Wednesday 26 October 2016

Room to explore difficult issues for hotshot Lenny

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson talks about his latest film, Room, which has led to approaches from some of the biggest names in cinema.

Áine O'Connor

Published 04/01/2016 | 02:30

At the helm: Lenny Abrahamson's new movie explores difficult issues, yet still finds beauty there
At the helm: Lenny Abrahamson's new movie explores difficult issues, yet still finds beauty there

Lenny Abrahamson is modest about the fact that he has never made a bad film. "Well, I have nothing I'm trying to drag off my shoe," he says, "which is a really good feeling."

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He is warm, interested and interesting, and jokes that his next project might be the one that breaks the mould, but so far each of his five films, - Adam and Paul, Garage, What Richard Did, Frank and now Room - have been highly regarded. They have grown in scale and reach and Room, based on Emma Donoghue's best-selling novel, has surprised its director with the international interest it has received. Reviews are almost unanimously favourable, it has already won many awards and has been nominated for three Golden Globes - which is very often a precursor to an Oscar nod.

Each of Lenny Abrahamson's films have been very different, but the TCD philosophy graduate, who has no formal training in film-making, believes film has a way of distilling quiddity - the true nature of something -better than real life can on occasion. He explains that what he hopes to achieve is that an audience will have "a sense of having encountered something real in a way that allowed you to experience it deeply".

Room is the story of a young woman, Joy (played by Brie Larson), who was kidnapped at 17 and kept in a tiny room at the back of a suburban garden. Two years into her captivity she gave birth to a son, Jack (played by Jacob Tremblay), and it is through and for him that she has constructed a certain version of the world.

But escape is always on her mind. When Lenny read the novel he instantly wanted to make it as a film.

"I was blown away by the novel, it was so refreshing to see a situation like this, which would normally be mined for its shock or crime story value, but was instead used to tell a quite beautiful story about a parental love."

Donoghue herself had envisioned the story as a film and had already written a screenplay - her first. Their collaboration was an easy one, with Abrahamson saying: "She was the most open and generous collaborator to work with. She was in no way precious."

Together they fine-tuned the screenplay, and he adds: "I think we're very true to the inner core of the novel. Maybe one thing which the film does that the novel doesn't, is that the film is more of a two-hander - she is more present."

The film really does manage to capture the emotional depth and range, as well as giving a great sense of drama in the pivotal escape scene. Open in the US since October, the more vocal audiences there have been moved to shout out loud. One of the things it does particularly well is show a child dealing with a parent's mental illness.

"When Emma was writing the novel she began it seven years into this woman's captivity, so you're looking at a routine," Lenny explains.

"Her son is her function and, when he is safe in the second half, there is nothing for her to focus on. Kids have to deal with all sorts and the metaphor, if you state it baldly, is that childhood is this protected, mythologised small space and that adulthood is this coming into the presence of dark stuff. That's one of the things that happens, but actually all through childhood children deal with the shadows of those things."

It resonated particularly strongly because he had children of a similar age to the child in the story, and he recalls: "My boy was four when I read it, he was six and my daughter four when I shot it, so it was close to home. One of the things I thought about was how we attempt to create these bubbles around our children and part of the anxiety around parenthood is the knowledge that the bubbles are imperfect, that the child is experiencing and dealing with stuff you can't keep them from. Children are remarkably good at coping, I believe that, I believe it enough to have made the film, but still I look at my own children and I worry about things.

"You can't protect your children from everything and the fact that you can't is devastating. But you just have to have some faith in them."

Jacob Tremblay was seven when he was cast as Jack, and turns in an extraordinary performance. Although a natural-born actor, according to his director, he is, of course, still a child. Before shooting began, Jacob and his on-screen mother, Brie Larson, spent a lot of time together - some of it in the set constructed to be their room.

They struck up a great rapport - so much so that, in a scene where Jack has to shout at his mother, Jacob struggled.

The director explains: "This is a boy who does understand what acting is, but he was totally mad about Brie, and said 'I don't want to shout because shouting is rude and I like her'."

They got around it by organising a shouting competition where the whole crew had to shout in order to make it easier for the young actor.

"It was really interesting directing him. I've directed children, but never anybody this young and as a central character - and with a role like this, which is fully dramatic. I think we, and I mean 'we' as in me and Jake, we pushed to the limits what it's possible to do with a kid that age. I mean, trying to get my boy to put his pyjamas on at night can be a huge effort!"

The huge interest in the film is very welcome, although Abrahamson is very aware ahead of the film's opening here that a big buzz can set it up for failure. He was unprepared for how much promotional work would be involved - and balancing family life and work has proved more challenging than he expected.

"At the moment it's only barely working," he admits. "People said 'Are you going to move your family to LA?', and I said 'What are you talking about? Because I'm going to have to go away for a week here and there to do promotion?'. I had no idea. If I'm ever in a position to do it again we'll all go. When I shot Room [in Canada] they came with me. My partner isn't working, and part of the reason why she's not working is that there would be long periods of time where I would never see the kids if she wasn't free to move.

"I do loads when I'm here, but it has been tough - it's been tough for them because we didn't anticipate it and it's going to be another two months."

He stresses that he is not complaining and the benefits of the buzz have been huge. In Room he got to work with his favourite actress, Joan Allen, and he has his choice of actors now.

"It's lovely, and I kind of have to pinch myself because I've been in LA a lot promoting this. I've had actor meetings while I've been there - and quite often at the request of agents or actors, and they're amazing people.

"I've been in situations where I've been effectively pitched to, which is funny. It's great because I'm fascinated by actors and I'm really interested in acting, and so to be able to work with potentially who I want is very exciting. And that is the one thing that gives a director power."

He'll be 50 this year and, while he feels he took a while to get going, he has a clear vision going forward. His next project is about boxer Emile Griffith, ("1950s, '60s, race, sexuality, New York - a lot of good stuff!") and while he has written on every project, he plans to write more.

"I'm a weird mixture of things," he says. "I can be very confident and also very down on myself, but I think, ultimately, I have a pretty strong work ethic and survival instinct. I'm actually pretty tenacious. I like the challenge of film-making, the adventure of it and I like the madness of it. And I am simultaneously drawn to small, deep and difficult things, but also there's a bit of a showman in me that wants to do bigger stuff for more people - so if I can do both I think I'd find some sort of peace in the middle of that."

Room, he agrees, does both more than anything he has done so far.

Room opens January 16

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