Lenny Abrahamson: ‘I couldn’t bear the idea that I wasn’t the smartest’

The brain-box Irish film-maker suddenly finds himself a hot Oscar prospect with his acclaimed fifth feature, which is tearing up the awards trail

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson talks to donald Clarke about his Oscar-nominated film 'Room'.


Lenny Abrahamson has always been a bit of a clever clogs. Just ask him. It wasn’t enough for him to go to university – he had to do theoretical physics at Trinity; it wasn’t enough for him to make a feature film – with Adam & Paul (2004), he only went and crafted the best debut Irish feature ever.

Even back at school, Abrahamson admits that he was spurred along by a desire to be the smartest kid in the room.

“It drove me as a kid,” he says. “I couldn’t bear the idea that I wasn’t the smartest. Then I got put in a B stream for four years at my school. And that was the making of me in a weird way.”

This guiding principle led him to Trinity’s physics department, but not for long. “I did theoretical physics because I thought that’s what really fucking clever people do. It took me a year to realise ‘oh, shit’.”

And so to the philosophy department, where Abrahamson proved his smarts once again: he was elected a scholar in mental and moral science in 1988 and was offered a scholarship to study for a PhD in philosophy at Stanford University.

Well, he didn’t last. Before departing for the US, Abrahamson had completed a short film, 3 Joes (1991), with a cast of budding actors that included Gary Cooke, Mikel Murfi, and Dominic West. The project became a nagging what-if for its director.

“Having started in sciences, I then turned around and said oh, I don’t want to do sciences. I want to do philosophy. And to their credit my parents said, ‘if that’s what you want to do, then go for it’. Then I got the scholarship to Stanford, which was very nice for the parents to talk to their friends about.

“And then you turn around and say, ‘Remember that time I made a short film? That’s actually what I want to do.’ So they had to watch for four – well, maybe six – years of abject crapness. That was the reality of stepping off the track. I started to make some commercials, which was a way for me to finally make a living at last. But it was only really a couple of films in that it looked like a viable career option.”

He laughs. “I got lucky because I knew nothing about it. If you’re ever silly enough to look at the odds – the BFI did a study recently – and if you take 100 people who get to make a feature film, and that’s already good going, 10 of those will make a second film, three of those will make a third, down to one for a fourth. I’m glad I didn’t know how slim the odds of survival were.”

Prize winners

You can’t argue with the results. Adam & Paul won rave notices and eight Ifta nominations. Garage took the CICAE Art and Essai Cinema Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at the 25th Torino Film Festival. What Richard Did was the most commercially successful Irish film of 2012. And, last year, Frank scored 92 per cent on the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s a good haul, but nothing can compare to the response to his new film. Since premiering at Telluride, Room has emerged as a major awards season contender.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, it took home the Oscar-predictive audience award. Recent TIFF People’s Choice winners that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar include 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and American Beauty. And then there were further nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Next week, Abrahamson will be dusting down his dinner jacket in time for the annual Golden Globes shindig, where Room has garnered nominations for best picture (Drama), best actress for Brie Larson and best screenplay.

Larson is currently the strong favourite to win at the Globes and the Oscars: her odds are quoted at an unenticing 8/11.

The Oscar buzz means Abrahamson has hit the awards season trail – hard. “I am three months in, with another two to go. If my family survive, it’ll be a miracle. And it varies, because you get proper interviews and then you get: ‘Quick question at the end: Beatles or Stones?’ Honestly, I’d have to think about that for years.”

The novel Room was written by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue, inspired by the Josef Fritzl case and published with much fanfare in 2010. Abrahamson was immediately taken with the book and wrote a 10-page pitch letter to the author. Neither he nor his longtime producer Ed Guiney were wildly confident they could secure the rights: Room was a hot property. Even Barack Obama had been pictured coming out of a bookshop in Martha’s Vineyard with a copy.

Happily, Abrahamson’s missive did the trick: Room sees Larson play Ma, a kidnap victim who has given birth while imprisoned in a single room for seven years. She struggles to raise her son Jack (SAG nominee Jacob Tremblay) without revealing the awfulness of their situation. Just after Jack’s fifth birthday, Ma formulates a plan to help them to escape. But other plans have failed. And what then?

Crime without a crime

Abrahamson has successfully arranged the material into the pleasing shape of a nail-biting thriller. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have: Room is a kidnap story that takes place years after the kidnap; it is, mostly, confined to one small room; it is a crime thriller in which we see no crimes. On paper it’s not the most strikingly cinematic prospect, is it?

“Ah. But when we say ‘cinematic’, we tend to think John Ford and vistas and wide- open spaces. Or we think of kinetic camera movement or of a certain number of cinematic styles, like film noir,” he says. “But I thought the tension between this objective confinement and the boy’s experience of it on the other – the completeness of his world – was really interesting. And how to construct the tone and the passage of time: these are all very filmic things.

“Faces, too. Think about John Cassavetes’s films – Faces for one – and think about how textured a face can be on screen. That was a big reference for me.”

But isn’t Abrahamson still being the smartest kid in the room? Most reviews did describe Room the novel as “unfilmable”.

“I never thought of that, but yes. There is definitely a part of me that read that novel and thought, this is really hard; nobody is going to be able to film this. And that – married to the emotional impact of the novel – made me want to do it. And every time I read the word ‘unfilmable’, that just sold me.

“There’s a craft angle. And craft is what I take the most pride in as a film-maker. It’s the challenge of saying, let’s make a table with loads of complicated inlay that also folds out into a bed or something. Room is my complicated table.”

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