Run has its steamy moments, but it excavates a different area of frustration: the deep disappointment buried under ostensibly successful careers and happy families. Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ruby (Merritt Wever) meet in a railway carriage. They were lovers at university who, it soon emerges, had an agreement that if ever one of them texted “run” and the recipient responded the same way, they would meet at Grand Central Station in New York and take two one-way tickets out to wherever. They were barely grown up when they made that pact 15 years earlier. Now they have lives, responsibilities, complications: things they are chary of telling each other, things that will darken into threats as the train clatters its way to Chicago.
Gradually, what appears to be a particularly spiky sort of romcom turns into a thriller. “To me it read like a relationship mystery,” says Kate Dennis, the Emmy-nominated Australian director of several episodes. “It was a genre I hadn’t really come across before in the US. I felt I was right there with these two characters, peeling back the layers on each other; it was like a game of emotional chess where the stakes kept getting higher.”
There are obvious antecedents in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, but Run’s madcap urgency is all its own. “The original idea of Run came from Phoebe and me having a joke years ago,” Jones says. “That if you were in a situation or a relationship or a job you wanted to get out of, we would text the other one. The idea was we could join hands and just run out of there and keep going. It wasn’t something we ever did. You know. Because that would have been mean. But I think when you’re feeling powerless within your life or within the industry you work in, it’s nice to know you’ve got a back-up plan.”
Jones and Waller-Bridge met in 2007. Jones was inching her way forward as a director and hired Waller-Bridge straight out of drama school for a play she was supposed to direct. During rehearsals, Jones was sacked; Waller-Bridge walked out in support. They went to the pub together, talked all night and had soon come up with an idea for their own company. DryWrite would produce and provide a forum for new writers to present short pieces. Audiences were encouraged to heckle or participate. “These were very raucous nights and were very satisfying to all of us.”
All Jones had ever wanted was to write, but she had never admitted it or even said it aloud to herself. “I loved theatre so much, but my very greatest love was new writing and the writers themselves were a source of awe for me,” she says. “I felt they were sort of godlike in their capacity to choose the words and create the characters, and so I just assumed I couldn’t do it.” Waller-Bridge shared her passion for writing, of course. She also kept telling her – they kept telling each other – that they were writers. That was when she wrote The One, motivated largely by Waller-Bridge’s complaints that none of the parts she was offered were challenging or complex enough. What she wouldn’t do for herself, she would do for her friend.
All that time wasted, she grumbles, when she could have been honing the craft she is now learning on fast forward. So why does she think she hung back for so long? “Just low self-esteem, I guess. Lack of confidence. And that sense that if I couldn’t be Ibsen, I shouldn’t do it. And that’s silly, isn’t it? Because you don’t expect anybody else to be as good as Ibsen. But you expect it of yourself. And actually, it’s OK just to be part of the world of writers existing now. You don’t have to be the best. Just to write things down is a beautiful thing.”
I wonder how someone so self-effacing could run a big show for HBO. American television is a notoriously tough world. “Honestly, Vicky leads with her humanity,” says Kate Dennis. “It’s funny, because as a showrunner the system asks you to be a sergeant major at times. But I guess what felt wholly unique about Vicky is her willingness to be fully human at any given moment. If there had been an empathy prize on set, she would have won. She’s able to read any emotional situation; it’s the same X-ray vision she uses to look deep into her characters.” And she did all this, Dennis adds, while juggling a new-born baby. “You find yourself willing to walk across hot coals for her.”
“You find yourself willing to walk across hot coals for her.”
Director Kate Dennis on Vicky Jones.
Jones met her partner when she was 38. “I was panicking by that point.” Their son Fox is 15 months old. “This boy, oh, I just can’t tell you, he’s just so beautiful in his heart and gentle; I just know he’s going to be a good one.” She has no desire to run away herself. She has discovered, however, a whole new set of pressures brought to bear on women once they oblige society by becoming mothers. “There are huge expectations for women to behave in a certain way,” she says. “If you don’t, you are still very much judged.” In her own case, she felt “extremely judged” by some surprising people for not breastfeeding. “It’s the mother/whore thing isn’t it? We should be the ultimate mother as well as be this unquestioning sexual object.”
It is impossible to be rated perfect, however, when everyone knows better than you do. “When you first become a mother, people are so lovely to you,” she says. “Everyone wants to embrace the pregnant woman; she’s the special, treasured being because she is the receptacle of something perfect. And then once you’ve got your baby, that baby belongs to everyone. The implication is that you are just a silly woman who doesn’t really know what she’s got.” She laughs. “It’s something I’ve barely spoken about before this moment, but it does bother me.”
So there is another phase of life to address with Waller-Bridge, who is now Fox’s godmother; she conjures a picture of the two of them walking the pram in the park, an image straight from Mary Poppins. #MeToo has helped changed the landscape, says Jones, to the extent that there is now a greater appetite for women’s writing and women’s points of view, although one could just as reasonably thank Fleabag – which won six Emmys, among many other awards – for that. Mostly, there is a kind of dawning awareness that there are all kinds of women out there.
“Obviously, things are much, much better than they used to be, but women have often had to be the beautiful one or, if they’re flawed, they get their come-uppance or their faults are explained away as the result of abuse,” Jones says. “To write complicated women who are flawed and at the same time interesting and understandable and likeable feels like an important thing to do.” Feminist writing is not about creating positive role models. “If we’re only seeing well-behaved women on screen, in our theatres and so on, there’s a possibility we don’t recognise ourselves,” she says. “And we don’t feel recognised.”
Run premieres on Thursday, May 7, at 8.30pm, streaming on Foxtel Now and screening on Foxtel.
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.