The film Room has been lauded by critics and audiences alike, with viewers across the board marvelling in particular at the performances of Brie Larson and the then eight year-old Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack – a mother and son held captive in a garden shed. With a laundry list of noms for both actors and for screenwriter Emma Donoghue (also the author of the original novel), the film seems destined for some serious recognition. However, director Lenny Abrahamson has retained a somewhat self-deprecating profile, in interviews focusing mainly on the achievements of cast and crew. But if the saying goes, never work with children and animals, Abrahamson’s film doesn’t betray any difficulty of this type. “My boy was four when I read the book,” Abrahamson says, “so I could feel his presence in the character of Jack and felt just how well Emma (Donaghue) had captured what makes a small child such an extraordinary creature.” But what exactly does it take to coax a performance of this caliber out of very young child? Add to that working within the confines of a genuinely tiny room for weeks on end, and it seems that making this might have been very tough task indeed. Abrahamson explains how he pulled it off.
How much to you think fatherhood helped you to tackle this project, especially since the original novel was all in the voice of the boy?
It’s one of the reasons why I responded so strongly to the novel. Then in the doing of the film, I don’t think I could have worked with Jake to the level that I did if I hadn’t had experience as a parent, because some of it is management–management of the chaotic, energetic, distractible creature that is a small child, and a small boy particularly. Just getting to the point where you can start working the scene took an awful lot of becoming calm, and urging, and settling, and all the things that you need to do as a parent, that you learned to do as a parent. The whole of Room, much of it, is about parenting and a lot of the conversations that I had with Emma were about our experiences as parents. I was never kidnapped, but I was able to think about what Ma would experience. The deep, thematic stuff in the film, the underlying thematic territory, is parenthood and childhood, and the tensions and glories of that, and to have experienced that myself I think was pretty essential.
Obviously Jacob Tremblay doesn’t seem like an average child
In a really good way, he is your average kid. He’s still in that kind of half-magical, half-real world of a child, but the talent is there in the same way that a musical talent can be there from a very young age. But definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a director was to, with him, shape that performance. Because of course he can’t think globally across the whole film. He can think within the scene and within the moment, but as the director, you’ve got to really create the overall shape of the performance and you’ve got to do that from scene to scene.
When I interviewed Jacob Tremblay he said he knew the film was too grown-up for him to really understand–so how did you direct him?
Exactly. He’s just playing the moments, which is amazing. But it’s hard because–I don’t particularly want to blow my own trumpet on this–but if you were there on the day, you would see me kneeling down right beside the camera talking through the scene all the time, sometimes giving him a line reading, sometimes going down to individual phrases, having him say them back to me. I say it to him, you say them to me, I say them to him and then sometimes you would see him running a big chunk of a whole scene with beautiful poise. So sometimes it’s puppeteering, sometimes it’s the real deal, sometimes it’s just physical stuff, where I would count quietly in a soft voice–that seemed to kind of calm him and allow him the concentration. He wouldn’t blink so much and he would hold a look, that we would know would hold a meaning that we wanted within the scene. But Jake doesn’t know what that meaning is. So if he’s lying on his back looking at the ceiling during that sequence post his mother’s suicide attempt, he’s just lying on his back looking at the ceiling. But we’re bringing him to level where it’s calm, and it’s thoughtful, and he holds a look. He’s a real actor, it’s just that he was seven and eight when we did this. So for me, it was an intense workout as a director of actors, because you are, as much as you ever do as a director, shaping the entire performance. You can only do that if the material is there to do it and Jake that has that in spades, but you still are doing it, you’re still shaping it.
How was Brie Larson also instrumental in making it work with Tremblay?
She would help him to concentrate. If it was something I was trying to get him not to do and he was doing it and I was further away, she’d whisper it to him. She’d move his hand away from wherever it shouldn’t have been. She also had to be very generous because frequently I would choose really long takes with him, because if you cut, he thinks, “right. That’s a break,” so the concentration goes. So at times I would jump back on it almost to surprise him, if he got into a habit of delivering a line in a particular way or being a certain way, you could just jump to a different part of the scene to surprise him into a more natural read, but that meant Brie had to go there as well. It’s not like she can just wait until it’s her turn, she’s on. She has to move to different parts of the scene without the workup playing it in real time gives you. So you would play the scene, you’d get the shape of it, and then you’d do technical takes where you’re looking for specific lines from him, specific looks, a specific moment. Brie can instinctively discover the shapes and feelings of it, but then she just has to be a technical player, not just move to that line, to this line, to this moment, to that moment. That’s when we get all the best frames that are going to work. That was an incredible amount of work.
In the audition process, how did you know Tremblay was the right choice?
Well, there wasn’t a eureka kind of thing when I saw him first. I saw him on tape, and I thought he seemed really self possessed. He had done some commercials I think, and a voice part in a kid’s film and there was a little bit of that sort of acting there and so my first thought was, “wow, that kid’s kind of extraordinary, but is he kind of real? Will he hold the screen and will we believe him or will he be a very precocious child actor?” That’s the danger always when doing something this, but actually I suggested a few little exercises that they could do and then they came back, and that was much better and I thought, well, this is interesting because he can move, and he can change. They have to do a lot and go through these very strong emotional flips and changes, but Jake, he had the presence that he could learn his lines and he could take direction. Then I just got where I could take away all that maybe over-coached quality or that sweetness maybe, or what he thought he was supposed to be, which kids are taught, to be ultra-sweet, that’s what they’re praised for. But he got that really quickly and he dropped that really quickly and I just discovered this amazing boy, this really sweet kid who’s just very real. Also, when we worked together at audition day, just looking at the monitor, looking at his face on camera, you just think, you can watch this kid. You can really watch him. But then actually the full realization of how good he is didn’t come until we were really filming, and then when we were looking at rushes and looking at the connection with him and Brie.
The Room set was only about 10-foot square. When facing weeks of filming with a young boy in a confined space did you ever think, ‘what have I done?’
Yeah, I did. I thought that all the time. I thought it about when we started casting for Jack. I thought, “my god. We’re probably not going to find one. What are we going to do?” and then when I cast him, I thought, “oh my god. How are we going to get through these months of intense work with this little boy?” But I always have that feeling before any film, where you wonder, is it all this crazy illusion? Have you just kidded yourself and are you going to get this dreadful reality check first day of shooting? Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet, but I do remember standing in the set when it was more or less finished and thinking, what a bizarre film to be making, what an extraordinary and implausible film. How unlikely is this to work? It is so unlikely to work. I think what I’m proud of is that the acrobatics of the direction are invisible because it just feels like you’re there watching these people. That’s the thing that I feel good about.