Conversations with Friends follows Frances, a 21 year old college student, as she navigates a series of relationships that force her to confront her own vulnerabilities for the first time. Frances is observant, cerebral and sharp. Her ex-girlfriend, now best friend, Bobbi is self-assured, outspoken and compelling. Though they broke up three years ago, Frances and Bobbi are virtually inseparable and perform spoken word poetry together in Dublin. It’s at one of their shows that they meet Melissa, an older writer, who is fascinated by the pair. Bobbi and Frances start to spend time with Melissa and her husband, Nick, a handsome but reserved actor. While Melissa and Bobbi flirt with each other openly, Nick and Frances embark on an intense secret affair that is surprising to them both. Soon the affair begins to test the bond between Frances and Bobbi, forcing Frances to reconsider her sense of self, and the friendship she holds so dear.
Conversations with Friends firmly holds an intimate magnifying glass over the coming of age conundrum we all seem to soon face in our adolescence, as we attempt to find a sense of stability on rocky grounds, as we navigate friendships, family dynamics, self-worth, and the great unknown of young adulthood.
I had the utmost honor of speaking with the prolific director that is Lenny Abrahamson, who is no stranger to the grand world of characters created by Sally Rooney which have been richly adapted by Alice Birch. Lenny shares the overall creative process behind adapting this specific book for television, working with the core creative team of executive producers, and carrying tone and character arcs consistently through the season while working with co-director Leanna Welham. Plus, he shares invaluable advice for writers and directors navigating collaborative relationships.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Did Alice Birch approach you with the idea of adapting another Sally Rooney book or was this a project you two were already discussing to make next together?
Lenny Abrahamson: Actually, it came about in a sort of roundabout way, because I worked very closely with Element Pictures, and Ed Guiney, producer - an amazing production company, made all my stuff and Yorgos Lanthimos and Sebastián Lelio, those brilliant filmmakers - and Element had optioned Conversations with Friends before they optioned Normal People. And they had been working on it as a feature; I had read it and loved it, but I couldn't really see it as a feature. So, I was sort of aware that it was happening, but wasn't actively involved with it, and then read Normal People and loved it. And I think all of us felt very quickly that that was a TV show. And we didn't have the rights to it, but we went to the BBC and the BBC said, ‘Well if you guys want to do it, if you get the rights, we'll greenlight it.’ So that was kind of amazing. We were able to go to Sally and say, ‘If you give it to us, it's happening in 12 months’ time.’ [laughs] Which never happens in our world. And that went ahead.
Obviously, we really enjoyed all working together. We were at the TCAS in LA and all sat around and said, ‘You know what we should think about doing Conversations with Friends in the same way,’ and had loved working with Alice so much on Normal People. I'm such a big fan of Alice's as a playwright, as well as a showrunner and a screenwriter. And it was really obvious for us that we would approach Alice and say, ‘Look, we know you're incredibly busy,’ because she is, ‘but would you be interested in getting involved in this one?’ And she thankfully was. It was a slightly different structure to it this time. In Normal People, Alice had worked closely with Sally Rooney herself, and Mark O'Rowe also did an episode, but it was sort of primarily Sally and Alice. And this one, Alice kicked it off, but we have a bigger group of writers working with her this time, Sally wasn't involved, she was working on her new novel. But Mark O'Halloran who's a writer that I've worked really closely with, a young Irish writer called Meadhbh McHugh brilliant, did quite a few episodes, and Susan Soon He Stanton as well. So, it was a sort of bigger group, but ours was still kind of at the heart of it. I would work with Alice on anything, she's just absolutely fantastic.
Sadie: The both of you have this ability to take and create these characters in these worlds that are so very intimate, and as a viewer, you feel very connected and relatable to the characters.
Lenny: I think the books are like that, actually, that is the thing we were trying to capture, which is that there's a real sense of presence with the characters. And I like working in that way as a filmmaker as well. There's kind of a connection. Alice is incredibly good at that. It felt like a really good marriage, all of those elements together.
Sadie: What was the collaborative process between the creative core on carrying the vision tonally and how these characters were going to arc in this specific world in this first season?
Lenny: Well, so interesting, the other dimension to this is because it works a little bit differently - I don't know whether it's by our side of the Atlantic, or whether it's just this group - but generally speaking, the producing core like the execs on this it was me, it was a wonderful woman Emma Norton and Ed Guiney the main producer and Catherine Magee, who's an amazing producer also worked on Normal People, Andrew Lowe also Ed's partner at Element and Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann, a colleague as well - that was the group who were really watching the arc of the whole thing. So, the breaking of the story into episodes that happened within that group, along with conversations with Alice, and the other writers, and I was part of that. I was very much involved with that group in shaping the overall arc. And then in terms of like, mood and style, it's a pretty organic process, it grows out of those decisions about, understanding who the characters are, and being deep in their story and watching the narrative shape evolve, that leads towards those kinds of decisions about what's it going to feel like, what's the vision overall for the show.
Leanne came in a little later, because as we started to develop, we knew that we would work with two directors, because it just makes sense, you're shooting so much stuff, and you really need a collaborator. And Leanne is brilliant. She's just a great director, she's also really sensitive to tone. And so she was able to kind of marry her way of working to the tone that was sort of established in the show. And because I shot my first block first, it meant that I could share rushes with her, I could share assemblies with her, she came out onto the set, and we talked and it was a very lovely, extended creative family that was the kind of the heart of the whole thing.
Sadie: And it's so seamless too. Especially with the actors and their vulnerabilities. We’re seeing them become adults through these ten episodes.
Sadie: Were you a part of the casting process as well?
Lenny: Yes. I was lucky enough to be, casting it again, along with the kind of brain trust at the center of the thing. And Sally was also involved in that conversation, it's a big thing for her who plays the characters that she's written into her novel. It was really, really good. It took us a while Alison [Oliver] was one of the first self-tapes that I saw. And it was brilliant. She just was so spectacular as Francis. Joe [Alwyn] came quite quickly as Nick. And then it took us a while to find Bobbi and Melissa; they're such big characters, you need people with immense screen presence. And we were so lucky to find Sasha [Lane] and Jemima [Kirke], so it was great.
Sadie: Yeah, Sasha is just incredible in this role, as is Alison – again, tapping into those vulnerabilities. Did you conduct extensive table reads?
Lenny: It was quite hard to do. The table reads were virtual, which is not a thing I would recommend. It’s bad enough table reads are tough enough as it is, and I'm not a massive fan of them. But we did manage to get them together in smaller groups. I remember going up to Belfast and working with the four leads for a while and that was great. One thing that does happen in the way that we work is once we've cast, we go back and adjust script to sort of reflect those casting decisions, because there'll be something that the actor brings that is just, when you're aware of that person in the role, you just want to go back and say, ‘Oh, what's really interesting is this. Let's lean into this.’ So that process of rewriting happens all the time and through rehearsals, rewriting happens as well because you learn things in rehearsals and I'd go back and say, ‘You know what we need this thing to happen,’ or ‘We found something in rehearsals and that was great, we should put it into the script.’ So, I think the more you can make things bespoke and tailored to those particular people, the better the show is going to be in the end.
Sadie: As a director, because you've now made a number of adaptations when you're approaching the source material, and then you go to script what is it for you as a storyteller that makes you so interested and involved in that process?
Lenny: I keep saying, I don't want to do any more adaptations. [laughs] So actually, the next thing I'm going to do is do some writing. And I'm also working on a project with a friend that's entirely original. But what keeps happening is when you do an adaptation, if it works, then people bring you amazing novels. [laughs] And it's really hard to say no, so I like to be involved right from the beginning. I've never done it where there's a script already. It's always been the book, and then working closely with a writer. I think what interests me is just the process of adaptation is such a kind of interesting one, because when you read a novel that works, you feel, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy,’ because what the novel leaves you with is this impression of completeness. And, and you think, ‘Oh, we'll take the important scenes, and we'll put them together.’ And it never works like that, because as soon as you do it, you realize, these are two very different ways of telling story. Something I often say to people is, it is very easy to exclude information on the page. You can talk only about the aspect of the scene that you want to talk about what's happening in this corner, or this particular face. But of course, as soon as you put a camera on something, all of this information is just full of stuff. So, like filmmaking is about how you take things away, in a way that writing on the page, or screenwriting, or whatever is, is what you say, so they're very different.
As soon as you start going through the process of adaptation, it's important that it all falls apart for a while. You know you're not doing it right if it all seems to be working, you haven't gone deep enough, it all has to fall apart. And then you put it back together and finding the kind of purest version of that idea in the medium that you're working. And I find it very exciting, even though as I am constantly saying I'm not going to do it again and then something comes along that I just like so much that I find it impossible to say no. And actually, anything given that what I'm doing now is writing, everything is easier than writing so I may well be tempted again.
Sadie: You're the adaptation whisperer. What excited you to become a filmmaker?
Lenny: There's all these different stages. When I started, I didn't go to film school, I had more of an academic background actually in humanities, but I was always fascinated with film, and I started to mess around with it when I was in university. And then a bunch of us raised some money and actually, the producer I still work with, the composer I still work with, and it was basically doing that, but I thought there's something about this that I feel at my happiest when I'm doing this even though it's difficult.
The first two features that I made were entirely not based on anything, there was no original IP of any kind, with a writer that I still work with. And that just gradually grew. And what I discovered the things that I've been really interested in are often stories about characters you kind of feel for whom their sense of self really falls apart. I'm always really interested in that, that we think we kind of know who we are or we tell stories about ourselves that we find very comforting. And then when really extreme things happen in life, I think we kind of learn often that we're not quite who we think we are. And that's not always a comfortable realization and I've always been fascinated by characters who are in the middle of that moment of fracture. And also, characters who find themselves outside of things, who don't really fit very well, like Frank is an example of that. So, yeah, and interest vacillates between a kind of very, quite austere naturalism on the one side, and then this interest in slapstick kind of ridiculousness on the other, which again, Frank is an example and my first film Adam and Paul. People who make things, you discover what your obsessions are by doing things, and then recognizing after a while, that you continue to circle the same territory, and it's obviously what I feel most compelled by.
Sadie: What should a writer expect from the director in terms of them coming in with their own vision with the written word either on an adaptation or original script?
Lenny: I think a good relationship between writer and director is really kind of one where both people really respect each other, in a very simple way. I never want to come in feeling like I already have all the answers. As a director, I think there should be an openness. There needs to be an openness to what that writer feels passionate about in the project as well. I think that where there is something that is worth remembering as a writer is ultimately the director is the one who's going to have to make that script. And therefore, it needs to make sense to them. So even if, as a writer, you feel super passionately about something, if the director doesn't understand it, or it doesn't chime for the director, it's not going to be something that they can do beautifully on screen. I think ultimately, from the director's point of view, you cannot force somebody into writing a certain way. The only thing that ever works is a good human relationship. Like, there's no other way. No contract is going to fix it. You know what I mean? It's just got to be about people who are decent working together. So, my advice to writers is pick decent people to collaborate with. And my advice to directors is the same. And if you can do that, you'll find a way together.
Conversations with Friends premieres on Hulu on May 15, 2022.