From director Lenny Abrahamson (Room, Frank) and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, and adapted from the book of the same name by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger tells the story of what happens when Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called by the Ayres family to Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked, to attend to a patient. The house and grounds of the vast estate has suffered and is now dilapidated from neglect, which adds to the creep factor, as he begins to wonder if mother (Charlotte Rampling), son (Will Poulter) and daughter (Ruth Wilson) are being haunted by something more supernatural in nature.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson talked about what made him want to tell the story of The Little Stranger, as his follow up to Room, the biggest challenges with intertwining the genres and themes, how he’d like audiences to draw their own conclusions with the ambiguity of the story, designing and working in the perfect old manor, cutting the film down from three and a half hours, and working with such a talented cast. He also talked about his desire to tell the story of the very complicated life of champion boxer Emile Griffith, and why the story is of such interest to him.
Collider: Good to talk to you again! The last time we spoke was in 2015 for Room, so it’s been a little bit. You actually told me, back then, that this was the next thing you were hoping to make, so it’s very cool to see that it actually got made, which is a huge accomplishment, in itself.
LENNY ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, I know. Actually, I can tell you, at the end of this interview, what I hope to do next, and let’s see if it comes true again.
One would think that, after an awards season like the one that you had with Room, you would have had a few opportunities come your way. What was it that made you want to tell the story of The Little Stranger, in particular?
ABRAHAMSON: Some people would say, “Okay, you had success with a literary adaptation, so did you just decide that’s your thing and want to do another one?” When I read The Little Stranger, eight or nine years ago, just before it came out because somebody slipped us a copy of it, it was the first time I’d ever read a book and thought, “I would like to adapt that.” So, it had been sitting there, in the back of my mind, for ages. When I read it, I’d made two well-reviewed, but very small films in Ireland, and it was very, very hard for myself and Ed Guiney, the producer I work with so closely, to be trusted with a big period film. Later on, while I was working on Frank with Film4, they were also developing this project with producers Gail Egan and Andrea Calderwood, with Potboiler in London. We all ended up talking, including Lucinda Coxon, who’s the magnificent screenwriter that adapted this, and realizing we all had a very similar vision for the film and a feeling about it, so we decided that it would be good to work together. That’s how it started. Then, Room was bubbling away and it happened really quickly, by film standards, so I made and released Room. Everybody was kind enough to wait for me while that was happening, before we did this. While other films and projects came in, and lots of offers came in, and other things that I’d been developing suddenly became possible, with the success of Room, I just had this in my head as the next film. I just didn’t want to let it go. Things have their time and had I not made this film next, I would have been taken up with all of the other things that I’m developing, and I may not have had a chance to make it. I felt like I really had to do it now.
Were there ever people, at any point, that were trying to persuade you to do something more high-profile because of the success of Room?
ABRAHAMSON: People did, in a lovely way. I’ve got very good people that I work with, and they were saying, “Are you sure? This is an unusual choice. It’s quite a hard film to sell, in the sense that it’s a hard film to describe. Why not jump, while the chances are there, and do something bigger?” But people also know me well enough to know that I’ve never been strategic in my choices. If you look at Frank, what a bizarre choice to make. All I can do is just go on instinct. It just felt like the right thing to do, so I went for it.
This is a story that has different genres, tones, and themes that are all entwined together. What were the biggest challenges in getting all of that to feel how you wanted it to?
ABRAHAMSON: When you look at the novel for The Little Stranger, it’s a chunky novel. It’s quite big. It’s possible for the author – and in this case, that’s Sarah Waters – very brilliantly to drift into these different waters, explore them, and look at these different thematic and tonal spaces, and then gradually pull them together. With a film, those are tighter corners to turn. The biggest challenge was to find the tone of the film, which would allow us to flirt with the gothic ghost story tropes, but not fall fully into that, and also allow us to also have it be a character study and a study of the period. When there are such strong genre gravitational fields, it’s hard not to just go headlong towards that planet. That was the biggest challenge. The other challenge, which is always there when you move from a novel to a film, is just thinking about how to capture the perspective that a first person novel has. This is Faraday’s account – and a somewhat unreliable account – of his experiences with the Ayres family, so we had to find a way of still having Faraday be at the center of it, but deal with the fact that we’re never going to be able to hide inside his voice. In the novel, he can hint at things or question things or hear things second-hand, and we can then ask ourselves, “Did this really happen, or was somebody telling him an untruth?” Once you start showing things, they tend to feel it’s a different experience, looking at something on a screen. Finding just what to hide and what to reveal, and how to tease and foreshadow without overdoing it. Those were big challenges.