TORONTO — Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson says setting the right tone and establishing the trust needed for the many sex scenes in his buzzy new series “Normal People” presented a big challenge.
And so he brought in an intimacy co-ordinator to help craft steamy scenarios — some of which have full-frontal nudity — that felt tender and realistic and was not lewd. It also was important to ensure stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal felt safe and comfortable, he says.
The critically heralded series is now available on CBC Gem after launching on BBC in the United Kingdom and Hulu in the United States in April.
Adapted and co-written by Sally Rooney from her own smash 2018 novel, the series centres on Irish high school sweethearts Marianne and Connell, who have a complicated on-again, off-again relationship that continues through university.
Marianne is wealthy but an outcast in high school and treated poorly at home. Connell is popular in his younger years with a loving single mother who works for Marianne’s family as a house cleaner.
Despite their differences, they have a strong, intimate connection and their bond is central to the story, says the director.
“It’s not just a decorative addition. It’s substantial in how they relate to each other,” says Abrahamson, who got a 2016 Oscar nomination for directing the Toronto-shot captivity drama “Room.”
“It turns the usual thing on its head. Normally sex is the thing that’s problematized. But actually their sexual relationship is so immediate and good, which was one of the things I thought was such an opportunity in the novel — although there is other stuff in the novel which isn’t positive — to at least be able to show sex as this potentially transformative, positive and amazing thing in a real way rather than some sort of glamorized way.
“But it did present a challenge, because it has to be done in a way that feels not salacious and feels positive and creatively owned by the cast.”
To do that, Abrahamson and fellow director Hettie Macdonald worked with intimacy coach Ita O’Brien, whose deft approach involved choreographing every move.
Arahamson says some film shoots invite the actors to improvise.
“And that’s not cool, because that’s putting way too much pressure on the actors and between the actors to choreograph themselves. But even if the director is deeply involved, it can be tricky,” he says.
Two young actors can also feel pressure to say yes to certain things so as not to disappoint an established director, Arahamson says.
“Once those structures are clear, the actors are free to play them really naturally, because they’re not worried about where their hands are going to go or they’re not worried about looking terrible or them giving away something personal,” Abrahamson says.
“They become like ballet dancers or like life-drawing models. That seems to liberate and once again they turn into actors and they play the scene. It’s really magical to watch it, and I think it’s why the scenes look so real.”
“Normal People” launched on CBC Gem on May 27, and two new episodes premiere each Wednesday. The episodes have advisories for mature content and nudity.
Abrahamson says he swore he would never do a literary adaptation again after shooting “Room” in Toronto, based on Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed novel.
“I’ve said that like three times, and then I did another film which was based on a novel (‘The Little Stranger’) and now I’ve done ‘Normal People,'” he says with a laugh.
“It’s just hard to say no when stuff is so rich and good, and I’m given such freedom. The BBC didn’t put any restrictions on this. We could have as many episodes as we wanted, the episodes could be whatever length we wanted. It was just this amazing freedom to work in whatever way felt best for the novel. And it’s such a special novel that I just couldn’t walk away from it.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press