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Emma Donoghue on Adapting ‘Room,’ Avoiding Sensationalization, Finding the Ending, and More

Written by on November 6, 2015 

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From the time I saw the first trailer for director Lenny Abrahamson‘s adaptation of Room, which is currently in limited release and expanding, I knew it was a film to see. The story was a unique perspective on a dire situation, and with Brie Larson starring as the main character Ma, it was elevated to must-watch territory. The film follows the lives of Ma and her five-year-old boy Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who spend day and night inside a small room with only a skylight to let in natural lighting. They have the bare essentials, but nothing more, and it is clear that they are there against their will. While it is a harrowing way to start a story, the ups and downs are quite thrilling and it becomes an examination of our world that connects to each and every one of us in ways you might not expect. In our review we wrote, “While some of Room can be needlessly frustrating, and not because of the troublesome subject matter, perhaps its greatest achievement is its ability to make one greater appreciate every sense the world has for us to experience.”

So it was a pleasure to sit down for a roundtable interview with the writer of the original novel and screenplay, Emma Donoghue, earlier this year. Together my small group delved into the film with aspects of her involvement in the production, why she chose to write the screenplay before the novel had even come out, her perspective on young Tremblay and how he was utilized, and the larger aspects of the film including the words that Jack uses and how she wanted to make the novel and film less sensationalized than it might have been in someone else’s hands. We also delve into some spoilers towards the end that are quite illuminating but I’ve denoted them to keep you spoiler free. Enjoy the entire conversation below.

The Film Stage: You drew inspiration for Room from real life, right?

room_2Emma Donoghue: Yes, the Fritzl Case in Austria. But the only real inspiration I took from that was, “How would you parent in a locked room?” If a child was born into a kidnapping situation what might his experience be? But I made the story in Room as different as possible partly because I didn’t want to write about any real person as I didn’t want to intrude. But also partly because I wanted to write about a best-case scenario where a child might actually have a quite good childhood in a locked room. So I didn’t want to pile on any extra horrors. He’s not starving. He’s not being beaten. He’s not seeing any abuse directly. I liked the idea of a mother who, even though she is a prisoner, is managing to protect her child.

A big question with a film adaptation is the involvement of the author. You’re obviously doing a press tour on behalf of the film. How much did you want to be involved?

I wanted to be involved so I didn’t sell the rights until I found a director who was interested in working very closely together. I had drafted the screenplay even before the novel had come out because I wanted to be able to approach any filmmaker with a rough draft and say, “Here is my first draft. Can we work together?” I didn’t want to force them to hire me unseen because I didn’t have credentials in the film world. But I did feel like, “why shouldn’t it be me?” And it worked out. So basically I’m very involved and as an executive producer it means I was in the loop about all the discussions as far as casting, location, etc. I didn’t try to abuse my power. I feel a film is a director’s film. You have to allow one person to be the creative boss just as in a novel. It shouldn’t be a committee who decide these things. So I didn’t try to have the final vote on anything but I certainly had a lot of input on questions like casting.

So you were probably involved in choosing Brie Larson?

Oh, I think we watched every film starring a white woman between 20 and 30 years old.

[All laugh]

But it was the film Short Term 12 in particular that convinced me and [director] Lenny [Abrahamson] and others on the team that she could do it. I wanted somebody that wasn’t too famous yet. Despite Brie being an extraordinary actress she just doesn’t nearly have that face recognition. Having a really famous face can get in the way. When you want your audience to really believe in the story you don’t want them to be going, “Oh, yeah, Julia Roberts!”

While Brie is indeed great, it is really the young boy that sells the film. He is the star, in many ways. Can you talk about finding him and what you were looking for?

Everything depended on finding him. I was also worried about whether we could get a young child that was able to speak this much. He’s in every scene. There’s a lot of dialogue and voice over. One thing that helped Jacob [Tremblay] stand out was that he had done a couple of films so he was relaxed with the technicalities. Doing endless takes, for instance. I never saw him protest against that. He seems to just enjoy acting. It was nice because it was a 49 day shoot so if there was any feeling of the kid not wanting to do this it would have been upsetting, frankly.

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The other part of this is that you are asking Jacob to go to some dark places.

I think one thing that Lenny did brilliantly, as a father of two young children, was that he told Jacob to think of it as an equivalent situation in his own life. “Think of this as if you were at a new school for the first time and you’re all shy.” So a lot of the time that was the route. But in others, Jacob was able to just consciously act it. He wasn’t feeling it nor upset by it. It was also helpful because it was filmed more or less in sequence which cost a bit more money but helped him realize how used to the world Jack was supposed to be at that time. The first part was all filmed in the room and you could really see Jacob relax into it. They also had three weeks before filming to get used to the set and really make it their own. And again, it cost more money to have the set ready that early but I really think it was crucial. I think the money was used on the things that mattered, which is time.

One thing that was interesting was that if anyone was developing this as a book or screenplay there would be a tendency to sensationalize it. To go for more of the tabloid aspects of it. But you clearly wanted to go a different direction.

Absolutely. I thought the child’s eye perspective would not only make it more interesting, especially as the child doesn’t fully understand the situation he’s in, but also that it would shield the reader from the horrors. I didn’t want to put rape front and center. So an innocent narrator could be used as a filter. Often we use the innocent narrator when we’re talking about great evil. It manages to keep the horrors at bay but emphasizes the impact when you do realize them. I’m thinking of a story like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

The child narrator helps give it some moments of levity because of their innocence and such. It’s easier to have a light touch without being so burdened with drama and grime.

But also to tell the story of a kidnapping from when the kidnapper first planned it is almost accepting his terms. It’s a headline like, “This is the story of a bizarre, freaky crime!” I wanted the story to be about two ordinary people who manage to survive the unthinkable. So starting at 7 years in was crucial to me because I didn’t want any flashbacks to the kidnapping. It’s not about that. We wanted to really keep the kidnapper at a distance and say, “this is not your story.”

In the book and the film itself, you have an interesting way of speaking where it emphasizes nouns and such.

Yeah, Jack is making a sort of friend of things. Like there is one spoon that is sort of melted and he calls it “Meltedy Spoon”. And it is all about how children will make friends with anything, inanimate or not. They will talk to their forks and things like that. So it was just about him making friends within his own world in the room and having that inclination to an extreme. But I also used certain grammatical habits that five-year-olds have. I followed my son around, who was five, when I was writing the book. I wrote down all the grammatical faults he made and thought, “If I use all of these the adult reading is going to be tearing their hair out.” So I went after a few habits that wouldn’t block our understanding. They often try to make the past tense of verbs logical. “I finded” instead of “Found.” We can understand that just fine while also still showing that wonderful five-year-old attempt to make the world logical.

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And you don’t have any background in child psychology, right?

No, no. But I did read a lot about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the breakdowns that often follow periods of solitary confinement in prisoners but also about much more positive things like the concept of resilience where a kid from a really rough background seems to do much better than you’d expect. They studied these kids to try to work out what thread they were following through the labyrinth. I also read a lot about family theory and what they need. It’s not a certain income level or a father and a mother. But it’s more like regular rituals. Functioning families all have things they do once a week. They all have ways to make each of them feel special like birthday celebrations and the feeling that they can make their daily life meaningful. They aren’t just marbles spinning around in a machine. So even though Ma and Jack are prisoners, she can give him all these things. Help him find their days meaningful and agency over your life.

[Note: Spoilers to follow.]

Can you talk about the structure of the book and the film in terms of where it could have ended. It easily could have ended when they escape the room. So talk about the decision to extend it and continue to follow them.

I think it would have been very simplistic if it ended with the escape because it would have implied that the locked door was the only problem and that our modern society is the happy ending. I thought that would have been such a waste of an opportunity. Especially as Jack has never seen our world before. I felt he needed to see our world. And then that allows you to explore the concept of freedom much more deeply because yes, the locked door is real and has a certain effect on their life but there are other ways that people feel constrained and limited and bound. When they go back to the childhood home Ma kind of reverts to being a teenager.

The interesting thing about the second half of the film is that it connects it to everybody. We’ve all turned on the TV and watched these programs of these horrific events. The first half is very disconnected from a lot of us but once it shifts we start to realize the film is almost about us and our reactions to those situations and people as outsiders.

And also those moments of the grandmother making a suggestion and the mother resisting it and family tension. All of these moments of where Ma has to let Jack go a little bit.

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Room is now in limited release and expanding.


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