In a very short period of time, rising star filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson has crafted an exceptional and challenging body of cinematic work, with his most recent film, the Oscar winner Room (Brie Larson, Best Actress), becoming one of the most celebrated pictures from 2015, with Abrahamson receiving a nomination for Best Director. He recently spoke with Nick about his career, his inspirations, the success of Room and Frank, his Irish roots, and what’s in store for the future. We hope you all enjoy!
I just wanted to say, at the start, what a fan I am of the film Frank. That movie totally took me by surprise and to see your further cinematic progression with Room is really striking. I tell everyone I know to see Frank. It’s really not like much else I’ve seen.
Thank you very much! Yeah, we got lucky with Frank, that was something that was very unique, and to have Fassbender involved meant that this challenging little film might get a proper audience. The script was perfectly balanced, and the material really resonated with me.
You rose through the ranks io the Irish film industry, which is a country having a major cinematic boom right now. What’s it like to be a part of this new wave of talent?
I’ve been very lucky to be supported by the Irish Film Board, the IFB, and because of them, myself and so many other filmmakers have been given a chance to make films and tell interesting stories that mean something to us personally. That’s what’s so interesting and I think real about Irish cinema – a lot of it seems to be coming from the heart, from an honest place. It’s increasingly harder to find proper financing for films and the most interesting filmmakers need outlets to tell their stories in their own personal way. The IFB is known to nurture and develop talent, allowing filmmakers to find their voice.
How important is Irish cinema to you?
Oh it’s very important. My first film was entirely made possible by the IFB, with my initial three films all being shot in Ireland. My filmmaking career was certainly born out of my experiences growing up in Ireland.
Were you a film buff growing up?
When I was growing up I had a lot of interests, and I came to film and filmmaking later than most. I guess I was most attracted to classic European films, filmmakers like Fellini and Bergman and then the big Hollywood blockbusters like Indiana Jones and Star Wars and Jaws, the films I’d watch with my friends. John Cassavetes was also of interest, and I can remember becoming obsessed with The Killing of A Chinese Bookie. That was a film that made a big impact on me when I started to take cinema seriously.
Are there any filmmakers who made an impression on you when you first started to look at cinema in a serious way?
Absolutely, yes, Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan – their work really spoke to me, and still does. They’ve been able to work in Ireland and in Hollywood, going back and forth between small and large projects, movies with big stars and big subject matter and then smaller films that clearly have felt more personal and organic. Those two have had fabulous careers.
How do you feel about the longevity of the Irish film landscape?
We are in a great spot right now. We have a serious opportunity to create an even more substantial industry that’s already been put in place. The cinematic voices right now are strong and confident. I’m genuinely excited about it. I mean, you’ve got people like Terry McMahon on one end, and John Carney on the other. It’s a vibrant scene right now and it doesn’t seem likely to fade away anytime soon. And I think a crucial role to the success of our industry at home is the role of the Irish government.
Jumping back to Frank for a moment — it’s such a startling film that hits a lot of interesting tonal notes and goes to some unexpectedly sad and dark places. What was it like when you discovered this project?
The script was so incisive without ever feeling preachy, and that was something that I loved about the project and attracted me to the material. It’s a sad movie but one with a big heart and my hope is that the idea of love and acceptance was conveyed. We always knew it’d be interesting, with Fassbender under that mask, so I guess my goal was to make it as emotional as possible.
What was your first reaction to Room?
I was bowled over by it, totally emotionally on the hook and devastated. But in the best sort of way. It’s the type of project that could mean one thing to one filmmaker, and quite another thing to a different filmmaker. It’s how Emma O’Donaghue wrote it. The script afforded me the chance to get very visual, which is an area I am very interested in, how to communicate ideas visually, while still allowing for the performance to shine through.
Brie Larson is magnificent in this film, and after her incredible work in Short Term 12, feels like a true star in the making. What was it like working with her?
She’s just sensational. Really. She can do it all. I was in awe by her every day on the set, and her level of commitment and dedication to her character was so laser precise as to almost be scary. I am just so happy and surprised about the success of Room, and Brie was a huge part of everything positive with this project.
And working with Jacob Tremblay – how did he respond to direction and the intensity of the material?
He’s an amazingly intuitive young actor, and he brought an incredible amount of maturity to the shoot. Watching him interact with Brie was fascinating on one hand, and sort of sad on another. I don’t think I was prepared to see them bond in the way that they did. If he decides to continue acting, the sky’s the limit for him.
Were you worried that, despite being based on a popular book, it would have a tough film to sell to large audiences?
Things rarely go this well with a movie this challenging. For Room to be found by a large audience I think speaks to the material and the performances and the universal quality of the story. Making a film that’s based on a popular book is an interesting proposition, and in this case, we were certainly embraced by those dedicated original fans.
What was it like working with A24? They’ve established themselves as one of the premiere film companies right now, with a slate of movies that can be described as nothing less that tremendous.
A24 made a serious investment in all of us, before they even saw a finished script. With a company like them, one that’s young and energetic and hungry for great material, it was a match made in heaven. They kept plugging away, carefully building our audience.
Given that you’re a filmmaker with intrinsic ties to the Irish film community, how do you feel right now, overall, about your home country’s film landscape?
Oh, I’m very excited by it. It’s a very vibrant scene right now, with tremendous storytelling talent being cultivated. I don’t think this upward trend is going to fade away anytime soon. I think there’s a big and crucial role that our government can play in the success of the industry back in Ireland, and right now, because of so many serious voices, we have a real opportunity to create a major and lasting industry. People are very excited because of the investments being made by the government in our industry.
Do you find yourself attracted to Irish stories or Irish material?
I gravitate towards anything that I find compelling on a human scale, whether that’s a story set in Ireland or one set elsewhere. I see myself as a filmmaker who is able to make films in the states and back at home. Irish stories tend to be a bit more intimate and small, sometimes more personal. And those are the Irish stories that interest me the most.
What do you have coming up in the near future, anything you can share?
I’ve got another picture with Element Pictures, who I worked with on Room, that we’re developing. It’s an adaptation of a book that’s being written called The Grand Escape. It’s a WWI story, something very different than Room and my previous films, but a true story that I feel is very cinematic. I’m very excited about it. I’m also working on a boxing film called A Man’s World. I look forward to new challenges.