Lenny Abrahamson: RTE must nurture talent and stop producing 'mediocre' TV
The director hits out at the station's plodding drama and it's 'come to us' attitude towards bright talent
Are you Irish, Lenny, or are you Jewish? That was the question constantly put to Lenny Abrahamson as a young Jewish boy living in Dublin.
The parents of the award-winning director of Garage are originally from Poland. They moved to Ireland and Lenny was born in Dublin - but still his religion and his parents' nationality set him apart as "different" from friends and classmates.
"I remember people saying: 'That's an unusual name, where are you from?' I would say, 'Dublin', and they would say, 'Yeah, but where are you really from?'"
He said that although there was no bad intention in it, the comments stung. From the age of six, he was forced to defend his identity, while contending with his family's history at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Born 20 years after World War II, both his mother's family and his father's family were victims of the holocaust - missing, feared dead, or traced to where they met their tragic end in Nazi concentration camps.
The horror of what became of his ancestors shaped a philosophical curiosity that remains part of Lenny's driving force. "I have always been fascinated to learn about the things people are capable of doing to each other," he said.
"I see the wobble of the European Union and my first thought is not its economic impact on Ireland, but, 'How close will this push us towards another descent into barbarism?' There is a real intensity to those fears as they are things that have really happened to relatives that were not too distant from me."
It has led Lenny to abhor an "us" and "them" mentality. "I detest nationalism," he said. "I detest any kind of idea of cultural superiority. I detest exclusion and I think it all ultimately leads to the same place: the worst instincts in people given free reign. We are seeing it all over Europe at the moment."
A champion of the Educate Together school system, he believes the solution is to "inoculate people from those pathologies" in childhood through education.
His comments are timely, given that in recent days the Central Statistics Office reported a little under half a million people in Ireland identify themselves as having no religion.
Lenny believes that, through schools like those operating under the Educate Together umbrella, the next generation can be raised to be more inclusive and accepting of other people's religions, cultures and diversities. "People sometimes conflate morality and religion, which for me is strange," he said.
"Speaking to people about how you should treat others, what it means to be respectful, about the value of kindness, all of those things are things that can be taught to every child - regardless of whether they do or don't have a religious aspect to their own lives. That was my attraction to the school for my children.
"Educate Together is particularly strong on teaching kids to be comfortable with themselves and comfortable with other people and it's a very nurturing environment. It's really good on education but also in instilling kids with confidence and a sense of belonging."
A quiet, sensitive child who was cleverer than most of the other pupils in his class, Lenny tested his parents' patience by "chucking in" not one, but two degrees in which he was excelling. First a degree in physics at Trinity College Dublin, then a scholarship in philosophy at Stanford University, California.
He recalled their reaction when he told them he was moving into what was an even more obscure industry at the time - film. "If they worried, they never said," he remembered.
"They understood and I was very grateful. It's a lesson to me that you can't push your kids. You just have to let them discover what they are good at and what they want to do."
Still, they didn't need to pressure Lenny to succeed. He did that by himself. "In a way that's probably not healthy, I have a terror of failure," he said.
"It's been in me for as long as I can remember. I can't remember not feeling like that.
"I'm sure a lot of people will identify with this. I think I just always associated achievement with self-worth. It was my value."
Although over the years he has managed to free himself of the need to measure himself against his work, he admitted it is a mindset that is difficult to escape. He said: "The funny thing is I don't feel that way about other people, so I wonder why I am like that with myself - and the whole point about everything I make is to undermine that.
"I would focus on someone in a film who has nothing to mark them out as special but I always believe if you look hard enough you will find something really extraordinary in every person. And yet with myself I am more inclined to be hard and self-critical.
"I don't know any artist who isn't. I have never met a good artist or a good writer or a good director who is happy with themselves."
With a career that has gone from strength to strength - What Richard Did made waves on home soil and Frank and Oscar-nominated Room received international acclaim - he said: "It's easier for me to be easier on myself now I have that particular monkey off my back and I have had made a reasonable success out of things. It's less the driving force and it's more about the exploration of the subjects I am interested in."
He doesn't buy into the "American myth that you can do anything you want and it's entirely down to you and if you want it badly enough you can get it", as "you can do a lot and still not have it work out". And he said he has found some downsides to success.
Ironically, one of fame's dangers is something he would have killed for at the start of his career: other people more willing to buy into ideas. "Getting a film off the ground when nobody knows you, your idea will be put through the ringer to justify why somebody should give you the money at all," he admitted.
"[But] if you are lucky enough to have some success, [financiers] will think they are lucky to make a film with you and there is a danger they will make the film purely because they feel, 'Well, you must be right'." As a result, he is grateful he has kept a core team around him "who will resist my impulses".
Abrahamson added: "You look at people who have been really successful and they do quite often go off the rails psychologically. A big part of that is that nothing is in the way of their ego. The ego is like a gas - it expands to fill the space it is given. If you don't have someone pushing back against you then, unless you are extremely strong, you can go off the rails a bit."
Another destructive offshoot of success is that "it is very easy to like it so much - you shoot for it with everything you choose to do". He said: "Some projects naturally lead to that kind of attention but there are others, more personal, darker and difficult but which don't have that [instant success] and you have to be strong enough to say, 'Well, I am going to let that drug go for a while because I really need to do this', rather than saying, 'I just want to remain in that exciting space of awards'.
"You have to be prepared to be unpopular if you want to do good work."
Having been nominated for an Academy Awards for Best Director, among other international accolades, Abrahamson is now in the rare position that he can comfortably give an honest assessment of the Irish television industry. And he's a straight shooter.
"Even just given the resources that are there, to be perfectly frank I think we are making really, really, really mediocre TV at the moment," he claimed. "Not risk-taking, not developing young talent here - and it's a terrible waste.
"It's hard for younger directors to get started, so a lot of our really good people have gone away."
Asked if he despairs when he turns on his TV, he said: "Yeah, I know there is more talent here. I know that if there was more of a risk-taking attitude, if there was more of a conversation, even in a very simple way [it would be better]."
He explained he is not directing any TV series, aside from overseeing a project in the US, but added: "I would be asked all the time by the BBC or Channel 4 or other people to come in and have a chat. 'Come in and have a chat and tell us what you're interested in. Is there any idea that you have got or anything that we are thinking about that might interest you?'
"There is a cultivation of relationships with talent that absolutely does not happen here. At all."
He pinpointed the national broadcaster's "come to us" attitude, and said: "Because RTE for so long has been the only game in town, there is a strange perception within what is an extremely mediocre drama department that people need to knock on their door or that they're great, but actually that's not how it works anywhere.
"[All] talented and famous people try to go and find new ways of working with [others]. This is not a plea for work - I don't have the time nor am I going to be doing anything with TV for the foreseeable future, so that actually allows me to say this, but there is tremendous frustration."
Describing a needless lack of belief in our own talent, he added: "[There is] also a very, very questionable and very consistent denigration of local talent - particularly in terms of directors - in favour of mediocre people coming in from abroad.
"It's that kind of lack of confidence which always makes us think that if [someone is] from Britain or wherever, they must be better. The only place that seems to operate in any more as far as I can see is RTE. Certainly it doesn't operate in the film sector. The film board is much leaner and manages with a very small amount of money to produce a lot. I have stories that would honestly pin your eyelids back you would be so amazed. How people are treated, in terms of the lack of vision, in the dysfunctional mediocrity of it."
By RTE? "Yes, primarily yes. Everybody says it quietly but nobody is able to say it publicly. That's the biggest crisis now.
"It's difficult because they are all sensitive [situations] but [I am talking about] very, very senior people being pretty shoddily treated, people who, in the same situation with a UK broadcaster, would have been given the red-carpet treatment.
"And [also] then just personally looking at the level of work that's coming out. It's not good enough. And things can be made more cheaply, which are more energised, more relevant, more provocative, instead of just making what is plodding, mediocre TV.
"Honestly, I have no skin in the game with this at all but I can see it and its just depressing. It's so depressing."
As part of the Educate Together 120 fundraising drive, the NGO is looking for support for school funding which will enable children to be educated in an atmosphere of equality. See www.educatetogether.ie