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The Little Stranger: Lenny Abrahamson on the secret of directing a movie with a twist

Abrahamson’s follow-up to the all-conquering Room is a movie that defies characterisation. / YouTube

THE LITTLE STRANGER is a movie that basically defies characterisation.

Adapted from Sarah Waters’s 2009 gothic novel by Irish cinematic royalty Lenny Abrahamson, and starring Domhnall Gleeson, the closest we could come to describing it would be ‘The Remains of the Day and The Babadook got together and had a celluloid baby’.

It is by turns very affecting and also more than a little terrifying. Strangely, the two don’t seem to overlap, meaning the viewer gets dragged from ruminations on class warfare to being scared out of their wits without warning.

It’s very effective. And that’s before you even get to the twist. For there is one, and it’s not easy to see coming.

Gleeson plays Dr Faraday, a country medic in wartime Warwickshire, with more than a few class hangups.

He becomes reacquainted with nearby Hundreds Hall, the local stately home which he knew from childhood now fallen into disrepair and neglect, together with the family that lives there.

Drama, romance and sadness ensue. And a ghost has its say in often violent and shocking ways.

Hard to reconcile

You see? The two are hard to reconcile even after having watched it (and this movie is certainly worth seeing). 

TLS_Day48_08881.ARW Domhnall Gleeson as Faraday Element Pictures / Nicola Dove Element Pictures / Nicola Dove / Nicola Dove

“I think the basic feeling of how the end would work was always there,” Abrahamson tells regarding that twist.

But in the edit we shifted one thing and it was great that we could, because it unlocked something at the end of the film that I think was just, from a balance point of view, was ultimately better.

The Little Stranger is something of a curiosity from Abrahamson’s point of view. Fresh from the success of 2015′s Oscar-winner Room, one would imagine he could have had his pick of follow-up projects. 

Instead he opted for a period piece starring stiff-upper-lip Britain in the dark days of World War II. That was always the plan he says.

“I’d been thinking of it (The Little Stranger) for a long time, so it was always planned to be the next film, and when Room happened we had the script already in a great place. I’ve always made the decision to do things based on that gut connection to something, I don’t think you can second guess yourself from a career point of view. If you do then you’re lost…”

That’s as may be, but the movie still feels like something of a departure for both Gleeson and Abrahamson (who previously worked with each other on 2014′s Frank).

Hard to imagine, given at present Gleeson seems to be in every movie released anywhere, but this one doesn’t feel like any other he’s been involved in. Did the actor himself enjoy playing the morose Dr Faraday?

“He was tricky to pin down… I did find myself struggling with why he was behaving a certain way, but that has to be alright because in the end he’s struggling himself with his own desires. He wants to be what he can never be, but he can’t stop himself trying. He falls in love with a person and a place at the same time,” Gleeson says.


He was tricky, but I loved him, I actually really cared for him.

A lot of what goes towards making The Little Stranger the bleaked-out atmospheric piece it is is its setting – Hundreds Hall itself (in real life Langleybury, an 18th Century estate near London). Huge swathes of the movie are filmed there, both within and without. The foreboding staircases and darkened corridors vie with the cast for star billing.

7 Gleeson and co-star Ruth Wilson Element Pictures Element Pictures

Filming in such a place isn’t the challenge says Abrahamson, finding the right location is.

“We didn’t want to break it up into lots of different locations, with all the continuity problems that brings,” he says. “It really helps to be able to stick to one place and film there for extended periods, and get to know it.”

“It’s amazing,” Gleeson agrees. “It felt like such an atmospheric place to be. And then, you don’t have stuff distracting you over here, you’re not looking at the edge of the set when you’re filming, you’re just surrounded by this place, and it’s kind of nice. There was something special about working in the place.”

It may be hard to pigeonhole, but one thing is certain – The Little Stranger is scary. Occasionally it’s very scary indeed. Is that difficult we ask? Is there a trick to provoking fear, particularly when it’s something you have little experience of?

“The funny thing is, I never consciously tried to aim for scares, and just trusted that the atmosphere would start to work on the viewer,” says Abrahamson.

And people do put a lot of effort into ‘how do we create this moment of fear or shock’, but this just isn’t that kind of film. I think that if you watch and expect a drama, all of these other elements will intensify that experience. If you go in expecting a horror, you’ll find the drama parts not being that…

“You’ll be waiting for the horror,” interjects Gleeson.

“Right, you’ll be waiting for it,” Abrahamson agrees.

What I did is I took seriously the story and the characters instead of thinking ‘ok now I’m gonna do the genre thing so how do I do it’. I thought ‘let’s believe it, let’s believe this character is having these experiences’, and I tried to show that with all of the bits around that, all the psychological and emotional parts that go with that.

The Little Stranger is in cinemas from 21 September

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