director lenny abrahamson is cinema's new surprise star
If a year ago we'd dropped the name Lenny Abrahamson into conversation, you'd be forgiven for looking at us blankly. You may be familiar with his work — What Richard Did or his 2014 Sundance hit Frank, starring Michael Fassbender — but the man himself less so, that is until now. Because after surprise Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture for his exquisite masterpiece Room, Lenny Abrahamson is a name that will not be forgotten. Based on Emma Donoghue's best-selling book of the same name, and starring Oscar nominee Brie Larson and Critics' Choice Award winner Jacob Tremblay, Room tells the tale of a mother and son in captivity, and their fraught relationship with the outside world upon release. Ahead of the Oscars, we catch up with the award season's most understated star to find out how it's all going.
What was it about the story that captivated you in the first place?
When I read the story, my oldest kid was about four years old, and so I was pretty tuned in to kids, and was particularly moved by Emma's portrait of Jack. I just thought was amazing; it was a celebration of what's wonderful about children, and I could see my boy in him. That was an emotional trigger for me, really. I also admired how she took a situation which could easily be mined for its misery and instead created this really subtle and beautiful portrait of a parent-child relationship; she used it to talk about something very universal and very uplifting. I suppose the challenge of it technically, as a craftsman, was to wrestle a story as seemingly un-cinematic as that into something that would work on screen. And I felt an impulse early on, a sense of how to do it. It was a gut feeling.
When you read the book did you immediately envision how you wanted it look, or did it evolve organically?
I did actually see it in my head. I saw some images very clearly and they weren't always connected to the scenes I was reading. I could really feel myself in that room with them and what that might look and feel like. I had very strong images in my head from only a few pages in. It's those first images that are the most truthful and vivid, and then you spend the rest of the time trying to put it all together.
How did making the film actually come about?
It certainly wasn't sudden, I didn't think we were going to get it; books that do that well tend to get snapped up quickly for a lot of money, but actually that hadn't happened. Emma was holding out. I wrote a long letter to her explaining how much I loved the book and how I saw it and what the challenges would be and how I thought I could do it. It was that which really got it going. While Emma was debating about it, I'd finished What Richard Did which brought my profile up a bit, and then news came out that I was doing Frank with some well known actors and then we met and we really hit it off — that was the best part.
What was the main thing you wanted to convey with Room?
The themes are there, but there's no thesis that I wanted people to come away with. I wanted them to experience something, that intimacy of the relationship between Brie and Jacob, how beautiful it is and how amazingly resilient that little boy is, and just experience everything with them. That immediacy, that's what I find to be one of cinema's greatest things, that you can have such a close encounter with fictional characters. That was always my aim; there were lots of things in the novel, lots of grand metaphors, but none of that means anything if you don't believe in what you're watching. Feelings last much longer.
Parenthood and childhood are two key themes. How much did you draw upon your own experiences?
Parenting is very difficult. As a representation of parenthood it's universal, but the situation is very unusual. What we're trying to get at is that parenting can be claustrophobic and terribly intense and draining, and it can also be the most wonderful thing. It's the thing that almost kills you but ultimately saves you.
What was it like working with Brie and Jacob?
It was wonderful. Despite what people say it's not always wonderful. Sometimes with actors, relationships can feel fraught because it's a high-pressure situation. A lot is at stake — especially for the actor — but Brie is wonderful; warm, clever, funny. It was a total pleasure. We worked very closely together for months while she prepared. Jake came much later. You always cast the kid later otherwise they will have changed too much. Getting them together and watching them become so close was so great. It had to be as it's what the film relies on. It was a joy to work with them both.
Were there any challenges along the way?
Probably the transition from the first half to the second half. They escape in the middle of the film, which would normally be the end of a film. To preserve and bring that tension, that feeling that while they may have physically escaped they haven't really escaped yet, was the hardest part — even harder than shooting in a small room, which was tough. Squeezing all these burly cameramen into a small space…
How did the creative process differ from that of your other films?
It's the biggest film I've made, with the biggest budget; it started with the highest expectations, as people really loved the novel. It's also the most emotional film I've ever made by a long way. You could feel that from the beginning.
Where are you hoping to go from here?
The great thing about this is that now I can pretty much do what I want. Actors are very keen to work with me as they like what I've done and there are a lot of people who want to support us. It's a great time right now and I don't want to rush anything. There are some things that I'm working on which I'm really excited about.
Do you feel like you still need to prove yourself or do you feel satisfied with where you're at right now?
I never feel satisfied for too long. I'm very proud of this film but I'm a very restless person, creatively. I have plenty more challenges, but at least with this film there's a level of recognition, which is really useful.
Text Tish Weinstock