Irish writer Emma Donoghue tells Helen Barlow how her hit film about incarceration was more inspired by her own experiences of motherhood than the Fritzl case
WHEN Room took the people’s choice award at the recent Toronto Film Festival, it was clear that this was the first foray for a film you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next few months.
As director Lenny Abrahamson stood for photographs on the red carpet with his fellow Dubliner, Emma Donoghue, who wrote the screenplay adaptation from her bestselling 2010 novel, the buzz was building for a film several critics have already tipped for Oscar nominations.
As well as the possibility of the offscreen Irish duo making the awards lists, it could also be a breakthrough film for the two lead actors. Brie Larson plays Ma, an abducted young woman who is locked away in a garden shed where she has conceived a son Jack, played as a five-year-old by Jacob Tremblay.
“When we were planning the film everything depended on our assumption that we could get a great little boy,” explains Donoghue, who was hands on in the adaptation of her book. “We looked at videos of 40 boys and Jacob, who was seven at the time, really stood out because he doesn’t just do a natural child thing, he actually knows how to act and he took a great relish in acting.”
Jack knows nothing other than his current existence and is remarkably happy thanks to the tireless efforts of his protective Ma.
Rather than being inspired by the harrowing case of Elisabeth Fritzl, as has been reported, Donoghue’s story, which she adapted for the film, stems from her own experience of motherhood. “To me this story was always about the basics of when you have a child,” the Toron. “They’re in a little tiny space and then you gradually let their world widen. But in Room it happens overnight. So in a way it just dramatises the ordinary process of having a child and then finding the courage to let them go out into the bigger world, to let them take risks.”
Donoghue has two children, Finn, 11, and Una, 8, with her partner of 22 years, Canadian academic Christine Roulston. Since 1998 she has lived in London Ontario but this year the family is in the south of France while Roulston is on sabbatical. It’s no matter to the ever-prolific Donoghue who says she can write anywhere—and often does so, on a treadmill. And yes she’s written about that as well.
“My son was four and a half when I was drafting Room,” she explains. “I put wodges of his dialogue straight into the book. He’s not like Jack because he’s been raised in a world of plenty and freedom. But he does have Jack’s playful attitude, ‘Oh what does that mean?’ ‘Let’s try this!’.
“I tried in a way to isolate the qualities that all five-year-olds have even in their speech, like ‘I breakded the glass’ rather than ‘I broke the glass’. I love that about them. So I put a huge amount of my son in there.”
Wanting to preserve her son’s childhood, she went through the book with a highlighter and discovered a reference to him on almost every page. It was as if she had to let go too, like Ma.
“It sounds dreadful to say but why I wrote the book was that parenthood is claustrophobic. In fact, all the French reviews of the book got this point immediately. They didn’t concentrate on the true crime aspect at all. It’s all about how parenthood is a prison. But childhood is too! Anyway the child is stuck with you, to the parents the child has happened to be granted to. And you’re all stuck together in this situation we call family. There can be so much crankiness and irritation and boredom in it and so much joy as well.”
She likens the second half of the story, when the characters are thrust into the outside world, to the over-protectiveness that parents of her generation feel for their kids.
There’s certainly an enormous amount to Room if you go looking for it — which is why adapting it for the screen could have proved difficult. Yet somehow finding Abrahamson (“I’ d never heard of him before”) and his Irish crew made it work.
Abrahamson had written her a 10-page letter stating his case. She then went back and watched his previous films, including Garage and Frank, and was completely won over.
“I thought ‘Oh this is odd, all Irish people making a film in America’, and then I told them they could film it in Canada because Toronto stands in very well for American cities.”
Donoghue is full of praise for the film’s cast. “Brie re-wrote a couple of her lines because she said ‘we wouldn’t quite say that’ so I think she really watched out for the language.
“I think I would never have gone looking for an Irish company and I have to say it really worked out. I find them very easy to talk to because we have this shared language, this mockery. If you’re from Ireland you just take the piss out of each other all the time. It’s relentless.”
She was confident that Abrahamson understood the story as he has two young children of his own.
“I knew Lenny would bring this immense personal warmth to the project. He was undaunted by the oddities of it, by the fact that it seems like a thriller but the escape is halfway and by the fact that the whole first half they were locked up in a very small space.
“He was not scared that we don’t give the traditional elements like a backstory for the psychopath or flashbacks explaining what has happened. He captured the tonal mixture of the book, the fact that there are jokey and satirical moments in there but that it’s still a very heartfelt story and that despite the darkness of the beginning you actually move through to something very feelgood by the end. So he immediately had a relish for what cinema could bring to it.
“I also think the book is really a one hander in that it’s all Jack’s perspective and that has a certain strength. I’m glad I stuck to it for the book, but it meant that readers have often written to me wanting more explanation for what Ma went through. They often ask for the whole book all over again from Ma’s point of view and I wouldn’t give them that. But the film as a real two-hander gives them that direct access to the mother that they don’t have in the book.”
Room will be released in Irish cinemas in January
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