'Modern Love' Creator on Adapting the Beloved Column and Tackling Bipolar Disorder

"Modern Love," the longtime New York Times column following the ups and downs of real-life relationships, has made its way to the small screen, adapted by creator John Carney into eight 30-minute, unconnected episodes for Amazon. The newspaper feature, now in its 15th year with more than 750 stories in its archive, has long been a staple for locals and visiting New Yorkers alike, which was how Carney stumbled upon it years ago when making a film in the city. 

"I used to read the column because I couldn't concentrate on anything else — when you're making a film it's hard to read about anything important in the world, no gloomy headlines," the Sing Street and Once director tells The Hollywood Reporter. "'Modern Love' was the perfect espresso in the morning — a quick, five-minute read."

When the idea of doing an anthology series based on the column was presented to him, Carney says he thought it "could be my short-filmmaker calling card, and I could make eight groovy little romantic love letters to living now." Star-studded love letters as it were, as Tina Fey, Anne Hathaway, Dev Patel, John Slattery, Cristin Milioti, Julia Garner, Andy Garcia, Brandon Victor Dixon and Andrew Scott (aka, Fleabag's "Hot Priest") are all involved in the show.  

In choosing the eight featured stories — which span a diversity of ages, races, sexual orientations and classes — Carney, who wrote and directed most of the episodes, looked through the "Modern Love" collection for columns that brought out an emotional response in him and his fellow writers. 

"All I really thought to myself was, 'Pick ones that you feel connected to; try to avoid the ones you think are cute or maybe I could make a conventional TV show out of them — pick the ones that spoke to you because of something your mother once said to you or because of a theme that happened to you,'" Carney says. "Personally, two of the stories for me are about having babies, which we had just done for the first time and that was very fresh in my life." 

The original writers of the columns, who were paid for the use of their stories, were not involved in the creative process so as not to "get bogged down in memoir or biography," but were shown the final episodes to make sure they approved. 

Modern Love comes at a time when rom-coms are making a comeback, sparking development particularly at Netflix with films like Set It Up and To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and even its own romantic anthology series — Shonda Rhimes' Notes on Love. Taking inspiration from old Hollywood directors like George Cukor and Howard Hawks, Carney says he tried to create episodes that were romantic but not edging into jokey rom-com territory. 

"I think the concept of the rom-com comes from a very interesting place, which is that it's hell falling in love but it also can be really funny, and you can turn that hell into humor if you're smart; otherwise you'd be so wounded and devastated by love that you'd just be walking around like a wounded creature on the side of the road who's been hit by a car," he says. "You kind of have to laugh sometimes in romance. There's a sense of gallows humor about it all: 'I'm going to die here or I'm going to make it.'"

For one episode in particular, titled "Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am," the focus is more serious, with Hathaway as a woman with bipolar disorder struggling to date, sometimes at her highest high and singing in the grocery store, and hours later too depressed to get out of bed. The episode features full-fledged musical numbers, and Carney reveals the star was his first choice for "the song-and-dance, Judy Garland approach to things, and yet be a brilliant actor."

"When I first read that column, I feel like the character really spoke to me in terms of on a Tuesday I can wake up and feel like I'm in my own TV show and everyone else is just extras and life is glorious, and then Wednesday is like, 'This again, really? I have to get out of bed?' I'm not saying for a second that I'm bipolar, but I can very much identify with the way that she chose to tell that story," Carney says. "One day I feel like I can do everything and there's nothing I couldn't do, and the next day I don't get out of bed or don't feel like getting out of bed, and I feel deflated and defeated and self conscious and ugly and talentless and the next day I'm OK again. I'm not sure how many people feel that way in real life, but I certainly feel that way." 

Modern Love, which also stars Sofia Boutella, Gary Carr, Olivia Cooke, John Gallagher Jr., Catherine Keener and Shea Whigham, starts streaming on Amazon on Friday.