‘Room’ Director Explains How He Protected 8-Year-Old Star From Film’s Dark Side

Lenny Abrahamson also tells TheWrap why he cut the size of the film’s claustrophobic set in half

This story originally appeared in the Actors/Directors/Writers issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

They were ready to go bigger. Much of Lenny Abrahamson’s dark drama “Room” takes place inside an 11-by-11-foot garden shed, where a young woman played by Brie Larson has been held captive since she was abducted at the age of 17, and where she has raised a son who is now 5. But Abrahamson knew that the small space might be impossible for filming, so he and his production team started with a slightly more spacious version.

“We were all prepared to find that we needed to cheat a bit and make the room slightly bigger than the room specified in Emma [Donoghue]’s novel,” said Abrahamson, who landed the job after writing Donoghue a passionate letter detailing why he was drawn to the story. “But then we built this mockup of it, just the walls and a few shapes on the floors, and we built it about half as big again.

“We walked into it with our lenses and started setting up shots, and we all immediately knew that we had sucked all the energy out of it. It wasn’t resisting us at all. And we thought, ‘This isn’t the film.’

“The book asks the question, ‘Would it be possible to give a kid a childhood, to raise a child in these really extraordinary circumstances with almost no resources, just relying on the skills and capacities of parenthood?’ And as soon as you let yourself off the hook to make it practically easier to shoot, you’re not making that story anymore.”

So they went back to the confining quarters described in Donoghue’s novel (and her script), and shot it in such a way that for almost an hour the audience never leaves the small space in which Larson’s character, Ma, must find a way to raise and protect her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). She keeps him in the dark about their imprisonment, and about the purpose of the nocturnal visits from their captor, known only as Old Nick. She also invents stories to explain why he sees a different world on their small TV set.

“It was cramped and hot and it took its toll, but it had to feel authentic,” said Abrahamson, an Irish director best known for putting Michael Fassbender in a giant papier-mache head in “Frank.” To avoid distracting Tremblay, who was 8 at the time and has just turned 9, walls were never taken out of the set; instead, removable panels allowed cameras to nose into the space.

“We didn’t want to waste time removing whole walls, because we had to maximize the time we had to work with our little boy,” said Abrahamson. “And I didn’t want him to be looking past the cameras and seeing all the grips and electrical cables.”

On the set with Jacob Tremblay, director Lenny Abrahamsson used fairy-tale scenarios to get reactions from the young actor without exposing him to the darkest sides of the film's story.

On the set with Jacob Tremblay, director Lenny Abrahamson used fairy-tale scenarios to get reactions from the young actor without exposing him to the darkest sides of the film’s story. (Photo credit: George Kraychyk)

Meanwhile, Tremblay was protected from the seamier and darker aspects of the story, just as his character was. In the film, Jack retreats to a small bed inside a wardrobe when Old Nick pays his visits. “When we filmed Jake inside the wardrobe, as far as he was concerned, he was just lying awake, playing with his toys, counting to 50,” Abrahamson said. “The significance of it wasn’t there for him, and it wasn’t difficult to tell him a story about what we were doing that was meaningful to him but also appropriate. I used pretty standard kids’ fairy-tale territory: ‘You’re in a cottage in the woods, you’re surrounded by a dark forest and in the dark forest is somebody pretty nasty.’ He never asked, ‘Why is he keeping us here?’ Because you don’t ask those questions about fairy tales.”

And Tremblay’s presence, he added, kept Larson and the crew from sinking into the horror of their tale. “When you’ve got a kid around, they run the show, really,” he said. “Jake’s funny. He wants to mess around. He’s just looking for fun and mischief all the time. And it was good for all of us to not become too involved in the darker side of the story.”

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