By Iain Blair
Lenny Abrahamson, the Irish director who helmed the cult indies Frank, Garage, What Richard Did and Adam & Paul, burst onto the international scene in 2015 with the harrowing drama Room. The claustrophobic tale — of a woman and her young son kept prisoner in a 10×10-foot garden shed — picked up four Oscar nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, and won the Best Actress Oscar and BAFTA for lead Brie Larson.
Now Abrahamson is back with a new film, Focus Features’ The Little Stranger, which swaps the tight confines of The Room for the sprawling, light and airy expanses of a huge English country home.
But don’t be fooled by appearances. Abrahamson begins to twist the screws from the very start of the story, which is part ghost story, part murder mystery. The film follows Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson), the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked. The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries, but it is now in decline. Its inhabitants — mother, son and daughter — are haunted by something more ominous than dying. When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own. It also stars Ruth Wilson (Showtime’s The Affair).
I spoke with Abrahamson about making the film.
Last time we talked, you had been offered a lot of high-profile projects after the huge success of Room. Instead you made this smaller film, which you had been developing. What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of this new film?
I did this for the same reason I did all my other films — I felt compelled to do it, and I connected to it. I’d been thinking about it for the past 10 years. I’m not really strategic about my career. I did consider other projects, but this just felt ready to go, and I was worried that if I didn’t do it just then, I’d never get to do it. So the timing was right.
This is based on Sarah Waters’ novel “The Little Stranger,” and translating any novel to cinema is always tricky, especially this book with all its flashbacks. How difficult was it?
It was very tough, because in a novel you’ve got space to work and digress and build up atmosphere and shift focus. But films are so demanding in terms of unfolding narrative, and it was hard maintaining forward motion while keeping it subtle and ambiguous and dealing with multiple timelines. I also focused on doing it elegantly, not mechanically. It took all the combined efforts of everyone involved — editing, production design, music and sound — to deal with those challenges and also keep it true to the novel.
It’s quite a mixture of genres, tones and themes. Was that your intent?
Finding the right balance and the right tone is always crucial, and in this case we had to find that sense of disquiet and uneasiness, which permeates everything. We also had to keep that sense of ambiguity about everything that happens. I wanted a sort of mash-up of genres — drama, psychological thriller, ghost story, period romance and gothic chiller — and to keep the audience off balance all the time.
Obviously, casting the right actors was crucial. Is it true you originally cast Domnhall Gleeson as another character, not Faraday?
Yes, I’d worked with him on Frank, and he’s got such a range and is so clever. I’d actually started talking to him about this three, four years ago, and I sent him the script with another character in mind for him, but he said he so loved Faraday that he wanted to play him instead. It just made sense, so I cast around him.
It’s beautifully shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland, the DP who also just shot the Judy Garland biopic Judy, starring Renee Zellweger for director Rupert Goold. What was your approach?
We didn’t have any hard and fast rules. I always think that’s a mistake. So we watched a lot of films and talked a lot, and tried to go against the usual assumptions about making a film like this. We avoided the obvious dark look, and in some of the more sinister scenes the lighting is very even and bright, which I think makes it creepier. It’s a bright interior, maybe not what you expect for violence.
He did a great job, very subtle work, and he created great atmosphere without using any of the obvious lighting tropes. We tested a lot, which was very useful, and Ole didn’t use any direct light. All the light is bounced and soft, which was a very smart decision by him. We shot in a real 18th Century country house near London, and then used another in better repair for all the exterior flashbacks.
Where did you post?
I’m based in Dublin, so I always do all the post there, and we have great facilities and great people. We posted and did most of the cutting at Screen Scene in Dublin, where I’ve posted my last four films. We had a big room with a big screen and projector, which was great, and they also did all the VFX.
Ed Bruce was the VFX supervisor and is very experienced. They do such subtle work. For instance, the house didn’t have the beautiful skylight you see quite a lot, so they added all that, and there are a lot of invisible things they did that you’d never notice. They do shows like Game of Thrones, so they’re very experienced and very good at what they do, and it’s a close collaborative relationship.
Do you like the post process?
I love post after the stress of the shoot and the instant decisions and deadlines you have to deal with on the set. It’s such a big contrast, and it’s where you can take your time to actually make the film.
I love sitting there with the editor and slowly building the movie. And unlike the shoot, where the meter’s ticking away, it’s relaxing and also the cheapest part of the whole filmmaking process. It’s where all the magic happens and you begin to discover what the film is.
The film was cut by your go-to editor Nathan Nugent. Can you tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
He was on the set and also shot 2nd unit for me, so he was very involved during the shoot. He began cutting in Soho during the shoot, and then did most of the editing back in Dublin after we got back.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film.
It’s so important and we began all the sound design and sound work at the same time we began the offline editing, instead of the usual waiting until picture’s locked. I always insist on doing it this way now as there are so many advantages. As you work, you can really see the effect of sound, and that helps with the picture cut.
Our sound editors Steve Fanagan and Niall Brady were also on set and recorded tons of material. Then Steve designed for seven months while we cut, assembling this very rich soundscape. The sound was done at Screen Scene and partly at Ardmore, with some ADR at Goldcrest in London. The music mix was by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley, ex-Abbey Road, now with their own studio called Sweet Thunder. They did incredibly delicate and beautiful work.
How important was the DI on this?
It’s so important, and we did all the grading and picture finishing at Outer Limits in Dublin, with my regular colorist, Gary Curran, who started early on developing looks. We also did an HDR grade, which I hadn’t really delved into before, and it was very beautiful.
What’s next? A big Hollywood movie?
(Laughs) I do get offered projects, but it would have to be something original that really excites me. Next, I’ll probably shoot this boxing film called A Man’s World, based on the true story of Emile Griffith. It’s a fascinating life, and I’ll shoot it in the US next year… hopefully.
We’re heading into the awards season. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar for Room, which won a ton of awards. How important are awards to you and your films?
Very important. They bring a lot of attention to smaller films like mine, and this one is very unusual. It looks like it falls into a genre, but it doesn’t really, so awards and recognition really help.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.