Sundance: Nick Hornby and Chris O’Dowd on Their “Heartbreaking” Short-Form Series State of the Union

TV Features State of the Union
Sundance: Nick Hornby and Chris O’Dowd on Their “Heartbreaking” Short-Form Series State of the Union

“Well, all relationships are awful.” Chris O’Dowd may have been only slightly joking when he offered it as consolation for audiences to take away from his latest project, SundanceTV’s State of the Union, but that makes it no less apt. After all, being in a long-term relationship is difficult work, as O’Dowd’s Tom and Rosamund Pike’s Louise find out when they decide to attend weekly couples counseling to address their recent marital problems. Written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, the series of 10, 10-minute episodes doesn’t actually show us their sessions or whatever progress they’re making there. Instead, see them meet up for 10 minutes at a pub around the corner from their marriage counselor.

“I didn’t want to write about counselling directly,” Hornby told Paste after the show’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “I wanted to write about the mess outside of it. So, 10 minutes before seemed like a pretty good way of doing it. It just seemed like fun.” Every installment slowly unravels the characters’ shared history and creates a portrait of a modern-day couple force confronting the ways their romance has gone stale (kids and stressful job situations don’t help) and reckoning with how hard it might be to stay happy and together for the long haul.

Paste sat down with O’Dowd and Hornby to talk about the show’s take on relationships, short-form television and even Brexit’s impact on modern British storytelling. [Editor’s note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.]

Paste: State of the Union strikes me as having an impossibly simple conceit. It’s mostly two people talking in a room. It has an almost play-like aspect. But I imagine there was a lot of work around to make Tom and Louise feel so lived-in as a couple. Can you talk a bit about how you mined their lives so they could live in these short installments?

Nick Hornby: For me, it took as much work as anything. You cannot write any of these things—a novel or anything at all—unless you go into it knowing quite a lot about everyone concerned. Even some people who don’t really come out—like parents or whatever. I knew them pretty well. It was important for me to figure out where the balance was. I got interested in him being a music journalist because this thing that we’re going through where a whole new generation of people, university-educated people, are often having their livelihood vanished. It’s the first time it’s ever happened to educated people. Throughout history, it’s always been the poor who’ve bore the brunt of that. There’s a little bit of that I wanted to explore as well. I just walked around and around with them for a while. Then I just sat down and wrote it.

Chris O’Dowd: And then you passed that onto us. We had a bit of a rehearsal process and kind of worked out what the family dynamic was, with the kids and the parents. It was just about nailing down the specifics so we could fully indulge ourselves.

Hornby: You did some family bonding as well.

O’Dowd: Yes, some family bonding.

Paste: What does that entail?

O’Dowd: We hung out a good bit, Ros and I with our families. To give it a sense of reality that we’re just stepping in and out in each episode. We didn’t want to feel like strangers in any way. The tricky thing, I suppose, is that they’re kind of behaving at the very beginning of the piece almost like they’re strangers. Because they’re in such a strange situation.

Hornby: The first conversation is awkward. Because it’s completely out of context. It’s a sad thing that’s brought them there.

O’Dowd: I talked to Stephen about this at the start. They’re behaving out of character. And we haven’t told you what the character is yet. It’s a tricky kind of thing to do. But, after seeing it, I think we did a pretty good job.

Paste: That first episode does sort of drop you in unannounced on these people’s lives and it takes a while before we realize their relationship to one another and the reason why they’re meeting at this pub. And much of the show plays well with these intentional gaps in knowledge. Did that make it more of a challenge?

O’Dowd: You know, in a practical sense the most challenging aspect of this was the fact that it was so intense in its nature. It’s like 12 or 13 pages that you’re shooting every day. And you’re trying to keep all that in your head while also trying to act, so it doesn’t just turn into a series of memory tests, but coming out of you as if it’s natural. That, specific to this piece, was the greatest challenge for me. Working with Ros was really easy. Working with these guys was really easy. You know, everybody is smart and knows what they’re doing. So you just don’t want to mess it up.

Paste: The title of the show, State of the Union, puns nicely about both this marital union and also broader political concerns. Tom and Louise have a very big row about Brexit, in fact. Can you talk a bit about bringing Brexit into their story?

Hornby: The way that England is at the moment, it’s very hard to imagine a 100-minute conversation between two people where Brexit is not mentioned. There is nothing else on the news. It’s been the source of enormous division among people in the U.K. It gets more complicated by the week as it appears people have been promised something that literally cannot be delivered. And it has divided families. I think America is different in some ways because Trump has his voters in certain parts of the country and quite often you get whole families voting for him, I’m guessing. Whereas it’s very common for people to vote in different ways in the same family with Brexit. We’re very close to people who voted for Brexit. Conversations like that happen all the time. Plus, I just thought it was funny that he registered to vote just to piss off all her friends.

Paste: And not tell her.

Hornby: Yeah, because he’s a coward.

O’Dowd: He just wanted them to be unhappy.

Hornby: I love that. And the way that Chris performs it.

O’Dowd: It’s a funny thread, yeah.

Hornby: But I think it will be a thread for many years to come.

Paste: Given the show’s short form, I was curious, Nick, if you think there’s something specific to intimate relationships like that of Tom and Louise that are better suited for this shortened episodic length.

Hornby: The contrivance of it—I was thinking, well, they do have to talk at this time! Once you agreed to meet for drinks and go over together, something has to be said in those 10 minutes. It might not be anything that’s gonna be helpful. But it’s a way of showing them what’s on their minds. You know, couples, in the natural rhythm of a day, you don’t actually tend to talk directly about important things. The problems that are caused later on usually are things that you’re just glancing off each other. So, I think that even though they never really did talk directly (except for two or three key points) it didn’t seem unnatural for me, to get them to talk, at least face to face.

Paste: Especially because in marriage and long-term relationships, after you’ve been with someone a long time, you start have conversations with them in your head. Anticipating what they’ll say and then, somehow, thinking that’s how the talk will go.

O’Dowd: Oh my God, I feel like that’s my whole life!

Paste: But then you’re sitting them together in a place where they need to stop having those conversations with themselves. It opens them up.

O’Dowd: And then it’s that thing where, “Well how much do I unleash?” Like, “Am I going to be honest here?” There’s a bit of a turning point in the piece where they’re like, “Let’s actually give it to each other. No more subtext!” And I suppose we do operate at the level of subtext so often that that gear shift is quite full-on.

Hornby: Well, I think we all operate at the level of subtext. Everything’s about the relationship whether you’re talking about apples or children or turning a channel. Like that crossword conversation where it gets from him having printed it off to marriage in like 23 seconds.

Paste: Can you talk a little bit about what it felt like, watching it here at the festival?

O’Dowd: I was struck by how touching it is. It’s kind of heartbreaking.

Paste: And you guys watched them all in a row with the audience, right? That’s what I did as well.

O’Dowd: How do you feel they should be put out?

Paste: I actually wanted to ask you guys that. Part of me enjoyed seeing the entire thing, but I can also see a world where having a break in between, and following their own sense of chronology, would work just as well. When you conceived them, did you conceive them as this continuous chunk or more of these discrete episodes?

Hornby: They were sort of written as a continuous chunk, I suppose. But I thought, 10 minutes would be because someone would want to watch them going on the bus, every single morning for 10 days. I didn’t know how people were gonna do it. I suspect that actually 10 minutes isn’t long enough for some people. In the sense that if they downloaded them they won’t stop at one. If they have all of them available, they’d watch them all at once. So whether it’s better to release them once a week, I don’t know. I suspect not.

O’Dowd: I don’t know what they’ll do. But I feel like they probably work in chunks of two or three. Maybe even four. So maybe two threes and a four?

Hornby: That’s a bit complicated, isn’t it? Two threes and a four?

O’Dowd: Well, why’d you write fucking 10? If you’d written 12!

Hornby: Fair point.

O’Dowd: Or five twos.

Hornby: I really enjoyed watching it last night. I hadn’t really thought of watching it in that way—in a cinema, showing the 10 through, with a big audience at a big theater. It seemed to go well. I think there were conversations afterward about whether they should do a small theatrical release in the fall.

Paste: What’s interesting is that if you do see them back to back to back, there’s a slow accretion of details and fights and interactions that build up until we get to the final episode. The note we end on, in fact, is heightened if you watch them all in a row. But speaking of the ending, I wanted to hear what kind of tone you think it strikes. Is this their happily-ever-after? Is it a hopeful ending for these two?

Hornby: I don’t think it’ll be an easy ride for them. But then, I don’t think it’s an easy ride for any of us. The longer you’re with someone, the less easy it becomes. You know, your family has a lot to do with that—stresses from outside, from kids, from your parents. There are so many unknowables that are forced down on the relationship. But I kind of like that speech, that they’re living on a fault line. But that they actually quite like where they live. I think that’s about as hopeful as they can get.

O’Dowd: I think it’s an honest ending. Every house is broken in some fucking way.

State of the Union premieres Spring 2019 on SundanceTV and Sundance Now.

Manuel Betancourt is a film critic and a cultural reporter based in New York City. His work of cultural criticism has been featured in The Atlantic, Film Quarterly, Esquire, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a regular contributor to Remezcla, where he covers Latin American cinema and U.S. Latino media culture, and has monthly film columns at Electric Literature and Catapult. He has a Ph.D. but doesn’t like to brag about it. Follow him on Twitter: @bmanuel.

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