Lenny Abrahamson: ‘I was offered some very high-profile prestige movies’
The Dubliner on the exhausting success of Room, anti-Semitism and his ghostly The Little Stranger
Lenny Abahamson on anti-Semitism: “You are in the box that stuff is pointed at, and your children are too. That’s quite a thing”
Lenny Abrahamson clatters into the conference room of Element Pictures’ canal-side Dublin offices. The window is open on early autumnal sun. He has biscuits.
It is 2½ years since he received his Oscar nomination for Room. That campaign pushed him from press interview to lesser award to photo shoot. More than a few wags have pointed out the word “campaign” is used in connection with both the Oscars and land wars.
“I was very tired after Room and I just felt that I needed to regroup,” he says. “I don’t mean after the film. I mean the campaign. You do get sick of yourself – unless you’re a total narcissist.”
Even before the release of Room in 2015, Abrahamson had been identified as the nation’s fastest rising film-maker. Building on a career in advertising, he had a critical smash with Adam & Paul, his first feature, in 2004 and then delivered on the potential with Garage, What Richard Did and Frank. But Room really pushed him to another level. Abrahamson, a jolly, articulate Dubliner in robust middle age, was nominated as best director alongside such giants as Alejandro G Iñárritu and George Miller. After that, the offers rolled in.
We know that the big franchises – your Star Wars and your Jurassic Park – have actively sought independent directors. He must have been in that frame.
“There’s no doubt those franchises are mining people like me,” he says. “Nobody came along and said: ‘We want you to do this huge big film.’ But I was asked by powerful people if I wanted to put my hat in the ring. It’s normally an agent thing: ‘We are being asked if any of these small number of people might be interested.’ ”
After some pondering, he decided not to enter the rooms he was being invited to enter.
“I was, however, offered some very high-profile ‘prestige’ movies. Not tent-pole things but … ”
What we might call “Oscar films”?
“Exactly. I didn’t say I wouldn’t entertain that possibility. It was very flattering.”
I believe him when he says that he expresses no regrets for that decision. Just look at the grief that has come the way of directors on Star Wars projects.
“Your auntie will say: ‘You’ll be making a big blockbuster next,’ ” he chuckles. “And you have to say: ‘That’s not really my taste.’ That’s a lot easier to say when nobody’s offering you that. When they are saying ‘You could be in this world if you wanted to be’, it’s a bit different. Anybody would think about it.”
Oblique ghost story
Abrahamson stuck to his guns and elected to continue with a long-planned adaptation of Sarah Waters’s oblique near-ghost story The Little Stranger. The resulting film, starring Domhnall Gleeson as a humbly born doctor drawn into a decaying upper-class English family in the years after the second World War, is another intelligent, subtly crafted piece of work. The picture has much to say about the postwar rearrangements. Gleeson and Ruth Wilson tease out an awkward romance.
“Sarah Waters originally wrote is as a straight-up historical depiction of postwar Britain,” he says. “The film does that also. I am keen on that naive stance where I show things as if I really believe they’re happening, rather than go with a genre presentation.”
That could be a problem. The trailer for The Little Stranger looks to be flogging it as straight-up ghost story. The film is something different. It’s a drama with whispers of the macabre at the corners.
“The general messaging in the UK has been more towards the drama and less about the ghosty stuff,” he says. “In America they made a decision to do something else. I get it. But the risk is you’ll get horror fans going to see it and it’s not really a film for horror fans. You’ll get younger males.”
In recent years a number of odd horror films and odd films that looked a bit like horror films – Hereditary and It Comes at Night, to name a couple – have scored rock-bottom audience-research scores after receiving critical raves. There is a sense that many fans want only what they already know they want.
“People’s expectations around certain genres – particularly horror – are very refined, in that they know what they want it to be,” Abrahamson says. “It’s like going for a burger. You know what you like and expect. The spectrum is narrower, and if you step outside that, it’s hard to bring that audience with you.”
Fans of The Little Stranger have made grumbling noises about how the film was handled in the United States. You would expect a prestige picture from an Oscar-nominated director to premiere at either Cannes or one of the early autumn festivals – Venice, Telluride, Toronto – and then open commercially in the long awards season. The Little Stranger emerged in August. “A pity that Focus Features is burying Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, an exquisitely restrained British gothic,” Justin Chang, the chief critic of the LA Times, commented on Twitter. Guy Lodge of Variety, another supporter of the film, questioned the August unveiling and the decision to allow “no reviews until the day of release”.
“It’s absolutely wrong to say it was buried,” Abrahamson says. “It’s perhaps the opposite. It was released quite widely. But doing that invites a certain expectation.”
Abrahamson, a scholar at Trinity College Dublin who spent time researching a PhD at Stanford, knows how to choose his words carefully.
“My preference would have been to go via festivals and build critical reaction,” he says. “And there has been a generally good critical response.”
Abrahamson is to shoot an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People for the BBC. He is pretty certain that the next film will be the story of Emile Griffith, a bisexual boxer whose 1962 fight with Benny Paret resulted in that fighter’s death. That will allow him to have a crack at a true story. It will also see him getting a screenwriting credit on one of his features for the first time.
“I want to do the Sally Rooney because I absolutely believe in it and I think we can do something very special with it,” he says.
Abrahamson now finds himself in a peculiar position. The son of a solicitor, he lived the life that middle-class children tended to live in the 1970s. After university – at a time when any sort of Irish film was very rare – he made a much-admired short called 3 Joes and then drifted into the lucrative world of advertising. The first Abrahamson film you saw was probably a spot for a beer company or a mobile phone manufacturer.
People in the industry knew who he was. Film buffs knew who he was, but the Oscars made him into something like a local celebrity. Brie Larson won best actress for Room. Abrahamson made do with the nomination.
“By the time the day came, I was so tired and wanted it to be over,” he says. “Now we’d been through this craziness, it was important that Brie won. Once that happened it was relief. Then I just felt that I wanted to go home. My wife was there. My mum was there. My mum wanted to go the Vanity Fair party and all that. She got to do that. She’s quite glamorous, my mum. She likes fashion. I wanted her to have a good time.”
Then a sort of normality returned. Abrahamson and his wife, Monika Pamula, a film studies teacher, settled down to raising their two children and walking the dog. But something had altered. The media wanted to know his opinion on this and that. He was asked to cut ribbons. He was asked to advise students. My impression is he has been generous with his time.
“I spoke on the referendum recently,” he says. “I put some real time into writing something for that. I am interested in separation of church and state – particularly in education. I am involved with Educate Together. The kids are in that school and blah, blah. But it is an odd thing. It always feels a bit ridiculous. I am very self-critical.”
That engagement has generated the inevitable digital kickback from lunatics with active thumbs and too much time on their hands. I have noticed the odd anti-Semitic response on Twitter.
“Yeah, I was surprised at that,” he says with a philosophical shrug. “You’ll see Irish tweeters using the alt-right language and using ‘indigenous Irish’ in their bios. All that George Soros stuff. ‘Globalist.’ All those euphemisms for Jews. I actually feel overwhelmingly supported here, but it’s weird that I even have to say that. I’m not practising. But that doesn’t matter. It’s not a category you put yourself in. It’s a category that you just seem to be in and always will be in.”
He is impressively calm about all this. I can imagine many reasonable people in his position blowing their top.
“You are in the box that stuff is pointed at, and your children are too. That’s quite a thing,” he sighs. “My favourite one was at the time of the referendum – my wife quotes it quite regularly – ‘Mediocre Jewish film-maker wants us to kill Irish babies.’ That was a goodie.”
He cackles at the memory.
“My only response was: ‘Mediocre? How dare you?’ Ha ha!”
THE FEATURES OF LENNY ABRAHAMSON
Adam & Paul (2004)
This dark comedy written by Mark O’Halloran – a meld of Laurel and Hardy and Beckett – followed a pair of heroin addicts around a heightened Dublin.
Pat Shortt is brilliant as a decent man whose relationship with a young boy gets misconstrued and leads to tragedy. One of the great last shots in Irish cinema.
What Richard Did (2012)
Brushing against a notorious Irish case, Abrahamson’s third feature cast Jack Reynor – a star minutes later – as a south Dublin rugby player involved with a mysterious death. Timely.
Confirming his unclassifiable aesthetic, Abrahamson veered off for the tale of an eccentric musician and his band of varied followers. Michael Fassbender stars as somebody other than Frank Sidebottom.
Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel concerning a boy imprisoned by a maniac in a shed with his brave mother. Brie Larson won the Oscar. Abrahamson was nominated. Irish cinema had arrived.
The Little Stranger (2018)
Domhnall Gleeson plays a doctor who, raised in a working-class home, becomes drawn into the raw concerns of a debt-ridden upper-class family. Not quite a ghost story.