As do most things in the movie business, it all started with a pitch. But for Lenny Abrahamson, landing his dream gig was going to take an extraordinary pitch — one that would blow the competition out of the water.
“When I read ‘Room,’ I absolutely loved it and I thought I knew how to make it,” said Abrahamson. “I thought, ‘I have to make it. Somebody else is going to make a mess of it.'” But if he wanted to adapt the New York Times-bestselling novel, he would have to beat out the rest of Hollywood first.
By industry standards, Abrahamson didn’t have much ammunition. Though he was well-regarded in art house circles — especially in his native Ireland — for his two previous films, “Adam & Paul” and “Garage,” he hadn’t made a commercial dent in the states. His only recourse, he thought, was to somehow convince author Emma Donoghue that his vision was superior and would capture the soul of her book.
“I wrote a letter to Emma, and the big thing I said was that there should be no visual tricks,” said Abrahamson. “Particularly no tricks that tried to replicate the magical way of thinking the boy had. That’s fine if you’re describing the internal voice of a child, but it distances you from the truthfulness of the situation if you make something fantastical or childlike on film.”
Abrahamson believes that each art form has its own strengths in expression. While novels have the ability to weave through time and space, films are portals into extraordinary human intimacy. “Film has a different facility than novels,” said Abrahamson. “I didn’t want to employ camera techniques that tried to mirror the novel, because that’s not what film is good at. ‘Room’ the novel has the boy’s voice, but we’ve got his face.”
“In the letter, I also did my best to spoil other people’s pitches,” said Abrahamson. He warned Donoghue that other directors would suggest radical changes to the story structure, such as attempting to intercut life in the room with life post-escape. “In fact, that was true,” laughed Abrahamson. “Other people were saying those things.”
Though Donoghue connected with Abrahamson’s vision, she was indeed busy fielding offers from A-list directors. A year passed. Abrahamson made another film, “What Richard Did,” that made headlines when it premiered at Toronto. Meanwhile, Donoghue was still unsatisfied with the pitches she was receiving. “She kept coming back to what I had written,” said Abrahamson. “And then I was about to make ‘Frank,’ which had some stars in it. I think people thought maybe this Irish director who sent that passionate letter is now in a position where he could really make the film.”
Donoghue met with Abrahamson, and the rest is history. “I think I demonstrated I really understood how her novel worked, and where I thought the difficulties would be in an adaptation and how I thought I could overcome them,” said Abrahamson. “My background is in philosophy and I can write and I can analyze, and Emma’s also a writer. Both of our instincts were not to do something [gimmicky], just to trust in the story.”
Abrahamson’s “Room” delivers on the heart and sensitivity promised in his pitch. The director embraces the physical restraints of the story — the first half takes place in a small garden shed — and elevates the film to a coming-of-age story of extreme proportions. But unlike most coming-of-age stories, the conflict isn’t in the child struggling to break free of the parent. Instead, the beating heart of “Room” is the inextinguishable bond between mother (Brie Larson) and son (Jacob Tremblay), a primal bond that transcends harrowing and unusual circumstances. It is through this bond that Abrahamson most deeply honors Donoghue’s source material. In line with his filmmaking philosophy, Abrahamson’s adaptation nonverbally captures the intimate core of the mother-son relationship in ways the novel could not. The result is poignant beyond words.
Much of this emotional resonance comes from the very real intimacy between the actors and director. Getting there required work, patience and the right casting; Abrahamson cast Tremblay, a five-year-old non-actor, for his remarkable instincts. But what really moved the needle for Tremblay were his relationships with Larson and Abrahamson.
“As with any actor and any collaborator, it’s about forming a trusting relationship,” said Abrahamson. “And that’s not that you have to get him to trust you so you can get him to do what you want. Especially with a little kid, it’s about making them feel really safe, and getting to know and not treating them as a puppet to be moved around.”
Directing Tremblay proved to be a process of translation. The last thing Abrahamson wanted was for Tremblay to feel pressured to please him; this would elicit an awkward performance, not to mention that it would put too much pressure on the child. Instead, the director found a portal into each scene through the eyes of a five-year-old. “You’re looking for things that unlock the scene in simpler, more emotionally available terms, like really strong memories,” said Abrahamson. “With Jake, it was finding ways of describing what was happening in the story that would make sense to him, that would be appropriate for him, or that wouldn’t scare him. Things that he would understand.”
For particularly rigorous scenes in which Jack has to exhibit extreme fear, Abrahamson asked the boy to recall his scariest nightmares. “He told me about dreaming he was being chased somewhere,” said Abrahamson. “I asked him, ‘Do you remember what it felt like?’ and ‘How were you breathing in the dream?’ and he’d start panting and doing it a bit awkwardly, and I’d tell him, ‘Oh come on, you can really show me,’ and then I’d pant at him and he’d pant at me, and then we’d make it a game.”
Equally difficult was finding an actress to play Ma who was not only able to adapt to the particular challenges of the film, but also happened to be a genuinely good person. “Part of Brie’s job was not just to play the part, but to actually form a relationship with the little boy who’s going to play Jack,” said Abrahamson. “If she’s just going to do her take and then flounce off to the trailer and have a cigarette, the boy’s never going to feel safe. Brie was brilliant. She was my right-hand person during the shooting. She was able to whisper things like, ‘Jake, pull your hair back,’ during a massively emotional scene. If you listen to the rushes, I’m talking all over them, and Brie was able to hold her performance at the emotional level it needed to be at, jumping in and out of the scene.”
But casting and directing the actors weren’t the most daunting of Abrahamson’s challenges in adapting “Room.” He also had to figure how to make a dimly lit garden shed visually compelling — enough to sustain the entire first half of his movie.
“I thought it would be a total mistake to think the way to bring visual interest to a small room is to go crazy with the camera all the time,” said Abrahamson. “That would just be irritating; that would be kind of visual porridge.”
The director envisioned a visual landscape that captured “Room’s” unique dichotomy: The grim nature of the circumstances and the immense scale of the boy’s imagination. “For the boy, that room is the whole universe,” said Abrahamson. “That’s the premise of the book. It’s his whole life. Therefore, the kid’s imagination will grab whatever it has to fill itself.”
Abrahamson was invigorated by the creative and logistical challenges particular to the confined but creatively limitless universe. “Actually, in a small space, there are millions of visual possibilities,” he said. “There are loads of scales, from the microscopic to the overhead. We thought, if we don’t have big vistas, we can study this place and evoke it for the audience in as complete a way as anyone’s experienced anywhere else.”
Determined to honor the dimensions of the room described in Donoghue’s book, Abrahamson and his DP, Danny Cohen, and production designer, Ethan Tobman, built a 10-by-15-foot soundstage. “It was really small,” said Abrahamson. “I mean, really small.” But from the restrictions, ingenuity emerged. “Danny built a six-story lighting rig so we could match the movements of the sun through the day,” said Abrahamson. What they lacked in scope they made up for in detail. Everything, from the sound-wave frequency in different parts of the room to the child’s drawings on the wall, was carefully engineered and meticulously designed. The set walls, built of cork tiles, were even bleached to match sunlight patterns.
“There’s a double of each tile, so if a tile got damaged it could be replaced immediately with one that’s exactly the same,” said Abrahamson. The team practiced the removal and replacement of the tiles ad nauseam. “It was like a military exercise. You’ve got limited time when you’re working with a small child, so any time the child’s sitting there and you’re not able to work is a total disaster.”
“People say that soundstage sets never quite look like reality,” said Abrahamson. “But actually, they can. They can be as real as you want as long as you pay attention to the kind of detail that is given for free in a real place. We always joked that this was probably the set over which the most conversation had been had, per square foot.”
For all its technical feats, “Room” is the emotional sum of its parts. This is what makes Abrahamson most proud. “The movie’s insights are very human insights,” he said. “It’s about what’s going on in normal parent/child relationships, the combination of claustrophobia and wonderfulness that is what it’s like to be living with a kid and looking after them. And there are things about moving out of childhood and into the darker, stranger, less certain and more complex world of adulthood.”
Most importantly, the experience is genuine. “I’ve found a lot of blokes around age thirty who’d never consider having a child coming out of the theater wiping tears away,” said Abrahamson. “The thing I’m proud of about the film is that I think it’s an authentic emotional experience. It’s not manipulative. It’s pretty honorable in how it presents the characters. It affects people so strongly because they’re actually feeling all these things.”
Looking back on the process, from the letter to Donoghue to finding Tremblay to building the soundstage, Abrahamson is in a mild state of disbelief that it all came together.
“There were so many lucky things that happened on the way to making this film,” he said. “I’m just amazed. You look back and you think there are so many things that could’ve gone wrong or just been slightly different, and none of us would be here with this film now.”