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Sasha Lane and Alison Oliver as Bobbi and Frances in Conversations With Friends Conversations with Friends © Element Pictures/Enda Bowe
conversations with friends

Lenny Abrahamson on filming sex scenes: 'You'd never do a stunt scene without a stunt coordinator'

The director of the upcoming Conversations With Friends TV series on how he made the film – and those sex scenes.

THE TV SHOW Normal People was responsible for bringing a lot of unexpected cultural moments to us in 2020: the silver chain worn by Connell, GAA shorts – and the idea of an intimacy coordinator.

An intimacy coordinator is the person who works with the director and actors on filming sex scenes, making sure that the actors’ wellbeing is a priority. Filming sex scenes can’t be easy for those involved, even though they’re no doubt devoid of actual semblance to reality. But for decades, TV and film shows tended to just let the actors do their thing, within reason. 

The advent of intimacy coordinators is a recognition that these scenes need to be planned and dealt with with care, so that people aren’t put in situations they don’t want to be in.

Ita O’Brien is one of the best-known intimacy coordinators in the business, and her role was a talking point for Normal People, with the series praised for its consent-led approach to the sex scenes between the main characters, teenagers Connell and Marianne. Now she’s back on board for Conversations With Friends (also based on a book written by Sally Rooney), which airs this coming week on RTÉ, where the scenes this time involve adults.

For director Lenny Abrahamson (director of features What Richard Did, Adam & Paul and The Little Stranger), having an intimacy coordinator as part of the team is a non-negotiable now if you’re making a film with sex scenes. 

“So much of it was new when we worked with Ita on Normal People,” he says. “But it was such a good thing to do, to have brought somebody in, and it worked so well.”

And we learned the ropes doing it on Normal People; we learned how to integrate that role into the process of making a show and shooting intimate scenes. 

He said that on Conversations With Friends, the intimacy coordinator role “felt much more integrated already”.

“You’d never do a stunt scene without a stunt coordinator,” he says. “By the time we did Conversations With Friends, it felt like we’d almost reached that point where it just became a very straightforward set of relationships, so that the intimacy coordinator has a conversation with us early on, talks to any crew that have never worked with an intimacy coordinator before about on-set etiquette, how it will work around intimate scenes.”

“And then we’ll talk to the actors in advance, about what I want to do. And then we find sometimes it’s really simple stuff about: what are the best mechanics for that? What pads should people be wearing? And how do we get the different shots in a way which makes everybody feel safe?” The intimacy coordinator is there throughout the shoot, “just to make sure that the actors have somebody that they can go to if they have a concern, or a worry”.

“So actually, in a really good way, it became kind of ordinary,” he says. “I sort of imagine that in the early days of cinema when people were throwing themselves around, and shooting fight scenes, loads of people got injured. Nobody had a clue what they were doing.”

And then somebody had this idea about creating a role for people who actually understood that the dangers and the challenges [a stunt coordinator], and then that just becomes part of the standard crewing setup. And that’s where I feel we got to on Conversations.

The journey to screen

Abrahamson is one of Ireland’s best-known directors, making his initial breakthrough with his debut feature, the bittersweet comedy Adam & Paul, and going on to make Garage and What Richard Did.

It was his 2015 film Room that marked his Hollywood breakthrough, with lead actor Brie Larson winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Ma in the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s excellent novel. 

Abrahamson has always had his hand in the TV world, directing some episodes of Prosperity in the early 2000s, so moving from the big to the small screen for Normal People wasn’t a huge surprise. But it showed what a versatile director he is, and how he brings a heart for empathy and an eye for beauty to all his work. 

When The Journal spoke to the stars of Conversations With Friends, Alison Oliver – who plays Frances – and Joe Alwyn, who plays Nick, they were effusive in their praise for Abrahamson’s sensitivity in his job. 

“Lenny is so good and detailed as a director,” says Alwyn. “He’s not overbearing, but he really does want to investigate every single moment and every single beat, even if it’s unspoken, and kind of drill it for what it’s worth as to why it’s there and what the purpose is.”

Ireland’s Element Pictures had optioned Conversations With Friends before Sally Rooney had even written Normal People, but they were developing it as a feature, and Abrahamson couldn’t quite see it in that mode, he says.

After he read Normal People, the production team conceived of it as a longform project. Then, at an event in the US which Sally Rooney was also at, they started talking about Conversations With Friends again – and realised maybe the longer form TV approach would work with that book too. “It just really suits Sally’s way of writing, I think, to have that space, to really spend time with the characters,” says Abrahamson. As soon as Conversations was mooted as a TV show, he was on board.

He directs half of Conversations With Friends, while British director Leanne Welham directs the other half. Welham says that she was drawn to the series because it has “an intrinsic sort of complexity and messiness, in terms of the relationships that are happening in it”. 

Having two directors during the series isn’t unusual, but must mean that communication has to be good between the pair. So a lot of work is done before the filming begins. “We’d had a fair few conversations in the lead up to shooting the series. And to be honest, we’ve always been very much on the same page in terms of how to approach shooting the series and how to do things visually,” says Welham.

“And we’re both directors who enjoy focusing on nuance, and on subtlety, and there was a lot of crossover in our work.”

Welham says she is a “massive fan of Lenny, his film work in particular”, and that while working together “it always felt like we were making the same show”. “I had kind of free rein really do what I wanted as a director, but I think happily that was very much in the same ballpark as Lenny.”

Whereas Sally Rooney was an executive producer on Normal People, she decided not to take on the same role for Conversations With Friends, as she was writing her third novel, Beautiful World Where Are You.

“In this case, I think because of Normal People, she was very trusting and had been happy with what we had done,” says Abrahamson. As a result, she was very involved in the conversations early on about breaking the novel down into episodes, and also loved to talk about casting.

“But after that, she disappeared off to do her novel. And we really just showed her episodes when they were finished. So she was very happy and has been really happy, which is brilliant,” he says. 

‘Our eyes just popped open’

PastedImage-34116 Alison Oliver as Frances Conversations with Friends © Element Pictures / Enda Bowe Conversations with Friends © Element Pictures / Enda Bowe / Enda Bowe

The team behind Normal People proved themselves to have a gift for casting. In Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, they chose the perfect actors to play Connell and Marianne. The pair went from virtual anonymity to household names, something a young actor can usually only dream of.

So the casting in Conversations With Friends also had to be spot on. They went for something a bit different this time, choosing established actors Jemima Kirke and Sasha Lane to play Melissa and Bobbi, and up-and-coming actor Joe Alwyn to play Melissa’s husband Nick, who the character Frances has an affair with.

As the protagonist of the novel, Frances was the most important character to cast. They found their Frances in young Cork woman Alison Oliver, a 23-year-old fresh out of drama school. 

“We saw her relatively early and our eyes all just popped open. And we thought God, she’s absolutely incredible,” recalls Abrahamson. “She just captured something essential about Frances. But I always believe you can’t cast anybody until you’ve almost cast everybody, because they all have to work together.”

It was relatively quick to cast Alwyn as Nick, “because, again, from his tape, there was just something so soulful about him.” There is an age gap between Frances and Nick. He’s married, she’s just a young student. Get it wrong, and things could look dodgy.

“You could really feel that between Alison’s Frances and Joe’s Nick, that would be this power dynamic that was nuanced and interesting, and never icky, in the kind of older man, younger woman way that it could have been,” says Abrahamson.

He’s right – whereas Nick in the novel seems much older, in the series he seems closer in age to Frances, making their relationship not feel too squirm-worthy.

It was harder to cast Bobbi and Melissa, because they’re described in the novel in terms of how they appear to other people, mainly Frances. “Frances has got a fantasy of Bobbi, which is that she’s just bulletproof, magnetic and magnificent,” says Abrahamson. “And Bobbi’s frustration with Frances is that Frances idealises her.”

It took them a while to find Sasha Lane (American Honey) to play Bobbi, but she “is so charismatic, but she’s also… the sensitivity is incredible, and the delicacy is incredible”. And then Jemima Kirke (Girls) was cast as Melissa – again, a great bit of casting as she has to both intimidate Frances, but also be made jealous and show insecurity.

The series was filmed in Dublin and Belfast, and Trinity again plays  a substantial role as a setting. “It felt like there were these nice things, these nice kind of internal rhymes between the two novels,” says Abrahamson.

Whereas with Normal People they had to try and figure out how to shoot around the crowds, during the Conversations With Friends’ shoot Dublin was in lockdown, so they had to try and populate the space without breaking the budget. For the scenes in France in the novel, they shot in Croatia, due to Covid numbers and the desire to try somewhere new.

Welham – who says she “really felt so supported by the production team and also the cast” – said that one of the challenges for her was having Belfast resemble Dublin. “Because they’re very different cities. I walked around Dublin – I was like, how is this going to work?” she recalls. But she credits the series’ designer and locations team for being “absolutely brilliant at finding those places in Belfast”.

“They did parts of Dublin and I think a lot of people would struggle, apart from if you’re from Dublin, maybe, to understand that that’s not actually happening around the corner from the pub where they’ve just had a conversation,” she says of making the two locations meld on screen. “They feel in the same family but it’s definitely not the same show and I certainly never felt any pressure to make exactly the same show as Normal People.”

What appeals to Abrahamson about Rooney’s work is “she appears to be doing nothing other than describing what people are saying, doing, and their thoughts in a very simple way. And yet, by the time you finish a movement of the novel, you feel like you’ve just had an encounter that it would be very hard to describe why or how she manages to give you that sense of an intimate connection with the characters. ”

In my filmmaking, what I strive for is something similar, at least in some aspects of what I do, which is: it should seem really straightforward… it seems like I’m just showing you what’s happening. I’m not attempting to heighten or direct you, as an audience.
And I felt like my approach would be sympathetic to how she works. 

‘Normal People was a mad phenomenon’

PastedImage-75366 IMDB IMDB

Working on Normal People “was such a joyous thing for us all”, says Abrahamson. The reaction to it surprised him.

“Even my boy, he’s 13 and he wanted a chain for part of his Christmas presents. He didn’t watch Normal People, but it’s somehow in the air. And then I went into a jeweller and said, do you have any simple silver chains? And they took me over to a display that said, ‘Connell’s chain’,” he laughs. 

He’s sanguine about the pressure on this new series. “I think everybody involved in this is sort of long in the tooth enough to go, you just absolutely can’t know. And also, it can’t be the same because it already happened on Normal People. The Normal People thing was such a kind of mad phenomenon. It was such a particular moment because of the pandemic and everything. I can’t imagine that it will be the same on this.”

“Having said that, we’re all really proud of the show. And I think the cast are amazing. And I think it’s as rich as Normal People was.

If anything, it’s probably meatier than Normal People across the whole series. And so I’d love it to get the sort of audience that Normal People got. But I think that was such a kind of one-off moment. I think it would be a bad idea to bank on that.

He says he won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t have the same hype, “because you could never guess, or you could never predict that that was going to happen”.

But now that he’s out of working on those two projects, it has him thinking about his next move, which will see him step back into feature films again.

“It’s funny, now that I’m out the other side of what is really four years worth of work, I want to go back to making features,” he says.

“I feel like I’ve really dived into that world of those two novels and Sally’s way of writing, and I’m very privileged and happy to have done it,” says Abrahamson.

But I do feel now like it’s time to step away and do something else.

Conversations With Friends will air from tonight on RTÉ One.

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