'All the way through, it felt like a balancing act' - Lenny Abrahamson and Domhnall Gleeson reveal challenges of filming The Little Stranger
Lenny Abrahamson's last film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture. Domhnall Gleeson is one of the most sought-after actors of the moment, and has worked with everyone from the Coen brothers and Alejandro G Inarritu to Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise.
These two powerhouses of Irish cinema first worked together on Abrahamson's delightful 2014 black comedy Frank, but their latest collaboration is even more remarkable, a gothic chiller that's bursting at the seams with atmosphere, and menace. Based on a novel by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger is set in the dreary gloom of postwar Britain and stars Gleeson as Faraday, a prim country doctor who's called to Hundreds Hall, a grand but crumbling 18th-century mansion, to tend to a sick maid.
The maid complains of ghostly occurrences but Faraday dismisses these superstitions. As doctor is leaving, he makes the acquaintance of Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson), the handsome and capable daughter of the house's formidable matriarch, Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). When the young doctor tends to the recurring war injuries of Caroline's morose brother Roddy (Will Poulter), he becomes a favourite of the household, and he and Caroline grow closer. But what they don't realise is that he's obsessed with Hundreds Hall, and has been there before.
"I loved the Sarah Waters novel," Abrahamson tells me, "and went after it from the moment I read it. It predates Frank and Room as something I really wanted to do."
For all Faraday's scepticism, Hundreds Hall may actually be haunted: old servants' bells chime out in the kitchens though no living soul appears to be ringing them; scrawled childish drawings materialise on the walls which may relate to a long dead sibling. And though the engine of Abrahamson's drama is Faraday's insecurity and obsession with status and class, these elements had to be carefully combined with a delicate supernatural sub-plot.
"All the way through it felt like a balancing act," Lenny explains, "from working with Lucinda Coxon on the screenplay, and then shooting it, and then in the edit as well, we were constantly making small adjustments. We just had to be really careful about the development of Faraday's character, and how the film reveals itself. It's tricky, but the novel's the same."
Gleeson's Faraday is a fascinating character, a fastidious, tightly wound young man who's ashamed of his humble roots, alert to every potential social slight, yearns to belong to the upper class that will never entirely accept him, and is haunted by a childhood misdemeanour he has blown out of all proportion. Was he hard to get a handle on?
"He was sort of running away from you all the time," Domhnall says. "The way he was brought up, the family and the society he was raised in taught him to see the upper echelons as the best you can be. So he has this strange hankering to be part of the Ayres family.
"He's got a lot to look after in terms of keeping himself contained I think, a lot of suppressed anger and self-loathing and shame, but over the years he's got quite good at it. He can be almost charming at times, for instance with Caroline, and when he starts to kind of fall for her there's this kind of love story there. But there's more to it than that: he sees her as a way in to this supposedly wonderful life, and she sees him as a way out of it. That relationship with Caroline I found just fascinating, and Ruth is brilliant. With Faraday, I always hoped for the best for him, and yet worried what would happen if he ever got what he wanted."
Gleeson's portrayal of this chilly, obsessive, thwarted man is exceptional, full of nuance and detail that obviously came from lots of work on his accent, personality, bearing.
"You want to push at the boundaries, and Lenny was great in terms of that: we would try scenes where he was far more open, more conversational and at ease, and then we would try the exact same scene and play him where he really wasn't able to contain it anymore and was much closer to the edge. That was the joy of making the film for me, to be able to try all those different things within a character who seems quite limited in terms of his ability to be expressive."
"With both Ruth's and Domhnall's characters," Abrahamson adds, "it was interesting to never let them completely settle. It's a glib thing to say, but life is like that, one does not know oneself, and you don't always know what people are going to do next."
"That's so true," agrees Gleeson. "I read an actor recently saying that he just got rid of the words 'my character wouldn't do that' from his vocabulary, because you've done things yourself which you cannot believe you've done. People are not predictable: characters should be the same."
In the film's most fascinating scene, Faraday hovers anxiously on the edges of a drinks party at Hundreds Hall, yearning to be accepted by the snobbish guests but reeling from every icy slight.
"That was the most challenging part of the shoot for me," says Abrahamson, "it took a while to get right, and there were so many lines of interest in it. I could have got lost in that scene forever, there are so many interesting things happening."
As in Waters' book, the house itself seems almost a character in its own right, an oppressive place of cobwebbed nooks and jaded grandeur that resonates with inexplicable noises and, like Faraday, never seems quite at rest.
"We used a place called Langleybury," Abrahamson tells me, "it's from the period and it had been a school for a while and now it's about to become a hotel. It's near Watford, and the house is as it seems from the outside, and we filmed inside it thanks to a brilliant design job by Simon Elliott. But it is odd that when you walk out of the house, there's tarmac and an old 1970s school building nearby, so we had to be very careful in terms of how we shot it. But I sort of feel like we lived in it as it is in the film."
That finished film is a delicate and subtle slow thriller through which supernatural undercurrents dart. But in America at least, it's been marketed as an out-and-out horror.
"It's difficult," Abrahamson admits, "but I'm long enough doing this not to turn over the tables, you know, because I get it, I get what the distributors have at stake. I'm lucky enough in that I have final cut, I get to make the film I want to make. But of course when it goes out into the world, you lose that: you can't control how they present it."
The huge success of Room played a big part in cementing that creative autonomy.
"I think the way to approach that whole Oscars thing is to think of it as useful and not to think of it too much apart from that. It was an experience, it was a very long year of things which I'm glad I experienced. I think it would be tough to do that every year, but it's been very handy: you don't have to introduce yourself in the film community any more, that's the most useful part of it. Getting things off the ground is much easier."
"You can pitch a project," Gleeson adds, "instead of pitching yourself." Not that he has to do much pitching these days either.