By Iain Blair
Oscar races are usually full of surprises, and that is the case with this year’s list of nominees. One of the biggest was the success of Room, which picked up four nominations in such high-profile categories as Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for Lenny Abrahamson, the little-known Irish director who helmed the little-seen cult indies Frank, Garage, What Richard Did and Adam & Paul before making Room, another small indie film about a very difficult subject.
While other Best Picture nominees The Martian and The Revenant also dealt with survival and abandoned characters left behind for dead, they were set in vast and unforgiving landscapes. Room, adapted from Emma Donoghue’s novel, instead sets its claustrophobic tale — of a woman and her young son kept prisoner — in a mundane 10×10-foot garden shed.
I spoke with Abrahamson as the Oscar race was heating up.
We’re heading down the final stretch of the awards season. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar, Brie Larson already won the Golden Globe and SAG award among others for her performance. How important are awards to you and your film?
They’re very important as the big challenge is getting coverage with a small film like this, and it really helps with getting audiences to come out and see it. I’m thrilled with all the attention.
How shocked were you to get a Best Director Oscar nomination?
To say I was really shocked is a total understatement. You know how you tend to be disappointed by things in life? They never quite live up to your hopes? But when this happened, when they called my name, I actually couldn’t believe it. I was back home in Ireland and a bit jet-lagged as I had just been in LA two days before. I was sleeping in late and my wife woke me up for the announcements. I was sitting in the kitchen in my pajamas, feeling a bit anxious because of sleeping so late, and it was stunning. It’s been amazing ever since. It’s even more amazing as Ireland’s such a small country. The total population’s the same as Brooklyn’s, and everyone was so proud. I’m still stunned!
What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of making Room?
I always look for something challenging, and I knew this would be very difficult to pull off. I’m very involved in the whole craft of making it, but I also need that strong emotional connection, and I found it immediately in the character of the boy, Jack.
Obviously, casting the right actors as the two leads was crucial.
Yes, both crucial and a big challenge — both for the way the characters have to interact and for the very naturalistic style I wanted. We decided early on to cast the mother first, then cast the boy, in case of any delays, as children change so quickly at that young age. I first saw [co-star] Jacob Tremblay on a casting video, and was immediately impressed with how polished and skilled he was.
The challenge was to use that well-coached skill but also bring out his innate naturalism that would fit the movie’s style. Any reservations I had about Jake were the same ones I have had about any child actors — and he was still just seven at that point. After working with him, and getting him to just be himself in front of the camera, I was convinced that I had found the right actor for a very difficult role.
Is it true that Brie Larson wasn’t even on your initial list of possible actresses?
It’s true. Someone told me to watch her in Short Term 12, and I was immediately struck by her naturalness and believability. She’s delicate, but also has this great depth, and she’s not showy. In person she’s very warm, funny and kind, and I also needed someone who could form a relationship off-screen with the kid, and I knew she could do that very genuinely.
The film was shot by hot cinematographer Danny Cohen, an Oscar nominee for The King’s Speech, who also shot The Danish Girl. Why did you decide to shoot the film in an actual 10×10 foot space?
We did this little experiment before we shot, with very basic bits of the set, and we quickly realized that when we cheated the size of the room it drained all the energy. So we kept reducing it until we decided to just shoot it in this very cramped space of the real room size. And the film’s about how life is possible in a tiny space.
Do you like the post process?
I like post so much, especially after the mania of the shoot and the deadlines you face every single day on the set. It’s such a contrast, and you can take your time to make the film. I especially love the offline experience, sitting there with the editor and just slowly building the movie. Don’t forget, it’s also probably the cheapest part of the whole filmmaking process — just you and the editor in a small room. It’s where all the magic happens and you discover what you have. So I’m a huge fan of post.
Where did you post?
We posted at Screen Scene in Dublin. I’ve posted nearly all my films there, and they do big shows like Game of Thrones, so they’re very experienced.
You edited the film with Nathan Nugent. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
He’s a key collaborator with me and he’s cut three of my films now. We have a great relationship. He’s also a filmmaker himself, doing documentaries, so he really understands the entire process. What’s really important is that he constantly interrogates my ideas and makes them better. He doesn’t just do what I suggest.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
They’re both hugely important, especially in a film like this. In most films you can mark the passage of time with changes in locations and so on, but we couldn’t do that, so all the sound design became even more crucial than usual. The room is a very dead space, but then we opened it up.
We also did our sound post at Screen Scene and their other company Ardmore Sound, with sound designer Steve Fanagan and sound editor Niall Brady. [Composer] Stephen Rennicks was another key collaborator I’ve worked a lot with, and the music gives a sense of Jack’s experience. You need to convey that optimism and child-like understanding of the situation from the kid’s POV, but also the darker sense of the mother’s reality. There’s not a lot of music in it, but I think it’s very effective.
Room is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but there are some, right?
Right, but pretty subtle ones. There’s all the breath effects on the days when it’s freezing cold and the power’s cut, which were also done in post at Screen Scene, as I didn’t want a freezing cold set for them. Because of all the breath work needed on Game of Thrones, they developed a special system and software to deal with it, which came in handy for us. They did a fantastic job.
How important was the DI on this?
Every part of post is important, and we did all the grading and picture finishing at Outer Limits in Dublin with this great colorist Gary Curran, who’s colored all my projects. The key thing is that no one was showboating. Everyone put the needs of the film first.
I have several projects. First I’m going to shoot this TV show Chance. It’s a medical thriller with Hugh Laurie, for Hulu, set in San Francisco. Then I’ll shoot The Little Stranger, and I’m also working on this boxing film, A Man’s World, based on a true story.
Your first few films were stories set in Ireland. Room and Chance are set in America. Any interest in making a big Hollywood studio movie?
I’ve had a lot of discussions, but nothing’s grabbed me yet. It really depends on what I could bring to a project, but I can’t see me suddenly doing a big superhero movie. But I’m open to doing bigger movies.
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.