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Friday 13 December 2019

Closing the circle: Filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson retraces his roots

Filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson's visit to the Warsaw Festival saw his past meet his future. Not only was it a chance to retrace his Polish grandparents' footsteps, it is where he met his partner, Monika, writes Hilary A White

Lenny Abrahamson
Lenny Abrahamson
Director Lenny Abrahamson and actors Domhnall Gleeson and Michael Fassbender attend the 'Frank' screening during the Sundance London Film

Hilary A White

THE story goes like this: in the mid-1950s, a horse belonging to my grandfather, Henry, was purging its bowels severely and suffering drastic weight loss as a result. When usual avenues failed, one Lenny Abrahamson, a professor at the Royal College of Surgeons, was called out to advise on a course of medication. The beast returned to health and a friendship was born.

Not long afterwards, Henry received a horse from Lenny for training that would go on to race in the Grand National at Aintree under Vincent O'Brien.

His grandson is also Lenny Abrahamson, and today, in a Merrion Hotel suite, he is amazed to hear about this. "No way!" he marvels. "That's amazing. He's a sort of legend, my grandfather, he was this big personality around Dublin. That's so funny."

He's being sincere. As one of the most celebrated filmmakers this country has ever produced, stories and how they are told is what this latter-day Lenny Abrahamson applies the surgeon's forceps to.

Between 2004 and 2012, the South Dubliner released three films that are now regarded as the definitive cinematic treatments of Celtic Tiger Ireland – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.

Each took an established caricature of modern Ireland and forced a rethink. In Adam & Paul, it was the tragi-comic city centre junkie duo. Garage resounded with the ache of an Irish midlands bypassed by the boom. An archetypal South County Dublin private-school Adonis is severely tested in What Richard Did. All were met with critical acclaim and festival plaudits at home and abroad, while Irish audiences responded to being shown our own social innards, for better or worse.

Beyond these shores, Abrahamson's strike rate was placing him among Europe's most regarded contemporary filmmakers.

I meet him on the campaign trail for the brilliant Frank, a dotty cartwheel of a thing starring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson. Gone is the "super-rational" philosophy graduate who bemusingly dropped out of a PHD in Stanford University to begin a film career – in Dublin.

For starters, the Lenny Abrahamson of 2014 now has Max (aged six) and Nell (three) at home in Rathmines to factor in alongside 16-hour days on set and long weeks in the editing suite. Backing for his projects may be easier to find but time is not, as partner Monika reminded him.

"I was a bachelor for a long time," he says, "and I got into all these really lazy habits work-wise. I'd just work as long as I wanted into the night. There was no structure. But she really pushed me to be tough about how I work. I'm nowhere near as self-indulgent as I used to be – I work better and more efficiently since we've been together. And it hasn't dulled my fire for filmmaking at all. In fact, it's made me less willing to waste my time on anything I don't totally want to do."

Said bachelordom came to a halt in 2005 during an excursion to the Warsaw Festival with Adam & Paul. There, he met the statuesque Monika, a film-studies academic who loved his feature debut and duly sought him out. "I owe a lot to that film, not just in terms of kicking off my career," he smiles.

Nine years later, he now speaks Polish "very badly" unlike his two bilingual children and visits the country often. While not a believer in fate, Abrahamson regards that chance festival encounter as an "amazing closing of the circle" for the simple reason that both his grandparents were Polish immigrants to Ireland.

"I'd heard all these stories about Poland from my grandfather, a lot of them not very positive, obviously, given what happened there. He got out just in time.

"Then I went to Poland for the Warsaw Film Festival and it was quite an intense experience. I didn't think it would be, but it did feel quite emotional to go back to this place I'd heard so much about. And then I ended up meeting the person I have kids with now, there. It's a really incredible shape to things to have this connection to that country again."

Interested, gracious and witty, time in Abrahamson's company whizzes by. He pours out measured and configured views and ideas like a well-mannered but excitable undergrad in the kitchen at a house party. Arms fly and eyes widen behind thick-frame specs as he breezes over his love of vaudeville or about the "temperature" of his films (Frank is "warmer" than the previous three, he declares).

Before we part company, he will cackle out an anecdote about a strongly feminist girl in one of his philosophy lectures being informed that Hilary Putnam was, in fact, a man.

He seems to have dodged the film-director's burden of taking himself far too seriously. It wasn't always so and what he calls an "intense phase" followed his happy-go-lucky mid-teen years, where chasing sister Emily's pals in Alexandra College was all that mattered.

He graduated with flying colours from Trinity and set off for Stanford, only to realise immediately that he would not be able to see out the five-year programme in California.

"I knew on the first day that I wasn't going to stay," he begins. "Then you go through that process where you come to terms with it. I think it's very easy looking back to put a coherent narrative on your decisions and the one I've peddled, aspects of which are true, was that I was not happy over there. I felt lonely. I was homesick."

He lasted less than a year in Stanford before succumbing to a "niggling" urge to make films. "Making that big decision and stopping that journey was scary in a good way because it made me realise there's no guarantee of anything," he continues.

"And then the years back here in which I did very little were quite formative and important because I just thought about stuff a lot. I wrote and I worked my way back towards being solid enough to say 'right, I'm going to take on a film now and I'm actually going to make it', because it is quite demanding.

"It's taken me a long time to know really what I want to do and also to be strong enough not to care whether that's to everybody's taste or not."

A privileged Jewish upbringing in Rathfarnham as the son of a lawyer had not, he insists, ill-equipped him to survive far from home, nor had the insulations of academia ("I'm not an academic type in term of personality. I had my share of madness as a teenager").

Scholarships and support from his parents had always been his only income until he cut his filmmaking teeth shooting TV adverts. What he readily admits to though was a propensity for "misery and laziness" in those days, lounging in an armchair for hours and changing the channel with a bamboo cane.

And he can still, he admits, "get quite down" and recalls finding January's trip to Sundance Film Festival "kind of tough" despite Frank going down a storm. It was the first public screening of the film and expectation was high that a US distribution would be secured. Abrahamson was "a bit miserable", complaining about this and that. But the difference between now and those limbo years is Monika.

"She let me have about a day or so of being a diva," he says, "and then gave me an enormous kick up the arse of the perfect kind at exactly the right moment.

"I really do need that and I'm very aware of it. I can think negatively on my own time but she won't allow me to indulge that negative thinking with her. She sees what I'm doing in a really positive way. It's kind of nice to have that reinforced."

  • Frank is in cinemas nationwide

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