“You can imagine the crass studio executive reaction to the pitch for Room: ‘Forget it,’ ” says director Lenny Abrahamson of his film that has commanded so much Oscar buzz since its September unveiling at the Telluride Film Festival.
Yes, Room is a hard sell when boiled down: A young woman is trapped in a garden shed for seven years by a sexual predator—along with the five year old son she bore from him in captivity. It’s the epitome of bleak and claustrophobic fare.
So how, then, does Room have moviegoers stumbling out of screenings in awe, reporting a powerful, uplifting emotional experience that lingers long after they’ve left the theater? Without giving too much away, there is a happy ending. And according to audiences and critics, Room is one of those films that does what art should: It changes you. “I saw grown agents crying,” Abrahamson says of early screenings. “Somebody said, ‘Have they not had their tear ducts surgically removed?’ No. If you, as a viewer, feel like you’re discovering it yourself, then it feels like a part of you, it’s personal. I think that’s why the film has so much power. Room also is about really fundamental things. It’s about love. It reminds you of your own childhood because it evokes the transition of that amazing state you’re in when you’re small, into this colder world we all live in as adults.”
The journey of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel from book to Oscar contender is a tale that is as much about the magic that happens between the right collection of people as it is about great storytelling.
Donoghue, for her part, made the decision to sit down and write the screenplay the moment she finished the book, tackling a subject matter that was far from easy film fodder.
“I was writing it for myself with nobody looking and the book hadn’t even been published,” she says. “That was an ideal way to begin. I borrowed 20 books on screenplay writing from my local university library, tried to absorb their insights and then plunged in. I thought, ‘There’s no point in making some company hire me to do the first draft if they really don’t want it.’ I will write it and then when I talk to filmmakers I can say, ‘Look, here it is. Do you like us? Shall we proceed?’ ”
In fact, once the book became a roaring success the novelist had many directors lining up to adapt it. Abrahamson won out when he wrote Donoghue a 10-page letter. “I think all directors should use this technique because, first of all, he showed how intelligent he was. He just completely understood the book.”
Once Abrahamson had convinced Donoghue he was determined to do the book justice, the task of finding funding loomed large. The director was anxious to not allow financiers to dilute the creative process.
“I didn’t have a profile in the States,” he says, “but I did already have a very strong working relationship with Film4, so that’s a great place to be; that’s a great place to say to a writer, ‘We will develop your film in a way that’s true to the essence of the novel. Then, when it’s ready, we’ll bring it to financiers and we’ll say, ‘Do you like this thing?’ We’re not going to invite anybody into the development process.”
“There weren’t lots of executives keeping me at arm’s length,” Donoghue says. “It was me and Lenny around a kitchen table. Lenny’s just not scared by the odd aspects of the project. I remember him saying to me, ‘You know, we can get a mainstream audience for this film, but only if we do it fearlessly.’ ”
“To be fair,” Abrahamson adds, “the people that we got onboard—Film Nation and A24—were people that absolutely loved the project. They didn’t want to change anything. Also, they weren’t pushing for big stars.”
Despite this freedom, casting the film did present its share of hurdles. The film’s main characters, Ma and her son Jack, would be tough to get right. Then Abrahamson thought of Brie Larson as a possibility for Ma.
“We were developing ideas about who we should approach, and then I saw Short Term 12,” Abrahamson says. “A really great actor has to have a heightened presence, that’s why they hold the screen. Brie has that star quality, but she’s able to fully integrate into the character, and I saw that in Short Term 12. There’s something incredibly vibrant and luminous about her, but she’s absolutely a real person in a real world.”
For Larson, the connection at her first meeting with Abrahamson was instant. “It was supposed to be a 30-minute coffee meeting,” she says. “It turned into a four-hour-long talk. We just immediately went so deep into our families. We were talking about mythology and our favorite films, about complication and contemporary society—all of these things that the allegory in this movie had a great opportunity to explore, and how much deeper we could explore it. I left that meeting feeling like it was in my marrow that I needed to do it. I felt comfortable that Lenny would come from a place of love and not from a place of torture and gratuitous drama.”
Casting a then-eight year old Jacob Tremblay, who previously was in Smurfs 2, was another triumph for Abrahamson. With the wrong boy, Room might have seemed cloying or forced.
“The whole awards thing is a fascinating thing,” Abrahamson says, “but it’s really hard for a little boy to get the sort of credit that he should get. Jacob is a brilliant actor and that’s a brilliant performance. To find a kid that age, who just about has enough stamina and confidence to be able to deal with a huge role like this—to find a boy a little bit older who still looks five—was just amazing.”
Larson’s artfully pared down performance is complemented by Tremblay’s inquisitive, energetic Jack. The boy is remarkable, acting three years younger than he was during filming, never with an obvious tug on the heartstrings. As Donoghue says, “Jacob was a revelation.”
Of playing a younger child, Tremblay, now nine, says: “I thought about when I was a little kid that was five. I’d jump on the couch and run laps. I just remembered jumping around and getting bruises by accident.”
The relationship between Ma and Jack is certainly the crux of the film. Larson and Tremblay initially had forged a bond through pizza and Lego. “We immediately clicked,” Larson says. “We love Star Wars and Ninja Turtles. I would go over to his apartment and we would sit and play Legos. Then we would build all the toys that you saw in Room. It’s a tough thing because we needed to connect, but you never want to put pressure (on someone), and a kid can smell it a mile away.”
Part of the movie’s power lies in the confinement of the main set, where the first half takes place. In the film, Jack personifies every object as if it were a friend; so the room is Room, a lamp is Lamp. Because the film was shot in a space as tiny as the story dictates—the set was close to the 10-feet by 10-feet space in the book—the audience effectively sees not only the protective fairytale world Ma carefully has curated for her son, but also the physical and emotional restraint she must employ. “It was life imitating art, being stuck in that small room,” Abrahamson says. “It’s as small as it’s supposed to be.”
For Larson, Ma’s confinement demanded physical preparation. “I spoke with doctors and nutritionists about lack of vitamin D,” she says. “I figured Ma was constantly running around with Jack in that space, so I put on 15 pounds of muscle. Then I stayed home for about a month and had to stay out of the sun.”
“There was a camaraderie that allowed us to make something that was kind of difficult to shoot,” Abrahamson says. “It also allowed us to go to really quite deep places, because everybody really trusted each other. Ultimately, with Brie and Jake and myself on the floor, we felt like it was sort of a family.”
However, working in intense confinement for so long had its effects. “When we got out it was exactly as it is in the film,” Abrahamson says. “Suddenly we’re on the outside and we felt like Jack, going, ‘You know what? Maybe we’d be better off if we were back inside.’ ”
William H. Macy, who plays Ma’s father, came to the set just as the shoot had left Room. “I walked on set telling jokes and whistling, and they had just been through a war,” he says. “I guess they shot four-and-a-half, five weeks in that room. The claustrophobia had almost overtaken them.”
Joan Allen, who portrays Ma’s mother, also started on the film after the Room scenes, but despite the toll the shoot had taken on the cast and crew, she knew they were all part of something otherworldly. “I had a very positive, hopeful feeling because I believed in the way that Lenny wanted to tell this story, and I believed in what Jake and Brie were doing. I was very hopeful that it would turn out to be a film of the kind of caliber that it is.”
To see a short featurette on the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room, click play below: