David Hennessy spoke to Oscar-nominated film director Lenny Abrahamson about bring Sally Rooney’s Normal People to the screen, also about the news that Conversations with Friends is set to be a BBC series and why he thinks the Irish film industry is so strong at the moment.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” director Lenny Abrahamson told The Irish World of the forthcoming Irish Film London St. Patrick’s Film Festival.
Lenny will be in attendance to give punters a first look at his BBC adaptation of Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney’s Normal People and answer questions about the eagerly anticipated adaptation.
Normal People is the Costa Book Prize-winning Irish novel that follows the relationship of Connell and Marianne from their school days into adulthood, as they fall in and out of love but are always drawn back towards each other.
“I’ve been to the festival several times. I’m a patron of the organisation. I love going. It’s such a brilliant event. I think Normal People feels very special and I love showing my stuff at Irish Film London because it’s a really warm venue. It’s a really warm vibe always there and it’s such an Irish story as well as having I think great international appeal primarily because of the success of Sally’s novel. To have that combination of the domestic and the international and then to bring it to London to show it to the community there feels really special.
“They get a sneak preview of some really good clips and they get a chance to ask us questions and we’ll talk about it. It will be a lovely event. I highly encourage people to come and patronise the festival generally. It’s such a good event and the people involved in it work incredibly hard and they do great things.”
Just last week it was announced that Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends is also to be made into a series by the BBC and Lenny. The only surprise about the news being that it came before Normal People has even aired but such is their faith in the Mayo author who has been lauded since her debut was released in 2017.
“It was brilliant (news). The BBC have a great relationship with Sally and we have a great relationship with them. They obviously like what we’ve done with Normal People and they want to continue that relationship and bring her first novel to the screen. It’s fantastic. I love it. It’s an amazing novel and I’ve loved it since I read it so to be involved with that just feels really great.
“I started with Conversations with Friends and really loved it and then I think Ed (Guiney, producer) had given me an early copy of Normal People and was saying that they were considering it for television and I immediately said, ‘Yeah count me in’.
“Conversations was in my head ever since reading it and as we talked recently having gone through the process with Normal People we just realised how much sense it made to think about doing the same thing in bringing Conversations to the same audience.”
Lenny directs six episodes of the 12 part Normal People series with Hettie McDonald helming the other six. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal play the lead roles. Sarah Greene of Dublin Murders is also among the cast.
“Just as a reader and as a fan, I love those novels and it is true that when you make films and TV sometimes it affects your reading because you’re reading with that possible adaptation in mind. But very quickly into reading Sally’s work I was just captivated by how truthful and insightful and rich and moving it is and I just became a reader and a fan like everybody else. But as soon as the conversation turned to adaptation, I could really see initially with Normal People, just because of its particular episodic quality, how well suited it was to TV, Then thinking more having gone through that process on Normal People I could really see how Conversations with Friends would also fit really well with that kind of approach.”
Book lovers have never been shy of saying when they are disappointed by a film adaptation. Is there a great responsibility that Lenny feels when taking someone’s revered work like Emma Donoghue or Sally Rooney from page to screen? “I think there is an imperative to be truthful to the material you’re taking on. That’s not to say that you slavishly follow the pattern of the novel, they’re two different ways of telling the story. You have to commit to the way you’re telling it and that has its own grammar and its own logic and its own way of being understood by an audience.
“Ultimately I chose those projects to do because I cared about the material and I want the material to be well served. Luckily with both Emma and Sally, they were involved in the process and that’s a really good partner to have. You want those people to feel that they trusted you and they didn’t make a mistake in trusting you when they see the thing at the other end.”
Lenny’s previous forays into television include the four part RTE series in 2007 called Prosperity that looked at people on the fringes of Ireland’s thriving Celtic Tiger society. More recently he helmed two episodes of the Hugh Laurie series, Chance.
“There are different aspects to it but less so than it would have been in the past. I think the line between film and television has blurred a lot in the last number of years because of the advent of what people call the golden age of high end television, great stories being told in a very rich and authored way.
“Since that has happened, a lot of directors who would previously have been pretty much exclusively working in film have started to work in film and television. One of the things that I noticed doing Normal People is although there are differences and it’s episodic and there are aesthetic differences that are hard to define, there’s no radical distinction between them anymore. The level of intensity that we brought to it creatively and the collaboration and sense of creative freedom, all of those were there in Normal People in a way that I would think previously maybe would have been only there in a feature film.”
Since his 2004 debut about drug addicts Adam & Paul, Lenny Abrahamson has been revered as one of Ireland’s most exciting film-makers. He would follow it up with the powerful Garage which starred Pat Shortt before What Richard Did brought him to international recognition and launched Jack Reynor towards a Hollywood career.
Lenny went on to direct Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Frank before he was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Room, his adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel. Brie Larson won a Best Actress award for her portrayal of a mother raising her son in captivity.
Has the Oscar nomination changed things for Lenny? “Yes, definitely things have changed. Not in a massive way. Things got easier in one respect. You don’t have to introduce yourself when you meet people in the industry, the chances are they’ll know who you are and know your work. That helps, that greases the wheels and you can get to meet cast and talk to people about projects more easily. That’s a nice bonus of a little bit of success.
“I suppose the downside is that expectation but you learn to just get on with what it is that you do and not think too hard about what other people are thinking. I think that’s true in life generally and certainly for me I’ve tried to just keep doing the things that I want to do.
“I think the real danger is your own expectations. If you become too keen on the success part and the things that go with it, it probably warps your decisions about the sorts of projects you take on and the scale of things that you do. I think it’s just important to be mindful of that and not get led by the wrong impulses.”
Another film you can catch in the upcoming festival is Calm with Horses. Starring Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar and Cosmo Jarvis, the tale of crime in rural Ireland is one to watch out for.
Would Lenny agree it is an exciting time for Irish film-making? “Yes, I would. That’s been building, that momentum and that head of steam has been building since the film board was reinstated by Michael D Higgins all those years ago. What we’re seeing now and what we’ve been seeing for the last few years is the fruit of that commitment to the arts generally and film in particular here and the continuous funding that’s happened.
“There haven’t been these hiatuses where people have been developing their talents and then the whole industry gets a kick in the teeth and has to pick itself up again.
“We’ve been operating like a functioning European industry for quite a while now and so all these people who started 20 years ago have had a chance to build a career with some pretty astonishing results in the context of us being such a small country, making so much work that’s travelled and that people have really cared about, that has done well and has been rewarded and awarded.
“I think we’re in a really good phase at the moment.”
Asked what has excited Lenny recently, he reveals: “I remember seeing Michael Inside which is a really great film. I thought, ‘God, that’s such a mature piece of film-making’. And it was from a film-maker whose work I hadn’t known before and you just think, ‘God, that’s so amazing’.
“There’s so much depth here now that there are all these people, you can be surprised. Back in the day, you knew absolutely everybody who had picked up a camera within the last five years because there were so few. Now you can just be surprised by all these new voices so I thought that was brilliant.
“I have loved a lot of the comedy stuff that has happened here as well like The Young Offenders and Derry Girls and all that stuff: So much energy and talent and creativity on display, it’s really exciting.”
Check out our interview with Normal People’s lead actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones here.
For information on Irish Film London, go to the website here.
Normal People is on BBC One on Mondays, all epiosdes available on BBC iPlayer.