'I felt like I'd entered an alien world' - 'Room' author Emma Donoghue
'Room' author Emma Donoghue tells how she survived the transition from novelist to screenwriter
Published 22/01/2016 | 02:30
It used to be a maxim in the film business that the only novelists who were shown any respect were the dead ones. But these days authors from JK Rowling to EL James are calling the shots. The latest to have a book filmed on her own terms is Emma Donoghue, whose 2010 novel Room was both a critical success (it was shortlisted for the Booker) and an international bestseller.
Room is told from the perspective of Jack, a five-year-old boy who lives in a single room with his mother. As the story unfolds, it gradually transpires that Jack and Ma are imprisoned in a shed and that Jack's father is their captor, a man known as "Old Nick" who kidnapped Ma off the street seven years previously. Before Donoghue had even finished the book her agent was convinced that it would arouse the interest of filmmakers.
Seizing the initiative, the novelist barely drew breath after completing the manuscript before starting work on her own screenplay.
"I didn't know much about the film world, but I did know that there's a historic suspicion of the novelist doing her own adaptation," Donoghue tells me. "It's always assumed we'll be [adopts Gollum voice] clutching our precious, and not letting it be altered...
"I had heard that quite often film companies will hire the novelist for the first draft only, just to soothe her ego, and I wasn't looking for that. So I thought the most obvious way to proceed seemed to be to write the thing."
It may have been a bold step for a writer with no screenplays to her name, but Donoghue's confidence has been amply justified: the film has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director for Abrahamson and Best Actress for Brie Larson at this year's Oscars, and Donoghue has received more than a dozen award nominations, including a Bafta nod for best adapted screenplay.
The performances of rising star Brie Larson as Ma and the angel-faced Jacob Tremblay as Jack have been praised not only for their ability to show characters living in extremis, but also for their capturing of the fraught, yet affectionate, nature of a normal mother-child relationship: the bargaining and blackmail; the judicious deployment of hugs to head off a tantrum about eating vegetables; the requirement to respond to bizarre questions and endlessly repeated observations.
This is a film about being held prisoner by a psychopath, yet everybody will be able to relate to it, and fans of Donoghue's novel will be familiar with the homely tone.
Donoghue, 46, was born in Dublin and speaks in a blithe sing-song accent that seems to constantly affirm what a wonderful place the world is, even when our conversation visits some very dark places.
She has lived in Canada for almost 20 years with her partner Christine, a Canadian academic, and their son and daughter.
Their children were conceived using sperm from an anonymous donor, something Donoghue wrote about in a touching essay last year: "Whenever [the kids] get praised for beauty or brains, they say, 'That's probably from the donor,' and cackle as I mime a stab wound to the heart".
Today she is speaking to me down the line from France, where the family is living for a year.
Although Donoghue researched the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter prisoner for 24 years, it was really the mundane joys and tribulations of parenthood that inspired the novel.
"I know it seems odd that I would deliberately choose such a weird, once-in-a-generation situation as a way of writing about the normal," she says. "But my kids were already four and one, and it just hadn't occurred to me to write anything about parenthood because every plot to do with having a child seemed so banal.
"But then with the Fritzl case, I suddenly saw a way to shine a weird light on the parent and the child by literally isolating them."
The book drew so heavily on Donoghue's relationship with her own son that she had to spend time separating fact from fiction in her mind.
"I have a copy with yellow highlighter all over it, because I realised that any time you write fiction that draws on your own life, you end up remembering it the way it is in the book, so I marked up a copy. And I was startled to see how much of my son there was in there, lots of our conversations."
Donoghue says that she was careful not to rush into accepting offers for the film rights. "I had a lot of nibbles: first dates, not offers of marriage," she says, "but nibbles usually come from studios and producers, and in this case I felt I absolutely had to know who the director was going to be."
Then, out of the blue, she received a letter asking for permission to make the film from Lenny Abrahamson.
"The first half of the letter was a kind of brilliant book review; he was picking up the Plato references, he got everything. He was the ideal reader. But then also he was hugely confident about how it could work as cinema. And he wasn't using any of those phrases that make a writer worried, like, 'let's take your story and move it to a new level...'."
She trusted Abrahamson to junk parts of her script when he thought it necessary; one scene between Ma and Jack was "gutted" of dialogue, she says, but "when I watched that scene I thought, who needs words? And it takes a lot to make a writer think that."
Filming took place in Toronto, two hours' drive from Donoghue's home in London, Ontario, so she was able to visit the set a couple of times every week.
"That was just the most fascinating experience. It's an alien world, it's like being dropped into the middle of a medieval monastery. You're trying to figure out all the different jobs and different spaces."
More than 70 removable panels were built into the interior set for the shed, allowing cameras to poke into what appears to be a claustrophobically small space.
"I thought Ethan Tobman, our wonderful designer, would get more award nominations, but I think because it's a small and shabby-looking set people don't realise how much thought and design went into it.
"But it's probably the most worked-on-per-square-centimetre set ever, because he tried to make it a kind of palimpsest of their seven years there.
"He made it more rubbed away and worn down where Jack would have been clutching at the walls as a toddler, he constructed the model for how the sunlight would wear away some bits more than others. They went well beyond what's in the book."
The biggest problem they faced, she says, was finding an actor to play Jack.
"Lenny never asked me to dumb it down or make it easier for a child actor, he just kept saying: 'the kid is out there somewhere'."
Jacob Tremblay, who turned eight during filming, proved to be an inspired choice, although he couldn't be confirmed in the role until just before shooting began in case of a growth spurt.
"Teeth are the problem. We had a running joke about how we'd have to get the pliers out if he showed any sign of a big tooth."
Donoghue observed the labour that went into creating the remarkably convincing mother-son relationship we see on screen.
"The filmmakers very sensibly gave Brie and Jacob a good two or three weeks on the completed set to play with each other and to bond before shooting began," she says.
"If you skimp on that stuff, I think the child would have been too shy."
It's no secret that, before the film is half over, Jack and Ma escape their captor. But freedom proves elusive: the media pack descends, eager for Ma to sell her story.
"This was pre-Obamacare," says Donoghue, "and I wanted Ma to be under pressure to pay her medical bills. America has a sense of itself as the country where everybody wants to end up. I thought it would be wonderfully ironic if Ma and Jack found life on the outside extremely non-idyllic."
Donoghue is sad that writers, particularly women, rarely gain the level of influence she has achieved on this film.
"It's not really helpful advice to any woman who wants to give it a go, to say, 'first write a bestselling novel'," she says.
She is proud that she was "assertive enough to grab this amazing opportunity when it fell into my lap", but agrees that chance has played a big role.
"I can't believe the luck I've had with this book from the start. Considering it's such a dark subject, it's brought nothing but happiness to me," she says merrily.
"It makes me feel a bit guilty, as if I should have suffered for it." © The Daily Telegraph
'Room' is out now