In the fourth and fifth episodes of Conversations with Friends, the latest swoon-worthy Sally Rooney novel to be adapted for Hulu, our quartet of lovers heads to Croatia. Where in Croatia? We don’t know.
Why are they there? It’s gorgeous. For what? To write, ponder, soak in the sun, sip white wine, and converse. (I mean… did you read the title of the show?)
Really, it’s more tense than that basic-level description. Famed writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) has invited her two younger mentees, Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), to her friends’ house in Croatia. But as Melissa starts to confront issues with her marriage, Frances sleeps with her husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn), the two secret lovers sneaking around the creaky old house and into each other’s bed.
As gorgeous as the villa is, the coordination was as tricky as finagling around an affair. For starters, Conversations’ production designer Anna Rackard tells The Daily Beast that the actual house looks nothing like what we see in the final cut. When asked to describe the layout of the Croatian villa, Rackard winds me around the house, but the map is still incomprehensible. There’s a breakfast kitchen and a regular kitchen? How many bedrooms are there, and how many did they actually use? And where did that infinity pool come from?
Since it takes place at a farmhouse-style estate, the production had to hop from house to house—everything isn’t connected. So, Rackard says, if you’re looking to rent out the property, keep that in mind. You can’t throw a big dinner party with cocktails in the common room without having to hop, skip, and jump through some weeds.
Although the Croatian getaway looks like it was ripped straight from an Airbnb listing, the production team actually had to restyle quite a bit of the interior and exterior of the house. The pool was already there, and so were most of those pointy aloe plants, adding to the luxurious undertones of the locale, but all of the beds were brought in. Fabrics were repurposed. Outdoor lampshades were hung.
Perhaps this set-up would be easier back in the main area of production over in Belfast, where Rackard and her team created the Frances/Bobbi apartment and Nick/Melissa mansion. Alas, her team was transplanted to the islands of Croatia, bobbling around on little ferries to move massive potted plants, unique fabrics, and other antiques to make a house look as lived-in and relaxing as possible.
On top of all that? Lightning storms swept through Croatia over the summer. Massive ones. And yet, Anna Rackard and her production team’s final product was gorgeous enough to likely inspire Hvar’s next batch of drooling tourists. In a conversation with the Beast, Rackard broke the Croatia episodes down to the final thread.
How did you end up in Croatia?
In the book, it’s not Croatia. [In the original story, the characters head to France.] But because they had gone on to Italy in Normal People, they wanted to make sure it was a different look. They actually were thinking about Greece, but Greece was just too busy with productions. I’ve been to Croatia before, and it’s just so incredibly beautiful and looks very different from France and Italy.
And how did you pick that specific villa?
They sent a scout. The scout looked right up north of Croatia towards Italy—I’ve never been up there, and the houses start to look quite Italian—and further down the coast, on some of the islands. We actually had to choose the location from photos, largely because of COVID. At that time, it was impossible to go somewhere for just three days and get back, and know that we were still OK to work and everything. It was quite tricky, in that regard, to pick a place that was so important—with two whole episodes—without physically being in it.
Yes, I’d imagine it’s hard to get a sense of the “vibe” that way.
There were a lot of villas that came back that were just white boxes with glass and infinity pools. In some ways, that’s maybe what you’d expect. We just wanted to avoid a really white interior, a cold architectural look. We wanted something with a lot more texture. We were trying to point the scout in the direction of that older style of converted farmhouse buildings. Because those are all just small old buildings rather than one big house, I had to do a bit of detective work trying to figure out the layout from photographs.
And then when you finally arrived, was it what you expected?
When we went to see it for the first time, we all just breathed a sigh of relief that it did look really good and it was really interesting. It was a really remote villa we used, kind of on the side of a mountain. It was quite far away from more beachy spots. Quite a remote find. For the villa, we did quite a bit of work on the interior to change it.
Wow. That’s a lot to plan! I want to rent that place out.
I’m taking a breather! It doesn’t look like it does in the film, that’s the problem.
Getting into the interior—how did you set up that gorgeous kitchen?
The structure of the kitchen was there, and the big fridges were there. We just painted it and brought in all the small stuff and the lamps and everything. We bought all the furniture from Zagreb in Croatia, because it’s very particular, period furniture in that part of the world. We were using a mixture of antiques and new, but slightly retro as well.
What about the rest of the house?
We brought bedding from London. It’s quite hard to get that there, because they use twin beds quite a lot in that part of the world. It was actually quite hard to find the right bed for Frances’ room, in fact. It was quite a lot of logistics, because of how remote it was and how we were on an island. But in Croatia, they’re very used to that, and very used to hopping around islands because there’s a lot of them. It’s not such a logistical thing for them.
Can you talk more about the fabrics?
The fabrics were very important to us because we really wanted to give it some pattern and texture, and it’s a very different interior to the other ones in the show. Frances’ apartment was very intentionally stripped back and bare and light. And Nick and Melissa’s house is intentionally quite dark, but also quite—it’s not minimal, but it’s not stuffed full. We just wanted a really different feel from that. In Croatia, the house itself is very textured already because the walls are all lime washed stoned. It’s got that uneven texture. Overall, the mood of the script in Croatia, it’s meant to be this idyllic place, this idyllic moment—until the very end, just right before they go home.
It certainly comes across as idyllic.
Have you been to Croatia?
I have not. I’ve been around Europe, but now it’s at the top of my list.
Croatia is so beautiful. The town we filmed—I don’t want to say the name of the town, because I don’t want it to get overwhelmed with tourists! But it was Hvar island, which is already pretty popular. All of Croatia is just so beautiful.
The secret’s safe.
I wanted people to, when they looked at it, fall in love with the place. It is that dreamy, perfect holiday place. The house won’t look the way it did in the TV series, so if you are booking it, don’t expect those stripy cushions or whatever.
No! Everyone’s going to be like, “Where can I find those cushions from the living room!?”
When we were prepping it, actually, we were getting it all ready and it was the hottest weather. It was so hot. I just thought, “Oh my god, they’re all going to burn up here when we’re shooting.” But the minute the shooting crew turned up, it was literally—thunderstorms. The lightning storms there are pretty spectacular.
A lot of scenes are outside, so how did you work around those storms?
It was really tricky. It was really challenging for the shooting crew, because they were doing nights as well. Naturally, the night is colder. I don’t know how the actors did it. The crew can all wear warm gear. But they have to perform that it’s not cold and not windy. We made sure that they had more layers, and I made sure that there were throws and things like that. It was at that dinner scene that night, with Valerie, that was challenging. The weather was particularly bad around that time. But we managed it! You know that lampshade over the table? That was just blowing. We had to completely stabilize that to make it look like it wasn’t windy.
A lot of their big conversations happen outside at the villa. How did you set the outside for all these scenes, especially in the evening?
Lenny [Abrahamson, the showrunner] always wants things to feel real, or like it could happen. So it’s trying to find a balance between making a place look beautiful, but not look like it’s too set-y, or has millions of candles or something. To feel kind of natural, or a little casual. There’s always this temptation for it to be perfect. At a certain point, it has to be not perfect, because it has to look real or lived in. It has to look like people were sitting on those cushions, that they’re a bit squished, so that it feels real. Even though it is a fantasy of a beautiful place, it’s not done for a magazine shoot. It should feel like the candles are burned down. Those kinds of details are there.