June 26, 2019

Director casts ‘Room’ in compassionate light

Lenny Abrahamson jokes that he is perhaps the third best-known Jew in Ireland. The first is former Israeli President Chaim Herzog, who grew up in Dublin on the same street as Abrahamson’s mother and played with her as a boy; the second is the fictional character of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and the third is Abrahamson, director of the Oscar-nominated “Room” and grandson of a Polish immigrant kosher butcher who grew up attending an Orthodox cheder and synagogue in Dublin.

Abrahamson, 49, is also one of the most lauded filmmakers in his native land, after Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”) and Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”). He established his place in Irish cinema with art house movies such as “Adam & Paul,” “Garage” and “What Richard Did,” all of which explore the lives of outsiders in his country.

Now “Room” is up for four Academy Awards, including best picture and director, a best actress nod for Brie Larson and a screenwriting nomination for Emma Donoghue, who adapted the film from her 2010 best-selling novel of the same name.

But this kidnapping saga takes place in the American heartland, which might, at least at first, seem an unusual departure for the Irish-Jewish director.

The film revolves around the relationship between “Ma” (Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who are held captive in a backyard shed. Ma was kidnapped seven years before by a sexual predator.

Ma, who continues to be forced to have sex with her captor, bore Jack in the room, and is doing her best to raise the boy in what is, for him, his whole universe. But they also have a TV and a single skylight, and as Jack grows older and begins asking questions about the outside world, risking an escape seems the only way for Ma to keep her son safe.

Abrahamson was intensely drawn to the story when he first read the novel in 2011: “A lot of my work has a kind of sad humaneness to it, a bittersweet sort of sensibility that I associate with a certain kind of Jewish experience,” the director said over breakfast at a Beverly Hills hotel recently. He made his first short film at 20, about his grandfather’s experience of deprivation and anti-Semitism in a Polish shtetl.

“In the simplest way, I was just very moved by the novel,” he said of “Room.” “I have my own boy, who was nearly 4 at the time, and if you’ve got a sad or melancholy turn of mind like I do — which certainly can be in the Jewish personality — it reminded me of the extraordinary beauty and vulnerability of my son. I felt that Emma captured the voice of Jack so wonderfully, and that she also used this bleak, dark situation to tell a universal story of what it is to be a parent and what it is to be parented. And, as well, what it is to leave the mythologized comfort of childhood and to go out into the world, which is a colder place and where the shadows are harder to define.”

Even though half of the novel takes place in the confines of a dingy 11-by-11-foot room, Abrahamson immediately saw the story’s cinematic potential. “When we think of the adjective ‘cinematic,’ it’s often used as a synonym for films with big, open spaces or kinetic camera movements,” he said. “But I think the camera can also be the most intimate tool for a close encounter with people. The first images I had in my head reading the novel were of the faces of mother and son together, and just the texture of their lives lived in this cyclical pattern of days in this little box. I thought, ‘What a fascinating world to evoke in a movie.’ ”

Top American directors were already lining up to purchase the rights to Donoghue’s novel, at a time, Abrahamson said, when he wasn’t well known outside Ireland. “So I knew I needed to knock on her door, effectively,” he said.

Abrahamson wrote Donoghue an impassioned 10-page letter, which not only discussed how moved he had been by the book, but also described how he would adapt the story for the screen. He wrote that he would not flash back and forth between the captivity and its aftermath, nor would he use magical realism to reveal Jack’s internal flights of imagination. Rather, he would focus on what he calls the “you-are-there thing.”

“I said this would not be a film about captivity or suffering, but that it’s first of all a story about what’s really essential to a child,” he said.

“In romantic fiction, we’re used to seeing a relationship put under tremendous pressure — but you rarely get to see parenthood put under that intense kind of pressure. And that’s what this film is.”

Yet it was only after Abrahamson had made his 2014 film, “Frank,” starring A-list actor Michael Fassbender as an eccentric British musician, that Donoghue finally agreed to speak with the director. After a 4 1/2-hour meeting near the author’s home in Canada, Abrahamson landed the job.

In preparation to direct the movie, Abrahamson watched interviews with former kidnapping victims, such as Elizabeth Smart; he also spoke to experts specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder, such as John Briere of USC. Those conversations helped him understand why Ma psychologically collapses only after escaping her captor: “In a survival situation, you suppress the things that are impossible to deal with and concentrate only on the reality of the need to survive,” Abrahamson said. “But once a person is out of that immediate danger, they are free to deal with what they’ve lost and the damage that’s been done. That’s traditionally when all the trauma that’s been suppressed comes rushing up.”

One rule Abrahamson set for “Room” was that, “We didn’t want to focus on the sexual abuse,” he said. “What you’re instead looking at is like a parody of the worst marriage ever, not the moments of extreme emotion in which Ma’s just been kidnapped and raped. Ma and her [captor] are arguing about how much food he brings in and why it isn’t better, and he’s pissed off that she’s not more grateful for what he does for her. So you’re looking at the least sexual and dramatic kidnapping context possible.”

Paramount on Abrahamson’s mind throughout the shoot was protecting his now 9-year-old actor from the darker aspects of the story. To elicit Tremblay’s performance, the director described the film as a fairy tale, as if “Jack and Ma are in a little house in the forest and [the captor] has locked them in,” Abrahamson said. “That’s all he needed to know.

“And I have to say he was the happiest little boy on the set,” the director added. “He used to bounce in every day, and he kept our spirits up, just like the character does in the novel.” 

The Academy Awards will air Feb. 28 on ABC.