“I think all of my movies sound like they’re scary when you just hear about them, and I think it’s just as true about Room, too,” said Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. “But I also like to think that all of them have great warmth, as well.” Recently turned 49, Abrahamson has made five films, each creating a bigger splash than the movie before it. Room, the story of a mother and child who escape from a shed where they were imprisoned by a sexual predator, was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Abrahamson is being honored with the SBIFF Outstanding Directors of the Year Award, as well.
It begins mysteriously and scary, turns creepy, and then becomes triumphant as mother and son escape. Then as Ma (Brie Larson) comes to see the terror of their confinement through the eyes of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), it becomes unexpectedly beautiful. “It was the strong emotional connection that drew me to the material in the first place,” said Abrahamson, one late Saturday afternoon in El Encanto’s bar. “When I read Emma’s novel [Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay], I was very moved, but what particularly sold me on the material was how all these emotions illustrated deeper themes about love and parenting. It was ultimately very uplifting.”
The birth of his son also brought Abrahamson, who was a philosophy grad student at Stanford before he dropped out and returned to Dublin and filmmaking, to a way of seeing. “Movies should be a lot like the way Jack sees things [after leaving the room]. You know, that glass there on the table, it leaves a little pool of water. It has beautiful reflections. We take all that for granted,” he said. At the same time, Abrahamson wanted to use Jack’s point of view to obscure the horrible things that were happening around him. “The novel is told from his point of view, so things don’t get so horrible for the viewer.” He admitted to a deep love of manipulating audience feelings.
The Academy nomination was a grand surprise, said Abrahamson. “I can’t pretend I’m not happy. For once, I’m not worried about what I’m going to do next. And people give you things — it’s amazing. Burberry sent me a tuxedo to wear to the awards.” He laughed explaining that the best tailor in Dublin also sent him an invitation for a fitting. “That means you’ve arrived. I’m trying to enjoy all of this without letting it go to my head.”
Abrahamson has a television project coming up, filming the California novelist Kem Nunn’s recent detective thriller Chance, starring Hugh Laurie. He wants to work again with Domhnall Gleeson, who starred in Frank, his film about a rock star with a huge papier-mâché mask, another film with emotions both huge and hidden, and all about point of view. “And Domhnall’s been in five movies this year — he’s great.”
A lot of people say the same thing about Abrahamson: I told him that Brie Larson said in a recent interview that he loved all living things and protected his actors well. “It’s a nice thing she said. I like actors, and I like to take them along with me rather than push, you know, like others do,” he explained. “But all this other stuff comes from walks Brie and I use to take. She said I couldn’t pass a dog without petting it.” (This comment was followed by five minutes of sharing camera-phone pet pictures.)
“All my earlier movies are about people on the absolute fringes, people you would see and pass by — a gas station attendant, two drug addicts, and in What Richard Did, the story of a person who has it all and then loses it. They may sound ‘scary’ like you said, but I really try to find the humanity in people like this. And if you can’t find it there, where can you find it?”
Lenny Abrahamson, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Tom McCarthy, Adam McKay, and George Miller will receive the Outstanding Directors of the Year Award on Thursday, February 11, at the Arlington Theatre. See sbiff.org.