Academy Screenings: Lenny Abrahamson on bringing Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ from page to screen
If You Go …
What: ‘Room’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Monday, Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $20 GA/$15 Aspen Film members/Free AMPAS, BAFTA, guild members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
“I’ve written a screenplay,” Donoghue told the Paepcke Auditorium crowd, “and they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
Lucky for Donoghue — and “Room” fans — she would soon receive a 10-page letter from filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, then a largely unknown Dublin-based filmmaker. Part fan mail and part movie pitch, it convinced Donoghue — a fellow native of Ireland — that she’d found a man with the vision to put her novel about a mother and son held in captivity on screen.
“With two art-house films behind me at that point, I just thought it would be really hard to get to make this film,” Abrahamson said in a recent phone interview. “In fact, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t get to make it. So I thought, ‘At least I’ll try.’”
He wrote directly to Donoghue in the hopes of displaying his understanding of the novel’s inner workings and how he could translate them onto the screen with a naturalistic approach.
“And I tried to spoil other people’s pitches,” he said. “I wrote about what other people would suggest and that I thought was wrong. For example, I was sure people would say, ‘We need to intercut the two halves of the story. You could never sustain a story for so long in such a small space.’”
Unlike other filmic suitors, Abrahamson trusted the structure of Donoghue’s story, keeping Ma and her son, Jack, in the confines of a shed for half of the film, where she’s been since her abduction as a teenager and where 5-year-old Jack has been since birth.
“My instincts about this adaptation chimed with Emma’s,” Abrahamson said. “She said she was affected by the thoughts I had and the confidence to overcome what others thought were insurmountable challenges.”
The book, narrated by Jack in first person, is very much about the boy’s consciousness and imagination. To many readers, it would not appear to be easily filmable. But Abrahamson saw it visually as he read — imagining Ma and Jack in close-ups.
“I had that confidence early on,” he said. “And anything I’ve done that’s worked out has had that immediate, instinctual sense of ownership somehow.”
Since he began collaborating with Donoghue on the adaptation, Abrahamson released the acclaimed “What Richard Did” and the art-house hit “Frank” (which featured Michael Fassbender wearing a large, foam head for most of the film as an eccentric bandleader).
His loyalty to Donoghue’s book, and her trust in his vision, made for a fruitful partnership.
“It was a rewarding collaboration,” he said. “She was never precious — of course, that’s what you’re always told: that (authors) won’t want changes, that they’ll be too precious.”
The film’s claustrophobic setting was filmed in an actual 11-by-11-foot room, close to the dimensions of the one in Donoghue’s book. Abrahamson, his set designer and his cinematographer, at first, assumed they’d need a larger room or an open-walled set.
“We thought, ‘OK, we’ll have to cheat,’” he said.
They started with a larger space and steadily brought in the walls, opening panels to allow for their lenses to stay within the titular room. They wanted to find a way to express Ma is and Jack’s dual experiences of the space: For her it’s a prison, but in Jack’s eyes it’s an expansive, complete world.
“The sense of confinement is so central to the story,” Abrahamson said. “If you lose that, in some kind of misguided effort to make things easier for yourself, then the whole power of the story will be lost.”
The film earned widespread praise on the festival circuit — including winning the audience award at the Aspen Filmfest — and has received several award nominations for Brie Larson’s performance as Ma and Jacob Tremblay’s as Jack, along with Abrahamson’s direction and Donoghue’s screenplay. In a year without many clear Oscar frontrunners, Larson appears assured a best-actress nomination and the film a best-picture nod.
Tremblay, now 9, gives a monumental performance for a child actor in “Room.”
“I felt like Tiger Woods’ first golf coach or something,” Abrahamson said of working with the young Canadian. “He was both learning to act and discovering this actor’s engine that was already there when he engaged it. … I don’t think we’d have a film without him, and I don’t think there’s another kid who could have done it.”
To build a maternal bond between his principal actors, Abrahamson got them together three weeks before he began filming, allowing them to hang out and form a relationship.
“Brie is a genuinely warm, loving person, so of course Jake totally fell in love with her,” he said. “And he’s this sweet, bright kid. So of course she fell in love with him. All we did was put them together.”
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