Interview: Lenny Abrahamson
Lenny Abrahamson was recently at a hotel in Los Angeles when he noticed the receptionist. A guest was being rudely imperious; but the worse the behaviour, the calmer the receptionist became. As Abrahamson watched, he realised something: “It doesn’t have to be you. In any situation, you can just put forward a version of yourself.”
Abrahamson, 49, was born and still lives in Dublin. But since last September, his life has mostly unfolded in five-star hotels across Europe and America. We are now in London’s Corinthia, near Whitehall; he arrives down a long, high-ceilinged corridor, a small, bright, bustling figure. The director of several well-reviewed films, his latest, Room, is his first genuine Oscar contender. There is, as such, a rolling transatlantic schedule of press and promotion. Mornings often start with a fleeting confusion as to which city — or country — he is in. The interviews are endless: “When I do them, I think about the hotel receptionist, so I don’t start believing I’m actually this fascinating character I’m trying to present to you.”
Abrahamson answers every question as if it’s the first time he’s heard it. “Wait, here’s a better way of putting this,” he says, or, with a quizzical squint: “Now, why do I think that?” He wears jeans and an aged T-shirt, a visual mismatch in this opulent suite, which is a strange fit, too, for Room, adapted from the Booker-shortlisted novel by the Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue. Its story is of a mother and her young son who are kept captive by a predatory older man, trapped in squalor in a confined space with a postage-stamp skylight (the boy is played by the extraordinary Jacob Tremblay, his mother by the ascendant Brie Larson).
There’s a mighty emotional heft involved; the story, unexpectedly, turns uplifting. “That was tricky,” Abrahamson says. “There are more ways to make Room badly than well.”
He came to the novel on the advice of Element Pictures, the busy Irish production company. “These days, nothing is read without the thought it might become a film.” It was 2013, and his son Max was four, his daughter Nell two. His feelings about parenthood seeped into his reading: “You see your kids in their pristine bubble and know your job is to methodically introduce all this very bad news.”
All Abrahamson’s films involve very bad news. Typically, his characters are misfits, their lives unhinged by private catastrophes. His debut, Adam & Paul, was released in 2004. The scabrous story of two hapless Dublin junkies, its tone is somewhere between Beckett and Laurel and Hardy. Its follow-up, Garage, concerned a childlike petrol station attendant in rural Tipperary, and came with a terrible sting in the tail.
One day in the early 1970s, the young Abrahamson — a sensitive boy from the middle-class suburb of Rathfarnham — was in the city with his mother when they saw a traveller child begging. She bought the other boy a Mr Whippy ice-cream; Abrahamson remembers standing beside him and finding they were exactly the same height. In adulthood, his eye has mostly stayed on the margins but without the earnest social conscience of a director like Ken Loach. “I don’t think of myself as doing good works. It’s not, ‘Oh, I must give these poor people a voice.’ That person on the street corner with nowhere to go, putting yourself in their shoes opens up dramatic questions.”
His next film, What Richard Did, took place in the kind of affluent Dublin enclave he grew up in: its subject was a likeable teenage golden boy whose charmed life implodes in a violent outburst. Then came Frank, a comedy with a desperately sad undertow as the title’s mentally fragile art rock savant is dragged into the spotlight. The star was Michael Fassbender, who, in a contrarian masterstroke, spent most of the film wearing a giant papier-mâché head. Both films were critically lauded without troubling the box office. It was the kind of acclaim that brings you to a crossroads.
As soon as he read Room, Abrahamson felt it could be big. His appreciation of it was real but he also saw “it could reach a larger audience than I was used to, and get a lot more press”. His hunch was right. Immediately after its September premiere at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival, it was anointed as a favourite in the 2016 awards season, the jostling marathon which leads ultimately to the Oscars and their vast rewards of finance and prestige. At the Golden Globes this weekend, it has three nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. Yet without major stars, Room is the scrappy upstart compared with heavyweights such as Carol, starring eternal Academy favourite Cate Blanchett, or The Revenant. Thus Abrahamson has been on tour to keep the film in voters’ minds.
Outside of actual politics, few contests are as discreetly bitter as the Oscars race. “I’ve been in rooms where people are discussing films that have yet to come out and saying delightedly, ‘Oh, I’ve heard it’s a disaster!’ The jealousy is unseemly.” He sighs. “But the prize is so huge.”
Then there have been the overtures of a Hollywood suddenly keen to introduce itself. Abrahamson has announced he is to make a biopic of the tragic bisexual boxer Emile Griffith: much sweet-talk has followed from the handlers of big-name actors. “I’m swimming in this warm flow of hype and buzz, which is very pleasurable, and means I don’t really have to think about anything. And I have a voice saying ‘God, Lenny, you’re shallow. Why does this matter to you?’ But it does.” He winces.
I see him again a few weeks later, when he spends two nights in Soho doing Q&As for Bafta and British-based Academy members after previews of Room. He appears at both with Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay. They make a fluid, funny double act. Donoghue admits the realism of the child’s voice in Room began with transcribing her son’s oblivious chatter; Abrahamson brings the house down when he mentions his movie once reduced a cinema full of LA agents to tears.
Abrahamson was privately educated, his father a solicitor. The family were part of that unlikely ethnic minority, Ireland’s Jewish community. He estimates its size then was 1,500, joking perhaps not for the first time that an Irish-Jewish mother “offers previously unexplored therapeutic possibilities”.
He remembers little anti-Semitism; mostly, there was baffled fascination. “Though I remember as a kid being asked if I was Jewish or Irish. I said, like the glib little 15-year-old I was, ‘You can be both.’ Feeling very pleased with myself. Before they smacked me.”
Abrahamson now calls himself an atheist. His films can feel like someone picking at ethical knots. Academically high achieving, he began his university career at Trinity College Dublin reading theoretical physics. Soon though, he realised the questions he wanted to wrestle with lay elsewhere. He switched to philosophy; his First was good enough to win a place studying for a PhD at California’s Stanford University.
In his teens, he became fixated with the greats of European cinema (Bergman, Bresson, Fellini): eventually, he secured a video camera and filmed his maternal grandfather talking about life in prewar Poland. The hobby blossomed. Before leaving for Stanford, he directed a short film, Three Joes. Afterwards, it started winning prizes and he realised how much he missed the camera. Finally, he abandoned the doctorate and returned to Ireland.
There was another reason. “I was lonely at Stanford. The monkishness that part of me loved also made it miserable.” In Dublin, he resolved to make the kind of rigorous, capital F film that first inspired him. “Had you met me then I would, in a juvenile way, have been dismissive of all commercial film-making. Fast forward five years and I’m broke, I haven’t written anything I like, and thinking, ‘Oh God, what have I done?’ And I have this epiphany: ‘OK, my life as a director is actually a fantasy.’”
The answer, to his own surprise, came making TV commercials. The pressures of deadlines and clients proved a salvation. He quickly developed a name for a slick, high-gloss style using the latest fashions in camerawork — “sexy images”, he says. His most celebrated works were his wish-fulfilment-heavy spots for Carlsberg (“Carlsberg don’t do . . . ”).
“Commercials helped me into a genuine creative life, much more than if I’d stayed in the uncompromising zone of my bedsit.” Without the ads, he would never have made Adam & Paul, and that would have been a personal disaster. In 2005, the film was invited to the Warsaw Film Festival. Abrahamson went with it. He felt uneasy; his grandfather’s memories of Poland and its treatment of Jews were not happy. Then he met a film studies teacher working for the festival called Monika Pamula. “Now we’ve got two kids, who both speak Polish, and my in-laws come to Dublin all the time.”
Abrahamson is not short on self-knowledge. “Advertising taught me I need other people’s energy. Although I’m drawn to the image of the independent, self-willed purist, I know in that space I sink.” Still, you get the sense that if you prodded him in one place, you would touch steel; another, and he might burst into tears. He admits he reads his own press, a risk for someone who now does interviews on his way to other interviews. “You kid yourself you don’t care what people say until the moment you read the first bad review.” He has a tendency to brood: “I find the negative and cling to it.”
I ask how he feels about the idea of Room as a stepping stone. How calculating is he? “God. OK. I’m going to be as honest as I can.” He inhales. “I am ambitious. I am drawn to small, difficult films but other things also excite me that are bigger and demand resources.” He stalls. “This is tricky, because you can come across badly. I am savvy enough to know that to make the kinds of film I’m toying with, my profile needs to be higher. And Room could be important for that. That’s not why I made it, but I’m aware of it.” He frowns, then paraphrases the same answer. “I’m rambling, I know. I just don’t want to bullshit you.” There is another attempt. “OK, I’m going to park the ego stuff and come back to it, because it’s not unimportant. But the reality of the industry is that if you want any power, you need success on their terms.”
He plans to adapt Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, the writer’s portrait of Franz Stangl, commandant of the Nazi Treblinka death camp — “so far, extremely hard to get funded”. Later, he says that the last time he travelled from Dublin, the manager of the minicab company congratulated him on Room. “When you work outside the mainstream, for all the wonderful reviews, to most people it means nothing, and you feel like a failure. So I liked that.”
He looks as if he very much hopes I know what he means. I tell him by now most directors would have just given me a pre-packed answer about how winning an Oscar would be a happy accident. “And I’ve told people exactly that! But the truth is, I’m flattered to be involved, and anyone who says they wouldn’t be is lying. It’s nice when people like what you do. It’s like this hotel. The marble bath is nice. But I know that if I just look for the biggest, shiniest project I can get, it won’t work. Not because of any moral superiority but because if the idea doesn’t obsess me, I don’t think I can make it.”
Outside, a car is waiting. Abrahamson is due at a “slate presentation” held by Room’s distributor for cinema chains and the press. His speech quickens with a thought that he wants to make sure is said.
“I have for a long time felt an extreme tension between two different impulses. And now, with Room becoming successful, I have a choice. Do I leverage that to explore films of depth and profundity, or for limo trips and buzzy phone calls?” I wait for him to go on, but he gets up to leave. Should I end all this on a question mark, I ask him. “That’s what it is,” he says.
Photographs: Maja Daniels; Element Pictures; George Kraychyk