Something to talk about
Based on Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends is one of the most anticipated series of the year. DQ speaks to director Lenny Abrahamson and executive producer Ed Guiney about the challenge of following the success of their previous Rooney collaboration, Normal People.
Anticipation was already high when Normal People debuted on the BBC and US streamer Hulu in 2020. Based on Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novel of the same name and led by Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson (Room), it subsequently became one of the series of the year as it transplanted the tender yet complex relationship between Marianne and Connell to the small screen, turning leading actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal into international stars.
Two years on, Abrahamson and Normal People producer Element Pictures have reunited with the BBC and Hulu for Conversations with Friends, an adaptation of Rooney’s debut novel. Blending a coming-of-age drama with a modern love story, it centres on 21-year-old college student Frances, who navigates a series of relationships that force her to confront her own vulnerabilities for the first time.
When DQ speaks to lead director Abrahamson and executive producer Ed Guiney, they are nearing completion of the final two of the show’s 12 half-hour instalments. But the journey to making the series has been every bit as complicated as the relationship dynamics at the heart of Irish author Rooney’s novels.
Element (The Favourite, The Lobster) had picked up the rights to Conversations with Friends and was developing it as a film project with the BBC before starting work on Normal People. But in making that series, the producers found Conversation with Friends might also be a better fit for television. Then two years ago during a press tour of the US for Normal People, they spoke to Rooney about changing direction and developing Conversations with Friends as a series.
“She was agreeable, and it grew from there. We all just regrouped,” says Guiney. Alice Birch, who wrote the screenplay for Normal People with Rooney and Mark O’Rowe, returned to pen the series with Mark O’Halloran (Rialto), Meadhbh McHugh (Asking For It) and Susan Soon He Stanton (Succession), and work began just before Normal People came out in spring 2020.
“Obviously they’re very connected, the two projects, but they’re also very, very different,” says Guiney. “If Normal People is a love story then Conversations with Friends is a coming-of-age story in the context of Frances.”
Played by newcomer Alison Oliver, Frances is observant, cerebral and sharp. Her ex-girlfriend and now best friend, Bobbi (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), is self-assured, outspoken and compelling. Though they broke up three years ago, Frances and Bobbi are virtually inseparable and perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin. At one of their shows, they meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke, Sex Education), an older writer, who is fascinated by the pair.
Bobbi and Frances start to spend time with Melissa and her husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite), a handsome but reserved actor. While Melissa and Bobbi flirt with each other openly, Nick and Frances embark on an intense, secret affair. That soon begins to test the bond between Frances and Bobbi, forcing Frances to reconsider her sense of self and the friendship she holds so dear.
Watching the success of Normal People as they developed Conversations with Friends, the creative team had to navigate the fine line between taking what worked on the former and applying it to this new story without trying to turn it into a sequel. “We always wanted to do what’s right for the material and try not to think of it in terms of either distancing ourselves or sticking close to Normal People, and just place it where it should be,” explains Abrahamson. “There are things they have in common, but there are things that are quite different. We just tried not to think about Normal People because you know what you’ve got to do. Generally speaking, we feel very proud of it and we did what was right for this particular project.”
Of course, the success of Normal People didn’t guarantee there would be a follow-up, it only made it much more likely. Similarly, Abrahamson could have chosen to move on to a different project, but he says he was struck by the character of Frances and Rooney’s ability to realistically capture people at a particular moment in their life.
“I was remembering myself when I was that age, that dreadful combination of ambition, self-consciousness and embarrassment. She captured all those things so beautifully, and the fact the book is about questioning conventional models of relationships, that’s all really interesting territory. Plus, I enjoyed doing the last one so much. I would have found it extremely hard to not do this one, especially working with the same team. It felt like too rich an experience to pass up.”
Highlighting Rooney’s “incredible characters and incredible worlds,” Guiney says the initial attempt to adapt Conversations with Friends as a 90-minute feature wouldn’t have played to the strengths of the novel or its author.
“Her real strength is creating these characters you want to spend time with,” the exec says. “You want to develop an intimate relationship with them. That’s what she allows you to do. Sally creates characters you feel live and exist in the real world and who you almost feel like you have a relationship with.
“Similarly with Lenny, as a filmmaker, he removes the lines between you, the viewer, and the characters on screen. You also feel like you have a very intimate connective relationship with them, and that just plays better given a bit of time, where you just get time to feel the experiences of the characters. The making of Normal People made us realise the way to make Conversations was to do it in a similar way, to give it that room to breathe and the characters room to live.”
Abrahamson had directed some television prior to Normal People, including episodes of Hugh Laurie-led US drama Chance and Irish series Prosperity, which was written by O’Halloran. But working on Normal People “did change my thinking about television,” he says. In particular, he learned how to take small, low-key moments on paper and make them resonate with viewers.
“Having experienced that, it was exciting to re-read Conversations,” he says. “The idea of the adaptation gets more interesting the more you think about zooming in closer to the real detail, rather than having to amplify the detail that’s there. Doing both things has really been such an education of the possibilities of storytelling on television in that it doesn’t always look the way you might imagine it would have to.”
If the story and characters are different, the noticeable similarities between Normal People and Conversations with Friends are the lingering camera, the use of silence as much as dialogue and the way musical tracks are sprinkled through the episodes.
“I’m the same filmmaker so it would be odd if it were radically different,” Abrahamson says. “And then some of [those similarities] are because it’s me approaching the material, which has deep similarities. But then as you watch on, how the story unfolds is quite different. There is an immediacy to it, which is something I tend to gravitate towards. And it just really suits Sally’s writing, so it would have been crazy to try to radically throw that away.
“We also shot it on film, which gives it a different texture,” he adds. “It’s probably slightly more classically shot, but there’s also a lot of stuff that feels like it’s in the same family.”
Perhaps the greatest shift from Normal People to Conversations with Friends is the doubling of the number of central characters and how that affects the complexity of the relationships in the story. Frances is at the centre, and viewers will follow her as she navigates old and new friendships, but Bobbi, Melissa and Nick are by no means left on the sidelines.
Abrahamson pays tribute to the writers when he describes all four characters as “really rounded out and rich,” as they each affect the way Frances changes through the story. “I feel like they’re really integral, so it’s not like we had to fight to make them important,” he says. “They’re really important to the central movement of the story. Then we were lucky enough to cast such great actors, and they deepened them even more. Although it is [Frances’] story, it’s very much a four-hander.”
Guiney agrees, noting Frances’ intense relationships with the other three characters and how that connects them all together. He also praises the casting, with Oliver coming from the same acting school – Lir Academy in Dublin – where Mescal was discovered.
Unsurprisingly, there was a “tremendous” amount of interest in auditioning for Conversations with Friends. Normal People’s Louise Kiely returned to lead the casting process, which again sought a mixture of newcomers and experienced talent to lead the series.
“We talked to lots of wonderful people and auditioned people and watched loads of self-tapes and all that,” Abrahamson says. “As it happened, one of the actresses [Oliver] is somebody who is new for an audience and the other three are more established. She’s extraordinary, Alison. She’s amazing and just so fresh and so interesting to work with. Then to have the experience of Jemima, Joe and Sasha, it’s a lovely balance of complex and interesting people.”
Behind the scenes, Abrahamson paired up with co-director Leanne Welham (His Dark Materials, The Trial of Christine Keeler) after working alongside Hettie Macdonald on Normal People. But helming the first episodes and the final two, he was keen to ensure he didn’t cramp Welham’s style by dictating every aspect of the show’s visuals.
“There is a house style that’s created, and Leanne was really good about getting inside that way of thinking. I thought she did beautiful work on her episodes and added her own sensibility to them as well,” he says. As an executive producer, Abrahamson was also across every other aspect of the production in tandem with fellow exec producer Emma Norton (Normal People), series producer Catherine Magee (Rebellion) and producer Jeanie Igoe (Ramy).
“You choose somebody who you feel has a sensibility that suits the material and somebody who’s keen to be involved in that way, collectively,” Abrahamson says of working with Welham. “I have the privilege of casting those actors and making key decisions about format and all that stuff. But then I was able to sit back and let Leanne take full control of her episodes. The editorial process is very seamless, gentle and respectful. That allows another director to fit in and, on the one hand, sit within the house style but, on the other, to have the freedom to be their own person. She was a great choice and did an amazing job.”
Filming took place in Belfast, in a studio and on location, before moving to Dublin. Episodes four and five, which in the book are set in France, were shot in Croatia. Production had been due to start in November 2020 but was delayed until last spring because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Once the show was up and running, however, there was very little disruption. “Catherine set things up really well. A level of socialising off the set couldn’t really happen, and that is [normally] part of the bonding that occurs. That was a little bit of a loss,” he says. “But we were lucky. There were other productions everywhere we were filming that were stopping for one week or two weeks, and it was only when we came back for some pickups last December that we lost a day, effectively, because of a positive test. I can’t say I won’t be happy when we don’t have to worry about it anymore, if that ever happens.”
Though Rooney was not involved in writing the scripts this time around, she did still participate in the casting process and was shown near-complete cuts of each episode. “We hope she’s happy with it and feels we’ve done it justice,” says Guiney.
Now, with the show launching on BBC Three and Hulu on May 15 and on RTÉ in Ireland three days later, Abrahamson believes Conversations with Friends has all the ingredients to become just as successful as Normal People, namely a good story, a compelling central character and an amazing cast. Distributor Endeavor Content has also sold the series to Amazon Prime Video (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Africa), HBO Max EMEA (Spain, Portugal, the Nordics, CEE, the Netherlands and the Baltics), SYN (Iceland) and Wavve (Korea).
“It also has those things Sally is rightly praised for, like a feeling of intimacy with the characters and understanding complex people in a compelling way,” Abrahamson says. “The relationships are gnarly and interesting and the show deals with lots of things that are very much in people’s minds about how relationships work. I would be very happy with this show if it were the only one we had done. Television is such a busy and noisy world, we just have to hope people give it some time and fall in love with it.”