Filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson’s current and previous films seem quite different. “Frank” is about a band fronted by a singer (Michael Fassbender) who wears a papier-mache head. “Room” is about a mother (Brie Larson) and son (Jacob Tremblay) who have been held captive for seven years in a tiny room. But they’re both about people trapped in tiny worlds who nudge their way into the rest of the world. “Room,” which won the coveted People's Choice Award at Toronto, especially for its two lead performances, could have been a brutal and grueling watch. One reason it isn’t is because it’s told from the perspective of the boy, who’s not fully aware of the horrors that are going on.
Shooting in close quarters and finding ways to keep it visually diverse must have been difficult. How did you do it?
We took out little parts of the wall. It was really well designed so we could move around easily. We would talk about having the minimum amount of hassle with the maximum flexibility in shooting. You could shoot a lot of different things in close-up, so you can fill the frame with the boy’s face or some detail of the room. You actually had a huge amount of visual freedom. We were trying to get inside his head in a subtle way, without using obvious heightened techniques. We were trying to show that this small space can be a whole world. When you go back to it at the end, you see it in a colder way than before. It was kind of amazing: it’s small but it felt quite full and rich, and it’s just this tiny little box.
There are a number of films that make use of limited space, like “Lifeboat,” “Life of Pi,” “Buried.”
Funny thing is, compared to something like “Buried,” we had loads of options. We had different parts of the room. We had three light sources which could create different moods. What we were trying to do was not make shooting in a small space feel like it was the thing. With “Buried,” it’s like, “Whoa, they made a story work in a coffin!” Or “‘Phone Booth,’ isn’t that amazing?” Then it becomes this d—k-waving exercise, for lack of a better term. “Hey, here’s a filmmaking challenge and look how well we beat it!” I wanted people to disappear into the richness of the story and for us to make it less intrusive. The amazing thing is you have the book, which is a first-person narrator. You lose that. So you think, “How do you keep with him?” The answer is you have his face, which is something you don’t have in a piece of literature. The human face is something you can look at for a long time without getting bored.
The second half, when they finally escape and have to adjust to the real world, is very different visually. What was your approach for that?
You’ve held people in this room for so long. You’re with the actors. When you come out you put a wide shot on that garden and you allow the actors to do the work and you build up a soundtrack that’s way more three-dimensional and rich. You have to trust that a certain amount of that discovery will come from just that. You don’t need to go crazy and underscore the contrasts between the two halves. If you do that it becomes heavy-handed. My impulse is to always allow the audience to discover these contrasts and insights for themselves rather than have it wagged in front of their faces.