'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Lenny Abrahamson ('Room')

The 50-year-old Irishman, who landed a best director Oscar nom over the likes of Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, talks about his circuitous journey to directing, his dogged pursuit of Emma Donoghue's novel and directing Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay from a bathtub in an 11x11 foot room.
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Lenny Abrahamson

"You cannot be prepared for it," Lenny Abrahamson, the director of Room, says of the awards season circus as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "It's relentless!" Make no mistake about it, though, this understated 50-year-old Irishman isn't complaining. After all, he woke up on Oscar nominations morning a month ago and learned that he was a best director Oscar nominee — chosen by his peers over the likes of Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Todd Haynes and Quentin Tarantino — for a film that is also nominated for best adapted screenplay, best actress and yes, best picture. "It's a feeling that I cannot describe," he confesses. "It was a pretty amazing moment."

(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and Lily Tomlin.)

Abrahamson's path to this point was anything but direct. A smart and ambitious student, he first pursued physics (studying at Dublin's Trinity College) and then philosophy (he got a scholarship to pursue his PhD at Stanford University), dabbling in filmmaking throughout — 1991's Three Joes, a 16mm black-and-white short that he made with a lot of up-and-coming talent from the "tiny" Irish film scene, was very well received — but only focusing on it full-time after turning 30.

"I had a bit of a slump after that," he says. He spent a number of years "running into a wall, not getting anything made, feeling like I made the biggest mistake," before the structural support of Guiney's production company and the financial support of the Irish Film Board finally spurred him on his way. And, through his work, it has become clear that he is drawn to characters on the margins — characters "in extremis," as he puts it — who have to rework their life because of some sudden development.("Absolutely," he says of that assessment. "If it's not there in the story, I somehow put it in.")

His "very unusual" first feature, a black comedy about a pair of heroin addicts looking for a fix in Dublin, premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and was called by one critic "the best debut Irish feature ever." His second feature, 2007's Garage, the story of a lonely gas station attendant in rural Ireland, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won two prizes there. That same year, he directed a TV miniseries, Prosperity, that featured four storylines about people on the fringes of Irish society. 2012's What Richard Did became the most commercially successful Irish film of that year. And 2014's Frank, which starred Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson and tells the story of an eccentric musician, attracted his largest international audience to that point.

Even while working on Frank, Abrahamson was thinking about Room, a bestselling novel by an Irish expat, Emma Donoghue, that even Pres. Barack Obama was photographed buying while on a vacation. "I loved the book," says Abrahamson, "and I knew how to make it into a movie, and the idea of anybody else doing it just killed me." He was drawn to "the challenge of working with a kid that young; the challenge of setting half a film in an 11x11 box; the challenge of a movie that's in two halves with the 'exciting bit' in the middle, the bit that would normally be at the end; all of that." He adds, "Half my fear was that somebody would take it and make it and ruin it, and my other fear was that somebody would take it and make it and do it really well. Which would be more painful to me?"

He decided to write Donoghue a letter, which ran five pages long, explaining why he was the person for the job. "For me, it was important to do it because I thought, 'Well, if I don't get to do this movie, at least I will have said my piece to her.'" It was the right move, even if that wasn't obvious right away. "That was not followed by 'and here are the rights,' it was followed by 'we will continue to talk.'" Eventually, it was decided that he would direct an adaptation of the book written by Donoghue herself. And, he says now, "It was an amazingly satisfying collaboration."

Room is essentially a two-hander, requiring a young actress to play Ma and a child actor to play Jack — a mother and child held captive for years in a small room with only each other to hold onto. Abrahamson met with 26-year-old Brie Larson for the former part after seeing her little-seen indie breakthrough film Short Term 12, which "was a revelation to me," he says; she auditioned, quickly won the part of Ma and is now the favorite to win the best actress Oscar. Then, in his "single biggest stroke of luck," he came across Jacob Tremblay, a seven-year-old Canadian actor, during a massive search for the part of Jack, and quickly recognized that he'd stumbled upon something special. "Sometimes he blew me away," he says.

Abrahamson, Larson and Tremblay, along with cinematographer Danny Cohen, were often the only people who could fit into the 11 feet x 11 feet set that was constructed on a soundstage in Toronto. "I often had to hide in the bath to be in the room but not to be in the shot," Abrahamson says with a chuckle. But while the weeks they spent in Room were confining — they made a rule that the camera lens could never be outside of the actual space by removing a wall to allow it to pull back further — Abrahamson, like Larson, feels that — spoiler alert — the scenes outside of Room in the second half of the film were much more challenging. "We did really sort of miss it when we left it," he says. "Emotionally the work was much more complex, trying to realistically show how a five-year-old boy might react to a world that he's never seen before."

The most remarkable thing about Room might be the fact that a story that sounds so dark on the page actually leaves film audiences with a very optimistic feeling, reflected not least in its win of the Toronto International Film Festival's audience award. Now, even The New York Times is speculating about the possibility of it pulling off a best picture Oscar upset. Abrahamson is still processing it all, acknowledging that this sort of recognition was what he dreamed of as a kid in the way that most kids dream of winning the Super Bowl. And he's happy that so many other Irish men and women — from Guiney and Steve Jobs' Fassbender to Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan and Benjamin Cleary, the director of live-action short nominee Stutterer — are along for the ride. "It's pretty amazing for a country of four million people," he says with a smile.

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