Charting the tumultuous romantic saga of Hulu’s Normal People meant that director-executive producer Lenny Abrahamson and director of photography Suzie Lavelle had to establish an aesthetic reflection of the roiling feelings between young lovers Marianne and Connell.
The visual roads paved to adapt Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2019 novel for the screen rise to meet its young characters’ emotions, as high school seniors Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) fall in love in the small Irish town of Sligo. Marianne is cerebral and forthright, with a lonely seriousness that her fellow students mock; Connell is a popular soccer player, rowdy and affable, whose mother is a cleaning woman at Marianne’s large, uninviting home. They’re cagily aware of each other when Marianne suggests she and Connell discreetly sleep together, and they soon find a deeper sexual, intellectual and emotional connection than neither expected. The ups and downs of their secret relationship continue as Connell and Marianne both attend Dublin’s Trinity College, where their social standings reverse.
In the first half of the 12-episode Normal People, Abrahamson and Lavelle created a tonal moodboard to portray the first catalysts of Marianne and Connell’s journey.
“In order for something to lend itself to adaptation, you need a feeling for the flavor of the story, which comes down to tone and mood,” says Abrahamson, who also directed 2015’s Oscar-nominated Room. “What excited me about Normal People was the possibility of doing something low-key and naturalistic, with a quiet truthfulness, yet which at the same time was very emotionally charged.”
Adds Lavelle; “Lenny and I spoke about trying to have the filmmaking not contain any artifice, and about making the audience active in the process of reading the images, which helped us tap into the honesty and authenticity of the story.”
Abrahamson notes that the series, like Rooney’s bestselling novel, addresses ideas of freedom, being an outsider, and intimacy versus distance, which required “a careful examination of details of the relationship.” This is also why they chose to break the mold of traditional television formats, opting for shorter dramatic episodes instead of the usual hour-long drama episodic formula. “Something about these short bursts increased the story’s emotional charge,” he says. For Lavelle, the 30-minute episodes became windows into the characters’ lives – “we have room for introspection, and to simply be with the characters,” she says.
Lavelle, whose work includes episodes of His Dark Materials and Doctor Who, brought Abrahamson the portfolio of photographer Nan Goldin as a reference, especially for the bedroom scenes between Marianne and Connell. “Goldin’s aesthetic helped because there’s a story in every single frame, and she makes small moments seem monumental,” says Lavelle. Other influences were photographers Seamus Murphy, Stephen Shore, and Enda Bowe. (After consulting on visuals, Bowe came aboard as a unit photographer for Normal People.)
Abrahamson credits Lavelle for bringing the intimate, melancholic aesthetic to the series. “So much of the visual beauty in the series, from a tonal and lighting point of view, is all thanks to her,” he explains.
Lavelle recommended using old K35 lenses, known for low-contrast images with a shallow depth of field which produce evocatively hazy backgrounds. “Those lenses are beautifully unpredictable in terms of what they do to the light,” says Abrahamson. “We also thought about composition; in each location, we thought about how we could subtly reflect the mood of the characters, like in the squares on the walls of Marianne’s high school bedroom, so that even though her house is larger than Connell’s, her world feels claustrophobic.”
“Marianne’s home is a sort of cage for her, so we did a lot of frames-within-frames to relate her to the space around her,” says Lavelle. “As for Connell’s scenes, we gave a warmth to his world. He’s sort of cocooned during his high school years.”
For scenes centered on the young lovers, Lavelle made sure that all eyes would be on just them.
“When the two of them are together, we have them visible to each other with wide lenses to capture the space around them,” Lavelle adds. “But when they’re in a group, we used long lenses and knocked out the focus on everyone except them. There’s a sense that Marianne and Connell are only thinking of each other as the rest of the world falls away.”
Lavelle notes that crucial aspects of the show’s aesthetic clicked in as Edgar-Jones and Mescal worked on their performances: “At rehearsal, Daisy and Paul sat opposite each other doing the first breakup scene, and the penny dropped for me: I was so moved by their performances, I remember thinking, ‘I just need to feel their faces blush, the way Paul moves his jaw or Daisy moves her eyes, and get in there and let all that guide me.’ I realized it was all about simplicity.”
The experiences of the two leads exist on a level playing field, a balance that is elemental to Rooney’s novel and continued through the visual language of the series. In the first episodes, the point of view moves easily between Marianne and Connell to keep their relationship at the center. But in episode 4, as the story moves to Trinity College, Abrahamson explained that they split the perspectives between the two characters.
“We didn’t know if it would work, frankly — it’s a risk, since you’ve become invested in them as a couple,” he says. “But what that allowed was the sense that, when you first see Marianne at Trinity, you’re absolutely seeing her from Connell’s point of view. Then you see the cracks in her façade, and you know that he means something to her that nobody else in her new group of friends does. It was lovely to play with the story structurally that way.”
Shooting on location at Trinity College was a homecoming for Abrahamson, who, like Rooney, attended the 428-year-old education establishment founded by Queen Elizabeth I. “I lived in the building where Marianne and Connell reunite outside of, and the area of the library where Connell studies is the same area I used to love working in. It was nice to be able to revisit my own past there,” he reminisces.
“It was incredible shooting at Trinity, partly because of the privilege of filming there, as it can be very hard to have approved,” says Lavelle. “But also because you can feel how Sally Rooney felt when she wrote the book, and being able to shoot there with Lenny was special. His deep understanding of the Trinity experience made it even more thoughtful.”