First published 9 January 2015
Lenny Abrahamson has just won an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Room – the film also got a Best Film nomination, Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, and Best Actress nomination for Brie Larson.
“Of all of the nominations we might have got, I thought mine was the least likely,” he told Ray D’Arcy on RTÉ. “I still can’t believe it. This is really amazing. I’m gobsmacked.” Emma Donoghue, the book’s writer, said she’s dreamed of Oscars but never thought it would ever happen. She watched the nominations while on live radio.
Here’s our interview with Lenny Abrahamson earlier this month.
TO A CHILD, the adult or adults who rear them are their world – be they parents or guardians, one person or two, a family or a village.
In Room, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s critically acclaimed new film, a little boy named Jack’s mother is his world, and the tiny room they live in is his universe.
The story of Jack and his mother Ma was first brought to us in Canadian-based Irish author Emma Donoghue’s 2010 book Room.
Told through the five-year-old Jack’s words, the book follows as he learns that Room, with its familiar talismans like meltedy spoon and a snake made of eggshells, is not the entire world.
He gradually learns that he and his mother are not free: they are captive, trapped by a man who has kept them in a soundproofed shed in his back garden. He struggles to accept that beyond the skylight that gives them the only glimpse into the outside world, there are other people like him and Ma.
Abrahamson feels like the natural fit to bring Jack and Ma’s story – which was inspired by the notorious Joseph Fritzl case – from page to screen. He has already proved that he is adept at tackling dark and uncomfortable, but also intimate, experiences with his films Adam & Paul (a tragic comedy which follows two drug users on a quest to score some heroin), Garage (about a middle-aged man with learning difficulties who lives in a small village), What Richard Did (inspired by a real-life case where a group of well-to-do teenage boys are involved in a fight which leads to a death), and Frank (a group of misfits – one of whom wears a Frank Sidebottom head – try to make it in the music industry).
In order to prove to Donoghue that he was the right person to make Room, he wrote her a 10-page letter. That personal, heart-on-your-sleeve approach was risky, but it worked.
Crucially, Donoghue adapted her own book into the screenplay, meaning that the film is exactly how she visualised it to look. Watching Room, everything feels so familiar: what the reader has pictured in their head, thanks to Donoghue’s words, appears on screen.
Though the book is told through Jack’s words, the film is more of a two-hander. We get to see the space through Ma’s (played by Brie Larson) eyes, but at crucial points of the film Abrahamson shows us the world as Jack (played by Jacob Tremblay) sees it.
Those dreamy sequences are absorbing, and at times, fraught with tension. At one pivotal point, even if you have read the book you will find yourself gripping on to the armrest, hardly able to breathe.
That the film can inspire these emotions, even when you know what is about to happen, is testament to Abrahamson’s filmmaking. The story makes you think about what it is to be a child, the stories parents must tell their children about the world to keep them safe, and how sometimes there is security in captivity. You think about Ma, and what she went through to have Jack, and what she must go through to help him grow, and you wonder if you could be that strong.
You look at Jack, and his trust in his mother’s words, and his innocent acceptance of the world around him, and ask yourself if you could do what he has to do halfway through the film. You think about parenting, and childhood, and the way the parent-child bond is tested.
Room is a powerful film, and has resonated strongly with audiences wherever it has been seen so far. It has already been given the Toronto International Film Festival’s people’s choice award, and most recently scooped an award at the Salt Lake City Film Festival.
But the awards are only going to get bigger: tomorrow it stands the chance of winning three Golden Globes. On 14 January, it looks set to be among the crop of nominees for the 2015 Oscars. In just 12 years since Garage, Abrahamson is being embraced by Hollywood.
Creating the world of Room
Room wouldn’t be Room if, while watching it, you didn’t get a sense of what it must be like to live in an 11ft by 11ft space.
Half of the film is located in Room, and it was a challenge to create a set that was small enough to evoke the sense of intimacy needed for the viewer, but also a place capable of dealing with a film crew. But it wasn’t enough just to do that – you need to forget that it’s a prison. To Jack, it’s not. It’s his whole world.
A wooden shed was built to the exact size of the ‘real’ room, and set on a structure to allow for filming. Wall panels could be removed to enable the camera to get where it was needed. The camera becomes our eyes, and we get, like Jack, to see Room as a space that’s bigger than it appears. Abrahamson spent much of his time during filming hidden in Jack and Ma’s bathtub.
The level of detail that went into making the room (which you can read more about here) is astounding, and means that the viewer feels utterly absorbed while watching the action take place there. It’s as real a place as you can believe.
“It’s an unusual story and unusual structure”
That Room has been welcomed so warmly in the film world is a source of pride to Abrahamson, he told TheJournal.ie. He’s spent the last number of months travelling with the cast to festivals, watching how their story of a boy and his mother has evoked tears and praise.
“It’s been great, I think because it was not a film that set out specifically to garner awards, it’s an unusual story and unusual structure,” he said. “So the fact it’s being talked about like that really stems from people’s reaction to seeing the film, which is heartening.”
He knew that the book’s profile would mean a ready-made audience for Room, but he also felt it would connect with people “because it is such an emotional film”. The relationship between Ma and Jack is unique, but their love is universal.
And yet: it’s a love born out of terror, and fear, not out of desire. But Jack, who must not, at first, have been wanted, becomes the centre of his mother’s world. She loves him fiercely; he knows no other love than her fierce love.
Abrahamson said he knew he had something special with Room a week or two into production, and it was all down to Tremblay and Larson. He looked at the relationship between them both as the cameras had captured on screen, “and it felt there was something very strong about it”.
“Then, I knew that it would be an impactful film,” he recalled. “But you can never really think about awards because it’s such a strange game and there’s no predicting it.”
Abrahamson tends to be pessimistic about the possibility of awards because of how they might impact on his work. He sees how seeking approval in this way can start to affect how a director might act.
Because if you do as a director [care about awards] I think you start to make choices which are designed… you choose projects which have that [awards] potential, if that’s what you start getting into. I deliberately try not to think about it.
‘He has all the instincts of a great actor’
Tremblay is quite the find, a child who is able to access a range of deep emotions, who seems sincere and thoughtful, and wiser than his young years. Initially, there was the “fantasy” of getting twins to play the part of Jack, which would have made things easier for filming (because child actors can only work for a set amount of hours a day).
“When I saw him first, I saw him on tape – and I saw hundreds of kids on tape,” said Abrahamson.
He was comfortable in front of the camera but if anything was too polished - he had done commercials and had that bright delivery that kids are encouraged to have which would be wrong for this, very wrong.
But the director could tell there was something special about Tremblay, particularly when it came to owning the dialogue. He sent some notes back, and Tremblay sent on another tape – which was better – and then they met in person.
“I went and met him along with other kids. It was really when I met him and realised pretty quickly that we could remove that sweetness and there was just this lovely boy underneath who happens to have all the instincts of a great actor,” said Abrahamson.
He will be one, and I felt very privileged to be the person coaching that out of him so early in his acting experience.
An emotional watch
It’s an emotional experience watching Room, with its rollercoaster of feelings. So what was it like making such an intense movie?
“Making something is always different to the experience of watching because you’re in this active relationship with it. And so sometimes if you’re shooting a very emotional scene you do feel it, but another part of you, if it’s working, is just exhilarated by the fact it’s working,” said Abrahamson.
“So you can come away from a day where you’ve shot something really dark feeling wonderful,” he said. “If you were shooting a comedy and it wasn’t doing well I think you would come away feeling infinitely more depressed than the other way.”
That said, “there are times when you’re watching stuff back or watching the film and you’re editing it, where you do get involved”, acknowledged Abrahamson.
Creating a bond
After already hitting the States, it’s time for Room to make its Irish debut on 15 January. It’s without doubt that it will connect with Irish audiences, and not just because of the fact it’s an Irish film, though set in the US, and filmed in Canada. It is incredibly moving, and Tremblay is utterly believable as a boy who must grow up very quickly in a short space of time.
There are moments of lightness and love, and dark, tense minutes where you can hardly breathe.
At the core of Room is the relationship between Jack and Ma. He’s an innocent who gradually learns more about the darkness of the world as the film progresses. Their bond and partnership is tested, and Jack must place all his trust in his mother.
“It’s interesting that we’re used to seeing stories that put romantic love under pressure, that’s the basis of the classical romances,” said Abrahamson. But the love in this film is a parental one.
It’s clear that both Larson and Tremblay cared deeply for one another. I asked Abrahamson how they fostered that bond, and it turns out much of it was just allowing Larson and Tremblay to spend time together, like a real mother and son.
Here, Abrahamson describes how they created that bond between them, and how, in a lovely touch, the arts and crafts we can see in the movie were created by the actors themselves, just like Jack and Ma would have made them.
Room is released in Ireland on 15 January