Acclaimed director behind TV series 'Conversations with Friends' set for Cork festival

Ahead of Conversations With Friends’ TV debut tomorrow, COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to Lenny Abrahamson about the show and his appearance at the Fastnet Film Festival
Acclaimed director behind TV series 'Conversations with Friends' set for Cork festival

Director Lenny Abrahamson: Picture: Enda Bowe

LENNY Abrahamson, acclaimed director of the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations With Friends , starting on RTÉ on May 18, will be dispensing his wisdom and interviewing stars in Cork later this month.

Lenny is to feature at the Fastnet Film Festival in Schull from May 25-29. The 55-year-old Dubliner, who also directed the phenomenally successful Normal People (also by Rooney) and Emma Donoghue’s Room - for which he received his first Academy Award nomination - is a big fan of the West Cork film festival.

Lenny has attended nearly all of them since they started.

“It’s just the best festival. I love it. There will be lots of great stuff happening, screenings of shorts in pubs and on islands.”

There will also be opportunities in “lovely pubs” to talk all things film over drinks.“To anyone who can, I’d recommend a visit.”

At the festival, Lenny will be discussing the making of Conversations With Friends with producers Ed Guiney and Emma Norton, moderated by festival director John Kelleher. He will also give a film directing seminar along with Aisling Walsh and Stephen Warbeck, moderated by producer David Power.

Joe Alwyn as Nick and Alison Oliver as Frances in Conversations with Friends. Picture: Photo/BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe.
Joe Alwyn as Nick and Alison Oliver as Frances in Conversations with Friends. Picture: Photo/BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe.

Lenny will be introducing Alison Oliver (a formerly virtually unknown actor from Blackrock in Cork) and Joe Alwyn, stars of Conversations With Friends who will be talking about acting in general. And one of the stars of Normal People, Paul Mescal, will be talking to Lenny.

The BAFTA-award winning Mescal has upcoming roles in three films, and Lenny said: “I want to talk to Paul about his last two years because they’ve been pretty incredible.”

Cork actor Alison, from Ballintemple, who grew up in Blackrock, plays 21-year-old Frances in the coming-of-age 12-part TV drama series Conversations With Friends. Lenny said she “is really quite remarkable”, adding: “I think she has a massive career ahead of her.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from Normal People.
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from Normal People.

Since the success of Normal People, a lot of eyes will be on Conversations With Friends. She’s right there in every single scene.”

Like Mescal, Alison is an alumna of the Lir Academy at Trinity College.

“Lir seems to keep producing the most amazing performers,” said Lenny.

Frances is in a complex ménage a quatre in the new drama. She had a romantic relationship with her girlfriend Bobbi in the past and embarks on an intense affair with the older Nick, who is married to Melissa. Bobbi is drawn to Melissa. Sexuality is fluid in this story of unfolding relationships.

“It’s about this young woman learning how to be OK with herself... She is coming from a place that I certainly remember, being desperately self-conscious and way too intense as a person in my early twenties.”

Lenny says that he and his colleagues at Element Films realised “pretty quickly” that Alison was the right actor to play Frances. They saw her first on self-tapes.

“Alison just jumped out,” said Lenny.

She portrayed “Frances’s odd, spunky but still vulnerable personality. She did such an amazing job. We knew we had Frances, the most central character of the whole adaptation.”

It’s easy for viewers to be drawn to the Frances character.

“She is powerfully quiet, the kind of person who sits there quietly but dominates the room. That’s a hard thing to do,” said Lenny.

Behind the scenes of Normal People. Lenny Abrahamson (DIRECTOR), Connell (PAUL MESCAL), Marianne (DAISY EDGAR JONES). Picture: Element Pictures/Enda Bowe 
Behind the scenes of Normal People. Lenny Abrahamson (DIRECTOR), Connell (PAUL MESCAL), Marianne (DAISY EDGAR JONES). Picture: Element Pictures/Enda Bowe 

Alison also had to tone down any traces of a lilting Cork accent to play the Dublin-reared student.

Frances, whose physicality is at times awkward, reflecting her tentative and uncertain nature, “kind of idealises Bobbi which is never a good basis for a friendship. Nobody wants to be idealised any more than they want to be denigrated.” The novel is narrated from the point of view of Frances, but Lenny says that Bobbi’s perspective is clear in the drama series.

“I think what Sasha Lane (who plays Bobbi) has done is amazing. It’s kind of heartbreaking. She really loves Frances and she can really recognise how Frances is caught up in her own head and is not aware of how important she is to Bobbi. Watching Bobbi deal with that and still caring about Frances, it’s amazing. It just captures the dynamic that lots of friends have, things they don’t really discuss which are hurtful.”

There can be an inequality in friendships.

“Absolutely. Or even in the head of one of them. I had really great and powerful close friendships at that age. Some are people I’m still close to. If you fell out with your closest friend or friends, it was devastating.”

Frances has endometriosis and one of the symptoms is debilitating period pain. It has metaphorical resonance in the story.

 Lenny Abrahamson. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Lenny Abrahamson. Picture: Brian McEvoy

“It’s part of a whole bunch of things that are happening to Frances. It’s like loads of people and her own body are telling her something is not right with her being in the world.”

However, Frances evolves.

“The series takes her from that very self-absorbed unhealthy self-consciousness into a more outward-looking person who is prepared to take risks and be there for the people she cares about,” said Lenny.

Normal People resulted in some outraged callers to Joe Duffy’s RTÉ radio programme, giving out about the sex scenes, which included full frontal nudity. Is that likely to recur with Conversations with Friends?

“It’s hard to know. I’m sure the same people who were outraged by Normal People will find plenty to be outraged about in Conversations With Friends.”

Lenny says that towards the end of the series, there is material over which some viewers may take offence.

“And they’re perfectly entitled to,” he adds.

However, he doesn’t feel the new series will lead to quite the same moral outrage that Normal People elicited.

“I don’t think it would ever happen with quite the same impact as that first time. I don’t think RTÉ had ever shown anything quite as direct and real as the intimacy in Normal People.”

An intimacy coach has been used for the filming of Normal People and Conversations With Friends.

“It’s just to have some procedural principles for nudity on set, how it’s handled, how many crew are on set, and how you deal with changing people in and out of their costumes. It puts protocols in place which make everyone feel safer, both cast and crew.”

As for the “choreography” of the sex scenes, Lenny say they are “much less intimate in reality than how they appear on screen”.

The protocols prevent “many of the things happening that used to happen in the industry where people were left feeling not good after those sorts of scenes.”

After graduating from Trinity, where he studied Philosophy and Physics, Lenny was torn between his love for film and philosophy. He pursued both for a while, making short films and studying at Stanford University in California in 1991.

“My taste for making films wouldn’t go away. Also, I like this life more than the academic life in that it brings you into touch with more people and it’s a much more varied kind of life. I feel really lucky that I’m able to do this.”

Lenny, who is being sent more scripts than he can read, is planning to take some time away from shooting films to concentrate on writing.

Looking ahead, the actors he would love to work with include Saoirse Ronan (“we have talked about it and will eventually find something we want to do together”), Hugh Jackman, Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Lawrence.

Lenny would also like to work with comedians in straight roles, such as Amy Poehler. He would like to work again with Domhnall Gleeson, Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones (who starred in Normal People.)

With his career very much in the ascendant, Lenny Abrahamson can have his pick.

See www.fastnetfilmfestival.com

MORE ON THE FESTIVAL

There will be a star-studded lineup at this year’s Fastnet Film Festival, which runs in Schull, West Cork, from Wednesday, May 25 to Sunday, May 29.

There will be more than 50 participating guests in this year’s line-up including: Stephen Rea, Aisling Walsh, Ciarán Hinds, Alison Oliver, Joe Alwyn, David Puttnam, Lenny Abrahamson plus many more film experts.

Also featured at the festival will be in excess of 300 short films, 13 feature length films, outdoor cinema, a live concert from Interference, a focus on Scottish Film, Irish Day on Cape Clear, and Carmel Winters will be the host of the now famous Film Quiz, no prizes just the filmmakers’ reputations at stake!

The Fastnet Film Festival is a major showcase for Irish and international short film production, focusing on the craft of film, held in high regard on a national and international level for several years now.

The festival this year will run a series of seminars, masterclasses and workshops covering, Directing, Acting, Casting, Auditioning, Cross Platform Media, Shorts to Feature, Sound, Production, multi camera filming, Distribution and more. Fringe events include: Live Music, Drama, Book Readings, Antarctic Virtual Reality Exhibition, Café Viewing all over town and high quality, free family entertainment for all.

Conversation With Friends starts with a double episode on RTÉ1 on Wednesday, May 18, at 9.35pm

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