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Nick Hornby on Balancing His Books, Scripts

SundanceTV debuts State of the Union, a series about a squabbling couple, on Monday (May 6). Nick Hornby, author of the novels High Fidelity, About a Boy and Juliet, Naked, created the show, which stars Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike as a husband and wife working out issues in a pub moments before heading into marriage counseling.

The episodes run for just 10 minutes.

Hornby’s screenwriting projects include the films Brooklyn and An Education. He recently finished a novel called Just Like You, which he describes as a contemporary love story set amidst the Brexit referendum.

Hornby spoke with Multichannel News about the difference between authoring and screenwriting, how State of the Union was hatched and why what happens just before counseling is much more interesting than the counseling.

Chris O'Dowd (l.) and Rosamund Pike in 'State of the Union'

Chris O'Dowd (l.) and Rosamund Pike in 'State of the Union'

MCN: Ten-minute episodes — I assume that’s so viewers have more time to read your books?
Nick Hornby:
[Laughs.] Yup.

I had a hole to fill when I was waiting for a bunch of people to get back on various projects, and I knew I couldn’t get on with anything for a month or so. I had this idea a while before and said, OK, I’m just gonna try it and see if it works.

MCN: Where did the idea come from?
The idea for the couple was from a long time ago and I can’t really remember. I had been thinking about writing about counseling or therapy in some way and always ended up in the same place, that it doesn’t feel very dramatic to go into a therapist’s office because people say what they mean. The time before they go in is in some ways more dramatically interesting because it’s chaos. That seemed fun to write about.

MCN: How was the shift for you from writing novels to screenwriting?
I love writing a screenplay, but it’s a very, very difficult profession in terms of all the problems, such as waiting three years for someone to read or invest or get a director. There’s a beautiful freedom with sitting down to start a novel and thinking, no one will ask me what the budget is, no one will ask me to cut a scene because it’s too expensive, I’m not going to lose any characters. That is quite refreshing when you’ve been doing screenplays for a while.

MCN: How has screenwriting affected the way you go about your novels?
I think screenwriting affected my novels before I was a screenwriter in that I’d watched a lot of movies. I’d always liked writing dialogue. Some of my inspirations to write in the first place were screenwriters. As well as loving Anne Tyler and other contemporary novelists, I also loved Barry Levinson and what he wrote with Diner. There are a pair of English radio comedy writers, Galton and Simpson, who were big inspirations for me before I started as well.

I think screenwriting has always been in [me]. Recently I gave it more weight because things were taking off and projects were coming in that were quite interesting. It became a bit more than 50-50 of my working time.

MCN: Do Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd weigh in much on your scripts?
They had a rather nice routine, which was, after they finish filming, they get a bottle of wine and read the next day’s script to each other. They’ve very bright and they’re very good about telling me what’s sayable and what’s not sayable or what’s funny and what’s not funny.

MCN: Are you involved with the High Fidelity series for Hulu?
A little bit. I’ve been in quite a bit of touch with [star] Zoe [Kravitz]. Jesse Peretz, who directed the Juliet, Naked movie, is directing the first episode. He’s become a friend over the last year or two. I’ve been helping out where I can.

MCN: Chris O’Dowd’s character has a pint of beer in each episode of State of the Union. Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time to consume an English imperial pint.
The old days, when the licensing hours were different, we were all used to drinking pints in 10 minutes because you only had about two hours [to drink before closing]. Chris is probably just about old enough to remember that time.