It’s great when you get to spend time with a director like Lenny Abrahamson at this point in his career. Abrahamson, who got a good amount of attention for 2014’s Frank (you know, the one where Michael Fassbender wears a Deadmau5-type mask on his head for pretty much the whole movie), but this is his first taste at real success. It’s the type of success that wins you the coveted Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival and has your name and your movie, Room, circulating in serious Academy Awards chatter. When you meet Lenny Abrahamson today, he’s got that wide-eyed, “I can’t believe this is all happening to me,” look on his face. This face never lasts forever. It’s impossible. But right now, for Abrahamson, it exists and he seems to be very much enjoying all of this.
That’s not to say Abrahamson isn’t confident about his product. Oh, he’s very confident he has something special with Room. (An opinion we happen to agree with.) And he’s very confident about his two stars, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.
Based off the best selling book of the same name, Larson plays Joy, a young woman who has been held captive in a fortified shed for the last seven years by a man who regularly abuses her. She lives in this shed, called “Room,” with a 5-year-old boy named Jack, a child born out of this awful situation she finds herself.
Abrahamson is also quick to defend his movie. He was well-aware when an opinion that Room was only for “women and feminized” critics got some attention. Here, he responds to that assertion. Quick hint: He disagrees. (Ahead, we get into some specific plot points of Room that you would know from watching the trailer, but if you want to go in knowing nothing, this serves as your spoiler warning.)
Room is an emotional movie. Could you feel that emotion on set, that you knew you had something good?
I’ll tell you, definitely. Some of the early scenes in Room, as we were putting them together, I could sort of feel the tension receding and I could feel that sort of excitement because I knew it was really good. And I knew what was happening between Brie and Jacob was really strong. I thought that this was nothing like anything I had ever seen before, and there’s something directly compelling about it. A few weeks into the film, as we were assembling the shoot, we felt, yeah, this is pretty good.
How did you make sure the relationship between Brie and Jake worked, because without that relationship, this movie doesn’t work?
We knew that we needed to have an actor who was lovely as a person – who was lively, zingy, clever, warm as a person. Because, actually, one of the jobs this actor is going to have to do is form a relationship with this boy — in reality, not just on-screen.
Their situation is dire, but the movie doesn’t make it feel as dire as it could be because of their relationship.
She’s making it work. People ask me about that and I say, “The film is about a happy child.” So, they’re functioning.
I don’t think it’s a secret the whole movie doesn’t take place in one room…
There’s a very emotional scene halfway through the movie when they escape that felt understated. You didn’t “go for it” with huge swells or slow motion, and it works so well as just this raw moment.
It kills people.
I was warned I would cry. That scene got me.
I made the film the same way I’ve made every other film. I knew the film had a real commercial possibility, because of what it is. But I never thought to myself that I’m going to change my way of working – that I’m going to be a bit less subtle and a bit more direct. I made the film as truthfully as I could. The way I shot that scene is very much the way I would always have shot it. And there’s that really quiet story moment where she comes up to the window…
And you still don’t know 100 percent what’s for sure happening.
No, you don’t. So, I’m not spoon-feeding the audience at any time… It’s a story with commercial potential, but approaching it with that kind of degree of integrity to the extent that I could, audiences understand it and they go for it. And the feeling they get, the emotion they get, is so non-manipulated, that they have ownership of that feeling. They don’t walk out feeling, “Oh, I’ve been to see one of those movies where you do a bit of crying.” They feel they’ve really encountered something that moved them, and it goes against all the cynical stuff that we’re told about how to make a film.
In a lot of movies, the scene we are discussing is the last scene, not right in the middle.
And that was a big challenge in the structure: How do you put what would normally be the climax of the film in the middle and not lose the tension? How do you preserve that? And I think the answer is, what do we really care about? We care about these two characters. We care about the relationship between the mother and the son. And you play with the anti-climax. You play with the sort of, “Hang on a second, this film isn’t over? Why not?” And then by introducing little bits of tension quickly, you go, “Oh, fuck, of course. Of course it’s not going to be simple.” It’s actually, in a peculiar way, going to be more challenging for them as people than it was on the inside, particularly for the mother. And by introducing Joan Allen and Bill Macy [as Joy’s parents], you’re telling an audience the movie definitely is not over.
Here are two famous people having their first scene.
That’s like a meta-level filmmaking move: Introduce someone famous and people know something is meant by that.
William H. Macy’s role in this is complex. He has a lot of problems with accepting Jack.
He can’t look at him.
It sparked a debate after. People question how he can be cruel to Jack, but Jack also represents his daughter being raped.
Right. How is he supposed to put his arm around this man’s son?
There are issues that aren’t resolved when this movie ends, which feels genuine. If you rushed them to a conclusion, it would feel fake.
Exactly. He extracts himself from that situation because he knows he’s toxic. He knows he can’t be there. What we use that specifically for is to get Brie’s character into her decline… and you start to go, “This is really quite dangerous.” It’s a different kind of danger, but it’s equally as dangerous.
A post saying “women and feminized critics” would be the only people to like Room got some attention recently.
Well, I think they’re wrong. You know, there have been one or two reviews that have been like that. I think if you’ve ever been a person or a human being – I’m amazed, it’s young guys; young guys are very emotionally moved by it. Older men, as well. I think what’s pretty remarkable is the breadth of the interest in the film. I don’t know what that is, but I just think people respond to something that is authentically emotional. That, for me, is what the film is. It is emotional, but it earns it. It’s not manipulative. Listen, is it was a standard weepie, I’d say, “Yeah, that’s for the ladies.” I absolutely do not think that’s the case here.
I’ve cried in movies where I know they want me to cry, and I realize I’m being tricked I into crying.
[Laughs] Listen, my wife shows me a picture of a baby and a kitten and I start crying, but I know that’s not very deep.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.