‘Room’: Creating a Whole World in a 10-Foot Space

Modular set was constructed with an eye toward preserving the innocence of 7-year-old Jacob Tremblay's performance.

Room Movie Cinematography and Production Design
Courtesy of A24

When you’re making a film, half of which takes place within the confines of a 10×10-foot space, featuring a child actor who can only work eight hours a day, not to mention a 70-person crew that needs access to that space, it’s safe to say necessity becomes the mother of invention. That’s just what helmer Lenny Abrahamson and his team experienced when they went about shooting “Room.”

“From the beginning, I was keen that we had one set,” the director says. There was early talk of conceiving different versions of the film’s eponymous containment cell — built to imprison a 17-year-old girl and the son she conceived while trapped as a sex slave — for different purposes, but Abrahamson felt that would blow the integrity of the experience for 7-year-old star Jacob Tremblay. Similarly, moving out whole walls for shooting might have shattered the illusion and impacted the performance.

“The idea I proposed was that we approach it like an inverted Rubik’s Cube,” production designer Ethan Tobman says. “So the floor, the walls, the ceiling — they were all comprised of one-by-one-foot tiles that were modular and could be jettisoned out.” This allowed for production to maintain a rule that every shot be achievable within the space, meaning sometimes the camera would be outside the room with the lens poking in through a removed tile.

“The idea I proposed was that we approach it like an inverted Rubik’s Cube.”
Ethan Tobman

“You could shoot from down beneath the floor or sneak lights in where necessary without creating a huge gap by pulling an entire wall out,” Tobman says. “That created an incredible challenge for the crew, but an incredible intimacy for the performers.”

It also allowed Abrahamson to shoot many scenes with two cameras. “We didn’t want to not get a great performance,” cinematographer Danny Cohen says. “So we had options of shooting two sizes on Jake or a Jake shot and a Brie (Larson) shot simultaneously. What was interesting was to not detract from Jake the fact that his world had been that room.”

Tobman notes, the “Room” set might well have been the largest set any of the three had ever shot, “because every square millimeter of this location had to be imbued with so much life and history and detail. We sort of approached the material as a lunar landscape, where every crater was a clue to a richer backstory.”

Larson and Tremblay rehearsed intimately with the space, which was also important to Abrahamson. They made their own props, like aluminum foil measuring cups and little toys and ornaments scattered throughout, while Tobman and his set decorator tried to get inside the head of the kidnapper, Old Nick. “We needed to limit ourselves to his own economic, geographic and tempo limitations,” Tobman says. “If we ever found ourselves thinking about what would look good on camera, we had to see that through the prism of what Old Nick would actually be able to pull off.”

The result, built on a soundstage at Pinewood Toronto Studios, was an atypical concept, but one that paid off in spades for Abrahamson creatively. “We had to struggle with it, but it led to something more interesting visually,” he says.