Lenny Abrahamson interview: on Room and the Oscars

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 13 Jan 2016
  • Room

Irish writer-director Lenny Abrahamson is known for his small-scale, dryly funny films, but he's come under a new level of scrutiny with his latest movie Room, which is about to enter the Oscar race

Lenny Abrahamson is a master filmmaker, but he wears his talents for character and storytelling lightly. The Irishman has made five features to date, all seemingly very different. His debut, Adam and Paul, a day in the ramshackle lives of two heroin addicts, was aptly described at the time as “Beckett meets Laurel and Hardy meets Trainspotting.” Next was Garage, a heartbreaking character study about a childlike man working in a rural petrol station, and What Richard Did, about a handsome and charming teenager from a wealthy Dublin family; both pivot on a regrettable action by their lead characters midway through their runtimes. Then came tragicomedy Frank, where Michael Fassbender plays an art-rock star who spends the entire movie wearing a giant papier-mâché head.

As if to throw off auteurists who might try and pin him down, his latest film is another left-turn, this time in the direction of the mainstream with an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room. It tells the story of a young woman (Brie Larson) who has been kidnapped and held captive for seven years, and her five-year-old son (the extraordinary Jacob Tremblay), who has never left the small room in which he was born and doesn't know that a whole other world is outside their door.

With a built-in audience and Oscar buzz, Room is sure to bring Abrahamson to a much wider audience. The filmmaker spoke to us by phone from his hometown of Dublin to discuss the new film and his career.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room

I read that you really chased this project – what was it about Emma Donoghue’s book that made you want to make it into a film?
My own little boy was four when I read the novel, so I think that was a big part of it. Emma’s made such an amazing portrait of a small boy and it rang so true to me. I was also very impressed by the fact that she’d taken this story, which when you hear the premise you think, 'Well that’s going to be a grim crime story, a sort of awful ordeal,' and she managed to make it into a kind of celebration of parent-child love, and also a meditation on aspects of our society and what it means for anyone to grow up.

Given that the book’s told from the boy’s point of view, did that throw up some challenges?
I didn’t want to use any tricks. I didn’t want to literally go inside his point of view and I didn’t want there to be any fantastical elements to it – I didn’t want to animate the objects that he thinks of as friends or any of those approaches that you could imagine being suggested, which I think would lead to something pretty artificial. So it was about being with the character, watching him closely as things happened around him; a small amount of voiceover, which helps to pin him as the emotional centre of the story; and then just lots and lots of very small decisions that put you with him and that tune you into his ways of feeling things. My instinct was that would be enough, and I think that proved to be correct – with very little you can still locate this as the boy’s story.

And a key part of getting that right must have been finding the right actor to play the boy...
It was a big search. We had lots of casting directors and people out across North America trying to find our boy. Jake popped out of Vancouver and he just had this presence in front of the camera and this certain confidence, but I wasn’t sure until I met him in person because there was a performed aspect to what he was doing, a little bit of the child performer thing going on. But actually, when I met him, I discovered pretty quickly that you could peel that away and underneath there’s this incredibly lovely and natural little kid who also happens to be an amazing and interesting actor. Very raw and unformed and still in the body of a seven-year-old kid, still half in the fantasy world of childhood and just beginning to get into the more grounded world of an older child, but I could see that there was something there and the more I worked with him the more excited I felt about him.

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Given his young age, how deep could you go into his character with him?
We did talk a lot about it. We did little exercises where we wondered what would he know about the world from TV, and what would he not know about it? How would it be different when you were in contact with something real that you’d only seen before on television? We also found things that were important to Jacob and things that he could remember vividly, like his first day in school – that let him understand the deep shyness that the character would have outside of Room. And sometimes it’s just like puppeteering, where you’re just saying, 'No, hold your head in that position, or look to the left and count to ten in your head.' So it’s a combination of 'proper' acting and directing with lots of different techniques that are closer to what you might do with your own kids when you try to persuade them to do something that they are either too distracted or too uninterested in to do.

How did Brie Larson cope with that working method?
It mirrors what a parent and a child do. She was in possession of all the facts in the scene, but Jake wasn’t, so she would sometimes have to guide him a little bit, even within her performance, and she became a real ally for me. She would also mind Jake between takes – he really bonded with her and like hanging out with her – but for Brie it took a lot of generosity. When there’s a kid on set, everybody’s attention is taken up with the kid and particularly the director’s. Often I would go through a scene and I would stop and start again, or go back a few lines, or run them out of order to help shake him out of a pattern that wasn’t working, and Brie had to move all the time to each new point in the scene, so she’s had to be on all the time and that’s really really hard, it goes against all the ways that performers like to work, which is organically through a scene. But Brie had acted as a child and she just knew the drill. She was an amazingly generous collaborator.

One of the things I love about the film, and I guess it’s maybe one of the things that drew you to the book, is that it’s asking the question that all parents have to ask themselves: how much about the world do you reveal to your kids? How much do you share with them about the realities of life?
I’m kind of fascinated by the two worlds that live inside a normal house: the world that you try to show the children, and the world that you and whoever else is raising them really know exist. I’ve got small children now and I’m looking at everything that is happening in the world and then in the greater community of the people that we know – all of the dark stuff and all of the big stuff. You try to hold it back from your kids but you know at the same time you can’t completely succeed in doing that. And there’s a tremendous anguish for a parent in knowing that’s not fully possible. This film, this book, it’s an extreme case that illustrates those aspects of being a parent in a really vivid way.

You’ve made five feature films so far, and while on the surface they all seem very different, there’s a humanist streak that connects them all. How do you see them working together?
I see an approach to character and an intimacy and a desire to bring an audience into a very close proximity to a person, and make it hard to lose the wrong type of focus on a character, which I think makes judgement too easily. I try to undermine those categorisations that people impose on each other.

There also tends to be a watershed moment in the middle of your films that spells some seismic change to a character's life.
I do like that before and after. You take a person with a strong sense of who they are and then you undermine that, so you interrupt those narratives, and Room is about an interrupted narrative as well. Ma has a story of what it’s going to be like when they leave, which turns out to be a fantasy. It’s about how she falls apart when that's interrupted. So I think there are things that I come back to and there are passions visually that I can see as well, but I’m a passionately interested person when it comes to film and its possibilities, so I always see myself moving around on the landscape to try and explore more of it.

With Room you’ve been pulled into the Oscar race. How has that experience been, being a low-key filmmaker who’s been thrown into the pomp and back-slapping of awards season?
Well, it’s strange, because you don’t want to lose yourself in the whole process and lose what it is that motivates you to do all this. You can get really caught up in it and it becomes like the thing that matters – how are its awards prospects compared to other films? – because inside the bubble it’s all anyone talks about, you know. So I try not to take it too seriously, but I still have to be involved in it. I’m travelling all the time, I’ve been away most of the last three months, which is really tough, but I just get on with it, get through it. I hope it goes well, it’s a good thing, it’ll open more doors, but I think I’m long enough in the tooth to not go, 'Oh my God, what’s the biggest thing I can grab hold of now?' I think that would be dangerous, but I’m not likely to do that. From a sociological point of view it’s interesting to learn how this world works, but not to take it too seriously.

Room is released 15 Jan