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22 April 2020

Lenny Abrahamson: “I put myself under a huge amount of pressure”

The Oscar-nominated film director Lenny Abrahamson on turning to  TV with his BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.  

By Ryan Gilbey

Lenny Abrahamson was out walking with his wife last month in Dublin when a woman started haranguing them from across the park, ordering them to keep their distance from one another. Pointing out to her that they lived together – slept in the same bed, even – did nothing to quell her distress. “I have this ridiculous desire to explain things to people,” he laughs. “I wanted to sit her down – at a two-metre distance, obviously – and show her conceptually where she’d gone wrong.” 

That wouldn’t have been out of character. The 53-year-old film-maker is a patient, personable sort who approaches each question diligently. “I might take a couple of goes to say this because it’s hard to get it right,” he says as a preface to one answer during our conversation, rubbing his shaved head thoughtfully. He is also kind: when I first interviewed him in Dublin in 2012, having lost my wallet en route to our meeting, he cheerfully stumped up my return taxi fare and dispelled my embarrassment without a moment’s thought. Today we are talking via Skype, a few days into the lockdown, and he is mulling over this new interior life. “Monastic rhythms suit me. I like to get up, potter around, sit at my desk. Apart from the kids shrieking in the background, nothing much has changed.” But don’t get the idea that the Oscar-nominated director of Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel about a kidnapped woman raising her son in captivity, has any tips on keeping children entertained. “I have singularly failed to be remotely as creative as the mother in Room,” he says. “Her boy definitely had a more stimulating time than my kids have had so far. Clearly they come from my loins, though, because they can really bury themselves in their internal worlds.”

For the past 18 months, the world he has been immersed in belongs to Connell and Marianne, the teenage lovers whose charged and shifting relationship is captured forensically in Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People. Abrahamson, who has directed the first six episodes of the 12-part BBC Three/Hulu adaptation – co-written by Rooney and the playwright Alice Birch – believes television is ideally suited to serve the novel’s strengths. 

Normal People is not a dramatic proposition, right? It’d be a difficult pitch to a cinema audience or a financier to say you wanted to stick closely to the small changes in a relationship in a little school in the west of Ireland, and then on to college. There are no other stories or B-plots, no centrally placed hook, nothing sexy to pin it on. What it means to be in the room with these kids, the truthfulness of it, is what makes it stand out on television. We felt we could tell it in such a way that you feel you’ve spent as much time with them as you do in the book.”

Each 30-minute episode has a distilled, concentrated intimacy, nowhere more so than when Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) first have sex. “The convention with sex scenes is that you don’t spend much time in the foothills of undressing and orientation,” Abrahamson says. “But how Sally describes it, the way she brings them from talking into lovemaking – I don’t think I’ve seen that done properly without time jumps. I wanted us to be in their heads and to show sex as this continuation of conversation. The book is very positive in terms of exploring what might be possible between two people. There is some brilliant stuff on TV about teens and sex, but it tends to be dystopian or glossy or half-nihilistic. It’s easy to forget that it’s fucking incredible to fall in love with somebody and have sex with them for the first time!”

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Rooney’s novel has strong autobiographical resonances for Abrahamson. Like the author and her characters, he also studied at Trinity College Dublin. “Sally’s academic life was like mine, except [mine was] a few decades earlier. I was academically good, got the same scholarship exam, lived in rooms at college. But I wasn’t as open to life as Connell and Marianne are, even though they both have their problems. My time there was very intense internally and although I did have love affairs, I didn’t enter into them fully. So when I look at Connell and Marianne I think: ‘God, the absolute joy of speaking honestly to another person.’ Reading Normal People filled me with a particular longing, greater than the longing for something one has experienced – it’s  the longing for something one nearly experienced but didn’t quite.”

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What held him back? “This is going to sound ridiculously dramatic but I think of my late teens and a chunk of my twenties as a kind of long, very quiet nervous breakdown. I definitely had battles with anxiety and depression. I put myself under a huge amount of pressure to do something amazing with my life, and that was paralysing. Those expectations of oneself ultimately cause a shutting-down – ‘I won’t do anything if I can’t do something brilliant!’– and maybe in a way that’s their purpose. It’s a way of dramatising failure, turning it into something heroic. I knew I had a good mind and a strong creative impulse, yet at the same time I couldn’t find a way of expressing that. Marry all that with an acute and self-critical intelligence and you’ve got a recipe for being very nasty to yourself.”

Growing up in Rathfarnham, a middle-class Southside suburb of Dublin, Abrahamson was part of Ireland’s vanishingly small Jewish population. His parents were the children of immigrants from shtetls in eastern Europe: his mother, Edna, is a Dickens enthusiast who raised him and his three sisters; his father, Max, who died in 2018, was a world-renowned lawyer specialising in construction law and prone to pointing out the pitfalls of adversarial litigation. Abrahamson’s paternal grandfather was president of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland between 1949 and 1952.

That’s a lot to live up to, so no wonder he acknowledges a curiosity about what might happen if so much talent and privilege were to be squandered or destroyed. He even made a film on the subject: the devastating What Richard Did, which concerns a sporty and widely loved golden boy, also from Southside, who lashes out violently with terrible consequences. “If you take too seriously the strictures or expectations around you, then when that pressure is let off, it isn’t just that you will fail – everybody fails – but your failure will be much more catastrophic. That desire to trash things is one I’ve had. I did it in relationships for a long time, where the fact that they were breakable was reason enough to break them.” These days his destructive tendencies are limited to the biscuit tin. “I’m always struggling up and down with my weight, and if I break my diet there’s this frenzy. It’s as if by having one biscuit, I think: ‘Right, the door’s open now, you’d better stuff in as many as you can!’”

The closest Abrahamson came to a youthful trashing of opportunity was after his graduation from Trinity, when he arrived at Stanford in California on a scholarship to read philosophy. “I’d already been messing around with film in college but Stanford was part of this academic track I was on,” he says. On his first day there, he knew he wasn’t going to stay. He was homesick, lonely and itching to work in film; six months later, he was back in Dublin. “It’s easy when I’m telling this story to say, ‘Well, I had this other passion…’ And while it turns out I can make films and it wasn’t bullshit, it was completely half-arsed at the time.” 

What followed was a period of protracted stewing, in which he wrote through the night (“I was producing nothing I liked”) and slept all day. “It wasn’t healthy. It took me five years to get going.” Salvation came in the form of alcohol: he landed the job of directing lager commercials – the witty and popular “Carlsberg don’t do…” series – and by 2004, at the age of 37, he had made his first feature. Adam & Paul, a grimy Beckettian comedy about two Dublin smack addicts, established Abrahamson’s directorial sensibility (humane, inquisitive, deadpan) as well as his fascination with hierarchies at every level of society: even the junkies, despised by all they meet, look down their noses at acquaintances begging in sleeping bags. That picture also signalled his interest in issues of identity. It’s part of the genius of Mark O’Halloran’s screenplay, after all, that the main characters are never differentiated verbally, since everyone addresses them as a duo (“All right there, Adam-and-Paul?”). 

If there is a thread that runs through Abrahamson’s work, it is the tantalising but futile search for an ideal or authentic self, whether it’s the mother and child in Room struggling to define who they are beyond the walls of their prison, or Connell and Marianne in Normal People splashing around in choppy social waters, each policing and monitoring themselves unsparingly. The theme is most strongly personified, though, by two characters played by Domhnall Gleeson, both of whom are revealed gradually to be not at all the good guys we first took them for. In the comedy Frank, Gleeson is a largely untalented keyboard player who exploits his vulnerable band-mate under cover of friendship, while in the film of Sarah Waters’ psychological horror The Little Stranger, he plays a doctor haunted by corrosive resentments.

“Well, that’s the great fear about myself,” the director sighs. “Am I the poison in the world I walk through? In the bad moments, I’ve thought that. I am empathetic, I care about people, but those things can all be true simultaneously. Domhnall’s character in The Little Stranger obsessed me for that reason. He is actually pretty decent: he cares about his patients, he is morally thoughtful and holds himself to a high standard. But the fact he carries this dreadful toxin in him is his own downfall. It’s that connection to my own fears about myself that made me feel I absolutely had to make that film.”

One of the peculiarities of Abrahamson’s career is that he has never taken a writing credit despite the work he has put in. Writing solo was always terrifying to him, though having recently completed a draft of A Man’s World, an ambitious screenplay he plans to direct about the bisexual African-American boxer Emile Griffith, he says that dragon has been slain. Next, he will return to Rooney’s world to direct an adaptation of her first novel, Conversations with Friends, for television. “Normal People was so much fun to do that I couldn’t hand that world over. It’s just too good.” 

Then comes a kind of reckoning. “I’ve loved going into these radically different worlds created by other writers, and having my own little dialogue with myself in there. I’ve created a body of work that addresses my obsessions, and maybe doing it in this oddly triangulated, circuitous way will turn out to be what’s best for me. But over the next while I’ll be doing some projects that are a bit more difficult, left-field and personal. What persists is a nagging feeling that I haven’t done stuff that’s as good or powerful or deep as I’m capable of doing. That’s a good worry to have.”

Even as he inches closer to more personal material, he knows that the quest for any definitive sense of self is, as his characters have discovered, more or less doomed. “It’s like the notion of happiness pure and simple, which not only isn’t achievable in any final sense but is also inappropriate in a world where so many things are fucked up. The authentic self is just another thing that people use to beat themselves up, and to beat up other people. It’s like the American idea of being true to yourself, which is tied to the promise that you can then have everything you want. That’s manifestly not the case. With my knees, I’m never going to win the 100 metres, no matter how much I believe in myself.” 

“Normal People” will stream on BBC Three from 26 April

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This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb