EMMA DONOGHUE TALKS ROOM, FAIRY TALES, and OLD NICK
By John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Stories resonate with people for a variety of reasons. There are stories that unconsciously force us to deal with pain and loss we’ve long avoided. Other stories so wondrously describe what it means to be human we simply can’t turn away. Room accomplishes all these things and so much more. The story teases out nuances from our inner most lives and brings them to the surface. Emma Donoghue adapted the script from her internationally best selling novel of the same name. I talked to Emma recently about the impact the story is having on everyone who sees it. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
JOHN BUCHER: I was really blown away by the story that you created. I’m really curious. I’ve heard you speak in other interviews about Ma’s faith. It was interesting to me how that comes out in the book and the subtle way you brought that into the film. Can you talk a little bit about that?
EMMA DONOGHUE: Well, I didn’t want to make enjoyment of the book dependent on anyone sharing the notion of a God or a Heaven. So I presented it very much as part of what Ma is passing on to Jack and when she’s asked about it, for instance, in the television interview, she doesn’t say, “Oh yes, I believe in my Lord and Savior,” she says “It was part of what I was passing on.” That can leave it quite open to how much Ma herself sees faith as essential and how much was she exercising it for Jack’s sake. I thought about prisoners a lot when I was thinking of Ma and Jack and I thought about how prisoners turn more religious than they were outside of jail, just as many of them turn more scholarly as well. People in long-term jails tend to either get religion or get PhDs. This said to me that religion must be one of those outings that Ma and Jack would cling to in order to make sense of their daily lives. I wanted them to have a variety of ways to see their lives as meaningful and in their own grasp rather than just hassled and helpless and abandoned, so fairy tales are one way to give him a sense of agency, but let’s put this another way. There’s a scene where she tells Jack “Old Nick only brings the bread but it’s not really him who makes the bread.” It scaled the line in the same sense of life being meaningful and love triumphing over everything else.
JOHN BUCHER: I was really interested in a statement you made in your interview with The Economist. You had made a comparison about Room being a peculiar and heretical battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus. Can you talk about that?
EMMA DONOGHUE: I’m very aware that when you’re telling the story of a mother and a fatherless child, given my Catholic background, it immediately makes me think of Mary and Jesus. I wanted a nickname to give the bad guy in the story and I thought, “Fine, I’ll give him a devilish nickname.” In this part of Ireland ‘Old Nick’ is slang for the devil. I was also very aware that Ma and Jack are a sort of microcosm of humanity. I thought of them quite like Adam and Eve as well. I thought because Ma imparted to Jack the whole tradition of baby Jesus that you might have a few pieces of art that came free with something. One of the pictures I gave them is a Mary and Jesus picture. So you can see the whole thing as rather Christ-like and it’s no accident that they celebrate Easter for instance. For me the story has symbolically religious overtones. You can also compare it with the pagan myths. I referenced the Parkfield story in the book as well because of course there are a lot of pagan storylines where many virgin goddesses give birth to hero children.
JOHN BUCHER: When I woke up this morning I opened up my browser to Variety.com and the top story was “Can Room go the distance for best picture?” When you were creating this story of Ma and Jack, did you have any idea that it would have the success it has had?
EMMA DONOGHUE: Of course not! This is my first film so it was exciting enough to me that it made it to the big screen. Are you kidding? I couldn’t believe all the sudden commotion about this film and I never expected any of this. I did know that Lenny [Abrahamson] was making a very beautiful thing. I knew the film had very high ambitions but I didn’t think this many people would be standing up and falling in love with it. I take all the speculation with a grain of salt and I’m just shocked by how much fuss there is about the possibility of this thing being nominated for awards. I thought the book world was quite obsessed with awards but actually the film world is far worse. So I’m trying to just enjoy it all very much and not let it actually give me any hopes that will then be crushed.
JOHN BUCHER: In your role as an Executive Producer, I read that were involved with the casting. Was there a moment when you saw Brie Larson that you really knew that she was the right Ma? Was there just a moment that it clicked for you?
EMMA DONOGHUE: Well, she very kindly auditioned for us, which is an example of how she’s just so down to earth. You’d never expect for her to play the star and say, “No, I don’t want to audition!” It was a bit in type. I never saw the auditions live, but I saw the tapes. You know the filmmakers would tell me things.
JOHN BUCHER: How about Jacob Tremblay? Was there a moment when you saw him that he clicked for you as Jack?
EMMA DONOGHUE: Yes, again in his audition tapes, even though he was brandishing material, he was so confident and for a lot of the other boys, they were just about doing the lines of the scenes. Jacob would do the lines of the scene and say, “Hey, can I try the voice over?” He seemed to have such a relaxed and interesting approach to the scene. I am the only person who would be looking for a child who was a complete unknown that you just discovered in the streets and that’s just the best sort of storyline when it comes to casting.
JOHN BUCHER: I know you were on set quite a bit. What was the experience like, the story that you’ve created in your head, to see it unfolding with real people and actors and lights and cameras in front of you?
EMMA DONOGHUE: Oh it was great fun and of course it was very different from the book, because in the book Jack doesn’t know just how grungy and nasty everything looks and what 5 year old ever comments on decor. When I first stepped into the room it seemed so small and so ugly to me because the camera has a totally objective eye. The camera shows you things that a first person narrator never does, so it was a different thing from the very beginning. There were parts when I’m checking every little detail and thinking that this crossed the lines of what I wrote. It was more like, “Wow, this is a whole new world!” I enjoyed the experience of being on set so much. It’s a very exotic world. It’s full of jarring and strange habits and even the timing of filming is very interesting. There’s a lot of waiting around and yet everyone has to be absolutely ready to go for the moment when the child has had his break and everybody’s had their meal and the union doctor’s have everyone checked. All these things have to come together and it has to not be raining. Bang, then you actually start. It’s a funny business. Writing is so much simpler. You just turn on the computer and start writing when you want to, whereas film is the synchronization of the efforts of so many different people.
JOHN BUCHER: I’ve read that in your research for writing the book, you had read every case on feralchildren.com. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
EMMA DONOGHUE: Oh God! There are cases there I wish I’d never read!
JOHN BUCHER: Talk to me about that research. What was that like? How did that influence the creation of the story?
EMMA DONOGHUE: Well, you see I knew that Jack’s would be a best-case scenario. I knew that his was not a story of being chained up in a hang out or someplace. But because I was exploring the strange phenomenon of a child growing up feeling away from the world I felt that, because I also knew that my story would have almost, in some cases, some archetypal or fairytale overtones, it has to also be rooted in realism too. It made it like some fable. So I thought that I sort of owed it to myself to study deeply what happens to children if they are raised in strange and unpolluted ways. So I did make myself look at all these cases and a lot of the horrors I came across actually influenced Room in a negative way. I mean in a worse way, because it stands to reason that somebody who was raised in a basement and never let out and never sent to school, usually that child would not be spoken to and would be cruelly treated as less than human by the appalling adults looking after that child. So reading all the stories gave me a determination that actually Jack would be raised and robbed of language but Ma would not be just a regular good mother, but that she would be this sort of all singing, all dancing, running and joking, playing, song singing mother. It makes it a very Irish novel really, we’ve always had songs, the Irish. Even if the potatoes are rotten we have a song.
JOHN BUCHER: What was it like developing the project with Lenny [Abrahamson]? How did that working relationship go between the two of you to create this?
EMMA DONOGHUE: It was joyful! It was a continuous process of working together on the script and throwing ideas around. Neither of us acted for the book or for the film script but it’s more like both of us were constantly playing with different ideas on how to capture in the film the kind of messages that the book did. So it felt more creative and open. There were just huge amounts of humor involved – mocking each other. That’s a very Irish note as well because I find in the film industry in America there’s a huge amount of people complimenting each other. Working with Irish people, there is just none at all. But it was hugely enjoyable. I’ve felt that kind of connection with theater directors before, but only for two or three weeks while you’re working in rehearsal. Whereas developing this project over several years, was a much longer term friendship and a very rich relationship.
Room is now playing at theaters in the United States and will be released worldwide in January 2016.
Thanks for this interview! I loved this movie and hearing from the author makes me think I’ll love the book even more…once I get around to it. I’m so glad she was an integral part of the filmmaking process.