Lenny Abrahamson and Tom McCarthy on Claustrophobia of ‘Spotlight’ and ‘Room’

Lenny Abrahamson and Tom McCarthy Room
Andrew H Walker for Variety

Although Lenny Abrahamson’s movie is named “Room,” that title could have just as easily gone to Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight.” Both dramas are set in confined spaces. For “Spotlight,” that’s the Boston Globe newsroom in 2001 during the reporting of a story (by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams) about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. “Room,” based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, centers on a mother (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) held hostage in a shed. On a recent afternoon, Abrahamson and McCarthy grabbed lunch in downtown New York, where they both ordered roast beef sandwiches.

Both “Spotlight” and “Room” take place in restricted settings. Can you talk about those rooms?

Abrahamson: In my case, that’s the point. When we were designing the room, we had the dimensions as described in the novel. We built a mock-up first to see how it feels. It was a 10-by-14-foot space.

McCarthy: Did you have complete control of the walls?

Abrahamson: We never took out whole walls. Working with a kid, you had to be fast. It also felt if you took a wall out — just for Jake, we wanted it to be real for him. We shot in a stage in Toronto.

MOTHER AND CHILD: Lenny Abrahamson worked closely with Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson.
Courtesy of A24

McCarthy: Those Toronto crews are really good. That’s where we built the main newsroom and the Spotlight office. Our mood was pre-determined by the actual building. We shot a fair amount in the real Boston Globe. Newsrooms are like hospitals. They are ugly. We rebuilt the newsroom in an abandoned Sears building. We wanted natural light. My sound designer did a really cool thing. He went up and laid down microphones in the Globe offices for two weeks. He recorded these ambient sounds. We got the mix: newsroom, hallway, cafeteria. We had real voices, real phones.

Abrahamson: Even though the films are different, there’s a similar commitment in both cases to have the directorial voice be very delicate. It’s almost invisible. For me, I always think of the image of sweeping out my footprints as I walk through a scene. It’s not something as prevalent in movies now.

Why not?

Abrahamson: There’s a fashion for a macho style of filmmaking. How long can your longest take be? And shooting things in one shot. For me, if you can sort of disappear and make people feel that they are there, that involves massive amounts of work.

McCarthy: I agree. That’s why Sidney Lumet was a great American director. He disappeared in his movie. It didn’t necessarily have his tag. Some guys want to tag their movies. Sometimes that overwhelms my connection to the movie. I feel like I’m being manipulated.

Can you talk about your process for casting? How do you find actors when your script depends so much on their performances?

McCarthy: It’s pretty straightforward. Get the right person for the role. I wish there was more to that. Having been an actor, I’ve come up with some of these people. Mark Ruffalo was the first actor I went out to. He read it and was like, “It’s really wonderful.” I said, “Maybe you should vet it with the people you work with.” Keaton was always on the shortlist. Rachel was one that didn’t spring to mind. Someone recommended her, and I met with her. You’re always looking for a certain quality and to have some room to move. When I was watching the cut, I remember halfway through I noticed she’s an amazing listener. I think the best actors are the best listeners.

Abrahamson: For me, because children change so quickly, we couldn’t start too early. You give yourself four to six months to find a child. It was pretty nerve-wracking. I was aware there was a reasonable risk we wouldn’t find a boy that would seem young enough to believe the myths his mother has created. There were hundreds of kids on tape. Jake was 7 when I met him. You want to see if you can direct him. How natural he is in terms of the camera. For Brie, I had a list of actresses of that age. Someone in the office said, “You should see this film ‘Short Term 12.’”

ON THE SPOT: Tom McCarthy cast Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton as journalists.
Courtesy of A24

McCarthy: How was their relationship?

Abrahamson: Fabulous. There was a scene early on, he had to get angry at her because she doesn’t have candles on his birthday cake. I couldn’t get him to bark at her. Eventually, he whispered to me, “Shouting is rude, and I really like her.” I thought, “Oh God — he’s only a kid.” That’s a point where I realized the boundaries between the drama and reality were blurring for him. I got the crew together and we had a shouting competition.

How do each of you like to watch movies? And what do you think of VOD?

Abrahamson: I love the cinema, but I’m not a fascist about it. I’ve had some of my best experiences watching things on TV. But if I were Stalin, I would force everyone to be in the theater.

McCarthy: I obviously favor the theater. Just being at the Angelika last night — even with the uncomfortable seats and the train rumbling below, it just feels good. What I don’t love is when people watch these types of movies on computer screens. You’re not having the same immersive experience on a lot of levels. I’ve noticed this thing with my wife, who loves movies. If we watch at home, occasionally she gets up. I’m like, “What are you doing?” She says, “I’m going to the bathroom.” It’s so alarming to me. She never goes to the bathroom in the movie theater.

Abrahamson: If somebody made the commitment to go to the movie theater, I think it buys you 10 minutes at the beginning of your movie to be slow. The terrifying thing about watching at home, there’s a hair trigger on that remote. They could decide to switch it off. Did you shoot digital?

McCarthy: Yeah.

Abrahamson: I did as well. I think digital is getting so much better. It’s harder and harder to make the argument now for film. All things being equal, though, I still prefer to capture on film. It’s a strange analogy, but it’s like men who grew up during the Second World War in Britain. There were these gas mask fetish magazines for guys who were turned on by women in gas masks. I guarantee that the people who go to the cinema now and see things that mean something to them and it’s shot digitally, they are having the same experience.

We keep hearing stories about how impossible it is to finance a mid-budget movie now.

McCarthy: We had a strong script to start. We had momentum, but it was consistently stopped by no specific force. It was just the environment of the filmmaking world. Films that live outside the genre films are getting harder and harder to make. People want everything in place before greenlighting a movie. Filmmaking has never been like that. There’s always a leap of faith.

Abrahamson: Emma didn’t sign the rights to us in the usual way. We had a good faith agreement. We worked on the script together. I think the rights to the novel were formally assigned a couple weeks before we started shooting.

McCarthy: I can’t believe they let you get that far.

Abrahamson: She wanted to protect her baby. We respected that.

McCarthy: I’m not surprised that you had a healthy collaboration. I’m surprised they allowed you to do that.

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