Lenny Abrahamson on Room
Prepare to be moved emotionally and shocked in your reasoning by the movie Room. The author of the source novel Emma Donoghue also penned the movie. Room tells the story of a mother and son being held captive in a ten-foot by ten-foot room.
Donoghue based her book on the real life Fritzl case wherein a woman in Austria was kept prisoner for 24 years by her father, giving birth to seven children during the ordeal. More recently in 2024 a case in Cleveland, Ohio made headlines when three women who had been held prisoner in a house for over a decade were discovered and freed.
As directed by Lenny Abrahamson the focus shifts the point of view to the mother as opposed to the son. Donoghue’s book tells the story from the point of view of young Jack. But Room the movie depicts the point-of-view of both Jack and Ma.
“It was one of the things I talked about early on. This will be more of a two-hander,” says Abrahamson to Free Press Houston in a phone interview. “Unless you choose to do something extremely stylized, or use lots of CGI graphics or a tricky point of view and technique it’s always going to be about the characters. The advantage of that is you get more of a sense of the character of the mother in the film than you do in the novel. In the novel you see her through the eyes of her son.
“In the film you see her, you see her warm and reassuring and loving.”
“In the novel it’s not set anywhere but you can’t do that in a film. You have to decide what the license plates look like on cars or what the street signs look like,” says Abrahamson.
“Akron was a town that was the right size, and had the right mix of neighborhoods. We shot it in Toronto but we felt we did a good job of doubling it for Akron,” explains Abrahamson.
“Emotionally we are in the world of the boy for a lot of the film. We don’t learn anything that he doesn’t know. We don’t see any of the darker stuff that’s happening.
Brie Larson, whose acting career began at a young age, brings tremendous conviction to her portrayal of Ma. Regarding the casting of Jack, played by Jacob Trembley, Abrahamson noted: “You can’t start casting too early because the kid will change before you start to shoot.” Abrahamson worked on pre-production for Room even while he was shooting his previous film Frank.
“I saw hundred of kids on tape. I saw hundreds of types, and a few kids really stood out. Jake had done some commercials and a voice role in a kid’s film [Blue in The Smurfs 2], but he loved this acting thing. He hadn’t done anything like this,” says Abrahamson.
Regarding Room’s sense of ambiguity Abrahamson points out how important it was for the mood of the film. “If you spoon feed an audience they will never feel as strongly about what they’re watching. They’ll never feel as emotionally connected or moved. There’s something about discovering things for yourself that makes it more powerful.”
Room can be evenly divided into two parts with the first half taking place entirely in the room. The escape is heart pounding and yet there’s a deeper moment when Jack sees the sky properly for the first time, with trees and telephone wires. “It was a brilliant challenge for me and the editor and the cinematographer to create a sequence that you feel does it both ways,” says Abrahamson.
On eliciting the performances Abrahamson points out that it was important not to push too hard. “Brie would come in and just have everything ready, she would surprise me. There were one or two times where I asked her to push, but generally no, she was so present in the moment.
“Now Jake was different. He’s a little boy. I could joke with him and say ‘You can do better than that.’ We could make it a game and shoot it again and he would be right there. With him it was always in terms of play and cajoling and encouraging and finding ways of making sense of things to him. There were scenes where Brie was crying and we would stop and let her reel things back in and Jake would ask why is she crying? For him it was fun and that stops everyone else from getting to serious about it,” says Abrahamson.
In Ireland Abrahamson has won the Irish equivalent of the Oscar for the direction of his first three films, Adam & Paul (2004), Garage (2007), and What Richard Did (2012). Frank and Room, his fourth and fifth films, are the only ones that have been distributed in America
“The early films were great,” says Abrahamson. “But it’s taken me a bit of time to build up the reputation to get my films here.”
Room opens exclusively this weekend at the River Oaks Three.
— Michael Bergeron