Interview: Room Director Lenny Abrahamson

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Interview with Room director Lenny Abrahamson.

Room director Lenny Abrahamson talks about his powerful drama

One of the most emotionally effective dramas of the year is Room, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel and starring Brie Larson as Joy, a young woman kidnapped as a teenager and locked up in a garden shed for many years. When we meet her, it’s been five years since she gave birth to her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and they have been living together in “Room,” just the two of them other than the occasional visits by their captor “Old Nick.” 

Their situation has gotten fairly dire and Joy (or “Ma” as she’s called by Jack) has decided it’s time for them to try and escape, and her elaborate plan leads to five-year-old Jack finally experiencing the world outside of “Room” and other things he had only seen on their television set.

Room is directed by Lenny Abrahamson, whose last film Frank starred Michael Fassbender wearing a papier-mache head as a version of eclectic British performance artist Frank Sidebottom. It couldn’t be any more different in tone and look from Room, but he does quite a brilliant job directing what’s a fairly simple premise with limited locations. (Less surprising is the fact that the movie won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which speaks volumes how well the emotions connect with an audience.)

While ComingSoon.net didn’t get a chance to talk with Brie Larson or Jacob (at least not yet), we did get to sit down with the Room director Lenny Abrahamson, the man who brought them together and helped to realize Donohue’s novel as a film, for the following interview.

RoomComingSoon.net: I love this film, which I saw a second time earlier this week, but before that, I saw it in Toronto at the Princess of Wales premiere, which was amazing to see it with such a big audience experiencing all the emotions.

Lenny Abrahamson: It was a great screening, it was fantastic. It’s a rare thing as well, because my stuff is ascended to be quite challenging and arthouse, and you get people who absolutely love it, but to get a huge big audience like that who all like it is quite an experience.

CS: I hate giving filmmakers a reality check, but the problem with those festival screenings is that you’ll probably never have an audience that big. Even the biggest arthouse only holds a few hundred people.

Abrahamson: Yeah I know, it was 2,000 people or something and it seemed to hold up there really nicely, so very pleasing.

CS: I remember when I first heard about this, I think I was sitting in this same place and was told by someone at A24 they had picked up this movie called “Room” with Brie Larson. I didn’t really know anything about it or Emma’s book, so I thought, “Oh that’s nice,” then I started hearing about it from out of Telluride, but otherwise, it seemed to come from out of nowhere.

Abrahamson: I know, which is great because the novel was high-profile, it was nice that we were able to keep our heads low while making the film, and it means that all the hype that’s come now has come from people’s reaction to the film. It didn’t come announced to trumpets or anything like that. It was given a chance to breathe and find its audience and it was really nice to feel that already building in Telluride and then to just feel it lift off.

CS: I wasn’t familiar with the book so were you knowlegable of it or did you know Emma beforehand?

Abrahamson: I knew of Emma but this was the first of her novels that I read, and it all came to me through reading the novel. Somebody recommended it and I read it. I really loved it, and I’m a parent—I had a boy of nearly four when I read the novel—so I think my feelings for him really transferred into my feeling for the character. I had a very strong impulse to make it into a film and I should make it into a film and nobody else should make it into a film. I thought at the same time that my chances were pretty slim, because it was a well-known novel. I remember reading that Obama had been pictured with it coming out of a bookshop in Martha’s Vineyard. I thought, “That’s it. Come on. It’s never going to happen.” But I just wrote Emma this very long letter, sort of saying, “I understand your novel. I know how it works and how to do it, and I will protect it and I won’t f*ck it up, and other people will f*ck it up. Don’t give it away.” She really responded to that and that was the beginning of our conversation.

CS: It’s such a different movie from “Frank” too…

Abrahamson: “Frank’s” really different from everything I’ve done. Maybe the one thing that’s the same and the thing that I tend to do is that I think I can create an intimacy with the characters, like a sense of presence with the people in the film and that’s what I tried to do in “Room” as well. “Frank” is about people from an enclosed space going out into the world, and “Room” is kind of the same, but yeah, it’s very different and much more of an emotionally powerful experience I think.

CS: I have to imagine there are many challenges making a movie like this, but the biggest one has to be finding a young actor to play Jack who is so pivotal to every scene. And you found Jacob, who is just amazing.

Abrahamson: I mean, he’s a revelation. That word gets used a lot, overused, but I’m talking to me. I think my big worry coming to this project, the overriding fear, was that we wouldn’t find our boy, and then you just wouldn’t have a film. It sits on his shoulders and he’s in every scene and anything false about that would just kill the film, so we were really lucky. We looked everywhere in North America. We saw hundreds of kids—I didn’t see everyone—and then Jake popped up and I went over to meet him and worked with him for an afternoon and again for half a day. He was directable. He was seven when I met him but he looked younger, which is just absolutely perfect, because I don’t think a five-year-old boy would be able to play a five-year-old boy. You need a slightly older boy to be able to do that, but he’s discovering the actor muscles himself as we were working. Clearly, it was there when I met him, but you can see him and developing as an actor as we worked, gradually getting in touch with those muscles. Absolutely remarkable little boy, and also, lovely. That’s the other thing. Any sense of a precocious spoiled kid in this film would kill it. Think about what the part is. He’s the least spoiled child you can imagine. 

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And it was also very important to cast Ma using an actor who has a real warmth to them, because any preciousness from the actress playing this part would lead to resentment that so much of the attention is going on the boy. Also, kids don’t lie. He’s really gotta love her, he’s really gotta get close to her, and if she’s resistant to that or difficult or stand-offish, the whole thing would die. When I met Brie, not only did you have an amazing actor, but you’ve also got this really warm, really funny, really vibrant person. They’ve gotta be silly together and they’ve gotta play. People can’t fake it with kids. Kids know if you’re bullsh*tting and Brie isn’t and Jake knew that.

CS: Brie’s not a mother either.

Abrahamson: No.

CS: So she had to find this motherly instinct and make it seem not only that they’ve spent five years together but five years for every single waking minute.

Abrahamson: Our way of getting them into that zone was to make sure, for example, that the set was built many weeks before we shot, so that Brie and Jake could hang out there together and get routines going and we could get Jake totally familiar with the space. We got them to build a lot of their toys and ornaments that they have. They built them together. We gave them tasks every day outside of that, Brie was hanging out with Jake, playing LEGO with him, talking “Star Wars” with him—which is a big obsession…

CS: So he’s basically a normal kid.

Abrahamson: He’s a totally normal kid. He was asked at a press conference in Toronto “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And he said, “Yeah, well if I can afford it, I’d like to be an actor. Otherwise, a Jedi.” The performance is so beautiful, but he’s still a little boy, and early on in the process, we were shooting a scene where he has to get really angry with his mother and shout at her, and he just didn’t want to do it. I eventually got to the bottom of it with him. He said, “It’s rude to shout, and I love Brie, she’s lovely, I don’t want to be rude to her.” So we brought the whole crew in and we did this shouting competition, turned it into a game. By the time that was over, he just thought, “This is okay, I can have fun. It’s alright.” He still was at that age where he could confuse the acting and the being.

CS: That must be exceedingly hard. I don’t know if you worked with children before in movies, but to try to get the kids to do what you need them to do without actually damaging them for life by dealing with tough stuff.

Abrahamson: Yeah, that’s right, so you have to find a way of translating the events and the situation into language he can understand and that was safe enough for him and protect him from the darker aspects of the story. And also, bringing him to the right point in each scene and helping him through it. If you’re watching the rushes, you’d hear me talking to him all the way through scenes, which shows even more what an amazing actor Brie is that she can tune that out and still be there, and not only tune it out but sometimes help me. “Come on, Jake, just turn around a little bit. You know how you’re supposed to sit back like that?” and then she’d slip right back into the full emotional intensity of whatever she was doing. That takes a huge generosity as well, which is another reason why we had to find a good person to play Ma, just a really really good person.

CS: Brie’s an amazing dramatic actress and to be able to do so much to help Jacob steal so many of the scenes makes her performance that much more amazing.

Abrahamson: He holds the screen with Joan Allen and William H. Macy and Tom McCanus, which is pretty amazing.

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CS: I wanted to ask about creating the actual “Room.” I haven’t read Emma’s novel yet, but I assume it’s very descriptive and you tried to recreate that whenever possible, and you actually established with interesting close-ups. Can you talk about translating that aspect of the novel into film?

Abrahamson: Right, so Emma herself has a really clear and complete picture of “Room” and she’s obviously going to need to do that because she spends half of her novel in there, so we had that to work with. It’s funny, but no matter how you describe something, there will be a whole set of things that aren’t described. Cameras let it all in, you know? We still had a lot of freedom and we did an awful lot of work to develop a space that was going to be believable and shootable. We stuck pretty closely to the dimensions. We made it a little more rectangular than square, but it’s 10 feet by 15 feet. It’s small, so when we go back to it at the end, that’s the correct dimensions, and I wanted the audience to have the same feeling a kid has when they return to the house they may have lived in as a child or a school and they go, “Really? Was it this small?” And that’s the amazing thing about childhood. Whatever world we’re in, no matter how truncated it may be in certain respects, it expands to fill the whole space of childhood. We built it very carefully so we could film it in lots of ways and we could create the shots we needed to maintain the visual interest to give us the access that we needed, but also to be able to do that quickly, so it was really cleverly built. It was modular, we could get wherever we needed to get quickly and not lose time with our boy. His time is limited by law.

CS: You shot this in Canada, right?

Abrahamson: Yeah, we shot in Toronto on a soundstage. I think some of the think behind some of the nice things with the additions were just the choices of color and what we created what is effectively quite a cozy interior environment. I always think of it as a sort of fairy tale quality to this place. It’s warm and in some sense, pretty safe for the boy, an environment surrounded by uncertainty and darkness. It’s like the fairy tales where you have a little cottage in the woods with the dark forest outside with some monster character that you kind of know about but it’s kept at bay. That’s what we were trying to create.

CS: I think when Jacob gets out of “room” that whole 15-20 minute transition is some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen this year.

Abrahamson: Thank you.

CS: To try to imagine your first impression of the world and for most people that would be when they’re born and most can’t remember that, so to think of having that sort of experience when you’ve been alive for five years is crazy.

Abrahamson: It’s like a birth. It is a birth and that image of him rolling. It took a lot of planning to make that both believable—you have to believe that he can really do these things, that he can follow his mother’s instructions, get away from this guy. All those beats have to be believable because anything that’s not believable kills it. At the same time, it has to have this metaphorical meaning. You have to feel that he’s being born into the world. I felt that if the audience had been inside “room” for 45 minutes, they too should have gotten used to it enough for themselves to feel that release. And that was really there, that was pretty amazing. When you sit with an audience during that sequence, the tension in the cinema is unbelievable. It’s so satisfying for a filmmaker to feel that.

roomint4CS: I really liked how you worked with the composer Stephen Rennicks, whose work I wasn’t familiar with, on the music. It seemed like at times there was nothing…

Abrahamson: And then sometimes it’s quite big.

CS: Exactly. I was curious about working with him. Did you do a lot of the music beforehand.

Abrahamson: He’s probably the person with whom I’ve collaborated for the longest, so Stephen Rennicks, we were in the Irish equivalent of third grade together. We were 9 and we’ve been friends since then and he’s written the music for everything that I’ve done.

CS: Did he write some of the songs from “Frank” as well?

Abrahamson: He wrote all the “Frank” stuff—songs and score—so I’m hoping… I think Stephen’s getting a lot of attention this side of the Atlantic, and he’s a brilliant composer and should get loads of work.

CS: Which means you won’t be able to work with him again.

Abrahamson: No, he’ll be too busy. If he goes away, I’ll kill him.

CS: So you don’t want him to get too much work.

Abrahamson: Exactly, it’s like finding a great holiday destination and not talking about it, you know? I think what’s interesting about it is that sometimes in the places where you would expect the music to be most orchestral and dramatic, it really holds back and does a different thing. And then in places which in a sense are quite small like the day after the freezing cold day when Ma is explaining about the outside world and the next day she stays in bed. All that’s happening is that she’s mulling over what she told him and he’s beginning to get a sense, “You know what? Maybe this outside world really does exist.” Steve wrote this really rich, orchestral piece of music, which captures the big changes that are going on internally for the kid, and all it is is this little boy wandering around this tiny room, but it has massive scale, so yeah, I think he did an incredible job.

CS: He did an amazing job. We spoke about what an amazing actress Brie is, but I think the second half becomes more about her and how she’s dealing with things. Even though he’s still present, there seems to be a conscious switch of the focus.

Abrahamson: That’s a little bit different to the novel. That’s where we diverge mostly from the novel, because in the novel, Ma disappears from the story and the hospital section is longer and Jack is back at his Grandmother’s house without her, but what we did was we delayed that. We wanted to see both of them face the outside world together, and here’s the thing: The novel is so much his story, and his mother is this shadow that you see through his description. But in the film, she’s going to be there, so it becomes much more of a two-hander, and so in the second half, her presence was something that we wanted to hold onto and we wanted to tell the story, in a way paradoxically, you think, “Okay, when they get out, it’s going to be traumatic for Jack because he’s never seen the world. Oh my God, it’s going to be overwhelming!” But you know, he’s a five-year-old boy and the capacity of children to adjust is extraordinary and the person who you think is going to be okay, which is Ma, is the person who finds it hardest to now deal with what she’s experienced now that she’s out of immediate danger and can really think about it. And so, we thought that reversal of expectation was really interesting and we needed to hang onto her for that.

CS: I felt like there must have been some history between her and her parents before she was kidnapped, and that’s still left unspoken when she gets out.

Abrahamson: We thought it absolutely needs to be a normal family. We wanted to deal with things that were universal so therefore you create a normal family where the parents are broken up—which is pretty standard—although Ma didn’t know that because that happened while she was inside, right? But yeah, she was a teenage girl when she went in there and teenage girls have problems with their mothers, so imagine for any parent watching this movie, imagine that level of normal suburban stress that exists between a 17-year-old girl and her mother. Imagine you freeze that, you take this girl away, you traumatize her for seven years, and then you drop her back into the house. She reverts to being 17 again except now, all this stuff that’s happened, can you imagine the insanity of that. When you have someone like Joan Allen to play off that, it’s just brilliant. You can create these amazing undercurrents, which are true to everybody’s experience of adolescence and teenagehood. It’s just exacerbated by the craziness of the circumstance.

CS: Any idea what you want to do next? I assume you finished this fairly recently.

Abrahamson: Yeah, I finished this fairly recently, but I have a project in the UK, which is actually another film based on a novel, which is a very interesting ghost story set in the 1940s set in rural England.

CS: So switching gears again…

Abrahamson: Switching gears again. Some similarities in a weird way, but I’m just fascinated by film, really interested in exploring lots of aspects of it, so we’ll see what happens.

Room opens in select cities on Friday, October 16. Look for our interview with novelist/screenwriter Emma Donohue sometime soon.

(Photo Credit: Apega/WENN.com)