My Oscar season starts in September, which is something of a challenge. The field is wide and not always deep – at this stage, almost any film has a fighting chance to get to the nominations and then go all the way in February. But you have to watch as many as possible, even the ones you’re not all that thrilled about because – well, this is the job.
It ain’t digging ditches.
Room may have been the first film I saw this Oscar season, and it was one of the few I really was anticipating. I’d read the book by Emma Donoghue, and she’d written the screenplay (good for her for going the Gillian Flynn route and sticking with her story all the way to the screen) so I anticipated a solid interpretation.
What I got was almost a perfect adaptation: I was far enough away from having read the book to not feeling ownership over how the filmed version got told – there were parts I simply did not remember from the book (like most of the second half, after Ma and Jack escape Room), and the little boy who played Jack (Jacob Tremblay) just had my heart from the moment I saw him on screen. Some young actors feel actor-y and coached; he just felt like a boy trying to grasp the world, and I felt so worried for his innocence and fragility.
So I’m deeply pleased that Room has gone the distance. And I was even more pleased when I was asked to interview the director, Lenny Abrahamson, for The Los Angeles Times, in a hotel lobby in New York City. We sat before the fireplace and had tea – and I got to pretend that Keira Knightley, who had just wrapped a meeting with him in that same spot, was my opening act.
There’s a much-pared-down version of our conversation here, and sadly that’s how these things go: You get thousands of words of chat, and need to bring it to just 700 or so, including the introduction, all while trying to touch on all the high points.
So here’s the rest, or at least, much of the rest. The treat was all mine.
So, Keira has left the building.
There is something very luminous about her.
Are you planning to work with her?
In principle, yeah. We have similar representation so it made sense to meet up. I like actors so it’s good to know who you like so in the future you build up a bank of humane, decent and talented people. For me a big part of filmmaking is gathering a good group of people you can work with.
How do you know who you can work with?
You can’t absolutely know but with anybody you get a feeling. One of the things I’m fascinated about is about how we encounter characters. There’s this idea in studio films where you have to have a complete backstory of who they are, so characters are reduced to a set of equations because of this, then that. But if you buy a pack of gum from somebody in a newsagent shop, you get a flavor for that person. Long story short, it’s a gut feeling thing and then I probably talk to other people who have worked with those actors to see how it was. And then you have to leap like anything else. Room was a particularly cohesive group – both crew and cast – and that was really important because the material was challenging enough so the atmosphere and the sense of safety, that’s a big part of how it happens.
As I understand it, the actual shed that was called Room was four walls and closed off, right?
You could leave it and go into the soundstage but a lot of the time we were really in there. It’s tight metaphorically and literally because of that set. I decided not to fly walls out – [that’s] when you pull out a wall – first of all it takes a lot of time, but for Jack, for Jake, the reality of that room felt important. If suddenly he’s performing in that and it’s a 3-waller and a whole studio and teamsters – nobody wants to be looking at teamsters at the best of times. I jest, we love the teamsters. But we came up with a simple but effective system where panels – you know the way the interior is these cork tiles – and every four tiles was a removable panel. This allowed you to get the lens back to any wall or floor or ceiling but you never let it go beyond the line of that. That allowed us to do that without disrupting what felt like the integrity of the set.
Does set geography come into it much when you make films?
This was the most thought per square foot of set I’ve ever worked on. It carries huge weight in the film. It is the title, it’s the metaphor, it’s also the place you have to really carefully imagine because just getting your head around the layers of life that are smeared into it. And also set geography is important dramatically here – what can the boy see, what can’t he see, what are the lines of sight from his sleeping place – and unless you think through that stuff carefully you end up painting yourself into some terrible corners. The brilliant thing about being a writer is you can describe one square inch on a tabletop and choose not to talk about anything around it but as soon as you put a camera on something everything is there. Where were these things bought? How old are they? In the novel it’s the boy’s voice so things are as they are. It turned into such an interesting challenge from a craft point of view.
We talked a lot about movement of light through the day, about different corners, how we could make this tiny room, this 11×11 room feel like it had separate rooms in it. How we could do all that and make it real while still capturing this metaphorical aspect. It has to be real, you really need to feel you’re present with those characters and at the same time the film operates as an allegory. My type of filmmaking anyway is to seem to disappear or try to be all present but invisible. It was a fascinating challenge.
The story’s a tough one for a kid to handle. How did you parcel it out for Jake?
It’s inappropriate to talk about lots of aspects of this story to a boy that young. But if those aspects weren’t there, if this was a drama with none of those elements, no 7 to 8 year old would be able to see an entire performance arc. They can’t be in charge of that. He’s a real actor but he’s acting in small chunks. I was often directing in very tiny bits. Sometimes it’s about teaching a child to ride a bike. They’ll wobble and wobble and then suddenly they’re cycling into the distance. And there were scenes where he held it miraculously for a page or two pages, but a lot of the time it was tiny, and then it’s like working with a mosaic or pixels and when you step back it’s smooth. As a director I probably used every possible approach to how you communicate with an actor. So sometimes I would talk very gently through a take, not even about what was happening, soothingly telling him how great it was. I would sometimes count, because I would want him to defocus and drift away and listen to me and that would take away any twitches.
It sounds like hypnosis.
Hypnosis! It was really interesting, that. When you’re looking at him in the house when the mother has been taken away, it’s very poignant. There’s no point in saying to him, “OK, Jake this is supposed to express your terrible loss, where is your mother,” that’s a terrible way to direct a child. So instead of that it’s better to get him into a really calm mood and direct him physically. And because he’s a natural actor everything he does is believable. So he picks something up, he looks at it he plays with it, it’s the way an actor does it, it’s not the way a person does it if they’re self-conscious and told to do it. It’s at that level of smallness, that’s a part of the mosaic.
But when Old Nick comes in to check and see if he has a fever or not, that’s proper acting where he is pretending to be afraid. Like when Nick put his hand on his head, at first Jake didn’t react but once I said to him, “That would be a thing you recoil from.” He absolutely knows how to do that. And I’m feeding him to remind him about his breathing, but that’s an actor who’s pretending in the deepest sense of pretending. I think of pretending as a very noble art. And then there were times for example where what can happen with a child is they get into the groove and the music of the scene too well and it becomes pat. So one technique I’ve found works well – and this was challenging for Brie [Larson, Ma] who was amazing – I’d throw lines around randomly from different parts of the scene and it would interrupt his known route. He’d have to come at it from another way.
It’s interesting that you bring up being interested in stories about discontinuity and starting fresh, since that’s something you did yourself: You were studying philosophy in Stanford, then left to return to Dublin and get into movies at a relatively older age. Do you think these themes interest you because they’re also your story?
I think so – although de facto now I have decided what to do and in a sense who I am. I’m always thinking there should be some huge change and I may not be living in some ridiculous way, I know I’m now doing the thing I’m going to continue doing for the rest of my life. And I’m probably going to continue to live where I live for the rest of my life, in Dublin. But some part of me needs to believe that that could change at any minute. So I’m fascinated by people’s trajectories, by people who either by necessity or because it’s forced from the outside or by choice reinvent themselves. And I did it a few times.
I was going to be a physicist and then I thought no, philosophy is what I’m really interested in and that was genuinely a passion and continued into postgrad work. Then this film thing was niggling at me, and that did stick hard with me. It took many years to years to get that going. And I did think at that point, one more change and I start looking like a dilettante. And now I’ve got kids, so it was important for me to make some moves that I couldn’t reverse. Kids being the irreversible thing. And that gives a certain weight to your life, and weight is good, but there’s definitely a part of me that thinks late at night but we could pick up sticks, sell the house, this would be a more authentic way to be. I’m probably just geared to think about that.
Do I really believe it? I don’t know if I really do, but I have those fantasies all the time. To think we live in a period of time where we expect that level of freedom; most of history people are just trying to survive and necessity is absolutely the key experience of life, that there are these necessities, pressures, demands – if you could just meet that success. But now I feel like we live in a kind of permanent adolescence, I know I do, which is where I still keep thinking I’m going to kick the door down and walk into a brighter future. Narnia is still behind the wardrobe.
How old are your kids?
Seven and 4. We all went to Canada to shoot Room. They both got chicken pox and scarlet fever. About six, seven weeks of total house [quarantine] – they don’t inoculate in Ireland and England like they should – so the kids weren’t immune and they just wanted to keep them quarantined. So I said to my little girl, “So what do you think about living abroad?” And she said, “I don’t like Canada, dad, it’s full of sickness.”
You went all the way to California to get a philosophy doctorate and then came back after six months. What went so pear-shaped?
I didn’t enjoy it – the work was good, the professors were great, but I’m a homebird. I’m the homebird who fantasizes about an RV in Patagonia, but really I just want to be in Dublin. So that was one layer. The other one was there’s something – what you realize when you enter the world of academic philosophy is that it’s a very small community you’re going to be talking to, mostly the work is quite technical and so little of it is about some of the screaming issues and contradictions that need to be talked about.
Put it another way: Stanford is in Palo Alto [California], super wealthy, campus is beautiful. Humanities are very strong there; those departments cost less than one on particle acceleration. But next door is East Palo Alto, and it’s a segregated city. It’s poor, it’s predominantly African-American and as it gets poorer the taxes it collects are lower and lower and you see it all separates into its oil and water and no one on the campus seems to think they need to talk about this.
Some part of me knew I needed to go and make stuff. I was also smart enough to know that I didn’t have the strength to move to Los Angeles. I would have been eaten up. Unless you want to make studio movies – in which case, that’s the place to go – but I needed to go away and build up a body of work so I knew who I was as a filmmaker and now I’m very comfortable in Los Angeles [now]; I have great relationships there, but they know what I do so it’s not like I’m going to meld myself to that paradigm. It’s a much more even relationship.
Did getting started in filmmaking in your thirties affect your storytelling?
Though I sometimes find my self wishing I’d started earlier, in the end, I believe it is a benefit. If you’re lucky, age brings a kind of solidity – a good kind of inertia. I feel have some immunity to the temptations that the industry holds and which could, as a younger person, have pulled me away from what feels like my own territory. Also, at the most basic level, age is experience – an accumulation of life carried with you. Occasionally I teach, and the fundamental problem with most shorts or first feature scripts is that they are not about anything. It’s as if the filmmaker is trying to do something cool with film – there’s nothing about the world, or their experience of being in it that they want to get at.
Everything I read about you pegs about you as an Irish director first and foremost. And admittedly, pre-Room Dublin was pretty much your muse of choice. But what does it mean to be an “Irish” director as opposed to a director from somewhere else?
I don’t think it has a specific meaning at the moment. Sometimes you get a little bubble where it’s cohesive as a voice from a few filmmakers. In Romania it happened a few years ago. There’s a very healthy crop of filmmakers as a result of a decade of reasonable funding back home, but we’re all doing very different things. I don’t think there is a house style, but there is a collegiate friendliness between filmmakers in Dublin. There are several films that are hovering around that are Irish stories or made by Irish talent – my friend Paddy Breathnach has done this film Viva, and Saorsie [Ronan], and Jack Reynor, and Chris O’Dowd, he’s fabulous. It’s the biggest cliché of where I’m from – but it’s true there are a tremendous number of people working at a really high level. There was a big debate about arts funding recently in Ireland and somebody said, “We don’t manufacture cars, the reason people know Ireland are both culture and beer.” Both of which are very important. We’ve been exporting people for years.