Catatan Produksi Film Room (2015)
About the Production
Having built her novel so meticulously, Emma Donoghue was perhaps the best candidate on earth to remodel ROOM into a visceral, visual experience that would embrace the book but also reach out to audiences completely unfamiliar with it.
Yet, it’s rare for authors to adapt their own bestsellers for the screen; and Donoghue had no screen credits to her name when it was published. So Donoghue decided, even as she was writing the novel, that she would pre-emptively start her own adaptation, bringing her unique vision to it.
“I always felt ROOM might be a film because the storyline had so much natural momentum, though I realized it would take a very smart filmmaker to work out exactly how to bring it to life,” Donoghue says. “So as soon I’d written the novel, before it was even published, I started working on the screenplay. I thought, ‘Now is the perfect time to write the film with no one interfering’ – to kind of seize the power. Since I had no track record as a screenwriter, I also thought it might put me in a stronger position to have a draft ready to show as soon as the idea came up. Writers are often bedeviled by uncertainties, but from the beginning with ROOM, I always had clear, strong instincts.”
Indeed, as her instincts suggested, the subject of a film soon came up and Donoghue was prepared. She was also excited, rather than trepidatious. “Jack was going to have a physicality, he was no longer just a consciousness,” she muses.
Jack and Ma had originally come to Donoghue unexpectedly. She had written a number of critically admired novels, several short story collections and works of literary biography, but nothing that entirely presaged the broad popularity of ROOM. One day, Donoghue had her mind sent reeling in surprising directions by the harrowing true story of Elisabeth Fritzl – an Austrian girl imprisoned by her abusive father in a basement dungeon for 24 years. While in captivity, Fritzl had given birth to several children, some of whom were raised with her in their sealed chamber.
Donoghue had little interest in the more conventional enticements of the story: the lurid crimes committed against Fritzl or our titillating cultural fascination with psychotic criminals. She was drawn to far larger, juicier questions about human nature and human resilience that Fritzl’s strange motherhood and sheer survival triggered: What would being a parent be like in a locked room? How could you best hope to raise a child completely removed from society from birth? What would happen if you emerged into modern life after living in apart from it all or part of your existence?
The metaphorical underpinnings of ROOM were swirling and vast – at every turn the story seemed to reflect on the mysteries of life itself: on the wondrous, haunting privateness of childhood; on the primal, protective drives of parenthood; on the urge to create meaning out of wherever and whatever we are. As Donoghue puts it: “It was a way of taking the most extreme parent-child situation to explore the everyday experiences of parents and children – to explore the full span of emotions that come into play in this essential, somewhat crazy drama of our lives.”
The book’s darkness was offset by an undercurrent of love – messy, flawed, burdened, never-ending love – that runs throughout. Says Donoghue: “One of the ideas behind ROOM is that children have this natural tendency to thrive. So long as they’re getting love and affection, even if it’s in dark or incomprehensible circumstances, they’re so adaptable, they’ll find a way to be OK and to grow up.”
Those same themes would remain at the heart of the screenplay. But Donoghue was acutely aware that film demands an immediacy a novel doesn’t, so she approached the screenplay as its own linked but independent creature. While Jack’s voice had slowly lured readers into the book, Donoghue felt the film had to kick off on a more propulsive note, putting the audience smack into the life Ma and Jack are leading in Room.
“The excitement for the reader is slowly putting together all these clues as to what is happening, but I knew for a film audience, I had to get the story rolling fast,” Donoghue says. “I didn’t want to use a lot of voice-over. It was the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to rely on the obvious or on the literary. I wanted to see if it could work to open the film with the mother and the boy getting on with their lives in Room. Later, we did add a bit of voice-over – but we never use it to explain what is happening or to heighten emotion. Instead, it often cuts against what’s going on in the scene, a counterpoint between what is in Jack’s head and what is going on externally.”
To keep the physical space of Room itself from feeling too stifling to a film audience, Donoghue divided it up into a map of inches-long interconnected zones, each of which is enormous in Jack’s playful awareness. She says: “I did my best to create different sub-spaces – Under the Bed, Wardrobe and Bathroom are each their own locations. I never wanted to sentimentalize what it is to be in prison, but there is a whole tradition of people who have lived in cramped spaces – whether prisoners or mystics – who have created vast worlds in their heads. Room has icky aspects to it from our perspective, but from Jack’s perspective it is home and that had to come across.”
Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the adaptation was how to contrast life inside Room in the film’s enclosed first half with the total sensory overload of life outside Room in the chaotic but redemptive second half. While it might seem that Ma and Jack’s battle is over, instead it quickly becomes clear their freedom will demand as much of Ma and Jack as Room ever did. Even as they try to bounce back from an overwhelming ordeal, they have to keep adapting and holding fast to each another.
“When you’re in Room, you might be constrained by a lack of space and choice, but there’s this fundamental magic and humor of a mother and child making up the world every day,” Donoghue observes. “The second half of the story is different, but I think it gives the film its universality. We haven’t all experienced captivity but we have all had those growing-up moments with our parents, those moments when we realize, ‘Oh, we’re not getting on the way we used to.’ Jack is seeing all these new sides to Ma. In Room she was focused only on him and it’s got to be absolutely unnerving to now have to share her, and watch her be different with other people.”
Ma’s life is also completely altered by leaving Room. Not only does she have to face the stunted youth she left behind, she also faces a media maelstrom, as reporters descend upon her, building her up into a maternal hero, then tearing her down in ritualistic fashion. In the midst of it all, she struggles mightily to gain a sense of herself, and to reconnect with Jack in new ways.
“I knew that film would bring out the media aspects of the story really well, because as an audience watching Jack and Ma in this situation, there’s already a voyeuristic aspect,” Donoghue notes. “What’s so hard for Ma is that she has been declared a kind of icon of motherhood by strangers, yet she feels herself slipping away from the relationship she had with Jack in Room.”
As Donoghue watched her story morph into flesh and blood on the set, the process captivated her – especially because filmmaking is a form of storytelling that is all about community. “A novel is your own private little world,” she points out, “but a film is teamwork. You can easily overestimate the power of the words even in a film like this because the end result has as much to do with atmosphere and performance and all the subtleties and details that Lenny and this tremendous cast and crew brought at every level. Though I treasure the autonomy of writing on my own, this experience was a great joy to me.”
Emma Donoghue always knew it was going to take a bold and resourceful director to give ROOM the life she envisioned, but she did not expect to receive a lengthy letter from an Irishman passionately explaining in blueprint detail how he planned to do just that.
The letter was from Lenny Abrahamson, best known for the award-winning psychological drama WHAT RICHARD DID and more recently, the disarming, rock-and-roll-themed comedy FRANK, starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal. His raw, economical style might, at first glance, have seemed a mismatch with ROOM, but it turned out to be anything but.
Donoghue recalls: “Lenny’s letter was full of specifics – he even quoted Plato – and I thought this man gets it. I felt Lenny was coming to this as a father, as someone passionate about understanding parenthood. When we first started working on the screenplay, each of us was throwing in things that happened with our own children. Talking about the parent-child bond became a strong point of connection the whole way.”
Among other things, Abrahamson wrote: “Room is Jack’s universe as it is Ma’s prison, a fantastically rich, story-filled and ritualized space.” Says Donoghue: “Lenny understood that a film didn’t have to shut the viewer into a claustrophobic space. He already saw Room as a microcosmic universe the camera might explore. He understood that where Ma sees danger there is a whole cosmos of love and safety to Jack.”
For Abrahamson the letter was worth a shot given his feelings for ROOM. He’d come across it while he and his long-time producing partner and good friend, Ed Guiney of Dublin-based Element Pictures (FRANK, THE GUARD), were scanning the world’s literary lists for a book that stood out. “ROOM kept popping up everywhere,” recalls Guiney. “As soon as Lenny read it, he said this is something special.”
Abrahamson instantly sparked to the book, but not only because it was becoming a sensation. He found it stirringly perceptive – about people; about childrearing; about the whole, wide world. “I’d been struck by the book in a very visceral way, as a filmmaker, as a parent and even as a former child,” he comments. “I had a very strong, immediate feeling for the film that might come from it – so much so that I found myself having conversations with Emma in my head long before I met her. I was already mentally attending the film and boiling over with indignation that I hadn’t yet made it.”
He continues: “So I felt I should send a letter because at least I might express what I had to say cleanly, completely and passionately. Once I sat down and started writing, it expanded into a pretty comprehensive analysis of the book and all the pitfalls I felt might await a filmmaker and how you might avoid them. The one thing I felt I had in my favor is that I’m quite analytical as a filmmaker and I was ready to explain to Emma exactly how her book could work on screen. I was banking on her being open to talking more about that.”
Donoghue was indeed charmed but told Abrahamson she hadn’t yet made up her mind. He patiently waited. “The good news was that as Emma began fielding interest from other filmmakers, hearing their ideas, she kept thinking more and more about the specifics in my letter. And at that same time I was getting better known as a filmmaker, which didn’t hurt,” he laughs.
“We were very understanding of Emma’s hesitation,” adds Guiney. “Here she had written the most important book of her career and getting global attention – so why should she make a movie with two blokes from her home town? But I think we made a very compelling argument that an independent European company would allow her be a real part of the creative team making the film.”
As Abrahamson and Element Pictures wooed Donoghue, all the pieces of the puzzle began aligning. The UK’s Film4 (TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) and the Irish Film Board joined as development financiers. Rena Ronson at UTA worked with Element to bring on leading international sales company FilmNation Entertainment along with A24 as U.S. distributor. As production neared, the Canadian production company No Trace Camping completed the enthusiastic lineup of supporters.
Abrahamson was gratified by the combo of freedom and collaboration the team gave him. “We were able to develop the film in a protected space with people who understand the creative process. It was a very, very supportive environment, and that’s the only way to make a film like this,” he says. So what ultimately won Donoghue over? Abrahamson says it was all about acknowledging what film can observe that writing can’t … and vice versa.
“The biggest question for myself and Emma was how to adapt such an internalized book. In a way, I think I had a sense of the answer from the first time I read the novel. As I imagined the events described in the little boy’s voice I could feel his presence in the pictures, in the sequences. Film does point of view very powerfully, it just does it differently, less directly, in a way much more flexibly, than literature. There were times when I doubted it would work, but I knew that whatever happened I would pursue that vision and would use no obviously stylizing techniques, no overtly subjective camera style. That would just kill the believability and distance us from the boy,” he says.
“So to do a direct stylistic translation from the first-person voice of the book to the film would lose precisely that intimacy with the boy that makes the book so special. I did add back in some voice-over and Emma was very open to this, but really a minimal amount. And, of course, the boy is at the center of the story still – in terms of all the obvious choices – we stick with him, we don’t have scenes where he’s not present. The deeper choices are about how he’s shown, how his face is studied, what lines he pays attention to in the adult conversation around him. Books can tell you things directly in a way that film can’t (and should never attempt to), but film has the modulation of time, and a whole grammar of tone – its own expressive means. And it has faces. The child’s face, observed closely as he plays or listens or thinks, as he tries to make sense of the dramas and dangers around him – this is powerful stuff – especially when we have the simultaneous experience of our own adult understanding.”
One thing the director knew straight out of the gate is that he was not going to get tricksy or whimsical. On the contrary, he wanted to strip away any artifice that might stand between the audience and their experience of Jack and Ma’s two worlds, in and out of Room.
“I suppose I trusted my instinct, and I trusted the story of these people and didn’t hedge, didn’t resort to any tricks, I just tried to track them with maximum sensitivity to the details of what they are feeling, what is at stake for them, as well as capturing the broader ironies, tragedies, social, psychological and familial insights of their story. I tried to make it feel real while at the same time subtly underscoring the more allegorical aspects of Emma’s amazing book in relation to parenting, moving from the safe fuzziness of the childhood cosmology to the danger and uncertainty of the adult world. These things are more powerful because an audience is allowed to sense them, discover them without loud prompts,” says the director.
“It would be quite easy to approach this story in a very stylized way, with animation and all kinds of suggestive camera styles as a way of supposedly rendering Jack’s subjectivity, but I felt that would have been wrong,” Abrahamson notes. “As soon as you lose the naturalism, that sense that these events are really happening to Ma and Jack, you lose the essential power of the story.”
Ironically, restraint lent Donoghue’s story the expansive human scope she and Abrahamson were after onscreen. “As a filmmaker I’ve always believed that once you have constructed the world, peopled it and shaped the action, there is great power to be got from just standing back and watching as openly and honestly as you can… In the case of ROOM, I knew that audiences would become deeply involved in Jack and Ma’s world, would see its wider implications, only if it feels fundamentally true,” says Abrahamson. “ROOM has big resonances outside the specifics of the story, it has the allegorical power of a great fairy tale, but to place this front and center would kill the film. Those bigger ideas are so much more powerful if they are discovered by an audience, felt as being there in the world rather than shouted by the filmmaker.”
Like Donoghue, Abrahamson felt that the second half of the film had to be a total reset. “It’s an interesting thing to say to an audience, ‘You thought the story was over but now just take a breath,'” the director points out. “Just because you’re out of Room, the problem-the real problem-is not solved. Jack and Ma are not free and it will take the rest of the story to free them. In the first half, the singular problem Ma and Jack have is Old Nick. But in the second half the problem for Ma and Jack is the greater problem we all have or have had: how do you deal with bad things and still live in the world? How do you leave the cozy simplicities of childhood and deal with the messiness of adult life? As a parent, how do you remake the relationship with your child as you both change?”
For Guiney, Abrahamson’s approach to ROOM is at once something new for the director yet also true to his voice. “Lenny is undoubtedly one of the most gifted filmmakers working today but has until now been a bit more under the radar. He knew going into this film that there were going to be an awful lot of expectations, which has made the making of this film a different experience for him,” observes the producer. “I think Lenny’s greatest skill is that his storytelling is utterly truthful – you completely buy the emotional reality of this family and you get caught up in their lives in an incredibly direct, intimate and powerful way. ROOM is both his most accessible and his most emotional film.”
ROOM could only succeed if the filmmakers could find someone at once tiny yet vast enough to fill every inch of Jack’s unforgettable persona, someone with his outsized imagination and resolve. Everything hinged on it, though there were qualms that it was even possible to find a child as simultaneously innocent and observant as Jack. “He’s such a little hero,” notes Emma Donoghue.
Lenny Abrahamson remembers: “I had sleepless nights worrying about finding our Jack. It was always the biggest unknown. He’s meant to be 5, which is very, very young, and that presented a great difficulty. Many roles for kids that young simply require them to be themselves. But this is a role that needed a proper actor, which is rare enough in adults, and nearly impossible at that age.”
The search was exhaustive, with Abrahamson watching endless tapes and auditions. The filmmakers timed the search just a few short months before shooting was set to begin, so as to cast a child who would not have already grown into a new phase. “I met a lot of amazing kids,” the director recalls. “I fell in love with many and saw all kinds of possibilities. But when Jake [Jacob Tremblay] came in, he truly stood apart, because he was not just charming and sweet but he brought all the tools of a great actor. I felt like I was at the casino and hit the jackpot. It was like alarms went off and glitter started coming down from the ceiling.”
Tremblay also swept Donoghue off her feet. “He’s magical,” she says. “I saw auditions with about 40 kids, but Jacob had this remarkable assurance that was different. At the same time, he’s completely unspoiled, very down to earth and able to be truly playful, which was so necessary. He also has the most beautiful face, which contrasts with the ugliness of Room.”
Adds Ed Guiney: “One of the many gifts Jacob has that is unusual at his age is phenomenal concentration. His parents were also a very positive force in terms of helping him prepare. He showed up every day completely ready and in a good emotional space. It also helped a lot that Lenny is wonderful with children. He’s a father himself and he was terrific at communicating with Jacob in ways that were very effective.”
For Jacob, understanding Jack’s situation came naturally. “He’s never known anything about the outside,” he observes, “but he knows from his Ma that he has to be brave.”
Abrahamson found his own way of working with an actor so incredibly young yet also so determined. “I think it’s important to talk to children like people – and this was especially true with Jake,” he says. “We talked very seriously about his character, and what was happening in the scenes, but of course we did it in terms a child of that age can understand. Jake has that unaffected purity of childhood. But he also has an unusually strong sense of patience and a rare work ethic, which made him a true pleasure. He had his moments of being nervous, but by the end of the production he was running around the set in his underwear playing tricks on the crew.”
Abrahamson had another ally in guiding Tremblay to find Jack’s breadth: Brie Larson. “They spent lots of time together and developed an incredible bond – which gave Brie the ability to push him or pull him very subtly by her reactions. It’s a real testament to Brie that she was able to give this remarkably visceral, nuanced performance while also paying nurturing attention to Jake. It was incredibly unselfish. I told her that it was as if she was co-directing the scenes with him.”
Tremblay says, “Brie is a great person. We played a lot together, we built stuff and we became best friends. She was always helping me to become my character – together we were sad, mad, scared and really happy.”
One of Tremblay’s most dramatic moments came when he had to be rolled up and completely hidden inside of Rug during Jack’s great escape, when Jack’s confidence is sustained only by Ma’s love. Jacob remembers: “It was really dark in there and it was kind of hard to breathe. But when I finally came out, Brie was right there waiting for me.”
The role of the woman who is known to Jack simply as Ma runs the gamut of maternal triumphs and maternal agonies, from fear and regret to awe and unwavering love. All of that came through in a gritty, unsentimentalized way in Brie Larson. She broke out as an emerging dramatic star in 2014 with her turn as a teen counselor in SHORT TERM 12, and recently showed her wide range as a foil against Amy Schumer in the comedy TRAINWRECK. But she’d never done anything remotely like Ma.
Larson approached Ma with extreme commitment, leaving no stone unturned – from altering her physique to conducting intense psychological research on confinement – in her quest to do justice to who Ma is, what she has gone through in Room and how she focuses every last bit of herself on Jack’s future. She knew part of her task was to embody Ma’s stark contradictions. On the one hand, she approached Ma as still very much a child herself, a girl stolen away from her promising life on the cusp of adulthood and forced to grow a stony emotional armor around her to survive. But she also felt driven to highlight Ma’s courageous, single-minded devotion to raising Jack so that he could thrive no matter where he was – a part of Ma that left her in awe.
“I don’t think Ma ever expected to get out of Room,” Larson states. “She knew that hope can be a trickster. But I think she always believed Jack would get out. When she made an escape plan for Jack, it was a selfless act. She had to believe Jack would make it, but I don’t think she ever considered that she might make it out, too, and have another chance at life and being a mother.”
Larson began her scrupulous mental and physical preparation by diving headlong into the stark facts of Ma’s reality in Room. First, she hired a trainer and started dieting and weightlifting until she was ultra-lean with several pounds of new muscle, ringing in at just 12% body fat.
“That physical process really put me in a certain mindset,” she says. “I felt more aggressive, more like a fighter, and at the same time I felt hungry and exhausted. It gave me a sense of what Ma must have felt like in her body after years in captivity with just barely enough food.”
At the same time, she began leading a more reclusive life, limiting all social interaction, to further get into Ma’s emotional and spiritual state of shock. When she absolutely had to be outside, Larson slathered on high-SPF sunscreen to make sure her complexion took in no rays.
“I wanted to fully understand what it was like for Ma to be so, so long in Room,” Larson explains. “I think she’d have gone through waves – waves of panic, then waves of acceptance, but I think a lot of the time she was probably just bored by the routine and monotony. So to simulate that, I stayed at home for a month and only left to go to the gym. I had very little connection to the outside world, and I stayed out of the sun since Ma has not had sun on her skin in many years.”
The sense of being utterly, devastatingly alone helped Larson to understand how Ma finds the almost crazy courage to believe in Jack’s future. To learn more about the psychology of trauma, and its shattering effects on identity, Larson spent time working with Dr. John Briere, a professor of psychiatry at USC and an expert in adolescent trauma.
“What I learned from him is that in order to survive, when there’s too much going on in the world, the brain will shut off part of your awareness. So inside of Room Ma shuts off parts of herself to survive and also to be the best mother she can to Jack. But when she leaves Room, she realizes all these things she shut off are coming back on-line,” she says. “The irony is that once she’s physically safe, that’s when it all starts happening in her mind. I always felt that Ma only really starts to experience what happened in Room the second she steps outside it.”
The process of becoming Ma kept deepening and deepening. When production designer Ethan Tobman handed Larson some blank journals he intended to place in Ma’s old bedroom, she filled them out entirely in the voice of a 17-year-old, a girl with no awareness of Room or Jack or anything that was to come. “Writing out the journals was amazing for me – it was like practice for learning who Ma was before she went into Room,” she says.
When Ma unexpectedly gets her chance to return to the old bedroom that has remained like a museum of her youth – a youth utterly lost to her – Larson wanted that moment to have complete immediacy. “One thing I knew is that I didn’t want to even see the bedroom until my scene in there. The first time Ma sees it again was my first time I saw it – and since Ethan chose a bunch of items that spoke directly to my childhood, it carried those emotions.”
Abrahamson was floored by Larson’s devotion to immersing herself in Ma’s POV. “I’d worried so much about finding Jack, but if we hadn’t found Brie, this film could never be what it is,” he says. “She’s so deft in her abilities, and so willing to go all the way, I don’t think anyone else could have brought Ma to life with so much emotional truthfulness.”
Donoghue felt the same way. “I’m so, so excited by what Brie has done with Ma. I loved seeing her huge emotional range. She has many beautiful moments but she also wasn’t afraid to go to the dark side and go a bit mad.”
Ed Guiney adds: “One of the things that was important to Lenny was casting an actress who is exactly the same age as Ma – and that was true of Brie but the connection went well beyond that. She is clearly one of the most interesting young actresses working right now.”
Larson explains that her connection to the character and the entire story has a personal link. Growing up poor herself for a time, with a mother recovering from a divorce, Larson had once lived in her own tiny, dilapidated but slightly enchanted enclave, a bit like Jack.
“When we first moved to Los Angeles, my mom, me and my sister lived in a one-room studio apartment that was maybe twice the size of Room. We had very little money, we couldn’t even afford a Happy Meal at McDonald’s and we each had like three pieces of clothing and a couple of toys,” Larson describes. “Yet, there was something really simple and a little magical about that time. We still talk about it as one of the best times in our lives. For my mom, I know there was a tremendous amount of pain as she tried to figure out who she was and how to support two kids on her own. But I also remember it as a time when I really learned the power of the imagination. We didn’t have much, but my mom could create games out of anything, even little sugar packets. “
She continues: “Of course, my experience wasn’t nearly as traumatic as what happens to Ma and Jack, but when I read the book, I connected with a child and mother going through a beautiful but painful time. I just loved the beautiful simplicity of Jack’s POV and the way it brought out so much hope and love in what would, in any other story, be such a dark circumstance.”
For Larson, too, things got more complicated in the larger world as Ma falls apart and puts herself back together again, in no small part helped by Jack. Larson notes that out in the world, Ma suddenly is having the opposite experience of her son, after sharing everything with him since birth.
“Jack never knew the world so he’s discovering it all for the first time,” she points out. “But Ma comes out of Room with all these expectations that have built up in her and there’s a shattering of her reality. Imagine coming home to what you think is your parents’ house but your parents have divorced. Your old clothes are all there, but they don’t fit and everything in the stores and on TV is foreign and weird and your teenaged bedroom is the same but you’re completely different. Ma thought she was going home but she’s an alien in this familiar territory. I think we all can relate to that to some degree. We can all relate to those moments when we feel like our lives and relationships aren’t what we once thought they were.”
It is Ma’s own deep-seated resiliency and her unbreakable link with Jack that keeps pulling her back from the brink. For Larson, this only worked because of the rapport she found with Jacob Tremblay. “Before we met, my big fear was that we wouldn’t connect – but it happened instantly, as soon as we started talking about Star Wars,” she laughs. “From there it was a matter of hanging out, going to get pizza, playing together.”
Befitting the hands-on nature of her preparation, it was the experiential play that created an unbreakable bond between Larson and Tremblay. “When the Art Department asked us to make some of the crafts Ma and Jack create in Room, it brought us there and our bond kept getting deeper and deeper,” she muses. “I’ve honestly never felt as close with an actor. Jacob’s so incredibly present and I couldn’t have done this without him. We got so tight that he had a difficult time seeing me upset in the scenes.”
Larson says it was Abrahamson who kept them both feeling safe. “Working with Lenny was among the most rewarding experiences of my life,” she states. “He’s so sensitive and tender – but also, he has a great sense of humor. He was able to diffuse all that we were going through with a single funny line. And he gave me the greatest gift: he gave me complete trust with this character who is so special.”
After Ma and Jack escape, they find themselves in the brave new world of Ma’s childhood home, which has changed dramatically during Ma’s absence. Ma’s parents, played by three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen and Oscar nominee William Macy – each traumatized in their own way by her disappearance – are now unexpectedly divorced, and Ma’s mother has a new partner. These shifts only add to Ma’s sensation that the world is nothing like the one she knew before Room. Yet, she also finds the anchor of family helping her, however achingly, to get her bearings.
“It isn’t easy for Ma to see her parents no long together, or to see them struggling with how to respond to her and to Jack,” says Brie Larson, “but I think her parents are very human in the ways they react. They’re all trying to heal and fix themselves.”
While Ma’s father can’t even look at Jack because he is such a stark reminder of what his daughter experienced, Ma’s mother, Nancy, labors to forge new connections with her daughter and surprise grandson. Says Abrahamson: “As Nancy, Joan found a heartfelt way to portray a woman who loves her daughter very much, who is deeply grateful to have her home, yet also feels completely awkward around her. Somehow, Joan was able to reveal all of the subtle emotions flowing underneath Nancy’s surface. She truly is the real deal as an actor, able to create meaning from the tiny, quiet moments that come between the big moments.”
Allen, an Oscar nominee for THE CONTENDER, THE CRUCIBLE and NIXON, had already read the book when she was approached about taking the role. “I had thought the whole story, when put together, was a beautifully drawn study in the truths of parenthood,” she says.
She was also drawn to exploring Nancy’s very unusual, but unabashedly emotional experiences as a mother who loses and regains a child. “I think people very much understand and anticipate that someone like Ma, who was an abducted child, is going to be very traumatized, but what’s less talked about is that this trauma also permeates an entire family. There’s a saying that ‘a family is only as well as its sickest member’ and that is very true for this family,” says Allen. “When Ma returns, she sees that even her parents’ marriage couldn’t withstand the pressure. The second part of the film becomes a portrait of how a whole family finds their way back to hope.”
Though few parents of abducted children choose to talk openly, Allen watched whatever interview and documentary clips she could find of mothers reunited with their children. “One thing that really struck me is that one mother said that recovering from something like this takes a lot of time and a lot of help,” she says. “That’s reflected in the film. They’re all trying to return to some sense of normality but it can’t happen quickly, because the trauma is so extreme.”
For Brie Larson, Allen became an anchor in a wild emotional sea. “Joan’s performance was so moving it brought me deep into the scenes with her – and even off-camera I felt such maternal feelings from her. She was also incredibly supportive on a personal level. When you’re playing a character this intense, it can get sticky and confusing and Joan said things to me in the midst of that which I’ll never forget.”
Allen in turn says: “Brie is so magnificent and was so committed to the role. It was not an easy role and I could empathize with the toll that takes. Yet when you work with someone who is operating on such a superb level, as Brie was, it also inspires your own work.”
Working with William H. Macy was also a pleasure for Allen, though his character is going through a harsh rejection of emotions he just can’t face. “His character just can’t see the bigger picture right now,” Allen observes. As for why Nancy is able to transcend her discomfort to reach out to Jack, she believes it comes to something basic: “I think it’s mother love,” she says. “I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s painful for her, too, but I think she has that maternal capability to put on the best face that she can for the sake of Jack.”
Abrahamson was exhilarated by the contrasts between the two. “Bill Macy is someone who is absolutely charming, but here he plays a man who is deeply, darkly conflicted,” notes the director. “Bill really allowed himself to figure out how a good man could carry this great rage towards a little boy because of the reminder of something unthinkable.”
Allen says that Abrahamson was a clear-sighted guide into this atmosphere redolent with both family confusion and family love. “Lenny is so smart, but he’s also generous and collaborative. He creates a very, very nurturing space to work in. He’s also just a good human being on top of being a good director – and I don’t think he could have done this film justice otherwise. This is such a tricky story to get right. He was particularly brilliant at not sentimentalizing anything but always making it real. He has a keen eye for what is authentically moving. I think he has made a brave, beautiful, original film about family and parenthood and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
One thing about ROOM was clear from the beginning: it would present a one-of-a-kind design challenge. Though no exotic period sets were involved, the design of Room was a massive artistic task of another kind, demanding the creation of a surreal prison that audiences could believe in – yet could also experience as the magical refuge that it is to Jack. Equally so, the second half of the film presented an opposing design challenge: how to present what our maddeningly over-stimulating, fast-paced everyday world would look like in the aftermath of total isolation.
These tasks fell to Ethan Tobman, a rising Canadian designer who brought a heightened creativity borne of an emotional connection to the material.
“This was an unusually intense design experience,” Tobman reflects. “I’d certainly never cried during any production until this one. I had so many different feelings during it – from being emotionally wrecked to feeling triumphant.” Everything on the film seemed to work in reverse from the usual design rules. “I’ve never built a smaller set – yet I’ve never spent as much time and thought building a set,” laughs Tobman.
Tobman says the production was a lot like a think tank, with a constant backand- forth of ideas. “And throughout it all, Lenny was a constant, strong guiding force,” he adds. “When the film ended, I truly missed being inside Lenny’s head. It was such a rich landscape to design within.”
The work began with an unusual, often harrowing research journey, as Tobman read up on every variety of prison throughout human history. “I read about all forms of containment from jails to Holocaust camps to poring through police photographs from real-life kidnapping cases, including Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch in Austria,” he explains. “We also looked at extreme poverty, at people living in 5″x5″ Hong Kong apartments or migrant workers crammed in cage-like hovels.”
This led to some keen observations. “One thing I found is that everyone personalizes their space and everyone does it differently. So that became my obsession,” Tobman goes on. “My question was: how would a 5-year-old boy personalize his captivity? As Emma so beautifully shows in the book, everything is a game at that age, everything is in the landscape of imagination. So I felt that while Room had to feel acutely real we also had to get a sense of that magical realism of a child. Every opportunity to turn something into a toy was taken – even the electrical outlets are faces. It’s a very, very small world, but a very, very rich world.”
Tobman also thought a lot about how Old Nick would have designed Room for his captives. “There needed be sound insulation to keep them from reaching the outer world, but I realized that Old Nick had to do it on the cheap, so we found these very plain cork tiles. The beauty of the tiles is that we could move them around and remove them to hide lights and camera lenses,” he muses.
The size of Room presented innumerable obstacles that yielded to creative solutions. “We had to deal with the mechanics of a space that could barely fit a bare-bones camera crew,” explains Lenny Abrahamson. “But we determined that we would find a way to always have the camera lens in the room; in other words we would never cheat and shoot from farther back. The set Ethan created was very modular and gave us the maximum flexibility. You could take sections of it away, you could get down to floor level, and there were always different areas from which to shoot.”
Room’s geometry was carefully considered. “There’s a fairy-tale implication to the story, so I wanted the shape to echo a children’s drawing,” says Tobman. “I then took that shape and began experimenting with doors and the skylight and the surfaces using a computer, changing orientation in different ways until it started to feel very alive. Every single thing in Room became a character.”
Taking a cue from Donoghue’s script, he looked at each spot in Room as a world unto itself. “We took two approaches: there was the macro approach to Room as a whole but once that was codified it became how many individual worlds can we create in here? Room is like a solar system,” says Tobman.
“For example, Wardrobe is its own planet – and I saw it as kind of a portal for Jack, like ‘Through the Looking-Glass.’ Even Rug is a planet and many Rugs were auditioned. We ended up choosing a rope-style rug with a kaleidoscope of colors, more fodder for Jack’s imagination.”
Another major task for Tobman was aging every object in Room authentically, which meant tracing the sun’s path through Room to see which objects might fade and which might mildew. “We wanted to age the walls exactly where the sun touches them,” the designer explains. “We also did endless tests with the cork, dirtying it, bleaching it, drying it, trying to create a tapestry of browns and ochres that might approximate seven years of cooking and breathing and living in Room.”
One of the last details that came to Tobman was the series of sketches Ma has done of a growing Jack. “Eleven weeks into prepping the film, and after weeks of spending every day inside Room, it occurred to me that Ma would feel an urge to document Jack’s childhood, to capture these private, personal moments that are so special in our memories. She doesn’t have a camera, but she does have time.
I got some baby pictures of Jacob Tremblay and made some sketches, collaged them together and sent it to Lenny. It ended up becoming a centerpiece of Room.” Tobman recalls that just as he put the finishing touches on Room, its occupants arrived on set. “I remember Brie walked in and I turned to her and said, ‘It’s yours now,'” he reminisces.
Larson was enraptured by Room and says it helped enrich her performance. “Everything in Room just works. Every detail was precious and vital and Ethan brought so much psychology and backstory to every piece. It felt as if Ma and Jack had truly inhabited it for years,” she says.
Donoghue was also moved when she toured Room. “It’s important that in the book Jack never notices how ugly Room is. It’s simply the world he knows,” the writer points out. “So it was fascinating to see how Ethan and Lenny designed it to be ugly in such an interesting, playful, childlike way. So much thought went into every aspect. They gave it such enormous texture.”
Exciting as it was to create Room, Tobman is another who feels the film only grows in fascination as it tumbles out into the wider world with all its complications and confusion. “I love that Room feels so warm and personal yet outside of Room, in what is supposed to be freedom, everything is cold and bleached,” he says.
The hospital where Jack and Ma reunite was a key set, as the gateway between the two very different phases of their lives. Abrahamson explains why he chose a glass-encased, 10th floor location: “We looked at a lot of different kinds of spaces – but ultimately we chose this starkly white, 2001-like room in a high-rise because it is as if Jack and Ma awaken in a suspended world where they can momentarily delay the comedown. It’s also a fantastic contrast to Room because it’s this amazing, open box in the sky. Nothing could be more different from Room.”
The final piece of the journey takes place in Grandma’s house, where Ma grew up but which has undergone unsettling changes. “Nancy has just gone through a divorce, so we talked about her house as a bit cold and empty, implying the feeling of lost memories,” says Tobman. “The materials were all chosen to contrast with Room. Instead of brown cork on the walls, there’s stark wallpaper and concrete. The only place that feels cluttered and warm is Leo’s den, where Jack is drawn.”
Perhaps the most important space in Nancy’s house is Ma’s old bedroom, hauntingly preserved exactly as it was the day she disappeared. “I wanted it to look like a time capsule of a teenage girl’s room of that era and I also wanted it to feel very personal to Brie,” says Tobman. “We designed it together. I’ve never worked this closely with an actor on a set. We talked about everything – what would be under the bed, on the bed, hidden in her drawers.”
Larson says the process was enlightening. “Ethan brought in all these items that were personal nods to what I liked and followed as a teenager. We were constantly exchanging e-mails and it was very exciting.”
Tobman says his emotions were carried away when Jack and Ma visit Room one more time at the climax of the film. “I love the subtle power of how Lenny did it,” he concludes. “Lenny isn’t capable of a clichÃ©. Shooting that scene, we thought of Room as a graveyard – all the objects that were Jack’s friends are removed but their shadows and traces are still on the walls. You see what is lost, you see all the implications of it, and then you see the openness of Jack and Ma’s futures.”
As Ethan Tobman conjured up the physicality of Room he worked hand-in-hand with cinematographer Danny Cohen, an Oscar-nominee for THE KING’S SPEECH. Cohen had to think way outside of the box to shoot inside the box of Room. “It sounds very straightforward to shoot in a single room but, in this case, it was the opposite,” says Cohen. “There was a constant balancing act. There’s the important fact you need to get across that this 10″x10″ Room is the only place Jack has ever known … and then there’s the reality of trying to make that work as a piece of cinema.”
Abrahamson was exhilarated by three-way creative energy flowing between himself, Tobman and Cohen. “We all got on really well together,” comments the director. “Danny’s got a really dry sense of humor and he’s a very thoughtful person as well as being terribly talented. He was really keen to find ways to make this little brown shed visually intriguing and highly expressive at the same time,” says the director. “It’s a very different kind of challenge for a cinematographer.”
Like the design, the photography followed the principle that the essence of Room is far vaster than its real-world dimensions. “The idea we had is that just as Jack finds infinite interest in his tiny world, so too does the camera,” says Abrahamson. “I wanted to do with the camera what the novel does for Jack – which is to make Room a surprisingly warm, ordered place to grow up. For Jack, every passing little shadow, every little crack in the wall is endlessly compelling. We do choose at key moments to remind the audience how small Room really is, but we came to see Room just as Jack describes it: it went the whole way in every direction. There is no end to Room in Jack’s POV.”
Stuffing even a single camera into Tobman’s minute set along with a constantly in-motion Larson and Tremblay would have been no simple matter. But Cohen decided to use two fluidly roaming cameras. “With an 8-year-old actor I felt you should have two cameras so you’d have enough coverage,” Cohen explains. “At the same time, we wanted a very dynamic, handheld feel, so we had to find ways to give both cameras the flexibility to move with the action.”
The production used the new-generation Red Epic Dragon 6K camera, one of the smallest professional digital cameras in existence. “It was quite interesting to work with a brand-spanking-new camera,” says Cohen, “and its size was perfect for our needs.” As undersized as Room is, Abrahamson and Cohen wanted the mood within to be constantly shifting. “At times it has to feel very poky and small, so the audience can wrap their heads around what Ma is enduring, and at other times it’s this very big, amazing space to Jack,” Cohen explains.
Slight changes also have big environmental effects in Room. “We did a lot with the movement of light around Room,” says Cohen. “We wanted to give night and day their own different looks, so you feel the passage of time. We also wanted Jack to experience the shadows of the leaves on the walls, so there’s a sense that there is an outside world, though he can’t ever see it.”
Cohen took full advantage of the modular set – and a hinged roof – to obscure lights and the full camera crew. “The only light sources in Room are one bedside lamp, one fluorescent bulb, a small radiator and the skylight, so it’s very limited, and it’s quite tricky to make that feel believable, while also using light atmospherically,” he notes. “The modular tiles in Room really allowed us to use hidden light in a variety of permutations so we could create more textures and shapes.”
Shooting in Room’s airtight confines only helped Cohen and his team relate more to Ma and Jack’s emotional states. “We were going a bit bonkers after five weeks in Room,” he admits. “But our own sense of claustrophobia and not being able to see beyond the walls kept adding more layers.”
Cohen especially enjoyed shooting Jack’s escape and its aftermath. “It’s such a gear change. You’ve had this very contained chunk of story and then bang, you’re in the real world,” he muses. “There was a lot of figuring out how to get the carpet to work, how to work with Jacob in a moving truck, and a lot of thought went into the details. But at the same time it was starkly emotional,” he says. “After that, every scene is a chance for him to experience new environments and new people. I did a lot of work with framing Jack to give a sense of how his world is expanding.”
As photography came to a close, Abrahamson turned to the film’s finishing touches, reuniting with editor Nathan Nugent with whom he worked on FRANK and WHAT RICHARD DID. “Nathan’s a fantastic collaborator. He’s not afraid to suggest any idea – and he obsessed about the film possibly even more than I did! I’d get ideas from him at all hours of the night,” the director recalls. “He’s very musically oriented and we talked a lot about flow, pace and melody.”
The musicality of the storytelling also emerges in the chamber orchestra score by Stephen Rennicks, who also worked with Abrahamson and Nugent on FRANK and WHAT RICHARD DID. Rennicks’ music became another girder in the architecting of ROOM. “Stephen is my longest collaborator – I’ve known him since elementary school. I really trust him because he’s a composer who composes for the good of the film, not for the soundtrack,” says Abrahamson. “We talked about the story from every angle and he wrote orchestral themes that match the story’s depths.”
Those themes all converge at the film’s apex moment, as Jack and Ma exit Room for the last time. As with everything in ROOM, Abrahamson knew exactly how he wanted to approach it. “I was very keen that this moment shouldn’t indulge itself,” he says. “It’s not sentimental but it is incredibly charged, so it had to be done delicately. I found Brie and Jacob’s performances incredibly moving – the moment just felt truthful. Really, the genius of Emma’s novel is all in that scene because it’s when Jack allows his mother a glimpse into this place the way he sees it, the way that made it mean so much to him. You’re looking at this tiny room but there’s a huge experience that’s been had.”