Irish-born editor Nathan Nugent always is up for a challenge. He’s collaborated with director Lenny Abrahamson on his last three features, including the heavily dramatic What Richard Did, the tonally complex Michael Fassbender-vehicle Frank, and now Room, which presented the most logistically challenging edit to date. In the film, Brie Larson portrays a young woman who was kidnapped and held captive in a garden shed by a predator for seven years. The first half of the film depicts the mythical world she has created for the 5-year-old son she bore in captivity—he’s portrayed by Jacob Tremblay—and the second half their astonishing escape and aftermath. For Nugent, the work was to keep the momentum of the propulsive first act going, and to keep viewers from experiencing too much “visual lethargy” during the film’s first half, which all takes place within the 10-by-10-foot shed. Here, Nugent discusses his collaborative relationship with Abrahamson, the challenge in finding the Room‘s midpoint, and what he’s editing next.
Room marks your third collaboration with director Lenny Abrahamson. But what attracted you to this project?
My wife had actually read the book several years ago and had said to me, ‘This is an amazing book. You gotta read it.” And I did, and I was blown away by it. So whilst myself and Lenny were working on Frank he said, “I’ve been talking to the author of Room and things are going well.” And then finally the project was moving forward. I never presumed that Lenny would want to keep working with the same editor for three movies in a row, so I clearly made it known that I would really love to work on this project, and the conversation just moved forward from there. Between finishing the movie Frank and principal photography on Room, that was really quite a short period, so we just kind of ran into it. It was just a case of carrying on what we did before. Obviously, the previous two movies I did with Lenny were so different compared to this, but that’s what’s exciting about working with him is that he’s open to new challenges all the time, and, really, you just gotta keep up and stay on that journey with him.
How has your collaboration with Abrahamson evolved over the course of three films?
It’s evolved in that, as I’ve said, I’ve tried to always keep up with his ambitions and his sense, as a filmmaker, of always taking on challenging stories and just trying to keep up with that, and also trying to add something to the conversation where I can. He’s always open to taking on new ideas, but ultimately the final judgment will be his. But Lenny’s a filmmaker who responds to just seeing things quickly—seeing versions of scenes early, and then seeing alternative versions and trying out new things. All the way through the edit, we’d always just try to be ruthless, be cruel to the film, take a different direction and see what happens there. He just wants to see ideas, and that goes with all departments. He’s a deeply intelligent, philosophical filmmaker, so you learn so much from him as a human being and as a creator.
With this project it’s almost as if you had to stitch two different films together down the middle. What was that challenge like?
It’s an interesting one. That juncture happens pretty much in the same place in the script, so we didn’t change that too much. Similarly, going all the way back to the book, it happens in pretty much the same place, but you’re always open to changing things once you’ve shot a movie because you just don’t know; things could play differently. Particularly once you film a story, it just changes. Things that are more delicately described on the page, you can get that in two seconds of the scene. So I was open to that middle point changing. It could happen three-quarters of the way into the movie, it could happen a third of the way into the movie. Lenny always had a gut feeling that it was going to land where it landed, and a big thing for us was to keep momentum in the first half—not get in the way of where the story was obviously going. And then in the second half, it was about letting the tone change. With most movies there’s always a different requirement that the last third, in particular, needs to accelerate. You need to make greater narrative jumps. What’s different about this movie is, it slows down and the emotional investment in the second half relies as much on the tension and closeness that you feel to these people in the first half. We took a lot out of the second half, actually, but still we’re cognizant of the fact that things are going to be difficult for these two people, and you have to embrace that. Sometimes that’s not about cramming it with more story—it’s just about being observational. I think we landed on the right length of the movie.
What were the set of tools and techniques you used to keep the film so propulsive throughout that first half?
Really simple ones, honestly. Essentially, being protective of what were great performances, not trying to be overly gimmicky, not trying to get in the way of those things. So, where tension exists in the first half, it comes from you feeling for these people, not actually being pushed into a moment of tension through cutting it in a certain way. There were tiny moments where we accentuated the tension. For example, how Old Nick comes into the room—the first time, you hear that rather than see that. You often imagine worse than what you can see sometimes by hearing things. So (I employed) little techniques like that, but again, I really can’t stress enough that it was about keeping the emotional engagement and keeping the relationship real between these people. If you care enough for them you’re going to care what happens to them, and the smallest sense of danger helps build tension. So going back to your question, there were small things, but the key thing was keeping (the characters) real, and keeping the story moving forward and trying not to get in the way of that.
Were you on set during the filming of Room?
Yes. We shot in a soundstage and we had a temporary edit suite literally just above it. Lenny likes to react quickly to things, so as quickly as possible I’d do a rough version of scenes that he had shot either that morning or the day before, and I’d come down stairs and quietly just stick a USB into his Mac as he was off directing scenes. They might do a reset and then he’d have 20 minutes to come down and watch stuff. It was instant response. It was good for him to know and feel that, and it also helped with how he was blocking the next scene. It stops people from falling into the trap, particularly in a tight space, of blocking a scene in the same way. So it was useful for him to see that early on.
What was your technical set-up while editing?
It was pretty simple—it was myself and an assistant, Jennifer McCann, in two separate rooms just working off Avid Media Composer. We had a small storage rate between us, sharing footage back and forth, and she was kind of assisting me and also doing dailies and uploads. It was really scaled-back and simple because we were set up in a temporary environment, rather than a big post-production facility. Once the movie was shot in Toronto we went back to Dublin and cut the movie there for five months, and that was a slightly bigger deal. We brought a sound team on very early—one that Lenny’s worked with quite a number of times before—and that was really good because, aside from working on temp mixes with us, we got really valuable input from them from a sound design perspective, which all fed into the final mix. So the process felt very collaborative, very involved and kind of parallel in a good way, which doesn’t always happen on an (independent) movie. Quite often you’ve gotta lock (the film) and then hand it off to a sound team and they work on it. But this felt very complete, and we managed it quite well, I think.
Was it as challenging working with the footage of the first half of the film, in that confined space, as it would have been for the production designer and cinematographer to work in that space on set?
Interestingly, Lenny has this phrase about the set—he said it’s the biggest set he’s ever worked on because there actually were different worlds within that set. Once that was visually being represented, you might as well have been in different locations. Quite early on, as an editor, I was able to just go along with what they were doing and not feel like we were seeing the same shot from before. Details from the background gain a kind of visual complexity that you wouldn’t normally have if you’re changing location all the time. Your brain begins to map this space and all the little details the way Jack (Tremblay) does in the film and turns into characters. So you don’t know that’s going on because you’re more interested in what’s in the foreground. In a strange way, once you edit a strong story, and once you add real characters, all that background and all that sense of space was kind of a nice canvas but not really that relevant. The key was always moving forward and always feeling for these people. I was always conscious, in case we were going to have a visual lethargy, like, “Oh God, I’m back in this corner of the room,” and so on. But (the challenge) never really raised its head. That’s one thing I hope that registers for the viewer: “Over 50 minutes, I was never outside this room.” It was one of the things I wondered about early on. We can never cut to outside to show a passage of time or change tone or do any of those things.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a film called Tomato Red, which is based on a book by Daniel Woodrell. It’s quite a small piece—a chamber piece of a movie—basically centered around three characters and the experiences they go through. So we’re currently looking at locking that in the next month or so. It’s all quite exciting.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Room, click the link below: