For those who were entranced by Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel “Room,” the first moments of the film adaptation, which she also penned, will come as a revelation. Told from the perspective of a young boy named Jack, the book invokes a magic that only exists in literature as he describes a world as big as his imagination will allow that he shares with his Ma, though it’s soon revealed in reality the two inhabit a space no bigger than a 10′ x 10′ shed, imprisoned there by a man who abducted Ma as a teen. While turning this seemingly uncinematic element of the story surely would’ve daunted many, it was a challenge director Lenny Abrahamson took head-on, almost literally.
“We saw if we concentrate on faces, the walls of the room can actually disappear,” says Abrahamson, who with director of photography Danny Cohen came up with a strategy of long lenses to use in the cramped space to turn the constraints of space into the film’s most transcendent element, bounding past the barriers of the medium to convey the power of the relationship between Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and Ma (Brie Larson). “Scale is really an elastic for a kid. Jay’s attention can be captured by some tiny corner of the room or some texture on the table or his thoughts could drift off into the abstract. We were able to follow that for those periods of time with him, then holding on Brie, you suddenly feel all of the things that she is protecting her boy from. You can see those on her face, so it’s a combination of how you study the character, what scales you operate at, the kind of lenses you choose.”
Abrahamson makes it all sound so obvious when he speaks now, but then again, conveying complexity in understandable and human terms seems to be a particular gift of his. After steadily rising in international stature in recent years with such films as the character study of a melancholic murderer “What Richard Did” and the rock ‘n’ roll comedy “Frank,” featuring Michael Fassbender as the enigmatic, masked lead singer of a band on the fringe of mainstream success, the Irish filmmaker has shown a specific insight into characters who feel trapped either by circumstance, personality or the emotional needs of themselves or others around them and seek a way out. Ironically, Abrahamson has only seemed to burrow deeper into this with each successive film, each feeling more rewarding than the last as they pry into the mysteries of the mind and make the cerebral cinematic.
To say Abrahamson was the right director for “Room” is an understatement, both in terms of his talent and timing. A director with more name recognition might not have been able to make something as small and precise under the weight of expectation, nor could a director with less experience under their belt make something as disciplined and accomplished. But finishing the book not long before he would see it tucked under the arm of President Obama’s arm, all but assuring that he wouldn’t be alone in pitching Donoghue on the rights, Abrahamson’s decision to write a 10-page letter to the author that won her over as Hollywood came calling was an equally fortunate, fortuitous moment for the film, wherein the wonder that isn’t supplied by Tremblay and Larsen’s performances or the nature of the ultimately hopeful story is how such a high-wire act was pulled off with such grace.
Following a triumphant bow at the Toronto where “Room” won the festival’s Audience Award, Abrahamson was in Los Angeles just as the film was winning another at the Hamptons Film Festival and took a few minutes to speak about how the film fits into his filmography, the important of a core crew he’s moved from film to film with and how adapting the book broadened the perspectives of its characters.
Yes, I think that pattern has existed in everything that I’ve done. The reason for it is that my approach to bringing an audience into a situation is always pretty delicate. I don’t want to announce, “Hey, you’re about to watch this kind of story, and this is the character, this is what his problem is” – the conventional three-act structure idea of what a movie should be. For me, it’s a bit like meeting a real person, where initially they’re usually quite hard to work out, and it takes a while before their presence starts to impose itself on you or you allow it to and you start to get a sense of what flavor they have and who they are. Because I want the experience in the films to be authentic, I don’t give it to you all up front. I allow you to work your way in, to fall under the spell of the characters.
Sometimes what I also do, and this would be true of “What Richard Did” and “Frank,” I mislead a little bit and make you think about a character one way, just so I can undercut that and show you that your prejudices you bring are just that – prejudices. You look at “Frank” and you think, “Oh, he’s just this kind of goofy guy,” and you realize, “No, people who are like that, there’s a serious story behind it.” In “Room,” it’s also the nature of the structure of that story where it’s deliberate that it takes you a little while to realize the situation is that they’re in. The first thing you get is this boy who seems pretty happy and well-adjusted, which is important because that’s the perspective of the film, but gradually, you realize the situation they’re in is absolutely not a normal situation.
Every actor’s different and one thing I say if I’m ever talking to directing students is never think that there’s a “way” of working with actors. What you have to do is find a language with every actor. Find a way in. Some actors really want to go and do a lot of work on their own and bring something to you. Then it’s good to work with that, but also to be prepared to push back a little bit and to challenge what they’ve done and bring out other aspects of the character that they may not have. The actors I love working with most are the ones who collaborate in the creation of that character. That for me is the most exciting part of filmmaking.
It’s the varying sort of relationship that can exist between an actor and a director, where it’s like you’re working with clay and you’re building something together. The director obviously stands back and goes, “I see this thing that you’re doing and it’s really interesting. Where’s that coming from and what does it mean? Should we explore that further?” And to get to a point where you can work that intimately with somebody, they have to trust you. I don’t think you can make somebody trust you. If you’ve got a technique that gets people to trust you, then you’re sort of a psychopath. The only way to actually do it is to be trustworthy and open and meet them like one human being meets another. If you can do that, then it is amazing how the tension flows out of the situation and you find yourself in this space where you can really collaborate.
Emma Donoghue has said that by virtue of this being a film, Ma’s role in the story would increase since she would share the frame with Jack, whose perspective in the book is exclusive. Was it really as organic as that to see her role increase in the story?
Definitely, and it’s the nature of the book that you glimpse Ma, and you get a sense everything’s not as rosy as Jack thinks it is, but nevertheless, she remains over there at some distance from you since it’s told from his perspective. It was brilliant [for the book]. But what Emma and I recognized right from the beginning was that this is going to be much more of a two-hander, because she’s there [in the frame] and I’ve become obsessed with this – you metaphorically take the lens cap off and you can direct the audience’s attention, using editing, using different shot sizes and shot per shot, the world floods in. We knew that Ma had to be built to be really three-dimensional. She couldn’t be a sketch and so much of who Ma is a version of Brie. If you cast another actor, you have a different Ma and a different film. Characters are not cut-outs into which you stick bricks. A character should be – if they’re going to be interesting at all – some extraordinary amalgam of the written and the lived.
You mention editing, and I can’t help but notice there’s a group of people you’ve grown up with creatively. How early in the process do you actually get them involved?
The more as a filmmaker you can assemble people who know you and you trust, who understand how you work and whose creativity you value, that is such a bonus. The producer, Ed Guiney, has been involved in everything that I’ve done as well and I feel incredibly privileged to have those relationships. I’m a great believer in that core of people, which helps protect you as a director as well and the more I work with people the more I form new relationships in other areas of the process. On “Room,” Nathan [Nugent], the editor, was part of the conversation with me right from the beginning. We talked an awful lot about what the cutting style would be, how different sequences would work, and he’s a big part of my creative process.
Particularly, the last three films and the film I made just before called “Garage,” there’s been a pressure on the characters at the center and a hemmed in quality, either through external circumstances or because of who they are. In Frank’s case, it’s because of his battles with mental illness. In “What Richard Did,” you start outside that character, but end up inside it. In the case of Jack and Ma, it’s because of what she’s experienced. Looking at my own work, there are these things that emerge that I’m obviously preoccupied about and it’s very interesting as a filmmaker to see those reflected back to me from the work. I don’t know whether that will continue. Some of the projects I’ve got in mind are quite different now. But I do keep being drawn to these characters in extraordinary situations, whether they’re self-imposed or imposed from outside.