I caught up with Lenny Abrahamson, the Academy Award-nominated director of 2015’s Room. Brie Larson - who plays the woman trapped in an 11' x 11' room with her son (Jacob Tremblay) - won the Academy Award that year for her performance in Room.
Lenny and I talk about the Gothic horror story, social history and class in Great Britain, film-making, his influences, the very unique spatial challenges he faced on his movies and “counter-intuitive” ways he and his team found to handle those challenges as they relate to Room and his newest, The Little Stranger, in theaters August 31.
The Little Stranger is a Gothic horror story based on Sarah Waters's novel of the same name. Domhnall Gleeson plays Doctor Faraday who visits the sprawling Hundreds Hall to tend to the Ayres family (the principal members of which are played by Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter). After his initial visit, very strange things begin to happen as we get a look into Faraday's psyche and the drives that motivate him.
The Little Stranger is quintessential Gothic horror in its conventions. It is a superb slow-burner, remarkable for its atmosphere and what it does not show. It is highly intelligent, character-driven horror that does not rely on fake blood or a jump-scare-a-minute to achieve the desired end of terrifying the viewer. Yet it is absolutely terrifying, through and through.
In the process of achieving that end, the film also shows itself to value its viewers. The Little Stranger does not pander, and it does not sacrifice high aesthetic standards or its integrity to appeal to a lowest common denominator so often seen in big budget Hollywood fare nowadays.
Movies like it – indeed, stories like it – are exceedingly rare and should be celebrated when they come along. Catch The Little Stranger on demand now.
Getting right into The Little Stranger, I think our readers would be fascinated to hear what attracted you to the project initially and made you so passionate about it?
I read the book maybe eight years. I don't know exactly, I'd have to check when it came out in 2014, somebody sent me an advance copy. At that point I had made two small art-house films in Ireland and I had never thought about adapting anything.
But I had read this book and thought, “oh God I would really love to make this into a film!”
I think the thing that really struck me was that it's a really rich mixture of things. It's hard to define and I like things which are challenging and hard to pin down.
Me too. I think that tends to make the most interesting art.
Yeah. It's certainly a ghost story. It certainly has elements of the Gothic ghost story in it but it's also about social history; it's about the class system in Britain; it's an extraordinary character study of a bunch of really quite strange individuals from the British upper-classes as well as being ultimately a study of this character Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) who doesn't fit in any class.
Absolutely. His struggle and mythmaking about his own history are two big motifs throughout.
Precisely. He comes from a poor family, but he pulls himself up – so he doesn't fit in his old circle anymore, but nor is he accepted in the upper echelons of society.
So, he is this character without a home, and I always find those characters compelling.
We had a load of stuff which was a really rich and juicy world. And I just felt I have to dive into it.
Most definitely. Parts of what you said lead in to one I found remarkable about the film. The Little Stranger really worked as a horror piece for me because of what it did not show. It reminded me in its atmosphere of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”
That's wonderful. That's my favorite, I mean it's a masterpiece of writing, of Gothic horror...
I couldn't agree more.
Not knowing what it is, is the most disturbing thing about the turning of the screw. There's a sense of something terrible and dark that permeates it without ever completely telling you what it is.
We live in a period of time where – you know – it's all about excess, right?
Seems to be the taste of the masses – or at least what is peddled towards that end.
Movies lack a lot of subtlety today – they just throw it all in and don't worry about it. But in the end, I think that's all a kind of flattening effect. People just got jaded and everybody's in an arms race toward ever more extreme versions of things.
But I like the delicacy of James and what I wanted to achieve in this film was just that unnerving atmosphere, that sort of creeping sense of something wrong.
I think you hit that well.
Thank you so much that's lovely to hear.
With a view to that kind of horror, what was the creative process like to get the atmosphere you did?
I think first of all it was a commitment to stay with the characters for a while at the beginning – stay at the house for a while before anything happens – so that you really believe the place and you believe them – just like a person would themselves when they gradually realize there's something off. Taking your time at the beginning is one important thing.
Then, really... hard to describe choices of how you frame things, staying on the shots a bit longer than you naturally do, and using sound – a deep background sound – to create an unnerving quality.
My philosophy in a way is like... ok, you have a still surface of water and you drop a small pebble, and you notice the ripples. If everything is big and crazy you won't.
That's a fantastic way of explaining it. Makes a lot of sense.
So, it's just to create that quiet sense of concentration so that even the smallest thing which is not quite right gnaws at the audience.
And so, it's fab. Using those sorts of techniques to draw people in and to hush the room so that when you begin to introduce elements that are unnerving, they really, really have an effect.
That rather reminds me of how the greats like Kubrick used that sort of slow-burn terror to great effect in films like The Shining too – another Gothic horror piece.
Switching gears sort of, your Academy Award-nominated film Room was really something to see – I caught it for the first-time last night. I'm curious what were the creative challenges like in terms of the actual space – room itself – versus the spatial challenges of Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger?
You say that because... I think they have precisely the opposite challenge, right?
In Room, the challenge was how do you make a space that's 11' by 11' – that's pretty much what we shot in and we didn't cheat – how do you make that feel like a world? Because for the boy (Jacob Tremblay) – and it's the boy's eyes that we're trying to see this through – it's a universe. It's not just a room: it's got all the stories he's ever been told, it's got all the imagination of a five-year-old kid who's been living in that space. So how do you make it feel bigger than it is?
Indeed. That's amazing to me that you shot Room without cheating as you said to get more room in that tiny space.
For The Little Stranger, the challenge in a big, big space like we shot in, is how do you make that feel claustrophobic? How do you make it feel like it is baring down on the characters?
So, with Room we just... I don't know, it's funny getting myself back into that film. But, we allowed ourselves to go really close to things, so you realize, oh wow this is a small space but actually it's got infinite little bits, you know? Every corner is a world.
I do. Detail. A big part of what makes a great story, I think.
In Hundreds Hall what we ended up doing was shooting these big, wide, cold shots. Which just felt like, oh God this is oppressive.
So, in a way, you do the opposite of what you might think. In a small space you go close. In a big space you go wide. If I was to put it in one sentence, that would be the difference in the visual philosophy of each film.
Fascinating. Rather counter-intuitive direction.
It is. It is counter intuitive. It took a while in both cases to find that.
Mythmaking or world development was really integral to the characters in both films. Jack (Tremblay) and Ma (Brie Larson) likely could not have survived their time in room if it wasn't for the world they constructed. Whereas Dr. Faraday, it seemed to me, really constructed his world (and attendant myths) in The Little Stranger to try and insinuate himself in the upper-crust world of the Ayres family.
That's a really great insight because he is. His impetus since he was a small child was to want to be accepted by this group of people.
So, he's kind of constructed himself. He's built himself, a version of himself, which he hopes is appealing to them. He went off, he got educated, he qualified as a doctor and who is more trusted in our society than a doctor? A doctor is allowed into the most intimate aspects of the person.
So, he somehow believes that by achieving all of these things, he will get the girl, the magic door will open and he will walk through.
The thing though about class – in Britain particularly – is that it's a yes or no thing you know? You're either part of that group or you're not – and he will never be.
That's the thing that is warping to him. The film is an overall kind of allegory to other ways in which people are excluded – I think in any society where there is a hierarchy of value placed on groups of people leads to that same kind of warping.
And on both sides of the hierarchy – the people who are excluded and the people who are doing the excluding. Everybody's diminished by that.
Absolutely. Almost something built into human psychology.
Absolutely. People want to feel superior. Of course, politicians know how to manipulate that.
Yes, they do unfortunately. What were the challenges like with a view to the mise-en-scéne and really transporting the audience to 1948 England? That's always something that is vital to me as a viewer when watching a film that has even a bit of “period piece” in it, like The Little Stranger.
It's interesting because a certain kind of... what makes something feel “period” or not? It's a really interesting question.
Of course, they were making films back in the late '40s... so, there are probably aspects of – I would never take a big aerial shot for example in a period piece because it's artificial. Of course, it's artificial anyway, you're making a film – there's a nod to the period even in terms of period filmmaking.
Maybe that's a stretch but I feel there's something in that.
I don't think it a stretch.
Then also there's the practical elements of “period” for me – it being the first time. The thing that you realize very quickly – which is of course very obvious, but it takes a while to sink it – is that there's limits to your freedom. If you're making a contemporary film shooting in a city, you can look that way – it doesn't matter which cars you see, it doesn't matter which buildings you see, because it will all kind of fit.
As soon as you go period, it's like nope – the designer has given you these vehicles. You can shoot this group of stores – you can shoot these buildings and these cars, but you can't shoot anything else because they're all suddenly 2018.
So, just from a discipline point of view, as a director you've got to make your plans well because everything you say you want is going to take a lot of work and a lot of money to achieve. Nothing is for free.
Absolutely. That seems to be the eternal fight for directors: balancing the ideas – the creative – with what can practically be done – the money. Switching to something a bit more subjective, I also have to ask Lenny, was Coppola's Dementia 13 in your mind when working on The Little Stranger? Perhaps I'm off in my assessment but the film reminded me of it, especially the overall story of the Ayres family decline.
I've never seen it. But now I will.
Really? Yeah, I thought there were some definite similarities in terms of theme – especially the decline of what was once perceived as familial greatness. Which is also where The Little Stranger reminded me of Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Yes. Poe very much – Poe is great, I love Poe.
Definitely. Me too.
Yeah. Actually, some of those old adaptations of his stuff I've really loved. I'm sure they're lodged somewhere in my subconscious.
Yep. My favorite there would be anything with Vincent Price particularly. [Laughs]
Getting into a question I like to ask most everyone, what films and directors would you consider most pivotal on your development as an artist?
Wow. That's always a really hard one.
Yeah. A big question.
...Because I love film and I've watched so much and I'm sure that some of the influences are ones that I'm not even fully aware of.
But in terms of the films I watched growing up, I watched a lot of the great American directors of the '70s and '80s. Certainly watched Cassavetes, I watched Scorsese. I watched Hawks, all the great Americans.
I think probably the biggest influences are ultimately European for me. So, here's an odd one: if you watch Frank and some of the earlier films that I made, you'll see the reference, but a Finnish director called Aki Kaurismäki who I absolutely love.
I'll have to check him out.
He has a sort of odd, absurd sense of humor which definitely is in there somewhere.
I love Bergman because he is a master of capturing interaction between people – nobody is better than he is.
But I also like, let me think who else...
Take your time. It's a big question.
...French directors like Renoir… just so many, so many... but of the contemporary people, I think Paul Thomas Anderson is master. There's a really great director called Ruben Ostlund … I don't know if you saw The Square?
That one has been on my to-be-watched list.
That was recent, I think he's great. So, I watch contemporary people as well but the great European tradition is the one I grew up with and learned the most from I think.
I absolutely adore Bergman's work (especially Persona). He would've turned 100 this year.
Getting to our last question as time is running short, what do you hope audiences will take with them from The Little Stranger?
What I took from the book and I hope they take from the film is just that to use contemporary language if you don't deal with the things that are in you from childhood unresolved longings, and anger... the past then it will... even if you think you're getting what you want in later life, there's still an emptiness to that, you know?
A good moral to the story.
Faraday does in a way get what he wants, which is his claim to be in the house. But it's an empty victory.
I think all of us we carry things with us that cause all sorts of damage in later life. That's what this book and this film is ultimately about.