Jay Sits Down With ‘Room’ Writer Emma Donoghue to Discuss its Unconventional Trip to the Big Screen


by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-chief

Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is one of the films I was most looking forward to after buzz began after its first festival screenings. The film doesn’t disappoint, with mind blowing performances by Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay anchoring an amazing script by Emma Donoghue, who has masterfully adapted her source novel for the big screen.

The journey that the novel took to the big screen is not the path usually taken though.

EMMA DONOGHUE: I wrote the novel and it occurred to me fairly immediately, as soon as I’d sold the novel that it could make a good film. So I thought I’d just fire away and write the script, or rather my first draft before the book is published. Because that way nobody would be looking over my shoulder, nobody would be telling me what to do. “

Indie Revolver: So that was important to you, having your own voice as part of that process?

ED: Yeah. At least to give it a try. If somebody had come along and said they were going to hire a legendary screenwriter, I might well have been seduced by that. But I thought I might as well have a bash.

IR: How did the novel for Room come about?

ED: My kids were four and a half and one and I’s heard about one of these kidnapping cases. There had been so few kidnapping cases that involved the birth of a child. The case that triggered it for me was the Fritzl case in Austria.

All that Room took from that (case) was giving birth to a child in a locked room. I made it different from and less hideous than that case, or any of the real cases, frankly. Because I didn’t want this to be the story of additional horrors piled on a child. What I was interested in was, what if you didn’t have the world but you had the love of one parent? You know, but enough food and air and so on. It’s a study of the lack of freedom, rather than extra horrors. But really the story never would have struck a chord with me if I hadn’t had small kids. It was really having kids that made me think of this. As soon as I had kids my head was full of the kinds of thoughts of the existential angst of parenting. Like, how much would you sacrifice for your kid? How much do you resent the loss of your individualized self? And responsibility was pretty new to me, I’m the youngest of eight and I’m a writer. Not a very responsible job, you know? When we had a baby was the first time I ever found myself thinking, “Oh my god, it’s my job to stay awake and look after this baby.”

IR: How involved were you with the production of the film?

ED: I would say more involved than the writer usually is. Because I owned the book I was able to get a very good deal which involved me a lot. For instance, the rights were not actually sold until just before filming. Until that point we had what was called an attachment, it’s pretty unusual. So we all worked with nobody getting paid and we worked together for several years to develop it. I think that made the film company keep me in the loop. Of course what it really depends on is a good working relationship. If you don’t have a good working relationship, they’ll find ways to keep you at a distance. It was very chummy.

IR: Since it was your project and you were so involved and the process was unconventional, how involved were you in picking a director?

ED: That was really my main power, to not say yes until the right director came along. I didn’t want to sell it to a producer because I couldn’t tell who would direct it. I was just so concerned to protect this story from either turning it sentimental or schlocky. So I really felt like I had to hold out for the right director. I know that’s an unusual way to proceed but when Lenny Abrahamson wrote to me I was just blown away by how closely his vision and mine corresponded. He was just not afraid of all the unusual aspects of the book. You know, the two half structure or the child being in every scene or the way it proceeds chronologically with no flashbacks or tricks.

Lenny and I began to work on the script very closely. And again, that was a great experience because there wasn’t lots of people in the way. It was just him and me swapping emails and swapping drafts back and forth. So I think I had a real sweet time in making this film, which is very unusual for a writer. I keep saying to myself, “It’s never going to be like this again.”

IR: Is that a concern? The film is rightfully getting attention, specifically the writing. So I’m sure you’re being approached for other projects, some that aren’t based on your own work. Does that interest you? Would you be open to adapting someone else’s work? Or writing your own original scripts?

ED: Yeah! Yes. All of these things intrigue me. I’ve definitely been approached and it’s really exciting to have a whole new form of writing open up to me. Because, of course, novels you can just write on your own, whereas film there’s no point in sitting home and writing scripts that will never be made. You have to write films in the context of other people who actually want to make them with you. It’s very exciting in my mid-forties to find myself suddenly having this whole other form of writing open.

IR: You have a whole new sandbox open to you now.

ED: Exactly!

IR: There’s been a lot of people who haven’t been able to make that jump. You see a lot of writers who are used to being able to work in that long form of writing novels, which is very different than a script, unable to do that.

ED: And not just that it’s long form, but that you’re totally in charge… I mean the autonomy of fiction. And I love that. Especially as films take so long to get put together. I would have been tearing my hair out with anxiety over the past few years if I hadn’t been quietly working away at my novels.

IR: Obviously the filmmaking process is a bit more collaborative and a novel you’re in control of everything. What aspects appeal to you from each of those disciplines? What parts do you not like?

ED:  Good question. With novels I really like that there are no rules. At different points in history there have been. When Charlotte Bronte tried to sell her first novel they told her it wasn’t long enough, you needed to volumes. Whereas nowadays you can go to a publisher with a really brilliant novella or linked stories or some three thousand page novel and if it’s good enough they’ll publish it. So it’s a very flexible form. Editors of adult fiction, they never tell you what to do, they simply give suggestions, they don’t bully you. So it’s enormously freeing, you can really do what you like in fiction. And readers are quite tolerant, readers approach it at their own pace. They may choose to sit down and read it over one night or a little bit at a time. You have to bare that in mind, for instance you can’t assume they’ll remember every tiny detail because they might be reading it over a period of weeks. Basically, time is not an issue in a novel. You’re relaxed about that.

Plays and films are both time based mediums, so you have to be aware your audience are literally sitting there on their butts. So you can’t make it too draggy but you also can’t make it too short or they’ll feel cheated as well. So there are more rules when it comes to structuring both plays and films.

IR: Did you encounter any obstacles, with regard to the material, in which the studio wanted things changed or requests made that you didn’t want to make?

ED: Oh sure. You see it’s not an equal relationship, it’s not like you and the director are co-making this movie. Just as a novel has to have a writer, a film has to have a director. Their individual vision has to govern all the decisions. It felt like lots of us were putting in input, my input was the earliest since I wrote the book but I didn’t think that gave me the right to dictate anything. Then the designer is putting in so much, the editor is making suggestions, the costume people, the actors…There’s all this input but it’s up to the director to make those judgment calls. So in that context it felt like I was very much part of the discussion and I felt like I had a lot of input, but I never owned the film the way I would a book. That really takes the pressure off you as well. I’m not half as nervous about the film going out into the world as when a novel of mine goes out into the world.

IR: Sure, and I suppose since you were able to choose the director, that he was an extension of you and your original material.

ED: I trust his taste. I remember thinking, “Ok, he may not always agree with me, but he’s going to make a great film. It’ll be his film and it’ll be a great film.” From his previous films I could tell he was never going to head down a bad road.

IR: The book and the film share a lot but there were some significant changes along the way. Were these changes that you made yourself, knowing that film is a different medium and you were adapting that material to a very different one?

ED: A lot of them, yeah. Some were suggested by other people, but I think most of them I saw, in the second half of the film that I had to streamline characters. In my first script I immediately took away Ma’s brother and his family and lots of little episodic encounters. That was the main thing I did. But I made some changes that turned out not to be necessary. In the first draft of my script I gave Jack short hair because I thought mainstream cinema audiences are going to be too freaked out by a long haired boy. And Lenny said to me, “No, no. Let’s go back to the book. I liked the long hair.”

Interestingly enough I realized in watching the editing process that at that point you’re almost talking about shaping a piece of music. Like there were individual lines that I would have liked if they stayed in. There’s one line in the TV interview where she’s asked about the breast feeding and she responds sardonically saying, “In this whole story, this is the bit that’s bothering you? The breastfeeding?” So as an individual line, I would have liked that to stay, but in fact the way Lenny and the editor were cutting that scene, it ended up way shorter but still very powerful. To argue for any one line would have felt irrelevant because it’s not about content at this point, it’s about rhythm. One thing that had to go was, in the book, she had a still birth before Jack and that provides a lovely kind of tragic background to her very joyful parenting of Jack. But in the film that kind of a storyline given another tragic piece of backstory felt regressive, you know? Again, because film is a time based medium, you’re moving on, you’re moving on, so there’s far less opportunity for tangents or cul-de-sacs.

IR: How involved were you in the casting?

ED: I was in on all of the discussions, but I didn’t throw my weight around. Especially as I live in Canada and as soon as we knew we were going to make it in Canada, we had to cast it mostly Canadian. We did a lot of swapping lists of actors and so on.

IR: What an amazing two leads you ended up with. The film’s success really laid on their shoulders. You had to buy that relationship completely. And you totally do. There isn’t a disingenuous moment between the two of them. They complement each other so well in each scene they share.

ED: This film spent its money very smartly. It doesn’t look particularly expensive but the time was spent on the shoot being long enough. It was forty-nine days of mostly five day weeks and not late nights, so no one got too exhausted. It was on a humane child schedule. And also we got the set ready three weeks early so Brie and Jacob could go in there and play in that space for three weeks. They made most of the crafts you see in there, for instance.

IR: That’s a great touch.

ED: Because with a kid you can’t just make them turn on the chemistry, it’s not like that. You have to give them time to get to know each other. They had such a lovely rapport. And Brie gave him a lot of really gentle coaching, not getting him to express the emotions, but was more like, “Oh put your left leg slightly to the side again. Let’s tuck that curl back behind your ear.”

IR: Was there ever any concern about the tone of the film with a young actor on set? Or even how much he was aware of?

ED: Not really because he never needed to see anything traumatic. Scenes where he’s in the wardrobe and things were going on… Scenes were filmed when he was off having his math class or something. Even the breast feeding, that was never explicit. So he didn’t have to do anything that really embarrassed him. He was a little nervous about the prospect of being in the bath together, but of course they were wearing flesh colored body suits. He got really relaxed around Brie, I wouldn’t say he was distressed by any of it. Kids are always so wonderfully in the moment. A scene like when they’re reunited when she comes running out of the room to the police car… Brie was totally wound up and upset by that and as soon the cameras turned off Jacob was like, “What are you still upset about? We’re not acting anymore.” I think he was an enormous calming influence on her.

IR: What’s been the most gratifying part of the process for you?

ED: I found Working with Lenny to be superb. I feel like I really learned screenwriting at his feet. It was really satisfying too, because when I worked with theater directors, it’s just been for a few weeks. This has been a really sustained working relationship. He’s just so smart and highly entertaining. And as fellow Dubliners we clicked very well. It’s funny, writers always expect that the film industry will “fuck them over” and it just never happened (to me). I think I had a uniquely privileged experience.

IR: It sounds like you had the best possible journey through it, at least.

ED: I know.

IR: Thank you so much.

ED: My pleasure.


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