Director Lenny Abrahamson on working with author Emma Donoghue to film Room

Room, from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, already looks like one of the best films of 2016, writes Helen Barlow

BY THE time Lenny Abrahamson’s Room took the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival in September, the word was already out that the Irish director’s fifth feature could be a strong Oscar contender.

Before those Academy Award nominations are announced on January 14, we’ll also find out next Sunday whether the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s book has taken any of the three Golden Globes it is up for.

As well as the best drama category, the little-known Brie Larson is up for best actress, and Donoghue herself has a chance of the best screenplay award.

Some commentators raised an eyebrow that Abrahamson didn’t get a best director nomination at the Globes, but the 49-year-old said he recognised the nominations as “an extraordinary vote of confidence and a tribute to the amazing work done by all the talented people” involved in the film.

Abrahamson was the person who put the project together after he had vigorously pursued Donoghue and ultimately taught her a thing or two about screenwriting.

“It’s a whole different toolbox,” she admits.

Abrahamson says he read the novel when it was first published and was gripped by its tale of a mother and son trapped in a small, squalid room.

“My son was four when I read it, not far from the age of the boy in the film who’s five, and I think in some way my love for my own boy was grafted onto the novel and that opened me up emotionally to what Emma writes about in a vivid way,” says Abrahamson.

“I was presumptuous enough to think I was the person who should turn this bestselling novel into a film.

“I was aligning with [producer] Ed Guiney, who I work very closely in Dublin and we heard that President Obama had been pictured coming out of a bookshop in Martha’s Vineyard with Room under his arm and we thought, ‘We are not going to get this novel’, but I wrote Emma a 10-page letter regarding the inner logic of the novel and how I felt it should be translated into film.”

COMMON GROUND

Even if she’s been living in Canada since 1988, Donoghue, 46, came on board with her “fellow Dubliner” and was chuffed to see her novel transformed as they first sat around her kitchen table in London, Ontario, and then on set in Toronto.

“Lenny completely understood the book and wasn’t scared off by the unusual aspects,” she says.

“It’s about a kidnapping situation but it’s seven years in. It has elements of crime drama but that’s all in the middle. He wasn’t squeamish about spending the first half of the movie in a locked room.

“Here you get to see the mother where in the book you’re just getting glimpses of her through the child’s eyes. It was lovely to see the boy get a body in the film! In the book he’s kind of a disembodied voice.”

Like Donoghue, Abrahamson has an appreciation of the transatlantic view. He studied at Stanford University though dropped out to return to Dublin and make movies.

His feature debut in 2004 was Adam & Paul, a black comedy about two heroin addicts that still ranks as one of the best Irish films so far this century.

“It’s kind of Beckett meets Laurel and Hardy meets Trainspotting.” he says, “and it actually has a cult. It played in Telluride [film festival] but with the accents so strong it was never going to play in the US.”

He followed up with Garage and What Richard Did and won the best director prize for all three films in the Irish Film & Television Awards.

Frank, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Michael Fassbender — who as an eccentric musician wore a paper mache head — became another cult item around the world.

YOUNG TALENT

Actors clamoured to work with the Irish director and in Room he has managed to snag Joan Allen and William H Macy as Larson’s parents.

The biggest discovery, though, was Jacob Tremblay, who also has become an awards contender for his portrayal as young Jack.

“Jacob was seven when we started and turned eight,” Abrahamson says.

“In order to play five you need to be a little bit older because no five year old could do it. We searched all over North America and found him in Vancouver.

“He’d done a few commercials, a part in a kids’ film. But nothing remotely near the difficulty here and he’s in practically every scene.

“There’s a huge amount of work that goes into bringing out that performance, making it coherent and consistent across such a complicated story and also protecting him from the darker elements of the story.

“ I would say it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen — by any actor.”

Abrahamson grew up as part of Ireland's Jewish community, but says he was never subjected to any animosity over his minority heritage. It's a moot point whether it contributed to his outlook as a filmmaker. 

“I have an observer’s stance on things. I’m much more of an observer than a participant and I think a lot of creative people feel like that.

“So I have at various points in my life, especially as a teenager and into my 20s, felt self-conscious and really unable to throw myself into life.

“I’m much less like that now, but that perspective is the thing that allows you to tell stories in a way that surprises people.”

CONTAINED WORLDS

Is this where the sense of confinement comes from in his movies?

“I sometimes think the best way to discover what your pre-occupations are is to start making stuff and then it strangely presents itself.

“I definitely am interested in contained worlds and in how people make sense of very dysfunctional situations. I seem to continually go back to that. I think in the case of Room it’s like what scientists do.

“If you really want to try and understand something you try and remove extraneous factors and look at a very simplified and intensified version.

“So we’re really talking about childhood and parenthood and it’s about that transition that we all make from a cosy mythologised life as a child into something much more confusing and complex and hard to understand which is adult life.

“By removing everything except the mother and son and having this allegorically rich idea of a room as the full universe we can look at universal stuff but in a very pointed way.

“That’s true in my other films as well. In Garage you’ve got a very bold depiction of what it is to be lonely and separate through Josie’s life.

“So maybe that’s what I look for: worlds where universal ideas can be explored in a very vivid way.”

For their next film Abrahamson and Guiney will make a movie about the life of Emile Griffith, a 1960s boxer who was secretly bisexual.

Abrahamson also plans to re-team with Domhnall Gleeson for an adaptation of The Little Stranger ghost story by Sarah Waters.

Abrahamson is clearly not one to rest on his laurels.

Room opens on January 15


Lifestyle

It couldn't be easier to add life to soil, says Peter Dowdall.It’s good to get your hands dirty in the garden

Kya deLongchamps sees Lucite as a clear winner for collectors.Vintage View: Lucite a clear winner for collectors

Their passion for the adventures of JK Rowling’s famous wizard cast a love spell on Cork couple Triona Horgan and Eoin Cronin.Wedding of the Week: Passion for Harry Potter cast spell on Cork couple

After in-depth explainers on Watergate and the Clinton affair in seasons one and two, respectively, Slate podcast Slow Burn took a left turn in its third season, leaving behind politics to look at the Tupac-Notorious BIG murders in the mid-1990s.Podcast Corner: Notorious killings feature in Slow Burn

More From The Irish Examiner