Lenny Abrahamson: ‘It’s a way of talking about childhood and parenting’

As his film Room is released, the Irish director talks about wise children, fear of failure and his love of Laurel and Hardy

Lenny Abrahamson is the Dublin-born director of films including Adam & Paul, What Richard Did, Garage and Frank. His new film, Room, is an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel about a woman and her young son kept prisoner in a single room.

The premise of Room would seem to promise an extremely austere film. Yours manages to be rather uplifting yet altogether unsentimental.
That goes to the heart of what made me want to do it. In the novel, Emma uses this situation to talk about a range of other things. It’s a way of talking about childhood and parenting, ultimately.

The most conventional romantic trope of all is that you put lovers under extreme pressure, where they have to make decisions that illuminate aspects of that bond. Room does the same, but with the parent-child relationship. It becomes rich territory for discussions of what it is to grow up.

The story goes that you read the novel and then wrote a 10-page letter to Emma Donoghue saying you wanted to film it.
I think it was five pages, but in America, double spacing is considered standard – so let’s say a 10-page letter.

And you filled it with philosophical references, including Plato’s cave.
I threw the kitchen sink into that letter. My state of mind in writing it was that I’d probably never get to make the film but that I’d make the letter as compelling as I possibly could, so that when I went to see the movie that some other director had made, I could say: “Well, I tried.” My background is in philosophy – I thought it would tickle Emma if I could unearth the references that she had so delicately put into the book.

How did you go about creating the on-screen bond between Brie Larson (who plays the mother) and Jacob Tremblay (who plays her son Jack)?
Nothing more profound than putting them together in the same place for quite a while. Brie’s very warm and Jake’s a lovely boy. They both knew that this would be an important relationship, so they were minded to become friends and they genuinely did.

How did you avoid traumatising an eight-year-old actor in a story like this? And Brie, for that matter – it can’t have been a picnic for her either.
Jake was boundlessly and consistently happy throughout the whole shoot – he’s very energetic and enthusiastic. That really helped Brie – Jake would never allow her to be gloomy. When a take was over, he’d want to know why she was still crying, if it was a very emotional one. I’d call “cut” and he was straight into wanting to play with her. That was one way that Brie was kept sane. With Jake, it was remarkably simple. It’s something I’ve noticed with my two children – children frequently know and don’t know at the same time. They are aware of aspects of the world that are a little bit shadowy and they choose not to engage with them.

Jake and I just did some interviews where people said:“Tell us the story.” And he said: “Well, I live in this room with my mum and we’re kept there by this nasty man.” We just told the story like that to him – it’s like any number of fairytales, where someone locks somebody up for the purposes of ownership.

Your first few films were set in Ireland. Room is set in the US and your next projects are international. Are people saying: “Oh, he’s a transatlantic director now”?
Once or twice I’ve seen people write: “Ah you see, once they get a few quid, they’re off.” That’s not how it feels to me. There are a couple of projects I really want to make – one is with Mark O’Halloran, who wrote Adam & Paul and Garage. It’s very much about Ireland and it’s set in the 1980s. 

As soon as you make some films that people like, you’ll be sent material and that can come from anywhere. Post-Room, it’s pretty strange to be in a situation where I’m getting to read pretty much everything I want to that’s out there. I don’t think location is the defining characteristic of my work.

What are the films that first got you into cinema?
It was BBC2 in the early 80s, when they broadcast European cinema late at night. I used to watch Bergman and Antonioni and all of the canon and I found them overwhelming, sometimes in a way I couldn’t understand. It was the first time I detected in cinema the same kind of intellectual range and power and textural richness that I had in literature. But there are also some American influences – Jim Jarmusch’s early films. Aged 17, watching Stranger Than Paradise, watching long scenes of almost nothing being said, and realising that it’s compelling… and Laurel and Hardy. My first properly aesthetic experience of film was watching Way Out West when I was a child.

What is your next project? You seem to be in a position where you’re juggling several possible plates.
Yeah – it’s not to be complained about, unless you wanted a well-deserved clip on the ear. There are a few film projects that I’m interested in. One is another novel adaptation – Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, which is a poltergeist story set in the late 40s. Another is about Emile Griffith, a black boxer in the late 50s, early 60s – he became the welterweight world champion but was living this extraordinary double life between the ring and the underground gay scene around Times Square. Then there’s an American civil war story, NeverhomeLucy Kirkwood the playwright is adapting it. It’s about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Union army.

As a director, you tend to work with other people’s scripts, rather than writing your own.
You can throw away your script more easily than you can throw away your film. When you sign up to direct something, if it says: “The first day of principal photography is 6 June”, then come 6 June you will be there, whatever you feel. I’m pretty good at beating myself up. Coming close to making a film, I usually go through a phase where I think: “This is going to be a disaster, it’s going to be career-ending”, but I can’t get out of it, so I do it. With writing, it’s been too easy for me to just park it. I really have to get on top of that.

Room is released 15 January


Jonathan Romney

The GuardianTramp

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