Tag Archives: Normal People

The new Normal

Normal People executive producer Emma Norton and producer Catherine Magee tell DQ why the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel strikes a chord with viewers and reveal the challenges of casting the drama and creating its intimate moments.

Since its launch on BBC3 in the UK last month, Normal People has been nothing less than a smash hit, with captivating writing, directing, acting, cinematography and music making the series the standout drama of the year so far.

It has drawn five-star reviews, broken BBC iPlayer ratings, its title and characters have trended on social media, and fan accounts celebrating more minor elements of the series have also sprung up.

Success has similarly followed in the US on coproducer Hulu and on RTÉ in Ireland, where the 30-minute drama based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel is set and was produced. Viewers around the world will soon be able to tune in too, with distributor Endeavor Content having sold the show into Australia (Stan), Canada (CBC Gem), Denmark (DR), Finland (YLE), Iceland (Siminn), New Zealand (TVNZ), Norway (NRK), Russia and the CIS (Kinopoisk) and Sweden (SVT).

Starzplay will also carry the series in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Benelux, Latin America and Japan.

Emma Norton

Produced by Element Pictures, Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal, in his first television role) from the end of their school days in a small town west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. Through the 12 episodes, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Howards End), the pair weave in and out of each other’s lives, with the series exploring the beauty and complications of intimacy and young love.

The success of the show is testament to the way the production team has translated the style and tone of Rooney’s novel to the screen, helped in part by the author’s own involvement as a co-writer on six episodes and as an executive producer.

“People really connect to it – not only with Sally’s work, but people are fascinated by her,” says Element exec producer Emma Norton. “Her contribution to the show does mean there’s a really strong line between the show and the book. And beyond the writing, having her as an exec watching the episodes, it’s nice to have that reassurance from someone who’s thought about these characters for years and years.”

“It worked like a seal of approval all the way along,” producer Catherine Magee says of having Rooney present throughout production. “As soon as people knew Sally was involved, it gave us access, particularly to places like Trinity [College, where Rooney was a student] because they’re so proud of her, and of Lenny, who also went there. Trinity is often a difficult place to film in, but they were incredibly cooperative and eager for us to use Trinity and not cheat the location, so it was great at every level.”

Based in Dublin, Element had been tracking Irish writer Rooney’s work before picking up rights to Normal People with the support of the BBC, which greenlit the project as part of the original option deal.

“We did see an early version of the book, which we were thrilled to read,” Norton says. “From the beginning, we were all really drawn into this relationship between Connell and Marianne, the delicacy of how that story was told and the intimacy and the attention to detail around their emotions.

“The opportunity to tell a story which, in essence, is a love story but in an Irish setting, and in a world we knew we could tell very truthfully and authentically, was what drew us in – and Sally’s writing is inseparable from that. There’s something about how she writes that makes you feel like it’s quite simple, these little short sentences or these unadorned moments of writing. The more you dig into those, you realise just how rich the writing is, and it was a joy to adapt.”

Normal People’s central couple are played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal

Norton says the adaptation process was “quite straightforward,” with the decision to chop the story into 12 bitesize chunks, rather than half-a-dozen hour-long episodes, coming early in development.

“The only thing that was challenging within that was the little ellipses of time and story that Sally uses in the book, which are harder to translate into adaptation,” she continues. “We had fun with that, so we didn’t give ourselves any rules about how the episodes should work. Sometimes they’re linear, sometimes they’re not. It’s quite fun. We see a lot of comedies in the half-hour format, so to do a drama [like that] felt quite fresh to us, and the BBC and Hulu were very supportive in allowing us to tell the story in whatever shape was best.”

Magee had similarly read the book and had previously worked with Abrahamson on Garage, Adam & Paul and Prosperity. “I was a huge Sally fan, and Lenny and I go a long way back, So for me, it was a dream collaboration,” says the producer, who boarded the project during pre-production in December 2018.

She says the biggest consideration making the series was casting, with the scripts making her acutely aware of how Rooney’s novel is really only about two characters with some small supporting roles, most notably Connell’s mother, Lorraine (played by Sarah Greene).

Catherine Magee

“We were keen to cast not necessarily very well-known actors, and you have to feel that whoever is cast in those roles can carry it and sustain it,” she explains. “We cast Paul very quickly, actually. He was an immediate fit. He’d done no TV previously – he was just out of drama school in Dublin – but we knew as soon as we saw him that he was right. He was immediately Connell. He’s not from Dublin, which helped, and he has an emotional depth to him.”

Norton picks up: “There’s a physical strength that also fits to Connell as a sportsperson whose popularity has come through a different side to his personality; it’s not purely intellectual. Some of the people who auditioned for Connell were quite bookish, which is one side of Connell, but Paul inhabited all of it.

“He’s a very charismatic actor who immediately pulls the camera, so we were really confident about casting him. The search for Marianne was trickier; that took us quite a while. The casting director saw about 1,000 self-taped auditions – we had actors coming from the US, the UK and obviously a lot of Irish actors, so that was a tricky one. Eventually, we found Daisy and we did some chemistry reads with her and Paul. As soon as we put the two of them together, we instantly knew we had our characters.”

Magee adds: “Catherine and I virtually started crying but had to reinstate our poker faces before giving the game away completely.”

Other considerations included the drama’s locations, with Rooney’s novel set in the particular locales of Sligo, in north-western Ireland, and around Dublin and Trinity College.

But with only two major characters, Norton says part of the appeal of the story is watching Connell and Marianne realise they share a profound connection, but don’t quite know how to handle it. “It’s so interesting watching people making mistakes with something very precious but not being able to stay away from each other,” she explains.

“There’s this really compelling thing at the heart of it, which is they found something really special and they have to live their way through it to understand what it is. That’s what makes this a love story particularly deep. They don’t just fall in love and then they’re happy.”

The casting team immediately knew first-time TV actor Mescal was right for the role of Connell

In the scriptwriting process, which saw Rooney collaborate with Alice Birch (Succession) and Mark O’Rowe (Boy A), extra care was given to translating the interior aspect of the novel and how Marianne and Connell’s inner thoughts could be dramatised. Abrahamson employs a handheld style that delivers a sense of closeness and intimacy, particularly in the many silent, contemplative moments where the characters – and viewers – are allowed to pause in between dialogue scenes.

“But at the same time, he wanted to create some production value and see some of the locations like Sligo’s beaches, Trinity and Italy where it opens up,” Magee says. “Both Lenny and Hettie set out to find the intimacy in it.

“The show attracts very subtle emotional shifts with the characters, so we have to be able to really read them and observe what’s going on when often not much other than their eyes shifting is happening. The actors are both incredibly skilled in this very understated performance. The camera style is designed to get you close enough to be able to experience what they’re experiencing.”

Normal People is also notable for the numerous sex scenes that take place between Connell and Marianne, with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien working on the series to bring an authenticity to the portrayal of sex without placing any pressure or discomfort on the cast.

“It was the first time Lenny, Hattie or myself had worked with an intimacy coordinator, and it was really successful,” Magee says. “It just feels like a very mature, responsible way of approaching sex scenes. I would never do it without the coordinator again. We met Ita in the early stages of prep and discussed with her what we wanted emotionally from the scenes and what they meant. It went from that to a very practical conversation about what we wanted to happen in those scenes mechanically.

Edgar-Jones pictured during filming for the Sally Rooney adaptation

“By the time you turn up on set on the day, everybody knows exactly what’s going on. And in many ways, those days become almost the most organised days you can have. It’s very, very clear. She’s there on set with the cast and with Lenny or Hettie, and she checks in with them all the time. Sometimes she’ll speak to them on their own to make sure they’re comfortable, and she also checks in with them afterwards. It’s a very good way to work.”

For Norton, Normal People is special because of how it takes young love seriously, in a simple and understated style she describes as “really beautiful and cinematic.” So far, viewers seem to agree.

“It’s told carefully and thoughtfully and has the anxiety, the stresses, the isolation, the loneliness, the uncertainty of knowing what you want or what you should want that is so key to contemporary young experience,” she adds.

“It really shows two characters who are experiencing all of those challenges and not absolving themselves or resolving anything, in a way that means you can watch and go, ‘I know how that feels.’ That’s what that it has.”

With Element now adapting Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends, the creative team will be hoping to recapture the magic that has made Normal People so popular.

tagged in: , , ,

Intimate relations

Having worked on series including Sex Education, Gentleman Jack and Normal People, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien explains why television’s approach to sex scenes has to change.

It’s impossible to imagine a sword fight or a battle scene being filmed without actors spending many hours choreographing and rehearsing the action in detail beforehand. Similarly, a dance routine would also be the subject of meticulous planning before being recorded.

Ita O’Brien

So, why is the way sex scenes are filmed only now coming under greater scrutiny? For the past few years, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien (pictured top on set) has spearheaded a shift in the industry and led a new approach to intimacy on screen, one that invites greater communication and transparency during filming, puts in place a structure that allows for agreement and consent between actors and directors and that allows time for intimate scenes to be choreographed clearly.

“In the past, there wasn’t a sense of bringing a professional structure to the intimate work,” she explains, speaking during a keynote session at the Berlinale Series Market in February. “If you had a fight, you certainly wouldn’t just say, ‘Okay, we’ll hand you the swords and then just go for it.’ That wouldn’t be reasonable as you’re in severe danger of an injury happening. So you make sure a stunt coordinator or a fight director is there; they teach techniques and they choreograph the fight content. They will have spoken to the director and made sure they’re serving the director’s vision. If there’s a dance, of course, you’re not going to just talk about it and then throw the people on and say, ‘Right, just do the tango.’ You’re going to have a choreographer, who’s going to listen to the director, hear their vision, choreograph clearly and then make sure you create a scene that serves the storytelling.”

It’s that approach that O’Brien is now bringing to intimate content, having worked on series such as Sex Education, Normal People, Gangs of London, Bulletproof, Pennyworth, Gentleman Jack and Watchmen.

From the moment producers identify an intimate scene, as they might for a fight or a dance, she will speak to the director to hear what they want from that particular moment. The director will speak to the actors about degree of nudity or sexual content, and once that’s happened, she will then speak with the actors to discover if they have any concerns.

O’Brien’s work on Sex Education saw her tackle a particularly tricky scene

“I’m making sure I’m listening to those concerns, sharing that with the production and making sure everything’s put in place to make that actor feel autonomous and powered, and really happy to be serving that director’s vision,” she explains. “I’ll then go and connect with the wardrobe department, speaking to them about what genitalia coverings, modesty garments or other coverings need to be put in place. Then, if I haven’t already worked on set, I’ll speak to the first AD [assistant director], making sure that we’re collaborating and running a closed set with the best practice possible.

“When we come to the day on set, we rehearse the scene really clearly. I’ll have spoken to the second AD, making sure there’s time and space for that rehearsal. And that’s a shift in the industry as well. When I started, my first two programmes were Sex Education and Gentleman Jack. People said to me, ‘Oh, you’ll never have time for rehearsal.’ But of course, you’d never say that about a fight or a dance. So it’s the same now for intimate content; you make time to rehearse.”

Providing time for rehearsals means greater efficiency on set as the scenes then become repeatable and the actors are more comfortable with what they’re doing, which means “they can make a way better sex scene because they’re really happy with what the content is going to be, so they can act their socks off,” O’Brien says, adding that she also ensures actors are happy after filming has taken place, offering several points through the process where they can see their work before the rest of the world does.

The BBC’s adaptation of the novel Normal People

“It’s about creating a scene that honours the director’s vision, honours the writing and allows the actors to be empowered and happy with the work that they have done.”

O’Brien’s work, through her company Intimacy on Set, is now spreading across Europe, having shared her guidelines in Germany, Sweden, Norway and France. And across the board, it’s change that is desperately needed.

Asked whether she has worked with an intimacy coordinator before, Swedish star Sofia Helin (The Bridge, Atlantic Crossing) responds: “Never. I can’t think about it. I can’t deal with it. It’s tense every time you have to cross your own borders in order to satisfy the director’s needs. So I haven’t dealt with it. It has been a part of my job that I don’t like, and with Ita’s technique, it could be a part of my job that I like. But the interesting thing is that when I’ve done scenes with a character who is in charge of her sexuality, then it’s never been horrible. But the other way around, it’s always horrible, and that’s more usual.”

Helin says on shows she has worked on, there has always been a very “concrete and direct” vision about how intimate scenes would be portrayed, leading to the moment where the actors are on set, the clock is ticking and the actor’s voice has been taken away. “What we as actors want to do is to tell the story, and we can almost do anything to tell the story,” she says, “especially when the team is there and the camera is on. You say ‘yes’ to almost anything just to serve the story. So that ‘no’ has to be listened to by someone [like O’Brien] who can step in and say, ‘No, no. We don’t do that.’”

Gentleman Jack was among the first dramas O’Brien was involved in

Likewise, director Soleen Yusef (Skylines, Deutschland 89) has never worked with intimacy guidelines in Germany, having planned her own guidelines up to this point. “I would feel more safe if I could handle it in a way that’s much more professional, because for me, I just improvise,” she says.

“We’re not just talking about intimacy that is very sweet. We’re talking about love and sexuality. I had to do a sexual assault, for example. They weren’t naked. But still, it was very difficult for me to do that. I always meet with the actors before and I ask different questions. How far do you want to go? What do you want to wear? Do you want to be completely naked? You need to be prepared. We also had a completely closed set. You have to just create an atmosphere for everybody who’s doing the scene to feel comfortable. For me as the director, I don’t want to go too far. I don’t want to hurt people.”

O’Brien says her work introduces a process of agreement and consent between actors, directors and others involved in the scene. A key principle is ensuring the actors are present in their mind and body so they can lay down boundaries they feel comfortable with and confident any concerns will be listened to.

“Very often you hear actors go, ‘In order to get through the sex scene I downed a bottle the vodka.’ When I was in Australia and New Zealand, I had several people from different places telling me that another practice is that the production will offer the actors valium in order to get through the sex scene, which is doing the absolute opposite of what we want,” she reveals. “We want them to be ultra present, so they can really be saying yes to what they’re happy with, to be autonomous, to not feel they’re being pushed past their own boundaries.

“That’s a shift in the industry. Before now, an actor who said no might have felt they were going to be considered a troublemaker, a pain in the ass, a diva and possibly wouldn’t get employed again.”

Sky1 action thriller Bulletproof

Often in sex scenes, actors are judged to have no chemistry with each other if the audience can sense a feeling of tension or awkwardness on screen. O’Brien believes audiences are left squirming in their seats when they can feel the actors are uncomfortable with what they are being asked to do. Her work now aims to ensure the actors are happy and in control, meaning audiences will remain engaged with the scene and the storytelling. She refers to an example in season one of Netflix drama Sex Education, where a fight between two male characters ends with them having oral sex and both actors had concerns about being asked to spit on the other person, whether for real or using a substitute substance.

“We’re creative people so it was about, ‘Where are we going to put the camera?’ Very quickly, we had one actor there, a camera there and a substance made up by the make-up department was spat on to a piece of paper by one actor. The other actor was filmed responding to receiving the spit and then you’re away,” she explains. “The director of the first block didn’t even know they hadn’t spat on to each other. So it’s trusting that to know that we can use body parts and we can be creative with where the camera is in order to tell the story while keeping the actors safe.”

Through her company, O’Brien is training up new intimacy coordinators through a series of programmes to ensure preparation for sex scenes is taken as seriously as a fight or a dance sequence. She is also keen to ensure training can be provided by people of all genders, sex and ethnicities.

“My intention is that whoever is acting feels like they’re represented,” she concludes. “If they have a request, I can help to honour that, so the person performing feels as safe and careful as possible.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Anything but Normal

Sally Rooney and Alice Birch tell DQ about adapting the former’s critically acclaimed novel Normal People, in which a pair of teenagers embark on a tender but complicated relationship.

Sally Rooney’s fledgling literary career can be described as anything but normal. Extraordinary, meteoric, phenomenal or prodigious, perhaps. Other superlatives are available.

After writing numerous short stories, the Irish author’s first novel, Conversation with Friends, was published in 2017 following a seven-way bidding war for the rights. Her second book, Normal People, quickly followed in 2018, receiving a Man Booker Prize nomination and being named Irish Novel of the Year and Waterstones’ Book of the Year. It also won the Costa Book Awards’ novel category and the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Element Pictures (Dublin Murders) had optioned the television rights to both Conversation with Friends and Normal People, but it’s the latter that will arrive on the small screen first. Rooney is adapting her own novel alongside Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, Succession) and Mark O’Rowe (Temple), in a coproduction between UK online channel BBC3 and US streamer Hulu.

The story follows Marianne and Connell’s relationship from the end of their school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Dublin’s Trinity College. At school, Connell is well-liked and popular, while Marianne is lonely, proud and intimidating. But when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her cleaning job at Marianne’s house, 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 finds himself on the sidelines, shy and uncertain.

Through the course of the plot, the pair weave in and out of each other’s lives as the story explores just how complicated intimacy and young love can be.

Sally Rooney

“I only finished writing this book at the end of 2017, so it’s quite surreal and even freakish that it already exists as a TV show,” Rooney tells DQ. “It’s frightening but also rewarding and fun for me. Because I was involved in the project from the very beginning and in the casting process, I really did slowly become acclimatised to the fact that other people were going to be playing these parts and other people would be involved in making all kinds of creative decisions about the television show. So I’m just very thankful the people who were involved were people I felt I could really trust and who really wanted to stay true to the spirit of what we were trying to achieve with the TV show.”

Rooney says she wasn’t concerned about other people interpreting her story for a different medium. “I had to let go of the book when I published it because, as soon as something like that goes out into the world in any form, it’s no longer yours,” she notes. But the author describes her move into TV as an experience that bears little resemblance to her life as a novelist.

“My creative process in writing both books and the one I’m working on now is completely solitary, it’s really just me on my own all day,” she explains. “It was a huge shift in what I was used to, and I found it a lot of fun. Going to meetings was always really fun and energising but definitely not what I was used to thinking of as creative work. I had to reorientate my brain in that sense. It’s not my natural way of working, but I found it fascinating and really fun while, at the same time, exhausting in a way that working on a novel isn’t necessarily.”

The team at Element had read Normal People before it was published and were quick to jump on it before it became a literary juggernaut. Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) was also involved from an early stage, while Rooney, who also executive produces, soon decided she wanted to be involved in more than an advisory capacity.

Crafting an outline of the 12-part series, with each episode running to 30 minutes, comprised the bulk of the work, Rooney says, owing to the key decisions being made over story structure and chronology and how closely the show would follow events in the book.

Normal People stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal

“Once we’d locked down an idea that everyone was happy with in terms of how we were breaking up the book into episodes, I would write a draft, send it around and get some notes back. Then I’d have a meeting with Alice or the team and we’d discuss and do rewrites,” Rooney says. “Most of the actual writing still took place on my own, but it was a collaborative process deciding how to attack this story in terms of transforming it into a number of episodes.”

Rooney says that while the series is “enormously faithful” to the source material, it uses a different language to tell the story – namely the language of television. What has definitely been preserved in the adaptation is the world of Marianne and Connell, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and television newcomer Paul Mescal respectively, with the action unfolding in Dublin, the Irish town of Sligo, and Italy.

“It would have been possible to adapt this book and set it anywhere in the world. It’s a love story about two people, and maybe it doesn’t matter so much where it is, it’s just about their relationship,” Rooney says. “But, from the very beginning, Lenny was really interested in trying to maintain, in all its specificity, the exact kind of social world they inhabit and how that shapes them – the small town they grow up in, the university they go to and all the details of that. That was something that made me feel really energised about doing the adaptation in this particular way.”

The author says the book has remained front of mind throughout the process, with the production team and the actors dipping back into Rooney’s novel whenever they wanted a clearer idea of a character’s situation at any point in the story.

Mescal, a TV newcomer, plays Connell

“It was very much the core text that we kept coming back to whenever we ran into a problem or difficulty with the adaptation,” she says. “That was generally felt all round, but I also think we all felt the importance of doing something new because we had all this armoury of new techniques at our disposal. TV is so rich and offers so much possibility that we wanted to be sure we were using all that and using the book in a way that felt faithful to the form as well as to the story.”

Rooney co-wrote episodes one to six with Birch, who then wrote episodes seven to 10 and 12. O’Rowe picked up number 11. Behind the camera, executive producer and lead director Abrahamson took on one to six, with Hettie McDonald (Howards End) helming the rest.

Birch has previous experience with adaptations, having brought 19th century Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to the big screen in 2016 under the shorter title Lady Macbeth. “This one’s been completely different. Leskov is long dead and I don’t see everybody on the Tube reading that book,” she says. “So many people talk about reading [Normal People] and hoovering it up. When I read it, it was quite an emotional experience, so I want to recreate that and find a way to do something similar on screen.”

Rooney had already written drafts of the first six episodes when Birch joined the project. She then took a pass at the scripts, offered some notes and wrote the later episodes

“We wanted to make each episode feel quite distinctive,” Birch explains. “In the same way the book operates, each time you begin a new chapter and they’ve moved on a few months and so much has changed, it’s like opening a letter each time, hunting for new information. So we wanted to recreate that, but it’s a different thing to recreate on screen.”

Edgar-Jones (War of the Worlds) is Marianne

Birch had read both Rooney novels and describes working on Normal People as a dream job. “I’d read Conversations with Friends and then Normal People very soon after it came out,” she says. “I did something I never do and asked my agent if they were making it and if I could do it. They were in the very early stages, so when they called and asked if I wanted to be involved, it was a really easy yes.”

Birch shared a coffee with Rooney in Dublin, where she was given a tour of the key locations in the novel. “She’s so clear in her writing, and her scripts were very clear as well,” she says of her writing partner. “When I would write an episode or do a rewrite of a draft, she would give notes back. The conversation was always through the characters. She’s so open and obviously knows those characters and that world better than anybody.”

While Normal People has enjoyed tremendous success in print, legions of fans are now eagerly awaiting the chance to follow the intoxicating romance between Marianne and Connell all over again, with Endeavor Content distributing the series internationally. Meanwhile, the BBC has ordered Conversations with Friends to series, with Element reuniting with Rooney and Abrahamson. Again set in Dublin, it follows college students Frances and Bobbi, and the strange, unexpected connection they forge with married couple Melissa and Nick.

“It’s an extraordinary relationship between these two incredibly young people,” Birch adds of Normal People. “What happens in one moment is relatively small, delicate and emotional, but this kind of relationship doesn’t happen between two people at that age of life. That’s the extraordinary thing.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Production shutdown

In part two of a focus on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on television drama productions, DQ speaks to three more producers to see how their latest series have been affected and how development has been pushed to the fore.

About 10 days ago, Chris Aird was in the middle of the Australian outback, 200 kilometres north of Adelaide, on a recce to uncover potential locations for upcoming mystery drama The Tourist. Commissioned by the BBC and Oz streamer Stan, the show opens with a British man being run off the road by an enormous tank. When he wakes up in hospital, he has no idea who he is, while his search for answers is hampered by merciless figures set on pursuing him.

But when Aird, head of drama at UK prodco Two Brothers Pictures (Liar, The Missing), heard US president Donald Trump was about to close the countries borders to many EU countries as a result of the emerging coronavirus threat, he faced an uncertain five-and-a-half-hour journey back to the city. Initially intending to postpone some preproduction plans, Aird soon realised he and his partners would have to suspend everything and get home as soon as possible.

The Tourist is just one of hundreds of television series around the world shut down or put on hold over the last fortnight as the industry, like every other, comes to terms with the devastating coronavirus pandemic. Cast and crew face an indeterminate time out of work, with production companies rallying to support those who have been left in limbo by the shutdowns.

Chris Aird

“We’re early enough [in the process] that we’ve only got a core group of HODs and the producer and the director on board,” Aird tells DQ about work so far on The Tourist. “But it has an impact in as much all the people we were planning on bringing on over the coming weeks, with a view to filming in mid-May, they’re not going to be employed now for the foreseeable.”

Another Two Brothers drama, crime thriller Baptiste, was further down the line – eight weeks into a 14-week shoot – when the decision was made to halt production in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. The series continues to follow detective Julien Baptiste, who first featured in two seasons of The Missing before a standalone series launched on the BBC last year.

“It’s been a really challenging process, trying to predict what was going to happen and the international situation and trying to get a sense of the direction of travel, while listening via my colleague John Griffin, the producer, to what was going on on the ground,” Aird explains.

“Because that crew is 80% Hungarian, there was this tipping point around Friday night [March 13] where we went from the crew saying, ‘Look, we want to carry on. These are our jobs,’ to quite quickly, ‘Actually, this is frightening now and we need to get home and be inside.’ It was about being really responsive to that. It’s probably the most challenging management position I’ve ever been in, in terms of fast decisions and really having people’s welfare as much at possible at heart when making those decisions.”

The decision was taken at 09.00 last Monday, with the British crew members back in the air and heading home by Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, sets were left standing, with the art department set to return under safe conditions to pack things up until such time as the production can resume.

“We had a whole production to shut down. In the first instance, that meant walking away from sets,” Aird says. “The office will pack things up. We’ll get all the equipment back. But the first thing to do was to disband the unit as quickly as we could. We’re paying people’s notice and giving people severance pay, but that only lasts so long.”

Baptiste was shooting in Hungary when production had to be shut down

Now working with Griffin for the next couple of months, Aird is focusing on “Baptiste 2.2,” looking at any decisions that need to be made before shooting can resume, they hope, by the end of the year.

“Most of the crew are local Hungarians, so I’d hope we’d be able to put the team back together,” Aird continues. “There’s cast to think about as well and you hope, certainly with your leads, no one’s going to come sweeping in [to take them away]. If we have to change locations or if we didn’t manage to get some cast members back for whatever reasons, we’d make whatever decisions we needed to and rewrite the scripts.”

In Ireland, Dublin-based Element Pictures has been providing production support for The Drowning, an upcoming Channel 5 and Virgin Media drama from Unstoppable Film & Television, while also finishing post-production on Normal People (pictured top), the eagerly awaited adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel that is due to air this spring on UK online channel BBC3 and Hulu in the US. Development is also underway on Conversation with Friends, based on Rooney’s first novel and also commissioned by the BBC, with a virtual writers room now set up with writers in Ireland, the UK and the US.

Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) from their school days in a small Irish town to university at Dublin’s Trinity College. Working remotely, post-production is continuing apace, with one person in the editing suite at Outer Limits and everyone else who needs to be involved viewing from their own homes.

“It made it complicated but it’s actually doable,” says Andrew Lowe, Element’s joint MD. “It’s interesting that it has been viable to keep it going. Our big fear was the post house itself would close, but they’ve been very responsible and careful about how they do their business and they’ve managed to keep the thing going, which is great.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Normal People

“We’re also continuing with our development meetings and production meetings. Everyone just dials in remotely so there are lots of people on the screen at the same time, which is a nice thing for everyone. It gives some sense of normality and continuity in what’s an otherwise strange and unsettling time. The positive thing to come from this is it’s enabling us to focus more on development. With fewer other things going on to distract us, we can focus more on opportunities that have been around for a while but we haven’t managed to advance.”

In a rapidly evolving situation, Lowe says the Element team will continue to work from home, while the production hiatus will offer him and partner Ed Guiney the chance to carry out some company housekeeping.

“Our attitude is very much, ‘Let’s hunker down for the coming weeks and months and, if this ends up being a very prolonged period, we have more than enough to be getting on with developing new material and cleaning up older stuff,’” he adds.

Aidan Turner

“As founders and directors, Ed and I often struggle to strike a balance between operational time running the business and actually standing back from it and spending a bit more time strategic planning, so this period will give us a chance to take a bit of a breather and complete some work we’ve been doing for a while in terms of strategic planning for the growth of the business. We just have to focus on the more positive aspects, because it’s obviously a grim and serious situation otherwise.”

Elsewhere, production has also stopped on Leonardo, a series based on the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. Created by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) and Steve Thompson (Vienna Blood), the show is produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Rai Fiction and Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, in association with Sony Pictures Television. Poldark star Aidan Turner will play the seminal artist and inventor, with filming underway since December.

“We are in the same situation as everyone else in Europe, where all production has stopped, as much of the world has as well. With Leonardo, we’re looking to manage the situation and get back as soon as we can,” says Emily Feller, creative director at Big Light (The Man in the High Castle).

“With regard to everything else, we are so fortunate and lucky that we have jobs where we can work from home. But what we’re aware of is a lot of team members won’t have been based from home on a very regular basis. We put together a pack of etiquette and expectations of working from home, just as a support, really, and also being quite aware of mental health and a sense of isolation in your home if you live by yourself. We’ve really wanted to be careful and proactive in thinking about the team as a whole.”

Big Light is also involved in a virtual writers room for an as-yet-unannounced series, working through stories, narratives and characters, while Feller says the move online has had no effect on the openness and creativity of the collaboration process.

Emily Feller

“Last week we were working on two episodes in particular and we’re screen-sharing so, instead of having cards on the wall, we’re using bullet points [on screen]. It’s working fantastically so far,” she says. “I don’t think anyone can plan for this. You can plan to work six or nine months a year, whatever your preferences are or needs are, but I don’t think anyone can plan for this. It’s such an incredibly unique situation for us all.”

The company will have a second writers room opening this summer, while progress is also being made on its proposed live-action Warhammer 40,000 series, in partnership with Games Workshop.

“It’s about maintaining our drive to be pushing forward the high-quality storytelling we’re lucky enough to be able to do and working with the writer we’re still working with,” Feller adds. “That side of things doesn’t change. What these next few months will allow us to do is get into a fantastic place to then go once production is up and running again.”

Read part one of this article here.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , ,