From director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) and author/screenwriter Emma Donoghue, Room is both a chilling and hope-filled story about the love between a mother and her child. Jack (Jacob Tremblay in an unforgettable breakout performance) is a 5-year-old that is looked after by his loving Ma (Brie Larson), who tries to keep her son happy and safe while they are trapped in a tiny windowless space they call Room. But as Jack’s curiosity about their situation grows, he begins to wonder what might really be out beyond their walls.
At the film’s press day, director Lenny Abrahamson spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how incredibly gratifying the audience response to the film has been, how close to the finished product the original script was, the changes that were made, how much was cut, why he won’t be including any deleted scenes on the DVD/Blu-ray, and the sleepless nights he had while looking for the perfect child to portray Jack. He also talked about adapting The Little Stranger, a ghost story set in the 1940s, for his next film, set to shoot next summer.
Collider: As soon as you started showing this film to audiences at film festivals, you started getting a lot of acclaim, and there’s already been some Oscar talk. What’s it like to show the movie and get that kind of response from audiences?
LENNY ABRAHAMSON: The audience response is incredibly gratifying. There’s no ambiguity about that for me. Particularly that the response is so emotional and people are so passionate about the film, that’s amazing. Heading into making a film like this, certainly I’m aware that it’s a big risk. It’s a really hard film to make, it’s a hard film to get right, it’s tonally so delicate, and it’s got these very obvious trap doors. You’ve gotta find the right kid, you’ve gotta help that child give this performance, and you also have to deal with the confinement of that first half and the unusual structure of two very distinct parts with this very exciting sequence in the middle that would normally be the climax at the end. I was very aware of the risks of it. So, to go though that, and then to feel the connection with the audience, is really gratifying.
And then, this machine starts up with the discussion of where it’s going to go and if it has awards potential and the release strategies. For me, I like the fact that the distributor is pushing it to get it to the biggest possible audience. It’s nice that the industry feels that it has that awards potential. I try not to get too involved in it because that’s probably not so healthy for a director. You can get a little caught up in it. Also, what I’ve done, I’ve done because I feel passionate about it. I think that works for me. It’s how you make good work. Your heart has to be deeply in it. If you started to choose projects because you like the awards buzz too much and you were a bit addicted to that, and you choose the next project based on whether it’s going to be awards worthy or not, you’ll make really bad decisions. So, I’m old enough to enjoy it without getting too caught up in it.
How close is the finished product of the film to the first script that you read? Were there any major changes, either from the script to the screen or in the cut?
ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, there were a lot. Emma’s original script was something that we worked on for a couple of years together, so there were some very big changes to that. But, they brought us closer to the book again. Most of the changes took place in the second half of the film. In the novel, you so enjoy the observations that Jack makes about the world, once he’s gotten out into it, with the fresh eye that he has and the smart innocence that he applies to our crazy, consumerist, busy world, but that won’t hold you through a film. Film is so much about that intensity of focus that there always needs to be some tension and some forward motion. The novel goes into a series of lovely observations about the world, but you’ve got to find the story.
So, a lot of what we did in the second half was to thin out some of the aspects of the novel, but also add in some new small but very important story changes. They were the biggest changes to the film. And in the edit, we lost some stuff, and we discovered some interesting ways of structuring some of the sequences in slightly different ways. But probably out of everything I’ve made, this film is closest to the vision that myself and Emma shared, at the beginning. It’s the closest to that, in the end, and there’s so many reasons for that, like having a great cast, working with great people, and having enough resources to give the film a decent schedule and to achieve complicated sequences. I didn’t have to cut corners and restructure on the fly. I was able to do it the way I wanted to do it, and that was great.
Was your first cut not much longer than what we see now?
ABRAHAMSON: The first cut was longer because we cut everything. The assembly was longer, but very quickly, we got pretty close to where we ended up. And then, it was about nuance and shaping performances and finding the best line through the scenes that we had. But, it wasn’t like we were hacking away to get it down. We knew where that was going to come from. And the structure works. I did have conversations before we shot with some people who said, “Well, you may find that you need to inter-cut the first half and the second half. It might be very difficult to make this two-half structure work, but by all means, have a go.” And yet, it did work and we discovered that it worked pretty quickly.
So, how long was that first cut and how much did you have to cut out?
ABRAHAMSON: Leaving aside the assembly where every single set-up is used, we lost quite a long section that takes place in a shopping mall. By the time we got to what I would call the first cut, it was probably two hours and 45 or 50 minutes, and we came out to just under two hours. That sounds like a lot, but we didn’t lose anything major. We just tightened and shaped and brought it to what we felt was its most taut form.
Will we see any of those deleted scenes on the DVD/Blu-ray, or are you someone who feels that when something is cut, it’s cut for a reason?
ABRAHAMSON: In something like Frank, which is a comedy, albeit a strange and emotional one, you can absolutely put in deleted scenes, and we did because they were just funny and great, but they weren’t necessary in the overall structure. The experience of Room seems to work when a person has a real encounter with a real story. I don’t want to put scenes on that DVD. The only thing we thought about for awhile was a longer cut of the interview scene. There were a lot of questions that that interviewer asked. But in the end, we cut it for a reason. We gave it the length that it has on screen for a reason. There may be lots of material on the DVD. There are things that I think we could include to make the experience richer for an audience who wants to delve deeper into the film, with behind-the-scenes stuff, construction of the set and interviews with people. But, I’m not going to put any deleted scenes.
At any point, were you afraid that you would have to throw in the towel on this because you couldn’t find the kid to play Jack?
ABRAHAMSON: So much of this is just who Jacob is, but I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance from a child. I’m not a great boaster about stuff, but I really can’t see a flaw in that performance, and that’s a collective effort, as well as to do with the talent that Jacob has. The one thing that kept me awake at night was the fear that we wouldn’t find our boy. The budget was ready, we knew we were making the film, everybody else was cast, I had the crew and we were starting to work on it, and we had four or five months to find the boy. We really could have been in a situation where we had to compromise, in that regard. I did spend many nights not sleeping. If you don’t believe that relationship, or you don’t believe the kid, or he seems to be acting, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation. This would be an interesting release where people go, “Oh, that’s quite interesting.” But nobody would be sitting in the audience enthralled in the way that they are now.
You’ve got a couple more book adaptations in the works next. Is that a process you’ve gotten a handle on now?
ABRAHAMSON: I’m not setting out to adapt books and work with books, but when really amazing stories come to you in that form, it’s really hard to turn away from that. I certainly don’t want to be the book guy who does that. There are a couple of other projects that I think are pretty amazing and that are based on novels, but I’m not going to turn them away. And every case is different. Some of those adaptations are going to be very tricky, and some of them are more straightforward. It’s just things that capture your imagination, and you never know where that’s going to come from.
Do you know which one you’re going to shoot next?
ABRAHAMSON: At the moment, I’m down to do this very interesting film based on a novel called The Little Stranger, which is a ghost story set in the 1940s. It’s really interesting because it’s about class and the resentment that can build up in a person through their life, and how that resentment can poison your adult life. It’s fleshed out in terms that also have a genre element to them. I’ve never done something in that space before, and I’m interested in it. The book is really worth reading. [Sarah Waters] is a great writer.
Do you know when you’re going to shoot that?
ABRAHAMSON: Hopefully, late summer of next year.
Room is now in theaters.