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.
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.”
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).
“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.”
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.
“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.