Irish director Lenny Abrahamson had a conviction that Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel Room would make for an equally beautiful, poignant film, and that conviction has been supported with the critical adoration and commercial success following the film’s release. Says Lenny, “I was just moved by the book in the way I hope that the film moves people. Film brings its own powerful mechanisms of expression to bear on the same story.” Room tells the story of a young woman, known to the viewer only as Ma, who is abducted as a youth and bears a child of rape in the shed in which she is kept away from the world. It’s the child, Jack, who will save Ma’s life. At last night’s Awardsline screening of Room, director Lenny Abrahamson and producer Ed Guiney sat down with Deadline’s Dominic Patten to discuss the process of making the film.
The first of many interesting things to note about Room is that, somewhat unusually, the script was written by the book’s author, Emma Donoghue. “When we first read that screenplay,” says Guiney,” Lenny was convinced that there was a real screenwriter there, which is unusual because a lot of novelists, once they’ve written the book, don’t necessarily want to go back into it again. But also she’s very cinema literate, Emma.” Asked if there were any points of difference taken between the author and Abrahamson, Lenny quipped, “She made a lot of salads when we were working together. I prefer a more substantial lunch,” to big laughs from the house.
The second major challenge was finding the right cast. As far as Brie Larson, who portrays Ma, Abrahamson was intent on having an actress of the same age as Ma to play the role, and both Guiney and Abrahamson were transfixed by Larson’s work in Destin Daniel Cretton’s indie Short Term 12. The challenge, then, was to find the boy—Jack. “We scoured the land, basically,” says Guiney—indeed, the pair worked with casting directors in both the US and Canada to find a young actor who could command both his lines and the screen. When Lenny first saw a video audition from young Jacob Tremblay, his concern that the boy was actually too “clean” in his delivery of lines. These fears quickly faded away, though, as Abrahamson was able to remove the coached or affected nature of his performance. “I think what we have on screen is a very unmannered and very, very truthful performance, and that’s always what I wanted to get to, but when I met him and started to work with him, it was really clear to me that this quite well-practiced actor boy that I saw on the screen actually was a real actor,” says Abrahamson. Jacob was seven when he auditioned and turned eight while filming—“It was not far from the cake scene—just in case you’re worried, he had a proper cake with actual candles,” as opposed to Jake’s character in the film, who has a very sad birthday experience.
To get Jacob to the place he needed to be, Abrahamson used various simple techniques and tricks—getting him to drop the lines completely and just sit still, for example, or getting him to say the lines so that they were as small as he could make them, but still retain the same meaning. Speaking to Lenny’s methodology, Guiney said, “Lenny’s great skill is that he can work with actors in such a way that he creates real characters, so the membrane between the characters and the audience is almost nonexistent. You feel like you have a direct relationship with real human beings, rather than people on the screen.” Lenny and Ed cultivated a family atmosphere on set in which Brie and Jacob would be free to do their best work, but as Lenny emphasized, there is no trick to directing—the performances you see have to do with the actors, but also with a situation that is engineered to allow for performers to flourish. ‘”There’s no magic—it’s not like you’re going to go, ‘By sheer force of will, I will make the chemistry appear,’” says Abrahamson. ”There’s got to be something that’s actually there in the room, literally and metaphorically.”
Given the months and months of screenings and promotional events, you might me surprised to hear the number of times the director has seen his movie screened in front of an audience—only once, at it’s Telluride premiere. Having said that, Abrahamson is ready to go back and take another look. He compared his film is a good friend you take for granted—“You forget how moving your friend is, and how powerful your friend is, because you just got used to them.”
As for Jacob Tremblay, he’s seen the film as well. Asked what he thought, he said, very thoughtfully, “It’s not as good as Avengers, but it’s pretty good.”