Room has been winning over audiences ever since it screened at the Toronto Film Festival. The film was recently included as one of the AFI Films of the Year. Director Lenny Abrahamson is in LA for a whirlwind visit, to attend a dinner in his honor and a Q&A at the Landmark before he heads back to Ireland.
I managed to sit down with Lenny before dinner to talk to him about how he brought Room to life.
AD: The book was big, then I read the movie was going to be made, and it went quiet. The film was shown in Telluride and then Toronto it went boom. How did that feel?
LA: Those things feel unreal while they’re happening. Telluride was great. There was a real rumble about it, but there was no huge moment. But in Toronto, the morning of the first screening, I stood outside thinking I was going out and do the usual chat afterwards where they introduce the cast, but I heard this huge ovation, a huge roar and I looked around thinking, “Are people really responding like that?”
I walked out and everyone stood up, and there was this immense sense of emotional release, both in the audience, but really for me. You imagine that response to a film, and then to have that happening. It’s like a double image, you’re running the fantasy and the reality at the same time.
AD: I like that. So, I haven’t been able to get down to the installation at The Landmark, and I will, and I apologize. How did you work with Emma to make Room a real place?
LA: When you read a book as well written as Emma’s, you think the whole world is there, but when you actually start to build a place, you realize actually the world is always infinitely more complex than anything you can describe. Film allows the whole world in, you take the lens cap off metaphorically speaking, and the whole world floods in.
Emma describes so much about the room in the novel, but there’s still so much that was under-determined, and so we talked things through in the most amazing detail. A lot of that happened when we worked with Ethan Tobman and Danny Cohen [production designer and cinematographer on Room, respectively] and in that part of the process.
Even in the screenplay you don’t have to describe it, it’s only when you start building it that you think, “What’s that corner actually like? What’s that made of? What color is that?” You have to get an entire history of that place, what he knew, when he opens the door, just how wide is that gap? What’s the exterior structure like? Those are things that you don’t have to deal with as a writer because film is all about everything overwhelms and in literature you can describe the specific thing you want and not describe anything around it. Film doesn’t let you do that. A lot of the real detailed work, and all those decisions we made about layout and function and materials happened after working on the script in the intensive conversations and tests I did with Danny Cohen and Ethan Toban [cinematographer and designer].
AD: OK, I’m going to ask you a question you’ve been asked a million times, but how did you find Jacob?
LA: What you’re told when you set out to cast a small kid is your instinct is, I don’t want to progress one step setting the film up until I know I have this kid. I don’t even want to think about doing it until I have him. But, if you only start setting up after you have the kid, by the time you get to make the film, the kid is a year older and will have changed hugely so it’s not going to work. What you do is you set a date for making the film, you cast the adult roles, and do all the other stuff that you do and then you give yourself four to five months to find your child. That’s really scary because you have a start date, and the central characters have been cast, and it’s a tall order to find somebody to play Jack, and if you can’t, then there’s no film. It has to be somebody who is an absolute sweet spot in terms of how old that kid is, if they seem so young, there’s no way they would be capable of doing things that the character needs to do to make the story work. If they’re a little bit older, there’s no way they wouldn’t have questions with what the mother’s been telling them.
So, you have to find a boy that fits that perfectly. It is such a specific stage of development that Jack has to fit. Too young and you won’t believe he can do the things the story needs him to do; too old and he would already have seen through his mother’s myth about the nature of Room.
We did this huge search across the US and Canada, we had casting people all over the place who held auditions, anybody who’d done any drama was reached out to, and eventually all these tapes came in. I looked at hundreds and hundreds of tapes because I’d start to panic because Jacob’s the only one who could really do it. There were a couple of other boys that were interesting but Jake was the only one who had that unique combination of talent and the right look that made it possible.
Jacob is robust enough, he knows what acting is. He happens to be a good actor, and he has a good temperament. I feel like the greatest piece of luck in making the film was finding him.
AD: How did you direct him in those screaming scenes?
LA: There are a few scenes where he has to lose his temper with his mom. There’s the cake moment – He wants real candles on his birthday cake, and the one where he’s screaming, “I don’t want your stinky world.”
AD: That one because that was terrific.
LA: That moment was light on set. For Jake to get angry, it made him feel awkward and like he was being rude to Brie. I remember early on when he said he wanted real candles and was supposed to really shout at her the way small kids do when they get frustrated. Well, he didn’t want to shout because he said it was rude to shout. So, what we did was get the whole crew shouting, we turned it into a joke, a game and he loved that. The other line when he says, “I don’t believe in your stinky world”, on that specific line, I kept telling him he could do better than that, he’d do the line and I’d call it back to him, daring him to be more furious and more intense and he would do it back to me. That way you could work him to a point where he could feel really defiant and angry.
It’s so hard the making of that film, I forget about it, and then I go back to the hard labor. Jake is a brilliant actor, but he doesn’t understand the overarching story, nor can he, the themes are too huge.
What you’re finding it’s about finding these moments that are shaking, shaping and building them up to shape the whole arc of the performance, it was such an intense experience with a little boy to go through that. He’s a genius, gifted actor in miniature therefore when you get there it’s so worth it.
AD: The chemistry he has with Brie is perfect. It was nice. She’s not a mother which just made it even more incredible to see that bond.
LA: It’s funny because off-screen they were like brother and sister.
AD: I was going to ask what was it like off-screen once the camera stopped rolling.
LA: They loved each other. We got them together for several weeks before we shot and that was a clever thing we did. It was a good move because it gave them time. We didn’t crowd the day with work, we just got them to hang out together, be around the set, be around the art department so they could do craft stuff which we used on the set, and just get to know each other. It didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to guess that he was going to be mad about her because she’s lovely.
She’s funny, warm, beautiful and a little boy is going to love her. Also he’s this beautiful kid and she’s an open, warm person who loves kids. You put, sun, earth and seeds together and something’s going to grow, so it’s about creating an environment where they felt safe and comfortable.
We also built room in advance so they could rehearse in it. It was finished weeks before we started filming, again that was a smart move because Jake got used to the place.
What was important was that they really like each other.
Any intense feeling between two people, whatever the fundamental substance of that seems to me to be the same across lots of different relationships, like friendship, love and parental love are all different inflections of whatever flows between two people.
Given that Jake and Brie are mad about each other, she got such fun from him, and he loved hanging out with her, it was easy inflecting this love towards the parent-child variety in the drama.
AD: It seemed very natural and real, and it did seem like they were having fun too.
LA: Well, all those games they played was all them, it was improv. Jake got really good at improv. That scene when he’s on the bed with the car attacking him, that was him goofing around and us encouraging him to go further. It amazes me that he could do that. It shouldn’t because we’re used to young talent appearing early. There are musical prodigies and Jake is that sort of prodigy.
AD: I’m sure you had many challenges when you made the film. But you have such tight shots in Room, then you go outside and something that had me on the edge of my seat, your shot changes.
LA: One thing we did that was smart, I didn’t think I was going to exaggerate the scale. I kept the lenses with a standard lens set. What interested me was that people adjust to the scale of room, so when you walk out into an ordinary back yard it feels amazing. That’s great because that’s the point of the novel. If I was also cheating, and it was an ordinary back yard shot specially to feel huge, then I haven’t succeeded. One of the strongest things in the film is when you go back to room in the end, it feels really small and it was important to me that that was a true reflection of the journey that the audience has been on. In other words, they have lived in room for half of the movie, and it was filled their universe for fifty minutes, and when they walk back in at the end of the second half, you think how could that have happened in this shitty little shed.
In the same way you go back to your primary school or house that you grew up in, you think this can’t be the same place. Were I to cheat it and make the room feel smaller by actually making it smaller, then there’s no truth to that. What’s powerful is that the audience perceives exactly the same space suddenly to be small. That was the way we approached all of those transitions.
We did some very subtle stuff with Jack’s point of view when he gets out. We have this disorienting sense of the world when he’s in the car, but it’s very subtle. The film tries to be as honest as it can be, and let the meaning come from something other than trickery.
AD: One more and then I’ll let you schmooze. You’ve worked with Nathan, your editor, three times already, talk to me about how that relationship has evolved.
LA: He’s brilliant. He’s a dream editor, because he’s a director also. I worked with him on What Richard Did and I loved the experience. He’s incredibly committed. He’d come in after a weekend and have recut the film in two different ways while his kids were asleep. He’s very intelligent and very assured. I’m very lucky. I have Ed Guiney the producer who I have worked with on everything, and Stephen Rennicks [Composer] who I’ve also worked with on everything, and I’ve got Nathan. I’m very lucky!