By Andy Hoglund
On a quiet morning inside the lower level of The Eliot Hotel, a boutique and luxury hotel in Boston, I met with Room writer/author/executive producer Emma Donoghue. The night before, I attended a screening of the film at the iconic Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, where Donoghue participated in a Q&A. Room begins as a terrifying portrait of mundane horror: life confined to a single 11×11 room. Midway, however, the film shifts, morphing from ruminating on unspeakable evil to a rich, almost playful humanism. It’s often funny, and worthy of the buzz coming out of Toronto. A few spoilers beware, but generally the conversation focuses on Donoghue’s broader influences, and her feelings on the often soul crushing awards race.
Emma Donoghue: I like your old fashioned notebook.
Andy Hoglund: Yeah, I have a whole bunch of these; been doing this since college.
Donoghue: You kept them all?
Hoglund: Yeah, I can go back to 2006 and see what I was scribbling about then.
Donoghue: Film critics keep telling me they make notes in the dark so afterwards they can be like, “what is that?” The notetaking seems to help them remember.
Hoglund: For sure, it’s all phrase-based. I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me this morning. I really enjoyed the film yesterday –
Donoghue: -thank you.
Hoglund: Your thoughts during the Q&A informed a few of the questions I have. Films depicting an average American family in the aftermath of trauma aren’t exactly a cottage industry in Hollywood – they aren’t Marvel – so in terms of crafting and writing the scenes in the second half of the film, were you influenced at all by something like Alvin Sargent’s adaptation of Ordinary People?
Donoghue: That’s the one about the psychiatrist, yeah?
Hoglund: Well, Timothy Hutton is Conrad, a 16-year-old—
Donoghue: –he’s troubled. His brother died…
Hoglund: There’s a sailing accident.
Donoghue: Yes! I saw that when I was a kid. So I wasn’t consciously thinking of it, but yes – that’s one of the more memorable films about a family in crisis that I ever saw.
Hoglund: Having been to film school, Alvin Sargent is well-regarded, so I was wondering when you spoke yesterday about how you approached writing the adaptation, you mentioned looking at a few script how-to books. Were there any scripts you looked at?
Donoghue: You know, there was probably some good TV has influenced me as much as film. Because when you’re talking about small scale family dynamics, memorable families that spring to mind would include The Sopranos-
Donoghue: -And all those little nitty gritty interactions between husband and wife like in Breaking Bad, that sort of thing. But yes, Ordinary People I certainly saw when I was very young, so it probably soaked in. I sometimes think anything you see before the age of 20 has more of an impact of anything you see after, so I try to expose my kids to a lot.
Hoglund: Exactly, an influence in the back of your mind. So speaking of modern TV, in terms of story and tone, I wanted your thoughts on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Donoghue: I love it! I came across while I was still working on the film and it was just bound to my soul. Because of course in Room, we take the storyline so seriously, it’s so refreshing to look at it from a darkly comic angle. Actually they get a lot of serious stuff into that show, they sprinkle it in carefully…
Hoglund: Absolutely, my girlfriend is on her second viewing now. Speaking of her – nice little segue- I mentioned yesterday that she’s a criminologist. She wanted me to ask if you ever consulted with anyone in the criminal justice field when crafting the story or script.
Donoghue: I’m trying to remember when I was writing the book. I don’t tend to consult people directly. I prefer to do my research sort of at arm’s length, so I look at a lot of written sources. And I remember for instance there’s a scene in the book where they do a sexual assault collection kit. It’s horribly intrusive, of course, but they keep saying to her, “If we don’t have this evidence, we can’t get him.” Or things like having to test Jack’s DNA to make sure he really is the child… all these things that Ma would perceive as brutishly invasive or rude, they are necessary. In the film, I think – of course, the director and so on researched it all over again – one thing they found for instance was that Ma would have had to be under 18 when kidnapped in order to get the FBI involved. If she was over 18, it wouldn’t count the same way. So they shifted her age a little younger to 17. Interestingly, at one point in the script Lenny (Abrahamson, director) got me to put in quite a bit of the crime procedural stuff. I mean, it was never to show the court case, but it was quite a lot about plea bargain, would he make her testify, and how many years he got, and so on. And that really melted away. We really found that the narrower we got to crime procedural that the less we were holding to what’s original about this story. So eventually we reduced it to pretty much letting the audience know he’d been arrested but that’s it. Because he’s just not the point.
Hoglund: Yeah, that’s not the story. And I feel like if you include too much, it drifts into Dick Wolf territory. (laughs)
Donoghue: Yeah, and there’s so many good procedural shows on TV. There’s so many good treatments of the attempt to lock up a psychopath, I didn’t feel we didn’t need to work on any of that. For us, it was all about the private story.
Hoglund: Definitely. So following up on the TIFF Audience Award, Room is already generating Oscar buzz –
Donoghue: Can you believe it?!
Hoglund: I wanted your general thoughts on the prospect of receiving an Oscar nomination. I believe you would be the second female author nominated for adapting her own novel.
Donoghue: Who was the first?
Hoglund: I think it’s Fried Green Tomatoes.
Donoghue: Oh yeah! That’s a good story. Because Fannie Flagg (author), she wasn’t the original writer on that. Someone else wrote the script, and apparently it was not very good, so they brought her in an emergency rescue mission. (laughs) Yeah, it has not happened yet. But I will say all this speculation – although it seems to me not a very fruitful use of anyone’s time –it’s all really helping this movie. Because this movie could so easily have been seen as a very small movie. And because of its dark premise, it could so easily have been misunderstood or written off as creepy and depressing-
Donoghue: And so I’m so grateful to all the publicity for drawing attention to it, and the fact that it’s a really life affirming film. Because it’s funny: people are often able to handle really dark plots, but if it’s about a child they get particularly squeamish. So I think many people would be afraid of going to this film if they hadn’t heard good things about it. And just like when the book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, again even the talk about an Oscar, it sort of lifts a film to a level where people realize we aren’t talking about something trashy and exploitive.
Hoglund: Right, you made an excellent point yesterday in saying there’s a major tonal question: you push it in one direction, it’s overly sentimental. You push it another, it becomes pulpy and sex dungeon-y. (laughs)
Donoghue: Exactly, you have to carefully pick your way down the middle.
Hoglund: Last year, Gillian Flynn had a historic snub, despite all sorts of precursors, when she adapted Gone Girl. Is that something that’s on your mind now that you’ve “hit the junket” stage. It’s all politics…
Donoghue: What’s on my mind is my next book, possible next films. I’m always working on the next project. You know, on these tours, I used to try to do tourism on my book tours. I saw some nice galleries and so on. But I found that if I wasn’t writing as I went on the tour I began to feel increasingly unreal. Because I was doing all this talking about being a writer, but not actually doing it. So now anytime I have an hour off I’m running off to my room and working hard on the next thing.
Hoglund: So you’ve done some writing here in Boston?
Donoghue: Oh yeah, yeah. Definitely. I finished rewrites on a children’s novel that I’ve been working on. So it keeps you sane. Because otherwise your ego would just inflate in every interview then you come up to your room and think “I’m a loser” and deflate. So actually writing is the best way to stay sane through this process.
Donoghue: Because, I mean, the film has been such a success so far, you know, I don’t want to feel like a failure if it doesn’t get any Oscar nominations. It’s doing great. I refuse to invest too much of myself in these speculations.
Hoglund: Yeah, you only get hurt that way…
Hoglund: (laughs) And actually Boston is such a literary town–
Donoghue: Isn’t it?
Hoglund: –I feel like it would be wonderful to write here. And we’re about two blocks from the spot where Eugene O’Neill passed away. Little trivia!
Donoghue: Really, what did he die of?
Hoglund: Ah, alcoholism. (awkward chuckle)
Donoghue: You know, I was going to assume that just because of the characters in his plays. Then I thought, I write a lot of characters who aren’t like me so I shouldn’t assume… (laughs)
Hoglund: Right, there was a hotel on Bay State, Boston University’s campus, which is probably a five-minute walk. So a little bit of history.
Donoghue: Good to know!
Hoglund: So, I was just asking about the rat race. Do you feel doing the junket might pigeonhole you as a female writer? So instead of being a writer, it’s always qualified as you’re a “female writer” telling female stories about motherhood.
Donoghue: No, actually the questions haven’t been angled that way at all. Hasn’t happened.
Hoglund: Good. I saw Beasts of No Nation – have you watched on Netflix yet?
Donoghue: I haven’t yet had the courage. Child soldiers, that’s a particularly hard subject and, it’s funny, films in which bad things happen to kids are hard enough. But when kids are turned into people who have to do bad things, that’s even worse. So I haven’t seen it yet, but it sounds brilliant. How hard is it to watch on a scale of 1-10?
Hoglund: You know, it wasn’t my ideal Friday night, but it’s obviously very compelling filmmaking. What intrigues me, having gone to the screening last night, is how both films converge thematically. Both have a vantage point of a child while depicting vastly different worldviews. I was wondering if you could comment on the use of the child POV in demonstrating the “banality of evil.”
Donoghue: I think in both novels and films, a child’s point of view is extremely useful as a way to slightly blunt the initial force of the evil. But then there’s usually a moment of the story where the child becomes aware of what they weren’t previously. Then the evil almost hits you harder. I’m thinking of several works about the Holocaust like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by my fellow Irishman John Boyne, and Life is Beautiful… Ogre (Larry Tremblay)… All the Light We Cannot See, a lovely novel recently about teenagers in World War II. So sometimes it’s as if as adults, we need our senses refreshed, even our sense of evil. So telling Room through Jack makes it both more bearable initially, and makes us feel it all the way more in the end.
Hoglund: I thought it was interesting yesterday you spoke about the importance of humor in diffusing what Jack and Ma are experiencing, and audience members were actually laughing during the movie at some of the things Jack says. It hits right in the middle…
Donoghue: So at any one moment someone in the audience might be sobbing while someone else is lifted by the humor.
Hoglund: You could totally hear sniffling throughout the screening, but also quiet laughter…
Donoghue: You know, I showed it to my kids – who are 8 and 11 – but we skipped the scary scenes. Though the scary scenes are not necessarily the ones adults would find scary. They were able to watch the escape in the truck and the jumping off, but just didn’t want the scenes in which people argue. Anyway, they laughed their way through it! Whenever Jake said something in the voice of Jack, they laughed. They absolutely loved his child dialogue. So yeah, I really think the humor really is crucial. I think one of the most important things I was looking for in a director – which I found in Lenny – was taste frankly. The ability to walk down the middle, no really broad laughs. No heavy handed gloom. He always said it was not a question of trying to make the audience cry, but delaying the tears. Not going for all the obvious moments.
Hoglund: The reasons for the tears are so obvious, it creates tension with the audience by pushing it back. And shielding them as much as possible.
Donoghue: And I find kids inherently moody. Their mood flickers. You think you’re having a great day then suddenly they’re screaming at you and you’re like, where did that come from? And they make us moody too. So like when Jack is resisting Ma’s new story about how there’s a world out there and he shouts, “Room’s only stinky when you fart!” I think that’s a good example of humor in a moment when it’s a highly serious scene. But that’s how kids are.
— Two minute mark –
Hoglund: So I have two quick questions…
Hoglund: A24 is obviously an emerging player for these middle budget, prestige-y esque films. How did Room wind up there?
Donoghue: Well, one of the many things I hadn’t known about the film business was that distributors sometimes get involved early. So instead of some big studio buying us up, as it were, I was suddenly told, “the American distribution rights were being sold early at the script stage.” So effectively A24 are major investors in the film. And yet they were very hands off. Jesse from A24 said to me the other night, “we found if we get involved too early, and meddle with the script, we do nothing but harm. Our job is to invest money, stay out of the way.” Then they come in and have to do with making decisions when it’s at the marketing stage. But they don’t muscle in there, and use their powers. So we didn’t have to sell it to a big studio in the end at all. So it was really Irish government money, Canadian government money and some early investment from Film4 in Britain, and then A24. So I think that was an amazing way to put the film together. We never had to hand it to a big studio.
Hoglund: I think their track record ultimately speaks for itself. So left field question: I know you have some Ontario ties…
Donoghue: Yeah, I live in London, Ontario.
Hoglund: …Alice Munro, her collections.
Donoghue: I worship her.
Hoglund: Can you describe her influence on your writing, if any?
Donoghue: Any time I write a short story, I think, oh maybe that won’t quite fit in a short story. I then remember, Alice Munro’s short stories, which fit in as much as a novel. I find her stories so satisfying because they’re like miniature novels and they take on the whole story of a life. They don’t settle for just being a little fragment.
Hoglund: Great, thank you very much!
You can find Andy Hoglund at @hoglundan. He is a member of the Boston Online Film Critics Association.