Based on the Booker-shortlisted bestseller by Emma Donoghue, Room is a tale of survival that is by turns harrowing, suspenseful and wondrous. It tells the story of a mother and child who escape the captivity in which they have been held for several years. Jason Wood, our Artistic Director of Film, speaks to director Lenny Abrahamson about the film.
Jason Wood: How did you discover Emma Donoghue’s novel and how immediately did it suggest itself as material to adapt for the screen?
Lenny Abrahamson: Ed Guiney from Element Pictures, the producer I work with on everything I do, suggested I read it. He’d seen stuff about it in the press; it was getting lots of attention and was on it’s way to becoming a bestseller in the States. I was just very moved by it, maybe because my son was close in age to the main character, Jack. And from very early on I began to get vivid images and a sense of a cinematic tone.
JW: Filming this must have presented challenges, given that events occur in a single room and from the point of view of five-year-old Jack. How did you tackle this?
LA: The scale of the room turned out to be a practical challenge but not an aesthetic one. Almost the full range of shot sizes was available, right up to full body and well beyond. The key was to see the scale not as a constraint but an opportunity to capture the richness of even the smallest, lived-in world. Point of view in film works differently to point of view in literature. There is always a narrator in literature and we are tied to their voice. Film allows for a subtle continuum. While we are grounded in Jack through small bits of voiceover and screen time, we are also able to drift into Ma’s world and glimpse things as they must seem to her.
JW: Casting young actors can be tricky, and it must have been doubly so here given the material. Was Jacob Tremblay [who plays Jack] discovered through a standard process? What convinced you that he could carry off the role?
LA: Yes, we did a standard casting trawl. He had acted before in commercials, and had a voice role in a kid’s film. He had also shot another film that hadn’t been finished at the time, so he identified as an actor. But he’d done nothing approaching a role as complex and central as Jack. Jacob was seven when we met, and he was just like any seven-year-old except with this massive talent, albeit unworked and undeveloped. What I saw immediately was that he could hold a shot. Doing very little with face at rest, there was something compelling that made you want to keep watching. He also has that capacity, which can’t be taught, of fully entering into what he’s pretending to do; his gestures and movements feel natural.
JW: Brie Larson is terrific, and her character Ma radiates protection and a fierce idealism. Were you a fan of her work previously?
LA: I first saw her in Short Term 12 and I thought she was remarkable. I was also impressed by her comedic work. I liked that she has a lightness of touch; it was important that Ma was never played as an opportunity for showy intensity. Brie is real and utterly believable in everything she does.
JW: There is a terrible moment in the film where the family is reunited and it becomes apparent that Jack simply does not exist to his grandfather Robert [played by William H. Macy]. How did you construct this scene?
LA: That sequence was very exciting to shoot. We had such great actors to work with and a very meaty and complex scene that was full of subtext. We did a lot of work on the script to find just the right balance. Then for the direction, it was the same as always: watch what’s happening with as much sensitivity as possible, and try to track the subtle shifts and movements with the camera.
JW: It’s interesting that the film managed to avoid comparisons to real-life cases after its festival screenings in Toronto and London. Were you keen for it to exist in its own right?
LA: Yes, Emma Donoghue ensured from the beginning that her novel would be completely fictional. The Fritzl case inspired the thought: what would it be like to raise a child in a single, small room. After that all the details were invented. Apart from reasons of taste, the important thing is that Room is not a film about a crime, or an expose of the dark secrets of those real cases, it’s about very universal aspects of childhood and parenting.
JW: You have now directed an impressive collection of films that are remarkably diverse. I can see a character-driven element in your work and an interest in people on the periphery of society. But to go from Frank to this is quite a leap. Is it important to keep the filmmaking process fresh?
LA: I’m fascinated with all the possibilities of filmmaking and so I find myself drawn into projects of all kinds. I think there are deep links between the films I’ve made, but I’d rather that other people discern what these are. I just want to go on exploring.
Room screens from Friday 15 January. You can find out more about the film and buy tickets here.