Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in Room

Room Exclusive: Lenny Abrahamson on Spoilers and Counting with Jacob Tremblay

This interview with the director of Room discusses some spoilers for Room, but only because the filmmakers already decided to reveal the second portion of the film in advance. Just in case you are remaining spoiler free, I will give you until the second paragraph of this introduction to stop reading.

Jacob Tremblay in Room
Jacob Tremblay in Room

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay play Ma and Jack, a mother and son confined to a single room by a kidnapper (Sean Bridgers). But, they escape and introducing Jack to the real world brings all new complexities to it. I got to discuss the film with director Lenny Abrahamson. Room is now playing and opens wider Friday.

Nerd Report: Were the challenges similar with Frank, having a character in a full head, and keeping the characters confined to a room in Room?

Lenny Abrahamson: There’s a lovely kind of mirror image. It’s like the upside down version. In Frank, you have this impenetrable thing in the middle of your otherwise free shot. In Room you have this extraordinarily lively and alive relationship within this constrained space, so they’re like opposites. I suppose that puts them in a very interesting relation to each other.

Nerd Report: Would you have preferred not to reveal in the trailers that they escape Room?

Lenny Abrahamson: No, I’m okay with that and I’ll tell you why. If it’s a story about their incarceration, it’s to put it in the terms of the abductor, to let him set the terms of the story. I’d rather describe it in terms of Ma really, which is that it’s a story of how it’s possible to have a functioning parent/child relationship with these very sparse and barren, difficult circumstances. And furthermore, it’s a story of escape, of returning to life. So I think if you were to have done the trailer which didn’t reveal it, you would really have been just teasing the audience and saying, “Ooh, will they or won’t they escape?” as if that’s the point of the story, and it’s not. Now, okay, I would prefer always to see a film without having seen any trailer but we just don’t live in that world. I think because this is a film which is ultimately pretty hopeful and life affirming, I think had you done the Room only trailer you would have put off a vast number of people who actually would get a lot out of the film but would probably say, “I’m not going to see that. That’s a miserable story.” And it isn’t.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room

Nerd Report: Was the suspense of the escape sequence laid out in the book, or did you have to come up with elements of that?

Lenny Abrahamson: There are always differences but actually the escape sequence in particular was pretty true to the book. I thought my heart was going to explode when I read that section in the novel and I wanted to give the audience the same feeling. I wanted to absolutely just have them almost unable to bear it and that was a great challenge as a filmmaker, especially a film like this which is very intimate, very dramatic. It was great to have this section in the middle where you could really go to town on a very tense sequence. What’s interesting about that sequence as well, and maybe what’s a little bit different to the novel is that two thoughts are happening at the same time. You’ve got this very tense thriller like movement. Will he escape or won’t he? Then you also have a different story, a story of waking up and experiencing the world for the first time. I was very pleased that in the film I think we managed to capture both of those aspects which are quite different.

Nerd Report: Was it really intuitive to capture Jack’s point of view, framing some adult heads out of shot, keeping some audio out of earshot?

Lenny Abrahamson: It took a lot of work because I didn’t want to use that too much. Certainly inside Room I wanted to keep our point of view techniques very subtle so that really is classical, even though shooting in Room isn’t classical. The way in which we move between Ma’s interpretation of the situation and Jack’s is quite classical. It’s subtle. It’s whether we’re with him or not. It’s what we learn. It’s how we treat lines of sight. It’s all sorts of things like that, but outside Room, I thought, especially in that first section where he’s just escaped and then dealing with the outside world for the first time, you really felt that we needed to give the audience some subjective sense of what it might feel like when you’ve got all these new faces and all this new detail and all this new noise and movement and space that you’ve never had to deal with before. So there we allowed ourselves to just push a little bit of technique too to bring the audience somewhat into that world.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room

Nerd Report: Is there a remnant of the breast feeding from the book?

Lenny Abrahamson: Yeah, it’s there. We thought, “Do we want to make something of it that’s more than that?” I thought no, because in the novel Jack tells you what he’s doing but we never do that in the film. We always just see things. So we put it in as just a very small [couple of scenes]. We didn’t want to make a huge deal of it but it is there.

Nerd Report: In the interview, I understand Ma is blindsided by the question but when the reporter asks if she ever considered asking Nick to give the baby up, isn’t the reporter assuming a kidnapper rapist is trustworthy enough to bring a baby to the hospital?

Lenny Abrahamson: You know what, except that he does what she tells him when she asks him to take the body away and bury it. You think, “Well, why doesn’t he just unroll it to check?” The answer is he’s kind of this pathetic half bully and half coward. So any abusive guy, she has some control over him. Yeah, I suppose she could’ve justified it to herself and said, “Well, maybe he wouldn’t have done it.” On the other hand, if you had a small child and you were the guy who has been given it, it’s quite a risky thing to kill the kid and dispose of it, whereas if nobody knows anything about where the kid came from, it’s not such a  big stretch to think that he would leave it somewhere.

Nerd Report: After Frank, did you have your pick of a few next projects? Was Room the one you really wanted to do next? 

Lenny Abrahamson: Yeah, Room I had been trying to do from even before making Frank. Frank did no harm at all in terms of our capacity to finance it, but it was the one I really, really wanted to do next. In fact, even I think while I was working on What Richard Did, I was thinking about Room. It was my absolute priority. There were other things floating around and there have been and now a tremendous number of things, but I still usually kind of know what it is that my gut tells me is the thing I should do next. It’s sometimes bizarre in the way that Frank was. I find that if I do it, then it makes sense.

Nerd Report: How much direction did you give Brie, and how much did you give Jacob?

Jacob Tremblay in Room
Jacob Tremblay in Room

Lenny Abrahamson: With Brie, there was a huge amount of conversation beforehand in developing that character, because Ma is not a huge presence in the novel. She’s somebody we see through Jack’s eyes. So we really had to make her very three dimensional, so there was a tremendous amount of work done with Brie and just helping her on the shoot, helping her by being eyes to what she’s doing in that lovely organic director/actor way. With Jake it was really hands on because no matter how gifted a seven-year-old is, and he is gifted in the extreme, you still have to walk them through scenes. If you were watching the dailies, you would hear me talking all the time because I’m constantly helping him, bringing him through, getting him to hold his looks. Really simple things like just counting with him, because I found that really calmed him down. I’d say, “Okay, I’m going to count. Let’s see how long you can hold that for.” That’s not because he doesn’t understand acting. It’s because the mind of a seven-year-old is a buzzing distractible smorgasbord of stuff and what you’ve got to do, the directors help them concentrate, help them find the center of the scene, and also interpret for them what’s going on in language that they can understand. That made the other actors have to be incredibly generous. Brie is so generous because so much of my attention was on Jake.

Nerd Report: Did you shoot all of the Room scenes in one chunk, or was it something you kept coming back to?

Lenny Abrahamson: No, we shot it all in one chunk and we shot it in more or less chronological order. So we did Room first and we shot as much as we could in chronological order. Actor availability on Sean [Bridgers] meant that we couldn’t be completely sequential, but largely. Then we went outside and shot the outside world. We wanted to just let them become close through the shooting of it, and also we learned a lot of stuff ourselves by being in there. We had images with them that we wanted to reflect later in the second half, so it was great to have shot those first. Then when we went outside, it would’ve been logistically better to do it the other way around, to shoot the outside first and then inside because we were working in Toronto heading into winter and it would’ve been great to get our exteriors done before it got really cold, but we just had to deal with that.