Our film section editor, Vladimir Jean-Gilles, and film critic Mathieu Chin-Quee recently interviewed the Oscar and Canadian Screen Award nominated director of Room, Lenny Abrahamson. They talked about his directing techniques on Room, how he chooses projects and what’s next.
Vladimir Jean-Gilles: So, Mr. Abrahamson, congratulations on the film. We really liked it. It’s Mathieu’s favourite of the year.
Mathieu Chin-Quee: And I’ve seen a lot of movies this year.
Lenny Abrahamson: That’s really, really nice to hear. Thank you so much.
VJ: The first job of a director is to pull great performances from his actors and performers, so how was working with a young actor such as Jacob [Tremblay] and what did you do to help draw that type of incredible performance out of him?
LA: Well, I think my advice to actors is allow each actor to be who they are, so I don’t have a set approach. I work with that particular person and try to form a relationship with them that’s meaningful and helps us both to find the truth in the character.
With Jake, it was the same except it’s a relationship with a child. The most fundamental aspect of any adult-child relationship is trust, so for me it was talking to Jake in such a way that was not condescending or patronizing, but finding a language that we can use together, that meant something to me and to him and creating that trust between us. After that, then I used every technique that I could think of depending on the sort of scene we were shooting or the mood that Jake was in, or whatever technique that helped him where he needed to get. So sometimes, there where things it was not appropriate for him to really understand what was happening and I had to find a different way about talking about these things. So, I wouldn’t tell him what Old Nick (the captor in the movie) was doing [to Ma] in the room, but I would talk to him about times when he (Jake) was afraid, and what it felt like, or I could get him to tell me about bad dreams that he’d had and how he felt when he woke up. Then we could use that to figure out how he would hold his body and what it made him do with his voice and his face, and we would find the right [body] language for the theme that way. Sometimes it was quite mechanical, like when he was in the wardrobe and I would get him to hold [his toy] for a few seconds, or tell him to reach up and touch the fabric of the dress or his head. I used very simple mechanical directions.
Other times, because he’s a remarkable kid with such talent, he would just somehow perform as if he were an adult actor, which was outstanding, and I could just let him go and he would run and do it. Remarkably, some of those scenes towards the end of the movie, which we shot in sequence so the scenes we shot towards the end were actually the end scenes, he was so much more confident than he had been at the beginning. He was really able to be completely and truthfully himself, which was pretty amazing for a nine year-old, actually eight years old at the time.
MC: I remember when I was watching it I kept thinking to myself, some of the things that he’s portraying, some of the things that that kid had to understand are things that I haven’t seen some adult actors do and the way you left certain details out if it was too heavy for him to understand was incredible.
LA: The thing is, I find when you can get a good child actor, there’s no better actor than a child who’s comfortable in front of a camera. He really had no agenda, he just wanted to act because he loves acting, it’s a total pleasure for him. It’s his passion, and he so enjoyed it. It’s such a pure kind of relationship, a child in drama.
MC: I just recently watched your movie prior to Room, Frank, and I really liked it. What I found when watching it is that on the surface it’s a quirky, fun movie but when you kind of dig deeper, it deals with similar issues to Room, but Room is a lot darker on the surface. What were some of the challenges associated with that and how do you prepare moving from something happier to something darker, what is the transition like?
LA: I think if you look at some of my earlier films before Frank you’ll see that they’re more similar to Room, so in a way Frank was the more unusual one. It was the first movie that I made which was really as playful as it was. It being freewheeling and creative simply for creativity’s sake, where part of the movie was just how ridiculous, how playful and how inventive you can be. That’s what the audience enjoyed about it. But really, my approach is always the same, which is to find something under the surface. So I think in Frank, there is a sort of light and comedic way of seeing the film and then it does change, it does transform itself into something more intimate and moving, certainly towards the end.
For Room, I found I always like to go in a direction that the audience doesn’t expect; that’s how I’ve done it with all my films. I think with Room, and Frank certainly follows that too, you’re going into it expecting it to be a very dark and bleak meditation on captivity, and actually it’s a film about love and parenthood and I think that is revealed as you move through in a way that’s unexpected for the audience.
MC: I guess in a way the films parallel each other, Frank starts off a little lighter in tone and then once Frank takes off the head it becomes a little darker and then Room starts off darker, but when Jack and Ma they leave Room, you start to see light at the end of tunnel.
LA: That’s right, in both cases actually, people move out of a position of confinement, with Frank’s head and now with the room. I think in a certain way Frank has a darker ending, amidst the positives such as he’s back with the people that he loves, but in Room I think the possibility of life is really clear at the end.
VJ: Now that you’re an Oscar nominated and CSA (Canadian Screen Awards) nominated director, what advice would you have for an up and coming director trying to get where you are now, especially after all the transitions you’ve been through working on certain projects to this one now?
LA: I would say that some very simple advice from me would be to do the things that you feel passionate about and compelled to do and not think of it as a career-maker. I think if I decided to choose projects with a view to becoming successful and well-known or getting an Academy Award nomination, I wouldn’t have chosen any of the movies that I’ve done, because all of them are strange, all of them are challenging. But they were the ones that I felt really compelled by and therefore they were the ones that I was able to bring something special to. I would say to directors:
Think about the work. It sounds reasonable and obvious, but sometimes when people are talking about their project, I find they’re saying, “Oh yeah, I think this would be really cool and I think it will do this and people will think this about it”, but what is it in the project that you are drawn to, why do you want to tell that story, what is it about that film that is meaningful to you in terms of your relationship to the world and other human beings? That for me is the key to having a career which is satisfying to yourself. And then of course if that also connects with other people and you achieve some measure of success that’s wonderful. I think if you chase the success, it never works.
MC: So using your advice on your selection process, as we mentioned before, both Frank and Room deal with important social issues in a way.
What exactly prompted you to take these movies, what interested you so much and could you walk us through your selection process?
LA: So here it is with Frank. Although Frank deals with serious issues, my real draw to Frank was a much more… Let me think how I would describe this. Okay, so I love old American vaudeville comedy. I love Laurel and Hardy; I love the tradition of clowning. I always loved it. When I read this early draft of Frank, which was actually my first film that came from outside, from my agent, what I was really drawn to was the images of the strange lonely but ultimately kind of playful figure of Frank and the head. Those things stuck with me, and I kept thinking, I really want to see him in a landscape. I really want to see him in a room with other people, so it was like this delicious desire to play with that “toy box”. That’s what really drew me to Frank. Well, and music. I’m a music person, so I thought what a challenge to make a movie about a band where you maybe even believe the band exists, because I think Frank is the first movie where people went and said, “I’d actually believe that exists and play together”.
Then with Room, again, I had a very emotional and immediate connection. I’d read the novel and I was a parent. I had two kids at the time, one that was about to be four and one that was one, so they were tiny and my whole life was immersed in the experience of parenthood. And being a parent makes you think about your own childhood and that entire circle of parent/child was the thing that was really alive for me at that time. So when I read the novel, it just spoke to me emotionally in a really powerful way. So that was the deeper draw. Then as an artist, as a craftsperson, I’m always drawn to a challenge, like with Frank it was the head, but here it was how do you shoot in a tiny room and still give people that sense of childhood and the possibilities of childhood? How do you deal with its structure, where the film is really divided into two halves, that’s again very unusual? It was a challenge and an emotional pride and both those things came together in Room.
VJ: Okay, the very last question, we’re very curious about your next project(s) and how you’re going to be approaching them and what is it that you can tell us about them?
LA: There are a few things that I’m working on, but movie wise, there’s one project in the UK which is very interesting. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything with any genre element. It’s a sort of ghost story, but it’s really an allegory of class in Britain in the 1940s, but that one it’s called the Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.
Then the other project I’ve been really active on is a film about called Emile Griffith who was an African-American boxer from the US Virgin Islands, who came to New York in the late 50’s. He was an extraordinary man because on the one hand he was gay and comfortable with his sexuality, he hung out around gay bars around Times Square, when it was still illegal. At the same time he became world champion in welterweight boxing, and so his life illustrates incredible contradictions about the period but it’s also the study of a really unique human being who was himself, okay with who he was, but had to deal with this dysfunctional society around him and there’s an amazing story. There’s a feud with another boxer which ended in tragedy, so that’s the other project I’m working on.
MC: I love boxing movies, from Rocky to Creed this year, I’ll be looking out for that one.
LA: Thank you. I think it’s a really powerful story, if you just look him up I mean there’s footage of him. He was a very famous figure in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and he was one of the first sportspeople who really in a more public way, embraced his sexuality. He later on got involved in the Stonewall movement and at the time in a “macho” sport like boxing it was such a difficult road to travel, so really remarkable guy.
VJ: Thank you very much for your time Mr. Abrahamson, and again, congratulations on the film. We’ll be watching the Academy Awards pretty soon and cheering for you there.
LA: Thank you so much guys, it was a real pleasure to talk.