One of the most memorable cinematic experiences of 2015 is undoubtedly Room, the unnerving and inspiring story of a young woman who has raised her son in the one-room shack they are both held captive in.
Director Lenny Abrahamson’s astounding film is a screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. Donoghue herself wrote the script, and with Oscar buzz and critical acclaim swirling about, Donoghue was one of the five screenwriters from Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch who appeared at a Whistler Film Festival panel discussion on December 5.
“I’ve only done one film and I’ve had a fantastic experience, which I believe is completely untypical of the industry,” Donoghue said at the event, garnering much laughter from the audience.
The Irish-Canadian author, who lives in London, Ontario, began writing novels at the age of 20, and developed a career of writing fiction drawing inspiration from “obscure little historical incidents”.
Room, she said, was the first time she wrote fiction based on a headline. She had seen a news story about Fritzl case in Austria about a 42-year-old woman who had been locked in her own basement for 24 years by her own abusive father, and raised several children in those cramped quarters and unimaginable conditions.
“I suppose the reason it grabbed me though is because I had two small children at the time and I thought, ‘Yeah, parenthood can feel like a locked room’,” she said. “Even if you’re parenting under ideal circumstances, it still has that weird claustrophobia at times…Even though I found having kids really interesting, I didn’t know how to write about it because it seemed like such a banal experience—so many people have kids. But the locked room idea seemed a way of literally isolating, literally putting the parent-child bond in the spotlight.”
In an unusual but smart move that paid off for both her and the film, Donoghue wrote the screenplay before the novel was published, as she anticipated there would be film interest. She wasn't hoping to break into the film industry but she simply felt so strongly about and involved with the material.
Consequently, she said she was able to work closely with Abrahamson, who helped improve the script.
“I feel I got to learn in the most amazing one-to-one lab in a very direct way with the director,” she said. “Just a priceless experience.”
She noted that Room does deviate from the expected standards of screenplay structure.
“Room is really peculiarly shaped because it was a literary novel and there’s no rules for that,” she explained. “The book is in two halves and the film is in two halves as well so we always just talked about how the second half should contrast with and echo the first.”
She added that unlike many other film productions, the film was shot in sequence so that the seven-year-old Jake Tremblay from Vancouver, who plays the son with breathtaking authenticity, would be able to understand the story.
“We all actually enjoyed that because by the time we were making the second half, we could put in all sorts of little references to the first half.”
How the film was funded was also a surprise learning experience for her.
“I have the impression, coming as a complete outsider to the film world, that indie movies were made on your credit card and then there were big studio pictures," she said. "I didn’t realize that there were so many interesting options in between. Money is coming in from such interesting places these days, like angel investors and tech money coming in.”
She said she was working with a small Irish company and thought they would have trouble raising money. State funding came from both Canada and Ireland, which pleased her that both of her home countries were coming together on her project.
American distributors A24 Films also invested at the script stage and maintained a hands-off policy, leaving everything up to the filmmakers. Consequently, she said they were able to get all the money without having to make major compromises.
“At no point was there some big, sinister moneybags figure saying, ‘Lemme tell you how the movie should end.’ So I feel the project was protected all the way through.”
Nonetheless, she still finds the collaborative process much different than what she’s used to as a novelist.
After all, consider how she describes writing a novel: “It’s bliss.”