‘Normal People’ Producer Ed Guiney Says Film and TV Production Isn’t Possible Without Quick COVID Testing

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “We have to face up to is that if we want to shoot, we’re going to be shooting in a coronavirus world,” producer says

Ed Guiney
Photo by Matt Sayles for TheWrap

This story about Ed Guiney and “Normal People” first appeared in the “Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It is one in a series of conversations about the effects of the coronavirus on the television industry.

Ed Guiney, a director of the Dublin-based production company Element Pictures, has in recent years produced the Oscar-winning films “The Favourite” and “Room” — but he’s now drawing raves on television with the BBC and Hulu series “Normal People,” an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel that stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as a young couple whose on-again, off-again relationship spans high school and college years. Executive produced by “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson and directed by Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, the startlingly intimate series premiered in late April, in the thick of the coronavirus lockdown.

What stage was “Normal People” at when the lockdown hit?
We were lucky, in a way, because shooting was done. We still had to finish post, and a lot of that we were able to do remotely. We also had to do some (automated dialogue replacement), and we did that with Lenny in Dublin and Daisy and Paul at a studio in London.

This is a show about personal connection — do you think viewers’ attitudes towards shows like this change at a time when we have to stay away from other people?
Well, the entertainment agenda is much more restricted than it was. There aren’t any sports, there aren’t any celebrities going out misbehaving. There’s very little going on in the world apart from coronavirus and the politics of coronavirus. And so to premiere a show when you’ve got a captive audience, we’re very lucky with that.

I think the nature of this show, which is about exploring a new relationship and really being out in the world in the most exciting way as a young person — that is sort of wish fulfillment for lots of people at a time like this. And it’s the exact opposite of social distancing, that show. So there’s a certain wistfulness about that, I think.

Even though the series covers several years, the 12 episodes are only half an hour long. And when you’re in those episodes, you never feel as if you’re rushing — you feel as if you’re taking your time with these moments.
That’s true. We hit upon the idea of half hours early on, because we felt it’s such a character-based piece that that really would allow us to be as close to this intimate relationship as we possibly could be. It just felt like that gave audiences permission to watch it in a way that sort of leaned into its intimacy.

Speaking of intimacy, it feels as if these characters are most honest with each other in their lovemaking, not their dialogue. That puts the onus on those scenes to be more than just sex scenes.
One of the brilliant things about the book is its description of the kind of physical connection that these two characters have. And we were determined that we would do that well and properly and not in any kind of coy way. As you say, so much of the communication is in their lovemaking. And we wanted to explore that in all its awkwardness and beauty and oddness and sexiness and frankness — to make it as human as it actually is in real life.

Your company, Element, has quite a few projects in various stages of preparation right now. What are your thoughts on actually getting back to shooting things again?
It’s a really good question. We have two films, Sean Durkin’s film “The Nest” and the Phyllida Lloyd film “Herself,” both of which were at Sundance this year. We’re in the process of delivering them, which we can more or less do in this environment. And then Joanna Hogg’s film, “The Souvenir: Part II,” is in the backend of postproduction. We’ve had to put that on hold until the world opens up again.

I guess the thing that’s most advanced for us in terms of shooting is “Conversations With Friends,” which is Sally Rooney’s first novel, which we’re adapting also for BBC with Lenny and the same creative team as “Normal People.” Our ability to make it will depend on two things. It will depend on the availability of PPE, personal protective equipment, and of course testing — quick testing, so that you can get the results back in a matter of hours, ideally.

Those two things are going to be so important, because if there’s any delay in testing, it makes life very difficult. You can restrict the kinds of things you can do up to a point, but it’s very, very hard to see how you can make drama, be it film drama or television drama, with social distancing between actors and between the DP and the director and the DP and the cast.

To be honest with you, when this all happened eight weeks ago, I was like, “Oh, yeah, we’ll do this for a few weeks and there’ll be a vaccine and we’ll all be back to work in September.” But I really don’t think that’s going to be the case anymore. I think what we have to face up to is that if we want to shoot, we’re going to be shooting in a coronavirus world. There isn’t going to be a vaccine that quickly and there isn’t going to be a cure that quickly. There may be ways of testing and preventing and being careful and preventing the transmission of it, but that’s going to take a lot of work and that’s going to make it more expensive. Inevitably what will happen is that there will be fewer things made, and they’ll be at a higher cost.

To read more of the “Race Begins” issue, click here.

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