Before Room director Lenny Abrahamson got his hands on a copy of Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Little Stranger. He hadn’t planned on adapting a book, but he hadn’t planned on being so taken with the story. This was in 2009.
Fast forward to 2018 and, Abrahamson’s followup to Room, The Little Stranger, has arrived. Set in post-War Warwickshire, the NHS is being implemented, Britain’s class structure is crumbling. Doctor Faraday is the young country doctor called to Hundreds Hall to confront reports of insidious forces. I caught up with the director to talk about bringing The Little Stranger to the big screen, finding the perfect location, and casting Domnhall Gleeson as the mysterious doctor.
How did you first come across the story of The Little Stranger?
The quick history was that Lee Magiday is one of the producers on The Favourite and she sent me the manuscript and said to read it and I did. It was just before the book came out and she had an advanced copy. I had done Adam and Paul and had never thought about an adaptation, but I read this book and was totally captivated by it.
Once or twice I’ve had experiences where I’ve read books and thought, “Oh my God” and by then it’s settled with me, but with this, by a few pages in, I thought, “God almighty, it’s so fascinating.”
I read it. The way Sarah has you feeling for the Faraday character despite his damage and how damaging he is, I just couldn’t shake it.
I wanted to do it from then, but it’s a tall order to get the rights from a very well-regarded author. The rights eventually went to Gail Egan and Andrea Calderwood and by a lovely set of machinations and good fortune, I got to chat with them a few years later after I’d made What Richard Did. They didn’t have a director so I said I was really passionate about it. I met Lucinda Coxon and read her draft and really felt that she was superb. I was really happy to join at that point. A little later, Ed got involved so, in the end, we all did it together and it was a very happy experience.
And this was all before Room happened?
It was. When I had finished Frank we were getting somewhere with The Little Stranger, but Room happened and just took over everything. I did it and we had to publicize it, but this has been in my head for ten years.
The book is a thick novel, told from Faraday’s point of view. What’s the biggest challenge in taking that on and relaying that first-person point of view on screen?
I worked really closed with Lucinda on that. We talked through it many times. It is Faraday’s story, and it was that question of how we give him dimension and make him shadowy and create that distance while having him be the protagonist.
There’s no one answer to how we do it. It’s constant attention to his state and it’s also about solving lots of problems about how you get information to your audience about things. In the novel, a lot of things happen without Faraday’s presence and it’s recounted to him and he recounts it to us and by the time he’s telling it to us we’ve forgotten that he wasn’t there and we’re just experiencing it as he describes it and that obviously has to be reconfigured in the screenplay. It’s about choosing what the essential truths of the book are and finding ways of embedding them in a different storytelling language and it’s a fascinating process.
Having done Room which is another first-person narration, I was able to bring some of that. This is a very complex book and it was a real challenge.
The house is quite a presence in the film, it’s a character in itself. How did you find the perfect Hundreds Hall?
It’s this clash of different demands. You want to find the perfect house aesthetically and then you want it to be shootable in. So many houses in the UK are being sold and converted into golf courses or hotels and some of the grand houses won’t let you touch walls or furniture so that really narrowed it down.
We found this house on the outskirts of London and then we found almost its doppelganger up in Yorkshire and on beautiful grounds. So the 1919 house was the Yorkshire house and we used that for exteriors. Then the 1948/49 house was outside London. We needed a place that had scale and that wasn’t stately homelike. We didn’t want a Gothic and immediately looking spooky mansion. We wanted a house which we could learn later to view with a little bit more question. We didn’t want the cliche of the Gothic gargoyles, we wanted it to be different to that.
That was the decision we made across the whole film which was to no do things that you would expect if this were a straightforward ghost story or horror. I tried to stay close to a truer more grounded take.
How much did you go into what they are, a product of what was happening in British society and to ensure that message was relayed?
It’s very hard to know how that will play in different places. To a British audience, absolutely everyone knows where he’s from and what that means. The whole story pivots on that sense of exclusion that he feels from the class that he both admires and resents. That’s the work you have to do there to understand the class system. It may be the case for some audiences in the USA that it’s a bit harder to grasp because it’s not something they grow up understanding, but it’s so much of how the story functions that I hope the film itself establishes enough about that class system and what it meant to allow the audience to see what’s animating Faraday’s mood.
Domnhall is superb as Faraday. Let’s talk about your casting for a moment and how you found your perfect Faraday.
It’s an interesting one because I sent the script to him with the view of him playing a different part. Initially, Faraday was older in our heads because he’s older in the novel. Caroline is late 20’s and he’s in his early 40’s. I think that worked in the novel and it works for the period where being in your late 20’s could be thought of as on the shelf. It doesn’t read so much now. In a way by making her elder and he a little bit younger we maroon both of them in a bit of no man’s land of life.
When I send it to Domnhall, I was still thinking about an older Faraday, but he came back to me and said he’d do any part he wanted me to have him play but he would like me to think of him as Faraday. It was amazing and I’ve never had it happen to me before. I’ve never had anyone come to me and say, “I know I can do this.” I know Domnhall very well and as soon as he said it, we started to talk about it and eventually it became really exciting.
Once we decided that. Ruth, I adore. She’s a brilliantly intelligent actress and also she just has an incredibly charismatic presence on screen and she fits a character like Caroline Ayres. Charlotte is a dream. Will I love. Young Liv Hill is amazing. She’s only 17 years old. What’s very important to me is that they’re a real company of actors and they were very much in the trenches with us. They were really committed to the project. It was a really exciting creative process.
You talk about the ending. The image is a strong one.
Myself and Lucinda went through a lot of different configurations as to how the film would end. It’s a film that stands on its ending. All the things that happened before is working to those final images. Every image at the end of the film works, it’s all very integral as you come to the end. We made a decision toward the end of the edit of moving that shot to be the last shot. It was written to happen a bit before the sequence.
The idea of having Young Faraday in grief his older self felt like a really powerful thing to do. That idea of what’s left in the house and what animates the house and what has been animating the house was in some way towards an answer without ever wanting to be didactic. It is a final image. That whole ending and that idea that if you carry this twist that Faraday carries within him, the resentment, the self-hatred, the unresolved and guilt and all the things he carries. If you carry that and don’t deal with them, you may end up with seeming to have what you want but it will be empty. That’s what those images are, he gets what he wants, but it’s nothing and it’s empty, it’s just dust and he’s still there looking at himself in the mirror.