Conversations With Friends and Normal People would have attracted a “tiny audience” if they had been made as features instead of TV shows, according to director Lenny Abrahamson, who said program-makers should trust audiences to enjoy “arthouse TV.”
On the eve of BBC Three/Hulu’s Conversations With Friends’ release, the Oscar-nominated Room and Frank director reflected on how the independent film and high-end TV sectors have developed drastically in the past decade, blurring the boundaries and allowing “classical arthouse” to make its way to the small screen.
“The wisdom a decade ago was that high-end TV had to be sexy to keep people from changing the channel but it’s remarkable now how people are prepared to commit to something thoughtful and arthouse in its execution,” he told Deadline.
“Had we done Normal People or Conversations With Friends as a long feature it would have had a tiny audience. It’s really hard to get those films to stay in cinemas and audiences tend to mainly go out to see bigger tentpoles now.”
Abrahamson praised general TV audiences for being “much more progressive than distributors, filmmakers and producers think they are.”
“Our hunch was to trust them but in advance of Normal People we were still worried that the audience would be very demarcated and that people might not give it enough time,” he added. “I think we stood out for being a bit quieter.”
That show was a revelation, winning a BAFTA and parachuting leads Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones to stardom, and Element Pictures’ Conversations With Friends is the broadcaster and producer’s second Sally Rooney adaptation. Both have been helmed by Abrahamson, with Leanne Welham taking over second block directing duties from Normal People’s Hettie Macdonald and directing episodes six to 10.
Starring Jemima Kirke, Joe Alwyn and newcomers Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane as leads Frances and Bobbi, the series follows the pair of spoken word poets in Dublin. At one of their shows they meet Melissa (Kirke), an older writer fascinated by them, and Frances subsequently begins to spend more time with Melissa’s husband (Alwyn), which turns into a secret but passionate affair.
Welham was approached by Abrahamson after impressing with BAFTA-nominated Pili, the 2017 film that follows one woman’s life over the course of five days, focusing on emotional intimacy.
Speaking to Deadline, she predicted more TV series will take up her and Abrahamson’s arthouse approach.
“Lenny has spoken about ‘lean-in TV’ and that is what we are doing; allowing space for the viewer to ask their own questions,” she added. “This lends itself to authenticity, which I enjoy as a filmmaker.”
Abrahamson praised the casting team for “not reducing the characters to a bunch of prescriptive traits and descriptions” when seeking the leads.
While there are plenty of similarities to Normal People, the team switched from digital shooting to film and Abrahamson said Conversations with Friends is “colder in style and perhaps more committed to naturalism.”
“This is a coming-of-age story that is told through complicated relationships, which is different to a quintessential love story, so these things accumulate to make Conversations with Friends its own thing,” he added.
“You have to invent things that don’t look like they’ve been invented. We’ve created sequences and dialogue that puts the characters on their feet on TV. The hope is you do that in such a way that people think what was said could have happened in the exact same way in the novel.”