode has that time means we’ve achieved an emotional scale with this story.”
Abrahamson was to direct the first six episodes, but Norton said: “We were very keen to find a female director for the second block, and we also wanted a director who could stand alongside Lenny in terms of skill and ability.” They secured Hettie McDonald, who had directed the Starz-BBC TV series “Howards End,” written by Kenneth Lonergan, adapting E.M. Forster’s novel. “We fought to get Hettie. That involved giving her the freedom to bring her own voice to the second block as well. The two phases of their lives do change a lot,” Norton said. “What she brought to ‘Howards End’ was a real naturalism, an attention to psychology, a real skill at seeing people talking and experiencing emotions in a way that really honored how meaningful that is to people.”
“Normal People” is unusual in that it focuses solely on Marianne and Connell. “It is very unusual these days to take two characters and follow them so intensely. So the experience of watching this show is you engaging with Marianne and Connell at the beginning and then following them. The story is theirs,” Norton said. “Unlike other TV shows with B stories and C stories, this is Marianne and Connell’s, and we get right into the depths of their relationship. And one of the other things that is really important is to follow the intimacy of their relationship very frankly and honestly, and through a lens that feels natural… there is nothing sensational about the intimacy they have; the show is not at all voyeuristic. For us bringing this to a younger audience we really wanted to show something that reflected recognizable intimate life.”
Norton added: “There is a line in the book that describes Marianne and Connell as two saplings growing in the same flower pot. You see these two people growing and growing and growing through the series, and intertwining around each other.”
The series was executive produced by Guiney, Lowe, Norton and Anna Ferguson for Element Pictures. Rooney and Abrahamson also served as executive producers. Tommy Bulfin and Rose Garnett were the executive producers for the BBC. Catherine Magee is the producer of the series. It will air next year on the BBC and Hulu.