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From the Archive: Room with Emma Donoghue and Lenny Abrahamson

Nothing Concrete text
14 Apr 2021
25 min listen

In this week’s archive edition we return to the cinema and find ourselves trapped in the claustrophobic Oscar winning drama Room…


From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast I’m Ben Eshmade and on this week’s archive edition we return to the cinema and find ourselves trapped in the claustrophobic Oscar winning drama Room…

Emma Donoghue: ‘With writing the book and then with making the film we always wanted to get that sort of tonal balance between the light and the dark, you know. So, we never wanted it to be too creepy and we never wanted it to be too sweet either’

Lenny Abrahamson: ‘Yeah and I think it’s a love poem to a child…I felt that when I read it, my own little boy was nearly four - so I could see him, so much of him in Jack’.

BE: The film tells the incredible tale of Ma (played by Brie Larson) who with her five year old son, Jack, (played by Jacob Tremblay) are trapped and held against their will in what they refer to as Room. Once they do gain their freedom, we experience with awe the world through the eye of Jack for the very first time.

Ma (Brie Larson): I was a little girl named Joy
Jack (Jacob Tremblay): Ma
Ma (Brie Larson): And I lived in a house with my mum and my dad, you would call them grandma and grandpa Jack (Jacob Tremblay): What? House?
Ma (Brie Larson): A house! It was in the world, and there was a backyard, and there was a hammock, and we would swing in the hammock and we would eat ice-cream
Jack (Jacob Tremblay): A TV house? Ma (Brie Larson): No Jack, a real house, not TV. Are you even listening to me?

BE: The film is based on the book by Emma Donoghue who also wrote the screenplay. Lenny Abrahamson directed, whose previous films include What Richard Did and before this, the wonderful yet bizarre Frank.

Ma (Brie Larson): When I was a little older, when I was seventeen, I was walking home from
Jack (Jacob Tremblay): Where was I?
Ma (Brie Larson): You were still up in heaven. There was a guy, he pretended that his dog was sick Jack (Jacob Tremblay): What guy?
Ma (Brie Larson): Old Nick. We called him Old Nick, I don’t know what his real name is, but he pretended his dog was sick
Jack (Jacob Tremblay): What’s the dog’s name?
Ma (Brie Larson): Jack there wasn’t a dog! He was trying to trick me, okay? There wasn’t a dog like Old Nick told me… Jack (Jacob Tremblay): I want a different story
Ma (Brie Larson): No ! This is the story that you get!

BE: I spoke to this pair about the film in a posh hotel in Central London. Despite the subject matter it felt like a project they were very proud to be part of, and I started by talking to Emma…

BE: where did this story come from? I believe you weren’t expecting it when it sort of arrived?

ED: Well, in a sense, it was from hearing the Fritzl case in Austria, but really it was from having two small children. And I’d found motherhood a real shock to my system, even though I completely chose to become a mother, and I was parenting under ideal circumstances with a very committed co-parent in the shape of my partner, and still, I found it at times very confining and frustrating and I was startled by what it brought out in me, sometimes the saint and sometimes the witch. So when I heard about the Fritzl case, I was fascinated by the notion of how you could possibly parent and parent well in a locked room, and then I though, ooh, a child brought up that way would have such an interesting angle on the situation and on our whole world. So yeah, I thought, I read the book from the point of view of the child in the situation like that, but it’ll have none of the details in common with the Fritzl case, and really, it could’ve been any of those cases that inspired it, it’s just the Fritzl case came first.

BE: If you were explaining the film to someone else, and you were saying this is the mother and the child, trapped in this room, and it’s what happens within that, it’s a very unfair description of the film, and originally of the book. It goes far beyond that.

ED: I often say it’s the story of a childhood, and a pretty happy childhood, and of a boy who gradually realises that the world is other than he thought. But like, many children, they grow up with a magical view of things and then their parents have to gradually admit, item by item, that the world is way more complicated and bigger and scarier. I mean, you know, I’ve had to be explain fundamentalism and terrorism to my children these last few weeks. So, I think what has kept Room the book and film so moving for readers and audiences, is actually there’s something very universal about these patterns.

We may not all be locked up and giving birth to our kidnappers’ child, but we’ve all had these situations where you’re desperately trying to protect your child and yet tell them what they need to know, you’re trying to keep them safe, but give them freedom, you’re trying to find that balance. Even as a society you’re trying to find that balance between safety and freedom and even more so when you’re a parent desperately trying to keep your child’s childhood happy.

BE: The word ‘room’, and this is interesting, ever since I’ve watched the film, I don’t even see it in the same way anymore, it’s such a loaded word due to what happens in the film.

ED: It’s true, for me it’s got a great echo of womb, but also I like the fact that it means enough space, you know, there’s a moment in the film where she says ‘we can’t have a dog we don’t have enough room’ and then she realises that he’s going to hear ‘room’ as in the room, and so she says ‘space’. It’s a lovely word to me because it suggests not only a limited space, but actually infinite space because for a child with a really active imagination, there’s enough room in any one room.

You know, that documentary a few years ago called ‘Babies’, what you saw was one baby growing up in an apartment in Japan, one baby in a mud house in Nigeria, and really they were all getting what they needed. The décor changed, the details changed, but they were all getting care, sensory exploration and a parent giving them enough eye contact and answers. Yeah it’s funny, with writing the book and making the film, we almost sort of wanted to get that sort of tonal balance between the light and the dark you know, so we never wanted it to be too creepy and we never wanted it to be too sweet either.

BE: Something that, again, may be different in the book compared to the film, but with the film, I didn’t realise how much I’d sort of bought into the film until they get out. And it was like a big sledgehammer.

ED: I think uh, readers of the book and viewers of the film are often kind of shocked to find themselves nostalgic for their captivity, yes it’s true. That’s why I think it’s great that Lenny stuck with the structure of the book, he didn’t intercut between past and present, he didn’t introduce any sort of flashback or any sort of distraction, he coops you up, he puts you through it for these 45 minutes, and yes, people often end up thinking ‘ but I like it in that horrible little room’, you know. But that’s good, because that involves you in Jack’s situation, and gives you those mixed feelings.

Ma (Brie Larson): Abracadabra
Jack (Jacob Tremblay): Now the candles.
Ma (Brie Larson): We don’t have any candles. I know…
Jack (Jacob Tremblay): You said a birthday cake for real. That means candles and fire
Ma (Brie Larson): Jack… it’s okay without the candles, it’s still a birthday cake
Jack (Jacob Tremblay): You should ask for candles for Sunday Treat, not dumb jeans.
Ma (Brie Larson): Sorry. I have to ask for stuff we really need that he can get easily.

BE: It’s obviously a very personal story to you, because I think you wrote a treatment of it as a screenplay.

ED: Yes, in fact I just went ahead and wrote an entire draft of the screenplay, and after the novel was written, and sold but net yet published, because I had a feeling that filmmakers might say ‘ooh, we don’t want you to develop it or adapt it yourself’, so I thought, well I’ll just go ahead and do it, because then at least I can say ‘look, here it is, what do you think, can we work together?’ I wasn’t really trying to be all like crazy possessive, it’s more that I wanted to say, will this work? And it worked out very well once I agreed to start working with Lenny Abrahamsson, he and I turned out to have very similar ideas about how to proceed, in that neither of us saw a need to completely change the plot or to make it a traditional three act structure, or escape from the room in the first half. So we both knew that you would have to do a lot to translate the techniques of the book in the film, but we were thinking along the same lines, very much through showing the boy’s view of the world through his interactions, his play, his dialogue with his mother.

We didn’t want to use big wedges of voiceover, we only added that very late and very sparingly, and neither of us felt that the audience needed to be spoon-fed by being sheltered from the kidnapping or anything. So we proceeded chronologically which is very unusual, and actually we filmed it in sequence as well, which is really odd… that made it way easier for the child actor, he was only seven, Jacob… And so for him to understand the enormous changes that his character was going to go through in the next couple of weeks, it really helped to film it in sequence, and all the other adult actors love that as well, I remember Joan Allan saying ‘I wish we could make all films this way’, because you know what you’re doing in each scene, you just get the after acting pieces.

BE: when you finally got to meet him on the set, Jack and Ma, what did you think? Did you have to adapt to a certain extent because these characters had been in your head for so long, or physical?

ED: Yes but at that point I had seen them on film and I had seen audition tapes, so again there’s less of a shock when the writer and screenwriter is involved in the process of casting. I had seen all of Brie’s films at this point. What I didn’t expect was that she would be so nice and down to earth, I mean my first encounter with her was that I was failing to pour myself a cup of coffee in the food van, and suddenly there’s this girl in Ugg boots who’s sorting it out and getting my milk out, and I’m thinking ‘oh my god, it’s Brie Larson’. She was the opposite of a princess, so down to earth and so unpretentious.

BE: And what was it like, being in Room?

ED: As soon as I stepped in, I thought, this is so hideously ugly and it’s so small, how could you possibly live in there for 10 minutes, let alone 7 years. I thought there’s a fundamental plausibility flaw in what I’ve written! But you know, they made it plausible. How they filmed it is very interesting because at times it feels really small, and at times it feels really big. So it sort of feels like you’re inside a child’s head.

BE: We haven’t talked about the sort of, the second part of, again, I don’t want to spoil it to many people who haven’t seen the film, but she has to re-evaluate herself as a mother, she is completely solid in her beliefs and the relationship with the two, but when they come out, things like her father, and the media, they really put pressure on her and they really challenge her, more so than in the room

ED: Well the funny thing about parenting is that actually if you do it all the time and nothing else, it’s probably easier. What’s really hard is to multitask. I’m ashamed that, as a parent, when I’m trying to help my son with his homework, and suddenly I’m doing a phone interview you know, or I’m with them in a café and I’m like ‘let me check my emails quickly’ you know, so all those multitasking moments are moments where our parenting tends to sort of fray. Or when we’re trying to catch up with friends and our wretched children insist on not only sitting on our laps but blocking our view of our friend, you know. Kids are very possessive of your energy. So it actually struck me as an interesting kind of irony that you know, parenting is really hard, but what is really hard is when she has to find parenting out in the real world. It’s not just that she’s gone through a lot of trauma and has to recover, but parenting itself is an al-consuming passion on both sides. It’s really hard to combine with other things, with jobs, with catching buses on time, with other people.

BE: Has this inspired you to want to adapt more of your books or write an original screenplay?

ED: Those two and also to adapt other people’s work because I’ve gotten really interested in the adaptation process, how you can try and capture the magic in a book rather than literally being faithful, because a literal faithful adaptation doesn’t always work, sometimes the spark is lost.

BE: I think what is fortuitous as well, about the situation for the film is that you met Lenny at a time when he had quite a lot of experience under his belt and quite a lot of diversity as well, so you know, this film is wonderful and maybe that does benefit from experience.

ED: Absolutely, I don’t think a first time director would’ve been as confident, I mean it’s the funny thing about directors, sometimes they get more daring as they go along because actually they’re freer, and film companies are more likely to trust them with their money than if they’re doing something unconventional. So it helped that Lenny had such a varied track record and he’d worked in different countries and settings, it also really helped that he is a dad and a really passionately involved dad of two small children. I mean we really bonded as parents and I think he brought every skill he had to this and even though he is from the European arthouse tradition he’s also a dad. He has a real variety of tools in his toolbox and I think he just approached this without any type of preconceptions about what it should be, he just at every point was looking for the technique that would make it feel the strongest.

BE: Do you ever still think about Ma and Jack?

ED: I do, but I’m always convinced that there should never be a sequel, because what I hope for them is that they’re living such an ordinary, blissfully ordinary lives, you know I hope they’re arguing over his maths homework at this very moment because I want them to escape from being special. I hate the idea that their lives would still be strange enough that it would need to be written about.

Ma (Brie Larson): He need to play with something real. I’m worried about him being on the phone.
Nancy (Joan Allen) : He's doing fine.
Ma (Brie Larson): Well, I don't give him my phone, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't give him yours.
Nancy (Joan Allen): Ok I won’t
Ma (Brie Larson): Great. [Pause] I just want him to connect with something
Nancy (Joan Allen): Joy…. Joy. He’s really doing fine

BE: Travelling now across the corridor to another room, I got time with the director Lenny Abrahamson. To you, is this film about love or is this film about hate?

LA: It’s definitely a film about love. I mean, it’s a love story, it’s amazing I think, probably one of the things that struck me so much about the book was that you expect when you hear the premise, that you expect it’s going to be a bleak story about a captive or a captor or it’s a crime story or captivity story, but it’s not, because Emma chose to tell it from the story of the little boy, it’s about the capacity of people to survive in really difficult situations and to recover from them, it’s about the resilience of childhood, it’s about, particularly the love between a parent and child, and about parenting, you know. There’s so few honest accounts of what it’s like to be a parent in the world, in literature and in film. It’s this strange mixture of claustrophobia and elation, and wonderfulness and deep self doubt and frustration that attends to being a parent. And Emma, by choosing this really extraordinary situation, and looking at the parent’s relationship in its most naked form, where there’s nobody else to support, there’s nowhere else to go, there’s nothing else to do, it’s just a mother and son in a room. It means what comes out of that is so vivid. And I think, it’s also a kind of love poem to a child. I felt that when I read it, my own little boy was nearly four - so I could see him, so much of him in Jack. I just was kind of amazed by what the novel manages to do with these very unlikely materials.

BE: I was going to say, it seems like an odd step from Frank to this film. But then again, Frank is all about this person who lives inside his head, so that is a captivity of a different sort.

LA: And frankly, excuse the pun, anything would be an odd step after Frank. I mean Frank is so unbelievably odd, I don’t know what I could’ve done afterwards that could’ve felt in keeping with it. But it’s true, this is like the inside of the box, inside the room… it’s the outside that’s hidden. So yes, there is, I think, both stories are about people who, this is actually true of everything I’ve done, about people whose circumstances change, in Garage somebody who has a very small niche in the world has that taken away, and What Richard Did, you’ve got somebody who thinks of himself definitely in one way, and that comes crashing down and he’s really got to face something really different and darker. And in Frank, Frank is given sort of what he thinks he wants, and Jon is given what he thinks he wants and it proves very different in Room, you’ve got, particularly in Jack’s case, you’ve got an extremely intensified version of what happens to all children when they leave the smaller spaces of childhood.

BE: I was speaking to Emma, and she mentioned that one of the nice things about the room in the film is that through cinematography, can seem very small and very big at once. Was that something you worked very hard for?

LA: Yes, it was. Our cinematographer, Danny Cohen, and Ethan Tobman, great designer, and Nathan Nugent, a really great editor, between all of us we thought a lot about being able to slip between the world of Jack and the world of Ma. Those are two overlapping and interconnecting worlds, but they’re two distinct worlds. They both take place in the small space, and how do you distinguish them without using any silly devices or too obvious point of view techniques? What we found is you can modulate the sense of scale. In a funny way, by being closer and tighter, you forget about the background, because actually a shot on a long lens on the face doesn’t look that different from a football stadium or a small room.

We found that by working in that way, you were able to have the background sort it glide away, and if you wanted to bring people back to the constraint of it, to the mother’s world, by shooting wider and seeing more than one corner… so we were able to modulate that sense of scale. What’s so fascinating to me is that people watching the film have the same experience as you might remember if you ever got to go back to your old elementary school or your old house, like, ‘god, that place seemed huge in my memory, and now it’s just this small, ordinary place’. And when you go to the room at the end of the film, it’s the same, the dimensions are exactly the same, yet you think, how could I have possibly have had as three-dimensional experiences as I did in there at the beginning of the film.

Ma (Brie Larson): I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m supposed to be happy.
Nancy (Joan Allen): You just need to rest, okay?
a (Brie Larson): No, I don't. I don't need to rest!
Nancy (Joan Allen): That's... That's what the doctor...
Ma (Brie Larson): [Interrupts] That is not what the doctor said. You don't know what he said, because it was a confidential conversation, and you don't know what he said!
Nancy (Joan Allen): All right, all right, all right! You're impossible to talk to right now.
Ma (Brie Larson): Well, sorry. Nancy (Joan Allen): No. No, you're not sorry!
Ma (Brie Larson): Yeah, I'm not sorry! You have no idea what's going on in my head.
Nancy (Joan Allen): Yeah. Well, try me! I have asked you.
Ma (Brie Larson): And then what? Then, every time you look at me, that's all that you see?
Nancy (Joan Allen): When I look at you, Joy, I will see my daughter.

BE: It’s very much a fairytale as well, I think, I mean, the villain, at least for the first half of the film, is old Nick who you can see as an ogre, a monster, then as soon as you go out into the world, the idea of the monster is much more complicated

LA: yes, in a way the Room phase is where the moral order of the world is much clearer, the enemy is clear, the task is clear, we must escape from this place. Jack has to let go of his childish conceptions , the myth of room that his mother created to keep him safe. But there’s no opacity to that. You go in to the second half, where you’re expecting a straight up redemption, because that’s what, as an audience, you begin to fantasise in a similar way Ma fantasises….You think ‘Yes get out, get out, get out, then somehow it will just be fine’. But then they go out and there are no footholds, there is no up or down or left or right in this world anymore, there’s just the impossibility of picking up pieces of a life that you left behind ten years ago, having gone through this tough and terrible experience, if you’re the mother. What you fear for them desperately in Room, what you never fear for is their relationship. You fear for their safety, but you don’t believe there is an internal threat, and suddenly now there’s no external threat on the outside. But there’s a deep internal threat which is that the mother, she’s no longer stiffened by the demands of keeping her boy safe, and she can’t suppress the memories of the things that have happened to her, the bitterness at having had so much of her life stolen from her, and so here you are, in a world where the one thing we feel is constant through the first half, which is their relationship, it’s the thing that’s now wobbling. It’s those balances and patterns and shifts that I think are so interesting.

BE: Can we talk about Brie and Jacob in general, the two main actors. We can’t not talk about them because they’re incredible.

LA: I’m so lucky with all the cast of the film, for me the film as a whole is characterised by all the relationships, you’ve got the producer, with Emma Donoghue, the author of the book and the screenplay, who I worked so closely with and so happily with, but then Jake and Brie. Brie, I saw in short term 12, and she absolutely blew me away, I met her and she was so bright, so charming, so warm, and A, she’s amazing as an actor, but she’s also like, any kid is going to love her, I mean I had her and that was amazing. Then the huge fear ,the thing that kept me awake at night, is never mind if we’ll find him, but is there a boy out there who’s capable of doing what this film needs, which is putting in a two-hour long fully specked, with all the trimmings, performance, and it’s got to be plausible too…

And then we found Jake. And Jake is this kind of prodigy. Bringing that performance, collaborating with him to do that, was definitely the most challenging thing as a filmmaker, but had he not been hugely talented, it would’ve been utterly impossible. For me anyway, because I think he deserves the credit, I don’t think there’s a better child performance anywhere, I’ve never seen a better child performance, and I think we pushed to the limit of what is possible for a director and young actor to achieve at that age. I don’t think you could’ve chosen a more demanding thing to do with a kid, and the fact that it worked out is a huge credit to him and something I’m incredibly proud of.

BE: At the end of the film – I know the film is not real, I know it’s not fairy tale, but I was happy to leave it. Were you happy when room was destroyed?

LA: Yes. You know what, Room, was packed away right. So in one sense, yes, because it was packed away, and in the other sense they rebuilt it in a shopping mall in LA, where selective audiences can tour the room in an exhibition about the film. I thought this was going to be the cheesiest thing of all time, and I saw it, and it’s amazing, it’s absolutely amazing. There are so few films where one small space is somewhere you become completely intimately acquainted with, and then standing in it… even I who’d been in there, I’d been away from it for long enough and I’d been living with it as represented in the film for long, that stepping back into it blew my mind and I saw the effect on journalists and audiences. It’s such an extraordinary stereoscopic kind of experience. So Room still exists at the moment, besides a shoe shop on one side and a toy store on the other.

BE: It really it an incredible moving two-hour cinema journey, which as Lenny and Emma helped explain goes beyond the four walls of its initial setting. It’s a must see film and if you missed do try and catch it when you have the chance.

I’m Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series

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