But once they get out, what will become of them? The first half of the movie plays like an intense escape movie, where the outcome (especially if you have not read the book, which Golden Globe nominee Emma Donoghue adapted herself), is far from certain. In movies today, unpredictability is a prize commodity.
Here are 10 reasons why “Room” is making strides toward multiple Oscar nominations.
1. Like Suzanne Collins, JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, Irish-born novelist Emma Donaghue never gave up control of her material.
She read about the Fritzl kidnapping case in Austria as she was raising two small children in London, Ontario. “When the Fritzl case came across my eyes,” Donaghue told me, “and this woman raising these children in a locked room, in a prison situation, I found myself not only seized by curiosity of how could you possibly be a good mother in a locked room, but also with what a wonderful metaphor it was for both the confining and magical aspects of that parent-child intimacy.”
2. Donaghue wrote her own screenplay.
When the book, told from the point of view of young Jack, took off and became a global success, translated in 40 countries, Donaghue knew a movie might come up, and took preemptive action: she wrote her own script, before the book was published, knowing that once more attention was paid, people might advise her to sell the rights and would want to go to an experienced screenwriter. She thought, “I’d rather try it myself.”
Another advantage: “I wanted to be in a position to be more honest with any potential filmmaker,” she said. “I didn’t want to try to force them to hire me, just so they could get the rights. On the other hand, I was untried, so it just seemed more honest to have a first draft to show them and say, ‘Is it any good? Can you work with that?'”
Donoghue had to figure out how to translate Jack’s first-person POV in cinematic terms. “Even if we had the child in every scene, which we do, it’s still far less in his head than a book would be.” This could prove a plus for readers who wanted more about Ma. “In the book, a lot of readers were tantalized by the mother, this rather enigmatic figure who you glimpse through the child…The movie is much more of a two-hander than the book. We get to meet Ma directly. There were things a film could add rather than a sense of being less than the book.”
3. Being naive about the rules of the movie business was an advantage.
A number of filmmakers were, in fact, interested in “Room.” Donoghue got a lot of bites but “it was never from the right corners. I know the normal thing to do is sell a book to producers, but producers don’t really have a style of their own, and I felt I absolutely needed to know who the director would be, because ‘Room’ could so easily have become a hideous film! The premise either lends itself to a sickly sweet little-kid film or a hideously creepy, disturbing voyeur film.
So I felt, to have a tasteful down the middle between those two dreadful possibilities, I needed to know who the director was. So I waited. As a complete outsider, I was not contracted by the rules. Also, I wasn’t desperate to get myself a career in Hollywood. I just simply wanted a film of this book to be a good film, so I felt I was in a strong position.”
4. Donoghue clicked with a compatible independent filmmaker.
Fellow Dubliner Lenny Abrahamson, who had directed five films including “Frank,” starring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson, wrote Donaghue a letter. “In a way, I was held back by my ignorance of the business,” she said, “because I assumed we’d need a big, household-name director to get the funding. At our first meeting, Lenny said to me, ‘No, no, we just need to cast somebody who everybody wants to see. They don’t have to have heard of the director.’ Donoghue looked at his films, especially his first, “Adam & Paul,” about two heroin junkies at a housing estate in Dublin. She thought, “If he could do a warm Beckettian comedy with such dark material, then he could surely handle ‘Room.’”
Abrahamson’s pitch was about “how point of view worked in film versus literature,” he said. “And how it’s fluid, and you can shift between (even in the same scene) an emphasis on how it feels with her, the mother, and how it is with the boy. And I talked about the fact that we should resist, strenuously resist, any kind of device, you know, any heightened technique, any ‘Lovely Bones’-style stuff, which for me just kills it. And it also kills any immediate experience of the characters, which is what makes this film moving. You don’t feel you’re being manipulated by some sort of construct, you feel like you’re encountering people — which is the great illusion, because of course it’s all construction.”
Abrahamson has a trusted producer (Ed Guiney) and longstanding relationship with FilmFour, “who are pretty much the most director-driven of developing entities that I’ve come across,” he said “And that was enough to get things moving, and to work on the script with Emma, where you create some sort of space around the development process — and we didn’t need a huge amount of money because we didn’t option the book from Emma until very late in the process. We just made an agreement that in good faith, we would work together. It was a creative process guarded by good people. And then when we finally did go to people with money, it was after we felt it was in good shape… Then you’re able to say, “well here’s this thing, do you want to be involved with it?” You’re not saying: “Come into the ‘development process,’ and get into the engine room with us.”
5. Together they tackled the shooting script.
Abrahamson collaborated closely with Donoghue on writing the movie. Several times he flew from Ireland to London, Ontario and sat around Donoghue’s kitchen table for a week, working through the script. “There were no intermediaries; it was a very close working relationship,” she said. “Everyone tells me how lucky I was to get that. Nobody was standing between us or passing on his notes. It was extremely direct. All the way through the filming process, he’d email me and say, ‘We need a few lines there,’ or, ‘Let’s change this.’ So he had a huge input into the script.”
At first Donoghue did not want to use Jack as a narrator. “My first several drafts had no voiceover at all,” she said, “because it seems, when you’re adapting fiction, voiceover is this obvious crutch. So many book-to-film start with a portentous voiceover during the credits, and you think, ‘Oh, yes, this is adapted from an esteemed work of literature.’ So I wanted to see if we could find a cinematic narration — the camerawork. Let it show us what Jack sees as well as showing us Jack. I hoped to get through the whole thing without voiceover.”
At a late stage, Abrahamson told her: “I want some voiceover almost as punctuation to mark sections. Not as extra information and certainly not to milk the emotion in a scene. I want them to divide up the film, almost like chapter headings. Can you make sure that the voiceover works slightly against the emotion in a scene?” For instance, when Jack sees his mother being taken away by the paramedics, he starts talking about time and space. He doesn’t say how sad he is. “So we tried to work obliquely with voiceovers.”
In the book, Christianity is part of a cultural package that Ma is passing on to Jack “to give meaning to his days,” said Donoghue. “So she teaches him to thank Baby Jesus for the food, and so on. Coming from a Catholic background, I couldn’t help but see them as Mary and Jesus figures. Lenny stripped most of that away — he’s extremely Atheist.”
6. The movie’s first half is like a prison-escape movie.
Tonally the film presented difficulties. “You can imagine a film where an escape sequence is the climax, and pretty much the ending,” said Abrahamson. “So to be able to hold people through that was a really good directorial challenge.” There are edge-of-your-seat elements to “Room,” as Ma and Jack plot their escape, but “it’s by no means a thriller,” said Donoghue. “It’s too oddly shaped for that. If it were a thriller, there’d be no point in going on after the first half. To me, it’s a lot more interesting to ask what other forms of imprisonment there are — how your past, memories, and family roles can confine you.”
What’s unusual about that escape sequence,” said Abrahamson, “is that you’re holding two thoughts in your head — because it’s not just the escape and the ‘will he or won’t he get away or survive,’ it’s also about a little moment of birth, into the world.”
The director wanted to keep the linear two-part structure: “It’s a juggling act where you have this type of tension that gets you through the first half, and in the second half you have to slip in with a different kind of intense focus, more of an ominous sense of something, less obviously threatening, to this relationship that you come to really care about. We brought them to the house together — we wanted to see the pressures of the world that are put on this relationship.”
In the second half, Ma is confronted by the journalist who’s asking if she should’ve given up her child. “That was a really jolting moment,” Donoghue said, “because you can’t imagine her doing that. And yet there are precedents. There was one Russian kidnapping case where, each time a baby was born, he’d leave each of those children outside an orphanage. The possibility was always there, but at that particular moment in the film, it’s just a devastating challenge to Ma’s sense. No matter what else she’s done, she managed to give him a good childhood.”
Abrahamson and Dongohue were trying to think of equivalents everyone has lived through. For example, the moment when Jack goes back and sees the room at the end, “is when you go back to a childhood home or elementary school and everything seems to have gotten smaller,” said Donoghue. “Or those moments where you decide, ‘Should I let my child ride their bike without a helmet?’ Every day is filled with those micro-moments where you’re thinking, ‘Should I give them safety or freedom? When do I let a child grow up?’ When each of us do grow up, what’s left of our childhood? Can we ever reach that lost domain again?”
7. The film’s odd bifurcated structure makes it unusual and unpredictable, in a good way.
The first half of “Room,” while tricky to perform and shoot, is satisfying. The second half after the escape generates more debates. “The first half, script-wise, was easy,” said Donoghue. “It moved faster than the book, because the reader has to figure out the puzzle of where they are and what’s going on, but film communicates information so economically, so the whole thing moved on much faster.
The second half was far more of a challenge. “They don’t have the same peril to their welfare” said Donoghue, “and more characters become involved. I reduced the level of characters from the book. In the book, Jack even meets his grandmother’s book club. There’s time for anything in a book! You can have all sorts of social commentary: they go to a mall; they go to a Shakespeare play; they go to a cathedral. A film has to hold to its thread, and so a lot of my work was to radically streamline the second half while hitting the same beats.
“The one scene when they’re in the grandmother’s house leading up to Ma’s suicide attempt was the bit of the script we struggled over most, because it’s about anti-climax, and so you have to let it take a moment, but you can’t lose the tension entirely,” Donaghue said. “You get the sense that she did a good job raising him and that she’s the one in trouble. It’s true. Even in ordinary lives, there’s the sense that we raise our children so they can leave us; you’ve done this successful thing if they can go on without you. I think parent and child are always slightly ‘passing each other in the night,’ as it were. The parent-child relationship is never fixed or permanent; it’s always shifting as the roles change and they’re always meant to leave you.”
8. Casting the two leads was everything.
Both actors are strong contenders for Oscar nominations, with Larson the frontrunner for Best Actress.
Before finding the right person to play Ma, Abrahamson told Donoghue: “We need someone genuinely nice and down-to-earth, who will never have tantrums.” In the novel, “I was always trying to have it almost flicker between her sorrow and joy,” said Donoghue. “The scenes with the child in the room, I’d put in a moment of darkness and then a moment of humor, or a moment of happiness and bonding and then a little flash of irritation. Motherhood is like that; I find it to be a very unstable state. I return home from a publicity tour and I’m determined to have some quality time with my children, and then, suddenly, I’m losing my temper. Ma’s a more extreme version of that.”
Larson and Abrahamson dug into her analogous experience living with her own mother and sister in one room in Los Angeles. Essentially Larson is doing a series of performances. As Ma, Larson shows both sides of her behavior, from supermom to depressive. “I didn’t want any one scene to be entirely happy or sad,” said Donoghue. “I wanted this sense of periphery, because the performance of Ma is not just authentic pain. It’s got authentic pain in it: she has to fake it for Jack and fake it for Old Nick and fake it for the TV cameras, and, in the middle, there’s the great piece where she has to pretend her child is dead. That allows her to use a lot of her pain and grief, so it’s a real Russian doll of a performance.”
Three weeks before shooting began, the set was prepared, and Larson and Tremblay were brought in for a low-key playdate involving Legos and pizza. “They had an extraordinary bonding experience,” said Donoghue. “And, with a child, you just can’t speed that up. Basically, they made almost all the crafts you see. I think [everyone] behaved better because there was a child on set. But Brie went to extraordinary lengths to bond with Jake, and she did it with a lot of coaching of him, too. Even though he was terribly good, he’s a small child, so Brie did friendly reminders. Their performances are like a mother and baby; you can’t quite separate what they did.”
Abrahamson was amazed at the way Larson “has the capacity to step out of character,” he said. “And because she was a child actor she doesn’t have that showy intensity that we seem to be so enamored within an actress — she’s a pro. And that doesn’t mean it’s not as deep, that’s an illusion. We tend to think that people who are super intense (and difficult) and can stay in character are somehow deeper, and there’s a kind of machismo around that. She’s a thinking, intelligent, sensitive person. She’s certainly got her demons, things that upset her greatly, and she takes life in the best possible way — really seriously. And things matter to her. I’ve never met an intelligent person that didn’t have shadows.”
Casting Jack was a matter of finding a kid who could play just the right age. “As with most parenting issues, you’re wondering what’s the exact right moment to do something with them or expect some change in them,” said Donoghue. “That’s why the casting was so tricky, because we can’t make Jack any older, or he would seem stupid to still believe all this magical stuff; and he couldn’t be any younger, because then he would have the verbal skills or mental coherence to understand the plans. So he had to be exactly that age to be capable of imagining a magical worldview and also quite scientific and tough-minded when he does start to analyze things. So, in casting it, we knew we couldn’t really go any older than eight, and we were extraordinarily lucky that, in Jacob Tremblay, we found someone who looked so soft-featured. He’s so sweet-faced and genuinely young-looking, but he’s actually a very savvy young actor.”
It was a good thing that Tremblay had some commercial experience, because this wasn’t a performance that one could give by acting naturally like a child with the cameras following around. He had to be disciplined enough to lie in the wardrobe and turn his head just the right way, and roll up in a rug. He couldn’t do it on instinct alone.
When Abrahamson first saw the audition tapes, Tremblay stood out, but he was worried that he might be too actorly — like he’d been taught how to be a cute kid on camera. But after working for a day, Tremblay learned how to switch that off and be natural. By finding that Tremblay could take direction, Abrahamson said, “We have our child.”
On set, his parents looked after Tremblay, running his lines, and one was with him at all times. Abrahamson also talked the young actor through the scenes, prompting him: “Okay, now, Jake: open the wardrobe. Now here’s the bit where you go and talk to her about the mouse.” It was all about trying to get Tremblay “where he needed to be,” said Abrahamson. “It’s there in him, but you could see him discovering it as he went. You could see him sort of realizing that he had all these muscles — and we were all just helping him. You could see the raw capacity in Jake. He inhabited little moments. He waits a second before giving a performance, he pauses — that’s an actor. You might be micro-directing him, but, what he’s doing is he’s not looking at me when I speak, it’s going in and he’s tuning into it. He’s placing it into the little machine. And the machine is bringing out all these natural details and moments. Towards the end he cried for real, and when we yelled ‘cut’ it was like he had learned to ride a bike without stabilizers.”
In the second half, Bill Macy (whose days were limited by Canadian cameo rules) and Joan Allen enter the fray as Ma’s parents. “There was a debate about that,” said Abrahamson. “The reason why the second half is tense and you feel compelled to keep watching, has a lot to do with a different aesthetic. It’s much more stripped back, it’s barer than the first half.”
“Bill Macy did a great job showing that wound-up tension of the man who has thought his daughter was dead, and now she’s come back,” said Donoghue, “and he discovers she’s been brutalized all these years. Everybody else around him is managing to accept this nice child as his grandchild, but he’s looking at this grandchild and thinking, ‘Spawn of a monster.'”
Donoghue researched how people respond to children who’ve been conceived through rape. “Some people manage to say, ‘Oh, it’s nothing to do with the child,'” she said, “and some mothers manage to say, ‘I treasure my child all the more, because this is the one bit of joy that’s come out of a terrible situation.’ But some people hold this atavistic sense that the child is somehow ‘polluted’ by being related to the terrible man. So I wanted to be honest by showing that range of reactions, and because there are two grandfather figures in the second half, I got to contrast them nicely. I like that it’s Ma’s own father who you’d expect to be the loving grandfather figure, and he’s just not able to be.”
The movie expands stylistically in the second half—in the hospital, in the car, with the police. “We go into a slightly more disjointed shooting style, just for a little while, because the second half of the novel has a lot to do with Jack’s take on his experiences,” said Abrahamson. “Film is so relentless about that single focus, thread of tension, and if you lose that, you can’t digress and chat — as you can in a piece of literature. The other thing we put in was the cutting of the hair, which helped us tie that up.”
9. Abrahamson had the luxury of shooting in sequence.
It’s rare to shoot a movie chronologically, but in this case “it was really to help the child,” explained Donoghue. “When we cast Jacob Tremblay, he was only seven, and he wasn’t even reading yet. It seemed to Lenny that it would make a lot more sense to this young actor if we moved through the story, and, actually, the adult actors loved it, too.” Joan Allen told her that it a relief to know where she was going with the story, rather than act in tiny pieces that are later assembled.
Abrahamson started building a tiny set that was only a tad bigger than Room. At first they made it bigger, “and then they found there was no drama in it,” said Donoghue, “so they moved the walls in until they were just about the 11-by-11 proportions that they were in the book.” The set was a marvel of surveillance as each individual square could lift out to put cameras in. Often the director and his cameramen lay on the floor, underneath the floor, or in the bathtub, just to get out of the way.
10. A24 picked up U.S. rights to the movie and relentlessly pursued awards consideration.
The rising distributor (“Amy,” “Ex Machina”) pre-bought the film package at Cannes 2014 with Brie Larson attached as it was scheduled to start production that fall. That meant A24 had control of the U.S. marketing; a year later they booked the film at Telluride, where Oscar buzz began, and did massive amounts of press in Toronto, followed by major cities, and supported the October 16 limited release in theaters, followed by a major Oscar push with Academy members and guilds in NY and LA. It expands November 25, for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Next up: Donaghue and Abrahamson are both taking Hollywood meetings. Abrahamson has lined up his next film, a biopic based on Donald McRae’s “A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith” about bisexual two-time world welterweight champion Emile Griffith (1938-2013), who participated in the 60s New York underground gay scene but was best-known for beating Benny “The Kid” Paret to a pulp in the ring in 1962 after he slammed him in front of reporters for being gay; he died in the hospital. Film4 and Ed Guiney are producing. Abrahamson told Deadline that Griffith had “a quote that just floored me. ‘They forgave me for killing a man, but they couldn’t forgive me for loving a man.’ That to me was so powerful and such a crazy contradiction. And it is still relevant today.”