An artist that has spent his life “working in mediums that are really not quick,” Nick Hornby made his short-form debut this year with State of the Union, quickly recognizing the opportunities at hand within this unfamiliar space.
Starring Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd, the SundanceTV series centers on Louise and Tom, a couple that meet in a pub each week, prior to their marital counseling session. There, the pair engage in a witty and involving back-and-forth, examining where things went wrong in their relationship, and how it might be fixed.
For the celebrated novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter, one of the appeals of working in short-form was the opportunity to write the kind of character-driven adult drama he loves to see on screen, which is hard to get made in the feature space in this day and age. “Certainly, I think television or a computer of some kind is probably the way forward, at least until the cultural climate changes, because I think writing films like that, they’ll just break your heart, in terms of trying to get them made,” Hornby reflects. “This was a way to write something that hopefully is smart, and get fantastic actors, and for it to be about something, and actually be seen.”
Hornby so believed in the series that he was willing to ask A-list stars to work for free up front—and when the project landed at SundanceTV, executive director Jan Diedrichsen felt equally compelled to bring the show to life. With Hornby, Pike, O’Dowd and director Stephen Frears on board, the project felt from the beginning like “premium short-form,” the executive explains—a series that would make people think of short-form content in a new light.
Once State of the Union had gone through the production process, Diedrichen’s challenge was to consider a way to position the series, finding a release strategy that was as unique and as reflective of our times as the show itself.
Nick, when did the idea for State of the Union come to you?
Nick Hornby: I’d had the idea for that kind of set-up some time ago and didn’t know what to do with it. Then, I watched High Maintenance, which was on Vimeo, and had a conversation with someone else about short-form, and I realized that the material I had would fit that very well. So, I just put the two things together.
How did the series come together at SundanceTV?
Jan Diedrichsen: The series came to us through See-Saw Films, who we have a great relationship with, because we partnered with them on Top of the Lake and Top of the Lake: China Girl. They came to us and said, “We have this script from Nick, and it’s a little bit unconventional. It’s a short-form series, kind of in one location. A couple of locations beyond that, but very centralized,” and we just fell in love with the scripts right away. We thought they were so smart, and funny, and interesting.
[With] Sundance as our brand, we’re always looking to try new things and break the form a little bit, and this felt like a perfect opportunity to break the form, with A+ material, and terrific collaborators in Nick and Stephen.
Nick, you managed to pack a cohesive portrait of a relationship into a series of 10-minute episodes. What was the process in crafting your two central characters, and figuring out who they were at their core?
Hornby: I guess I’d been thinking about them for a while before I started, and that tends to be the case with anything I do that’s original. I’m never, ever ready to write straight away. I kind of wander around people for a while and think about who they are, who their parents were, where they went to school, what they do for a living—things like that. When I felt that I had enough, I started, and then I found more things out about them as I went along.
There were some things I knew that I wanted to write about. The thing about [Tom] being a music journalist, I just wanted some way to write about what’s happened to middle class, university-educated people over the last few years, which is, whole jobs have run away. They’re just not there anymore. Chris has that riff about blacksmiths, but of course, it’s always happened to working people before; they’re the ones who are displaced by technology, and now it’s happening to what we call middle class…I never know what Americans call what we call middle class.
Did you write this as one 100-minute piece, or break story by episode?
Hornby: Pretty much episode by episode, but I had tent poles. I knew he was going to move out in the middle, and I knew that I wanted them to stay together at the end, so I was kind of working towards those things.
How did you find the gist of each episode, and the conversation at its core? Each comes with its own clever relationship metaphors and thematic concerns.
Hornby: The only thing I can say is that crap just comes out. It’s a natural expression of the way I think, and the way I wanted them to think, but most of it wasn’t planned. It was generated by the characters and the material, and I like writing like that.
Does dialogue come to you through a stream of consciousness?
Hornby: It comes quite quickly, but it doesn’t feel anything like stream of consciousness. I couldn’t write an episode a day, even though there are only 10 pages. I could probably write an episode in three days, but given that there are only 10 pages, that feels a long way away from stream of consciousness. I wish I could write them in a day.
What informed the casting of your two leads?
Hornby: Rosamund, I worked with on An Education; that was where I first met her. I was knocked out by her ability to perform comedy, and I’ve stayed in touch with her. She’s a neighbor, so for all these years, I’ve been dying to find something where she can do the funny-and-sad thing. She tends to get different parts in her bigger movies, as it were.
I remember her telling me at the time of An Education that she was never asked to be funny, but she loved doing it, and she actually is very funny. That was kind of a dream for me, to be able to cast Rosamund in something. Chris came on later, but I had met him; he was in the movie Juliet, Naked that came out last year. I like to think I got on with him, but I was also really impressed with him—how smart he is, and his professionalism. He does have the ability to tap sadness as well as comedy, so I thought they were a pretty good match in that way.
It’s rare to see short-form series that focus on everyday, human foibles—and it’s particularly unusual to see one featuring the industry’s top pedigree of talent. From your perspective, Jan, is this a growing creative space? What possibilities do you see within this form?
Diedrichsen: I think first and foremost, it’s such an amazing creative challenge to create something that Nick did, and then have Stephen’s direction, and Rosamund and Chris’s performances, around what could—in the wrong hands—really be a staid and repetitive show, if it wasn’t so smartly performed, and written and directed. What’s exciting for us about having State of the Union be this kind of premium short-form is that it challenges people’s notions about what short-form can be.
I think traditionally, when people think of short-form series, a lot of people default to web series— and when people think web series, they think low-budget, DIY. And there’s a lot of great web series; Nick mentioned High Maintenance, which started as a web series. But [there’s] this notion that short-form programming is not exactly something that feels premium. I think what State of the Union does better than anything else is that it feels premium. It feels like a show that is not an appetizer; it’s a full meal.
For us, this is a kind of new frontier. Eight years ago, we were the first network to put foreign language television on linear TV in the U.S., and that was an experiment that we had a lot of success with. We loved being the first, and I think State of the Union is an example of a short-form series that is the first of its kind. That’s really exciting, to be able to reimagine what short-form programming can be, and obviously, that’s a testament to Nick first and foremost because he created it. But all the creative talents behind it really made something that feels special, above and beyond what short-form has been.
Hornby: I’ve got to give credit to Stephen, especially, for making it not repetitive. Because the way it’s shot, and the way he uses faces, and the way that you never quite notice that you’re watching the same set-up every week, I think he did a wonderful job.
Diedrichsen: When we premiered it at the Sundance Film Festival in January and screened the whole series as a 100-minute piece, it was incredibly exciting to see how people reacted to it. I’ve seen it so many different ways—in two-episode chunks, four-episode chunks—and any way you watch it, it’s really satisfying. That, to me, is such an interesting part of this—as viewing habits change, as people have more and more to watch— having short-form programming available to experience in bite-sized portions, if you’re not looking to commit to an hour-long show in the evening, or you just feel like watching something.
We [released] it at 5 p.m. on weekdays starting May 6th, really positioning it as a show that people can watch on their commute home. If they’re on the train, in carpool or on the bus, having a 10-minute episode to watch that’s satisfying, or even two, is a unique and cool experience that the show has a really great way to offer.
Hornby: I’ve got to say, if you ever take any public transport and watch what people are doing, rather sadly for my day job as a novelist, they’re not reading any of them. [laughs] In fact, they’re hardly ever reading newspapers. Everyone’s on some kind of screen, and a lot of people are watching something scripted. So, if you’ve got a 10-minute bus ride, this seems pretty good for that.
How was this series shot? It seems like one 10-minute episode featuring mostly dialogue could easily be knocked out in a day.
Hornby: Yeah, we tried pretty much to do an episode a day, and some of the exteriors were done at the end, so we could keep more or less to that. Stephen tended to film in unbroken, two-minute chunks, so the actors didn’t have to remember immediately 10 minutes of material. They could do three minutes of material, have a break, and then do another two. It was, I think literally, the hottest three weeks of my life in England. It was during our heat wave, so it was pretty tough in ways that you don’t normally anticipate with a U.K. summer shoot. But one really lovely thing was that when we finished shooting for the day, Rosamund and Chris would get a bottle of wine and sit in the pub, and read the next play to each other, so they came in the next day already pretty loose from what they’d done the previous night.
What unique challenges have each of you had to confront, working in the short-form space?
Hornby: From my point of view, I love writing dialogue. One of the things that inspired me on this show, but also inspires me quite a lot, is those very literate, articulate ‘40s and ‘50s films, the Katharine Hepburn and Preston Sturges. This gave me more liberation, in fact, than I normally get if I’m doing screen work, because you can’t write five-page [dialogue] scenes. They have to be a page and a half, and then you get three maybe for the climax at the end. Paradoxically, it did give me freedom to do that a bit more.
Because I like writing dialogue and it comes fairly easily to me, the challenge is when you’ve filled up your 10 pages, and you haven’t really said the thing that you wanted to say. It really is a matter of squashing it down, getting more in, squashing it down again, and cutting until you’ve got something that does feel meaty enough.
I kind of pitched for not only the story arc to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but each episode to have a beginning, a middle and an end, tonally, the way the conversations go. So, there was a sort of double narrative going on.
Diedrichsen: From the network perspective, we wanted to make sure in our distribution strategy that we did something that felt disruptive, that felt different from the way we released any other show, which is weekly, and then it would go on digital and on demand the next day.
The first thing we looked at is, “All right, this feels like a show that will do incredibly well on digital, on people’s mobile devices.” We wanted to build a release strategy around when people would have the opportunity to watch, really associating the time of day and the activity that many people are doing around that time of day to underline the unique nature of short-form.
For linear, we didn’t think [it] would translate. We wouldn’t want to put a show on at 5 p.m., because most people aren’t home watching their televisions at 5 p.m. Instead, we thought, Let’s do a release where we do one episode every weeknight at 10 p.m., and we’ll call it ‘The 10 at 10,’ again trying to underline and emphasize the uniqueness of the show and its form.
I really am curious to see what the audience behavior is around the show. I think the possibilities and the quality of the show will make it a word-of-mouth kind of hit, because it’s just so satisfying. I can’t wait to see where and when people watch it.
Will State of the Union return for a second season? Have you envisioned what that might entail?
Hornby: I’ve envisioned, as it were, franchising it. What I would like to do is to write about a different couple, at a different stage of life, with different problems.
Have you honed in on specific ideas that might work?
Hornby: Yeah, there’s been a few. I think everyone involved this time, apart from obviously the actors, seems interested. Whenever I talk about this when Chris is there, he stomps off the stage in disgust, but I don’t think anyone wants to see their problems anymore. I’ve actually written for an actress that I want to work with, kind of pitching the show to her, so we’ll see what happens.