This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
How to make a 7-year-old scream.
That was the dilemma Irish director Lenny Abrahamson was facing only three days into shooting Room, his adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling 2010 novel about a woman kept in captivity for nearly a decade who ends up pregnant with her kidnapper’s child. The young actor Abrahamson cast at the center of his film, then-7-year-old Jacob Tremblay, was supposed to be doing a scene in which he yells at his mother — Ma, played by Brie Larson — after she disappoints him with a lumpy, half-baked birthday cake. But Tremblay wasn’t feeling it.
“He knows about acting,” says Abrahamson, 48, “but he’s still 7 years old. For a 7-year-old, shouting can be embarrassing.”
There are many well-known actors in Room — Joan Allen plays the kidnapped woman’s mother, and William H. Macy is her dad, while Canadian actor Sean Bridgers is the mysterious perpetrator (“Old Nick,” the boy calls him), who only occasionally strays into camera range — but it’s Tremblay’s performance as a boy who spends the first five years of his life locked with his mother inside an 11-by-15-foot shed that does the heaviest lifting in the film. The kid is in nearly every scene, and everything on the screen is filtered through his eyes. So, when Tremblay doesn’t feel like shouting, it’s a big deal on the set.
Of course, it’s always risky putting the fate of a movie in a child’s hands — The Sixth Sense wouldn’t have been half as scary (or half as big a hit) if then-11-year-old Haley Joel Osment hadn’t delivered a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination (he lost to Michael Caine). But it’s an especially big gamble for A24’s Room, which strives to turn the darkest of premises into an uplifting, feel-good movie about the protective powers of a parent’s love and the resilience of innocence in the face of real-life monsters.
“If his performance didn’t work,” says producer David Gross, explaining just how much was resting on Tremblay’s tiny shoulders, “we were a Lifetime movie.”
Even before Donoghue’s book arrived on shelves in 2010, she was fielding movie offers. In fact, the now-46-year-old Irish-Canadian author received so many inquiries about optioning Room, her seventh novel, that her agent’s computer crashed. But there was one email, she says, that stood out. It was a 10-page letter from Ireland written by a director whose latest film, What Richard Did, was just then debuting to rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival (more recently, Abrahamson made 2014’s Frank, starring Michael Fassbender as a young musician who wears a giant mask on his head through the whole film). “He understood the book,” says Donoghue. “He saw right past the crime premise to the universal parent-child love story.”
Donoghue flew to Ireland to meet Abrahamson and agreed to have him adapt her book for the big screen — but didn’t sign any option agreement. Instead, the two decided to collaborate, working with Abrahamson’s longtime producer (and neighbor in Ireland) Ed Guiney of Element Pictures. “We weren’t willing to just turn it over to someone else,” says Donoghue’s agent at UTA, Kassie Evashevski. “We asked, ‘Why don’t we work together?’ No money exchanged hands for a long time.”
Two years, to be precise — the time the novelist and director spent hammering out a script. Meanwhile, Element Pictures and UTA Independent Film Group worked together to raise financing for the $12 million film (with funding from the Irish Film Board, Film4, Telefilm Canada and others) without having to bring on any equity investors who might try to poke their noses into the creative process. Then they brought on a Canada-based production company, No Trace Camping, to help take advantage of a tax deal between Ireland and Canada. All they needed now was an actress to play Ma and a little boy to play Jack.
Ma was easy. When Abrahamson sat down with Larson — who is being buzzed about as a likely lead actress nominee for her turn in Room — at the Chateau Marmont in 2013, their 30-minute coffee meeting turned into a four-hour conversation that covered everything from their childhoods to mythology to their dogs. “She was just so warm,” recalls the director. “And we needed somebody with that kind of warmth because otherwise our kid wasn’t going to feel at home.” Larson felt comfortable, too. “I knew I didn’t have to worry about the movie becoming some sort of melodramatic, gratuitous piece,” she says. “This was someone who wanted to show how love can thrive in dire circumstances.”
The search for Jack, however, was trickier. Abrahamson saw more than 2,000 child actors in seven North American cities before he popped in an audition tape sent by Tremblay’s press-shy parents (his mother and father, a police detective in Vancouver, don’t do interviews), who have been overseeing their son’s career since he started acting at age 5 in 2013’s Smurfs 2. “You could tell he was special,” says Abrahamson. “He was so assured. Maybe too assured. I was a little concerned that he’s too coached because he’d done commercials. But he’s bright. Once we got him together with Brie, we started to realize just how intelligent he was. In rehearsals, we started to realize, ‘Oh, there’s real acting in there.’ “
That first meeting between Tremblay and Larson (who avoided sunlight for six months to prepare for her role) took place in September 2014, three weeks before shooting began at Pinewood Toronto Studios. Their early “rehearsals” consisted of hanging out together on the set doing such things as eating pizza and playing with Legos, building up Tremblay’s comfort level with his 26-year-old co-star. The two would be spending many long weeks together in extremely close quarters: inside the shed (or “Room,” as Jack refers to it in the movie) that had been constructed on the soundstage. Each of Room’s walls was removable, but to maintain a sense of claustrophobia, Abrahamson insisted that the shed be kept intact as much as possible, which made for a tight fit when the camera and boom mic operators also squeezed into the space. “I just thought constraint was important,” he says.
But the tricky geography of shooting a movie inside a homemade prison cell was the least of Abrahamson’s challenges. Throughout the 49-day shoot (it would have been shorter, but under-12 actors only are allowed to work eight hours a day), the director was as much a child psychologist as a filmmaker, finding ways to inspire and motivate his young actor not found in any Stanislavski class. For starters, he shot the film chronologically, even though it meant exterior scenes would have to be filmed at the peak of winter. “It’s hard enough to play that part,” says Larson, “but then to do it out of order would be difficult for him to understand.”
For the most part, Tremblay was a trouper, hitting his marks and delivering his lines like a pro. But occasionally, as with all stars, there were moments of creative friction. Like that scene on day three, when Tremblay was supposed to shout at Larson but wouldn’t do it, no matter how much his director and co-star implored him. Ultimately, though, Abrahamson found a solution. The director ordered everyone on the set — Larson, the camera crew, himself included — to start shouting as loud as they could to make Tremblay feel more comfortable about his own shouting. It worked like a charm. “We’d often find that what was holding him back was nothing complex,” says Abrahamson. “Sometimes it was about finding a way to get at what was worrying him and just taking that away.”