Saturday 24 February 2018

Gnawing self-doubt drives my life's work - Room director Lenny Abrahamson

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson talks to Niamh Horan about the years of disillusionment before his success

Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

He is the toast of Hollywood after a coveted nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards, but in a revealing interview with the Sunday Independent, Lenny Abrahamson has spoken about the bad times; when he was broke, the phone never rang and he became wracked with self-doubt.

In an inspirational tale to up-and-coming Irish film-makers, the Room director opened up about years of disillusionment before his success.

"It was when I had just returned to Ireland from the States after studying something very different, and I decided I was going to become a film-maker," he said.

"What followed was a period of about four or five years where absolutely nothing happened. And for the entire time I was sitting in a flat, trying to write and getting more and more disillusioned. I began to believe that it was never ever going to happen.

"I can just remember being broke, wondering if I had any talent - really wondering whether this was all a fantasy - but I had to get out there and keep trying. It's a lot easier for people now to go out and make films digitally for much less money, with equipment that's available, but when I was doing it, you know, when nobody cared about you, nobody was interested and you never really demonstrated the capacity to do it - you're wondering whether this was just an absolute [waste of time]."

But he says demons are part of the trade: "I think self-doubt goes with the territory. Every time you start again, you have got to start a whole new process of imagining and pulling together this unlikely thing which involves so many moving parts, and there are always many more ways to get it wrong than to get it right. So unless you worry at it - unless you have that gnawing uncertainty there - that's what drives the good work.

"I don't know any creative person who doesn't suffer from it or who doesn't question themselves, and the ones who don't are less interesting to me."

Describing the turning point, he says: "It was really the arrival of the film board again, [President] Michael D [Higgins] reinstating it, and a decision of my own to just get out and start making things, but before that there was definitely a moment of dejection."

Since then, his career has gone from strength to strength with What Richard Did making waves on home soil, while more recently, Frank and Room receiving international acclaim.

Room is about a mother (Brie Larson, who has received a Best Actress nomination) and her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who live in captivity in a locked room. Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue has written the screenplay, adapting it from her own 2010 novel.

Speaking about the madness of film-making, he says it is "all consuming".

"I live it and think about it all the time. It's a real challenge to run the rest of your life, never mind two kids - and that has taught me that I really do have to disengage a little bit; but yeah, you think about it all the time, you lie awake thinking about it at night, you wake up thinking about it in the morning because you are involved in every single aspect of the creation of the film, and that's a responsibility - that so many people are putting a huge amount of their lives into it, it ultimately rests with you."

Abrahamson also hit out at the gender pay gap while at the launch of Irish Film Board's 2016 programme. "I think this is a global problem and I think it's great that it is being discussed properly now, because there is no good reason why there isn't the same number of female film-makers as there are male, and there is absolutely no good reason for the pay gap," he said.

"I know that - as in every other industry - there is still a major issue with gender pay [in film] and I think there's no excuse for it anymore. It's such a huge historical problem, but I think it's something in this industry we are only starting to discuss properly."

Meanwhile, apart from the four nods for Room, Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan and based on a book by Irish writer Colm Toibin, took three nomination. Stutterer by Irish director Benjamin Cleary was nominated for best live action short and Kerryman Michael Fassbender is up for best actor for his performance in the title role in Steve Jobs.

Abrahamson said it was a "huge testament to the Irish Film Board" whose budget last year was only €11m.

"If the Government had the vision to increase it, we could have absolutely world-class film and animation," he said.

Room movie review: 'Lenny's masterpiece will stay with you for days...' 

Sunday Independent

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