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Among a bumper focus on TV at this year’s Sundance is a curious-looking project likely to attract some major attention, not simply because of its unconventional, innovative format, but the caliber of the talent involved on both sides of the camera.
State of the Union, a SundanceTV sitcom told across 10 episodes, each 10 minutes long, comes from the multi award-winning pen of Nick Hornby, with Stephen Frears, whose A Very English Scandal recently earned critical acclaim, on directing duties, Lion and Widows banner See-Saw Films producing and Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd in the lead — and only — roles.
Shot in one solitary location — a pub in north London (actually not far from Frears’ own house) — the almost entirely dialog-based drama sees Pike and O’Dowd play a couple whose marriage is breaking down. Keeping to the same theme, each episode is set in the 10 minutes preceding a weekly visit to a relationship counselor, with the two comically sparring across a table over apportioning blame, marital responsibilities and, at one point, Brexit (Hornby says it would seem “like science fiction” to set something in a contemporary England without people talking about it).
Inspired by High Maintenance, the short-form HBO series by Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld that originally began life on Vimeo, and news that Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine banner was looking to air similar content on its new VOD platform on DirecTV, Hornby decided to have a go himself.
“I just thought, that’s a really interesting way to write,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I wanted to think of a series to see if was possible to write in 10-minute chunks where there was a narrative arc over the whole thing. And it was sort of no-risk.”
As he waited for various film projects to take shape, Hornby got stuck in. Once a couple of episodes were on paper, he mentioned his project to Jamie Laurenson, head of TV at See-Saw, who he’d been talking to regularly since they collaborated on Love, Nina, which aired on the BBC in 2016.
“One of the great joys about doing these is that people read them so quickly,” laughs Hornby. “They get the email, read the first page and then think, ‘Oh, that looks alright,’ and then they realize that there’s only another nine pages, so they just read it on the spot.”
For Laurenson, who says he was drawn by the “deliciousness” of the regular time-and-place setting and taking a snapshot of a relationship without requiring bigger narrative devices, the next step was getting a network interested in the somewhat unusual idea. It wouldn’t take too long.
Invited to a dinner in L.A. with AMC — with whom See-Saw had already worked on Jane Campion’s dark, Elisabeth Moss-starring Top of the Lake — he and his TV COO Hakan Kousetta served up what he describes a “negative pitch.”
“We were like, ‘you won’t want this,’ were totally underselling it,” says Kousetta. “But they got it straight away. It was one of those moments you live for when you’re in production: a pitch in a non-pitch environment, where you see everybody’s eyes light up and want to know more.”
At the time, State of the Union didn’t have talent or a director, just Hornby on board as the writer. But this attachment would provide the necessary bait to lure everyone else.
“Nick is such a talent-magnet himself — that was certainly one of the impetus for us to do it,” says Kristen Jones, executive vp of international programming for AMC and SundanceTV.
A quick email from Hornby would secure the services of Frears, the two having stayed friends since working together on 2000’s High Fidelity (and — perhaps crucially — both being lifelong fans of London soccer team Arsenal).
“He just wrote to me out of the blue, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no,” said Frears (Hornby says he got an immediate response claiming it “sounded like heaven”).
Hornby sent him the script (although he had initially agreed without reading a word), and State of the Union had its Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning director.
“They seem very original and fresh. I was curious,” says Frears. “And it’s a lot of sitting in a pub, it’s real punishment!”
An early iteration of the project had other top-tier talent circling the two roles, including Kate Winslett and Michael Sheen, but it was Pike — with whom Hornby had stayed in touch since 2009’s An Education, which he adapted for screen — and O’Dowd — star of Juliet, Naked, based on Hornby’s novel — who eventually came through.
Production took place over three weeks in mid-2018, shot just as the U.K. was experiencing a rather prolonged summer heatwave (possibly making its beverage-serving setting more useful than first envisaged). And with the entire practical drama resting on the shoulders of Pike and O’Dowd, who would have in the region of 12-13 pages of dialog to learn each night, filming was done in three-minute bites.
“It was pretty intense for the actors,” admits Hornby. “Typically, they look through a script and think, ‘Oh, this is nice, there’s a bit here for me and a bit there for me, great, I’ve got so much,’ but for this on set they’re thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got 50 percent of this script, literally, and there’s nothing else.’”
It proved intense for the producers too, with a 10-minute episode drama sadly not equally a difficultly level two-thirds less than a standard 30-minute show.
“What everybody involved in the project underestimated was just how challenging it would be to realize,” notes Laurenson, adding that despite 10 minutes of dialog not leaving a lot of room to maneuver, it was crucial State of the Union didn’t feel like a stage play. “Thank god for Stephen Frears. And for our actors!”
Although Frears says he effectively had to throw his usual director’s manual out of the window — “the normal things that you do were of no use at all” — he admits the experience working on something so new was an “absolute treat.”
SundanceTV hasn’t yet formalized how State of the Union will be programmed, but Jones claims that linear is just a tiny angle for the channel.
“We want to showcase it in different ways,” she says. “People could watch it on the train on the way to work in the morning, or be watching on an iPad on a plane or even watching on their giant screen at home,”
Hornby, whose TV output is on the rise, being next set to adapt Israeli drama Uri and Ella for CBS, is now keen to return to State of the Union for season 2, again setting it just before a marriage counseling session, but this time with two different characters.
“You can go anywhere with that — you can go older, younger, same-sex couples … all sorts of things,” he says. “But having this series with Chris and Rosamund is a great calling card.”
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