Talking about sex
BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best selling novel Normal People has gripped audiences and sent the novel back to the top of the book charts.
Starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, it tells the story of Connell and Marianne, two young lovers who fall in and out of step with each other but are always drawn back together.
It has been praised for its depiction of sex, taking the care to show consent is sought and given and also a condom is used.
However, the sex scenes have been too much for some with people complaining to RTE. One caller compared it to pornography. Another said actress Daisy Edgar-Jones had been exploited.
We caught up with director Lenny Abrahamson and producers Ed Guiney and Emma Norton to find out how they ensured those scenes were created with everyone comfortable at all times.
Normal People deals with themes like bullying, domestic violence, social anxiety and mental health but when asked which if any of these was most important to get right, Oscar-nominatead director Lenny Abrahamson says the intimacy was key to making the show work.
Lenny told The Irish World: “I think if I had to pick, I would say the intimacy was the one I just wanted to get right because I don’t think you get to see that truthfully portrayed on screen that often.
“Obviously everyone’s experience is different, there’s not one way to do it and it’s about these particular characters. But I do think there’s a dimension to the Connell and Marianne relationship and how intense the experience is when they finally find each other that really carries across for a lot of people to a greater or lesser extent.
“(It was about) trying to make that truthful and find a way of doing it that was beautiful and positive at least for the most part in their relationship. That dimension was something that I think we all felt challenged by but in a really good way.”
The intimate scenes have been praised for the realistic and healthy way they portray sex. The first sex scene sees Marianne going to Connell’s house. He makes her a cup of tea and they make awkward conversation about posters before she asks, ‘Can we take our clothes off?’
On this subject, producer Emma Norton adds: “One of the priorities of the series was to get the intimacy right and to show intimacy in all of its different facets.
“One of the things I love about that scene was when they’re wrestling with her top because they can’t get it off and it’s that lovely naturalism in moments like that alongside all the responsibility that goes into that scene as well with Connell and the questions he asks.
“Some of these things are organic, there was nothing scripted about wrestling with the top. I think that just happened.
“One of the key parts of the process was working with an intimacy co-ordinator called Ita O’Brien. A lot of conversation went into those scenes but part of the process of having an intimacy co-ordinator is that everything gets mapped out, everything is pre-agreed so that when you go into those scenes the actors know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and nothing within that scene is going to make them feel uncomfortable.
“Obviously they’re two young actors. Paul has not done TV work before so there’s a huge amount of responsibility of putting them in that situation and making sure that was all treated in a really serious and sensitive way. That was a big part of creating that scene, I think.”
Lenny continues: “The temptation in an adaptation would be to have her arrive, they start to talk and then to cut to them making love but we were just trying to tell the story like the love making is a continuation of everything that went before and really just watch them together exploring that new phase of their relationship.
“That felt like an exciting and worthwhile thing to try and do on screen. We talked a lot before we did any of the sex scenes.
“We all understand the notion of life drawing and the body and of what choreography is so to get past the embarrassment and the complex and confusing quality that can arise if you’re doing an intimate scene is really to understand what you’re doing and that everybody participates in that choreography.
“Nobody feels like their own intimate life is somehow asked to be produced, it’s not that at all. It’s like a dance. Once we understood that, once we all talked it through and why we were doing it the way we were doing it and what it meant, those scenes became very relaxing to do. They stopped being embarrassing in any way and that was just amazing for me. I felt like everybody felt they were empowered and had a stake in making it feel real and good, and everybody was creatively involved in it.
“It was a very positive experience and a lot of the credit goes to the ways Ita has developed to make sense of that kind of work in the context of the actors and the crew.”
Were there similar conversations around mental health and its depiction in the show?
Lenny says: “I think there’s a particular pressure when you put something on screen. You do have to be responsible about that but then again we had this brilliantly conceived book as our guide. I think Sally handles those ideas, particularly Connell’s depression very well and shows him coming to terms with it.
“There are issues in everything that we do. there’s almost always something where you’ve got to say: Are we being responsible here? Are we endangering anybody or are we giving a truthful and humane picture of things? So it’s always the same discussion really.”
What does Lenny think it is about Sally Rooney’s writing that lets her connect with so many readers?
Lenny says: “I think it’s an amazing combination of this deceptive complicity, it’s really readable, it’s very direct, the language is very direct.
“She describes what people are thinking, what they notice, what they say, what they are feeling very directly and at the same time she takes you very deeply into her characters and she just has this amazing skill.
“She has great insight, she’s incredibly intelligent. Like a lot of the characters that she writes, she herself is very insightful and she has this very deceptively simple way of bringing you into her way of thinking about these characters.
“She’s also talking about this generation in such a trutuhful way from within the same generation and so she’s tapping into experiences so many people of her generation are having. That audience is a powerful audience for her but amazingly for people of my age, I think we all recognise that she writes those characters with this bit of truth that means for an older reader it resonates just as much. She’s remarkable.
“She was so involved with it. It was great. There was never a worry (about her not trusting the film-makers) because she wrote the first draft of the first six episodes so I felt we always had Sally.
“She wasn’t always physically present. We ran all the key decisions past her and she would give her comments on the script and all that sort of stuff. Having said that, it wasn’t like she was standing over it. She seemed to trust in a really lovely way which meant that hers was just a positive contribution and another creative voice. She was happy with what we were doing and trusted us and therefore I don’t think she ever felt like she had to protect the novel.”
Producer Ed Guiney adds on the book’s accessibility: “For those of us who are a tiny bit older obviously there’s a kind of nostalgia about reading it and the memory of the excitement of that time so it’s a book I think that appeals very widely.
“Then obviously for people closer in age to the characters in the book, it’s a reflection of their lives and a reflection of their experience but there’s also a real universality to it.
“Even though it’s very much an Irish story and it’s set in Ireland and full of all the kind of iconography like the Leaving Cert, all that stuff, all of those things resonate for audiences internationally.
“Everyone can understand the experience of going from the country up to the big city and how that can possibly change your life and having those opportunities of going to a university so it’s sort of very specific, very, very strongly Irish in that sense but also there’s a great universality in terms of what happens to them but their emotional experience as well.”
Lenny reveals that while Paul Mescal was in place as Connell from very early on, Daisy was only discovered after an extensive search although she was under their noses the whole time.
“I suppose in the casting process you’re just waiting for those people who leap out at you for that part.
“We worked with a really great casting director called Louise Kiely in Dublin and then with other people abroad. Certainly in the case of Marianne we ended up looking all over for the right actor for that part. We looked at people in LA and Australia, all sorts of different places, as well as Ireland and the UK.
“Paul arrived pretty fast. His was one of the first self tapes for Connell that we watched and he had that special thing. I just felt like, ‘That’s the character, that absolutely is the character’.
“The intelligence Paul brought to the part was there right from his first reading, that was very exciting.
“Then it was about trying to find the right person to work with Paul and for whatever reason Daisy ended up coming quite late. She hadn’t auditioned. In fact some of her friends had auditioned and she had even read opposite some people and nobody had asked her to audition.
“Thankfully somebody asked her to audition. She was amazing. We brought a few actors we thought were really fascinating for Marianne over to Dublin to tape a reading with Paul to see how that would work and as soon as we got Daisy together with him, it just felt really brilliant.
“It was really no question and that was quite late in the day but at that point you think, ‘We have a show, this is possible’.”
Normal People is on BBC One on Mondays, all epiosdes available on BBC iPlayer.
Check out our interview with Lenny Abrahamson here.
Check out our interview with Normal People’s lead actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones here.