Dublin-born director Lenny Abrahamson made his feature debut in 2004 with “Adam & Paul,” a black comedy about a pair of hapless heroin addicts bumbling round the Irish capital in search of a fix. That such a potentially disastrous premise resulted in a film praised for its subtlety and humanity by the Guardian newspaper, which also acknowledged a nod to playwright Samuel Beckett, is a testament to Abrahamson’s uncanny ability to make the most unlikely stories accessible. His 2012 breakout film, “What Richard Did,” starring Jack Reynor as a well-to-do athlete whose life unravels after a vicious drunken assault, showed the director’s sensitivity with social issues. Somewhat perversely, he followed it last year with “Frank,” a surreal road movie about an eccentric rock star (played by Michael Fassbender) who is rarely seen without a paper mache head.
His fifth and latest film, “Room,” arrives at the Rome Film Festival as the most mainstream of his career – last month it won the Audience Award at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, an honor often seen as the bellwether of Oscar season – but yet again it defies easy categorization. Based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue, who adapted it for the screen, “Room” stars Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack, a mother and son whose entire world is limited to the four walls of a shabby, windowless prefab. In the Internet age, many of the film’s secrets have already been revealed, but Abrahamson is philosophical about spoilers. “If you go and see it and know nothing about, that’s ideal,” he says. “But I still think it plays very, very strongly if you have a rough idea of its shape.”
Variety: You have a very interesting filmography. You take the most unlikely elements of a story and turn them into something human and accessible. Is that something you’re aware of now?
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Abrahamson: Now I am. I always felt there was a kind of humanistic impulse in my thinking about film, as well as a real interest in its formal and aesthetic properties – just this idea that it can bring you into a very intimate encounter with people. And in a way, it then becomes very surprising how connected you can make an audience feel with regard to very unlikely characters. And, yeah, I have noticed that, and that’s what usually what draws me into a project – that and the sense that there’s some complexity to be explored.
How easy was it to set up?
It was easy enough to set up. Because even though it has an unorthodox structure for a film and, on the surface of it, there are quite a few real challenges, like working with a small child, the fact that it was based on a very well-known and well-loved novel – and the fact that I had a track record – gave us a reasonable start. I have a long-standing relationship with Film 4, both Tessa Ross and David Kosse were incredibly supportive, and pretty quickly it came together. FilmNation were involved in international sales, as a Canadian citizen Emma brought us money from Canada as well as money from Ireland. A24 bought the rights to the film in Cannes, and we were pretty much there. So it was smooth.
Was there an existing script when you came on board?
There was, but I didn’t know that initially. I’d read the novel and I wrote Emma a very long letter saying what I loved about, how I felt it worked as a novel and what I would like to do with it. It turns out that she had already had a go at it, because she wanted to test herself. So once we got into serious conversation she showed me the script, and actually it was a very good first draft and a brilliant basis to start with. It ended up being about a year and half to two year’s work that we did together. It was a really great relationship. I know that it’s axiomatic in the film industry that you’re not supposed to let the novelist develop their own story. Well, first of all, that’s kind of up to the novelist – because they don’t have to sell it. But also I don’t believe it. It’s about trust. And it worked out.
Was there ever pressure to cast a name star?
It was such a great part that it did attract a lot of people. And it’s an advantage of working with intelligent financiers and producers that nobody was pushing me. Because it’s such an unusual premise for a film, no star on their own is gonna get an audience in. So we always recognized that the way to make this film with a chance of getting it to an audience was to make it really good. And that means casting the person who is most likely to be that mother, in the right way. It’s also, I think, more interesting to have an audience come with few preconceptions about that person, so they can discover the character just a little bit more. Ultimately, that is a better way into the film. And also, Brie just happens to be perfect: amazing as an actor and very warm as a person. She’s very unique.
Where did you find Jacob?
He’s from Vancouver, and he came at the end of a huge, big search. There were times when I really thought we wouldn’t find a boy like that, or that maybe such a boy wouldn’t exist: being that young, or looking that young, and having the stamina and the ability to take direction. But then up he came and… he’s a remarkable boy. Very unspoiled. And he has these instincts, these actorly instincts, that he’s discovering himself now. You could see him getting closer to that as the shoot went on. He got more in touch with those muscles. I think it’s a pretty extraordinary performance, and I don’t think there’s a crack in it.
Was he aware that it was all make-believe?
Yes – he’s aware of the make-believe of it all, he understands what acting is. But then you use everything that you can. Sometimes you use examples from his own life that make sense to him. You coach, you sometimes use call-and-repeat, but sometimes he would just come through a full scene with all the pauses and everything, just natural. You can’t puppeteer, you just can’t. That’s never gonna work. The eyes won’t be right. The way I describe it is, there had to have been a time in Tiger Woods’s life where he’d never held a golf club. I think it’s the same with Jake – he’s discovering these techniques and this way of working.
How are you feeling about the buzz the film has been generating?
We all thought there was a possibility, right from the beginning, because it’s so unusual and the parts are so strong. But you could never predict it. We thought, OK, maybe in some ideal world that could happen. But it actually happening is a kind of shock. A really pleasant one, but a shock nevertheless. Once I saw the film with an audience, I thought, ‘This really does play, very strongly.’ But there are so many films released at this time of year – Telluride and Toronto had so many high-profile films – that there’s no way I would have predicted that it would win the Audience Award at Toronto. Absolutely no way. But it continues. It just won the Hamptons audience award, and Aspen and Calgary… So audiences do respond it it, and what’s pleasing about all the awards talk is that it stems from that. We didn’t enter the season as an obvious awards film. The film had to earn its place, so that’s really satisfying.