“Normal People,” Hulu’s 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 bestselling novel about two teenagers navigating complicated relationships in modern-day Ireland, isn’t covered in wall-to-wall music and there’s a reason for that. Director Lenny Abrahamson (of “Room” fame) “is much more interested in score working as a reaction to what just happened rather than score telling you what you need to know,” says Steve Fanagan, sound designer and supervising sound editor. With this in mind, when something audible does come into the picture — be it song, score or sound design — it’s not a crutch to rely on for emoting, but rather a part of the storytelling.
“Normal People,” which premieres tonight, was adapted for the small screen by Rooney with the help of Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe. A classic love story told from the formative high school to college years, the plot is simple — the series centers on the intimacy of the characters — but the relationship is a complex one as Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) comes from a wealthy family and Connell (Paul Mescal) is a working-class lad. Contributing songs to the soundtrack are Chvrches, Imogen Heap and The Orioles.
Soundscape-wise, Fanagan thought of what he would associate with Ireland, but also made efforts to distinguish the two characters. For Marianne whose house is in the middle of the country, Fanagan created a natural aesthetic for her, “We had gentle breezes, leaves and birds. We imagined this lush natural sound space,” he says. “It’s quiet.”
In contrast, Connell lives on a housing estate — Ireland’s equivalent to a low-income housing project — with a constant cacophony of children, dogs and cars whizzing by. “The sound allowed us to present two different worlds for the characters,” he says, noting that the audience was able to understand “subconsciously” that they came from the opposite side of the tracks.
A key scene comes in episode two when Connell and Marianne have sex for the first time. In terms of what you see onscreen, “The key was not to change our visual approach when the conversation changes from verbal to physical,” says Abrahamson, who adds that, as a director, he wanted to stay focused on what was happening on their faces and not be coy about it. “We used these beautiful old K35 lenses,” to create beautiful textures to the images, he adds. By shooting with a narrow depth of field, it enhanced the tenderness.
Fanagan contributed to that by keeping his sound intimate, too. “That means adding a swallow, a breath, a stomach gurgle or the ruffle of material,” he says. “When they have their first kiss, you want the world to disappear. You want the audience to lean in.”
Listen to the soundtrack below featuring an array of U.K. and Irish artists: