Shortcomings and Goings
In State of the Union, writer Nick Hornby collapses an estranged couple’s talks into taut, 10-minute episodes.
Every morning, Nick Hornby leaves his home in London and walks 10 minutes to an apartment where he writes. During the day, he might go to the gym.
Sometimes he does a crossword or jigsaw puzzle. He'll have lunch and listen to music. "There's a lot of messing around," he jokes. But when he sits down at his desk and starts to write, magic happens.
The celebrated novelist and screenwriter recently delivered his first television series, the comedy State of the Union, which will premiere on Sundance TV and its companion streaming service, Sundance Now, May 6.
In the deceptively simple premise, an estranged married couple, played by Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd, meet each week in the same London pub just before their regular counseling session. They volley back and forth about their issues, from her affair to his insecurities, in real time. Then they leave. The end. We never meet the therapist.
"That context was such a controlled environment that it seemed a shame to make it any less focused by going outside of it," Hornby explains. "And when a couple is only talking to each other, there's deflection and evasion and understatement and overstatement. There's more texture." In unspooling the couple's story, he says, "There's a lot of information to pick my way through in a short space of time."
Very short. Hornby wrote the 10 weekly serialized episodes as 10-minute shorts. Anything longer, he admits, would have lessened the effect of the pair's lively conversations — and tried the audience's patience. "People have such short attention spans now," he says. "Probably in 10 years it will seem like War and Peace. 'Oh, I'm not going to watch State of the Union, because they're all 10 minutes long!'"
Hornby has honed his self-deprecating wit in bestsellers such as High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch as well as the Oscar-nominated screenplays for Brooklyn and An Education. But he conceived State of the Union specifically for TV because the medium offered a tantalizing option.
"I love telling the whole story through dialogue, and TV is much happier with extended dialogue than movies need to be," he says. "I didn't have to detail any descriptive prose of how they interact with each other that I would in a book."
He visited the set "quite a lot" to watch his friend Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) direct. O'Dowd starred in Juliet, Naked and Epix's Get Shorty. Oscar-nominated Pike, who lives near Hornby, starred in An Education and, more recently, Gone Girl.
"I didn't write the parts with them in mind, because actors are so good-looking and I like to imagine ordinary people when I write," he says. "You would never know they had never met before shooting. They seemed completely real as a couple."
Season two is a possibility, he says, but it will focus on a new couple with new problems. Indeed, while Hornby has entered new territory as a writer, he's still devoted to his favorite subject: complicated matters of the heart.
Asked whether he's an optimist about love, he laughs. "I think so, but I want my characters to be grounded and find a place where they can look at themselves and think: maybe there's a way to cope with all this. You have to earn it before you move forward."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019