During Room's running time — just under two hours — you will gasp, shudder, grip your seat, cry hard, and, yes: you will laugh. Lenny Abrahamson's film, adapted from Emma Donoghue's 2010 novel and then her screenplay, is an affecting, active moviegoing experience. Don't be scared, though. It is worth it.
Brie Larson plays a young woman who has been held captive in a shed for seven years, and Room begins on her son Jack's fifth birthday. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) was born into this minuscule world, and not only has he never been outside, he doesn't know there is an outside. His mother, whom he calls Ma, has protected him from the knowledge that they are prisoners and that there is an entire world beyond the confines of their shed. They exercise, they read, they watch a small amount of television, and Ma shields Jack from their captor's nightly visits. They communicate in a language without articles, since there's only one of everything: rug, wardrobe, room. That's the premise of Room — but then everything changes.
Room is now in limited release. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in early September, and then screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been drawing raves and Oscar buzz since — for Larson, Tremblay, the screenplay, and the movie itself. For Donoghue, an Irish-Canadian novelist, her own role in Room's publicity campaign has come as a surprise. "I always thought the writer was the least important element of the film," she said with a laugh recently over lunch in Beverly Hills.
Donoghue adapted her own work, but those who have read the book and see the film will notice she was not precious about making changes. Things are added and subtracted; characters change, as do settings. It's a stripped-down self-edit that will please book loyalists, but also immediately grip people who know nothing about Room's plot and its twists.
Donoghue talked to BuzzFeed News about her close involvement with making the film, working with Abrahamson, the cast, and how her own life did (and did not) help create the novel and movie. There are many, many spoilers below, about both large and microscopic plot points. So stop reading now and go see Room if you don't want to be spoiled!
1. Donoghue wrote the screenplay for Room before the novel was even published.
"I know it might seem cocky," she said. "But I didn't want to feel I was going to try to bully a company into hiring me as the screenwriter just because I owned the novel."
Donoghue had written novels, short stories, and plays before, but until Room, she said, "I never felt I had quite such a filmable story." She decided to adapt it herself on spec, thinking that, yes, there would be interest in making Room into a film. "If they like it, we can work together," she remembered thinking. "If they tell me it's rubbish and I believe them, I may say, 'OK, let somebody else do it.' I was just trying to be cards-on-the-table about it."
Though Room's story was inherently dramatic, if not cinematic, its structure posed some challenges. The novel is told entirely from Jack's 5-year-old perspective, which would not be the case in a film. Though Abrahamson's direction often allowed the audience to share Jack's gaze, Donoghue embraced the difference in medium as she wrote the screenplay.
"Cinema doesn't spell everything out," she said. "It gives visual information quickly, say, about the room. But often you're looking at Jack's face and you don't quite know what he's feeling in that moment — where in the book, you know exactly what he's feeling. In the film, often these big beautiful faces of the actors, they're kind of a blank screen, and we project ourselves onto them."
Plot-wise, Room's story cleaves into two halves: the story of Jack and Ma's imprisonment in room, and then the aftermath of their escape. "The first half was way easier to write — we did far less worrying over the script," Donoghue said. "The first half has a real momentum: Will they get out?"
The screenplay was a living document throughout the whole process, even in editing. "There was no final moment with the script," Donoghue said. "All the way through, they'd improvise some bits, or Lenny would email me and say, 'You know what, we need a bit of dialogue, can you make it up to me for Tuesday?' Even in postproduction, he'd write to me and say, 'Oh, I'm missing something, write with me.' There was a wonderful fluidity to that."
2. Yes, Room is about kidnapping and captivity — no, it is not directly about the Fritzl case in Austria.
Room was released in 2010 after a bidding war, and the novel not only became a best-seller, but it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Which is to say that Donoghue and Room received a good amount of publicity back then. She was honest at the time that the story was in part inspired by Elisabeth Fritzl, who had been held in a basement by her father, Josef, for 24 years and had seven children throughout her years of being raped and imprisoned.
"I was naive in ever specifying that, because I didn't realize people would get so stuck on the real crime case," Donoghue said. "I just thought I would answer the question once and for all so people wouldn't waste time speculating." She had changed everything she could about Room's plot to differentiate it from the Fritzl family, she said — setting it in the United States, giving Ma only one child, having her kidnapper be a stranger, and putting their home/prison aboveground in a shed. But, she said, "any one true crime case kind of sticks to works based on it," and she watched with dismay as "the novel was often reviewed as the 'Fritzl novel.'"
"All I really wanted to take from it was the notion of parenting in a locked room," Donoghue said. "One thing that I really clicked with Lenny about is that we were always looking for the universal in the story, we were not hung up on the crime aspect. The crime is just a really useful frame — it's a way of putting family in the spotlight."
Lenny Abrahamson, Donoghue, and Brie Larson at the BFI London Film Festival this month in London.
3. Donoghue enjoyed working with Abrahamson from the start.
Donoghue, who had wanted to be as involved as she could be in the making of the movie, was persuaded by Abrahamson's writing her a 10-page letter about his passion for Room. Like Donoghue, Abrahamson — the director of the esoteric alt-music comedy Frank, among others — is from Dublin. And he has a son and a daughter, as does Donoghue. "He spoke in a very heartfelt way as a father," Donoghue said. "Like me, I think he found that parenthood had broken him and remade him."
"He's a very literate and literary man," she continued. "So the letter was beautifully written and erudite — he has a background in philosophy. He picked up references to Plato's Cave, and that kind of thing. He had an intellectual level that won me over, and just a gleeful enthusiasm for the book."
And then there was the letter itself. "It's the very fact that he wrote a letter, where mostly what people do is put out feelers and then have lunch," Donoghue said.
4. "There was no moment when Lenny said, 'Let's reconceive the whole thing.'"
Room could have been told very differently — there could have been flashbacks to the kidnapping, or to Ma's life before her captivity. The room itself could have been different, or more emphasis could have been put on Old Nick, the name Jack and Ma have made up for their nameless captor. But Abrahamson stuck faithfully to the novel's architecture and its ideas about parenting as world building.
"Writing in the context of a relationship with the director, your screenplay doesn't have to be as clean and shiny. For instance, many of my scenes, I went in late and got out early, with crisp edges," Donoghue said. "And Lenny would be like, 'Nah, write it long, write it like a wildlife documentary. Give me lots of material and then I'll do the cutting.'"
Once the two characters get free, Donoghue said, "It was really important not to lose that focus on Jack and Ma in the bigger world." She set about stripping down their experiences outside of room — Ma's brother and his family were cut, as were any other extraneous characters. The story of Ma's stillbirth before Jack was born was also eliminated. Donoghue lamented that loss, but said: "A book can stop, and have lots of little pauses, and extra bits of backstory and information. Film has kind of a forward momentum. I quite see why that one went."
Ma, whose name we find out is Joy Newsome, was also aged down from 19 to 17 in the film, because if she had been above 18, the FBI would not have investigated her kidnapping.
And the characters became less religious. "Because Lenny is a fervent atheist," Donoghue said with a laugh. "I'm a believer. The interesting thing is we clearly overlap, we both utterly believe in the love of the parent for a child, so that's the faith the story relies on."
On the whole, though, Donoghue worried more than necessary about how much she might need to change. "I had a few false assumptions about how things need to be different in films than in books," she said. "I was all worried that Jack doesn't seem to push the plot on in the second half — I didn't want my hero to be passive. Lenny was not bothered by that. He kept saying, 'Let's go back to the book, let's go back to the book.' So it wasn't like I was arguing for the book, and he for the film — the two of us are madly enthusiastic about both forms."
Donoghue was thrilled to collaborate with Abrahamson, but she was never under any illusion that she had as much power over Room as he did. "Scriptwriter and director — it's not an equal partnership. I was given such a privileged access to the project, but of course I know a film belongs to its director," she said. "I felt that the things that really mattered about the story were about the mother and the child being able to construct a meaningful life together in a cell. The details didn't matter too much, whether it was Dora the Explorer or whether it was baby Jesus."
(Also: "The book had such success that it made me in many ways say, fine, the film is yours!")
5. "The grandmother's character got a lot nobler."
Once Joan Allen was cast as Ma's mother, Nancy, Donoghue said she adjusted the character. In the book, Jack's grandmother is "vulgar — she blunders," Donoghue said. "She's likable, but she gets it wrong. Somehow, as soon as we cast Joan, it lifted the grandmother to a higher level." And so Donoghue said she and Abrahamson "tinkered with the writing" to fit Allen's style better.
William H. Macy's character, Ma's father, "turned out to be smaller than we were expecting, but still very powerful," said Donoghue. It's the character of Leo, Nancy's new husband, played by Tom McCamus, who becomes a lovely, warm counterpoint to Old Nick's villainy — and to Ma's father's coldness. He's the first male figure in Jack's life to be worthy of his love.
"Even though the two grandfathers thing might seem complicated, to me it was really necessary to show that range of response — that you wouldn't get everybody welcoming Jack to the world," Donoghue said. "The two grandfathers to me is a way to show that spectrum. The horror of Ma's father, his inability to bear the fact that she has this child — and then the stepfather, he has way less of a stake in it, he's much more able to say, 'Come and have breakfast.'"
6. Casting Larson and Tremblay was crucial to the movie's success — but finding someone to play Jack was not easy.
For Ma, Abrahamson had to find an actor who was both exceptionally talented and exceptionally pleasant to be around. Donoghue said, "He said to me, 'We just can't afford to have anyone behaving in a childish way, because we have an actual child.'"
Then there were the demands of the role itself. "Brie's performance has to be multilayered, because she's not just being an authentic person all the way through," said Donoghue. "She's faking it in all sorts of ways: She has to fake it with Jack, she has to fake it differently with Old Nick, she has to fake it for the TV cameras. There's that amazing scene where she's pretending her child is dead, and yet she's pouring into that performance all the real rage and grief of all these years she's spent."
Yet Larson also had to hold it together for Tremblay, who was 8 at the time. "She could never go off to her trailer to have a big, intense moment — she was always there to say 'Oh, let's tie your shoes' or 'Let's try that again with your chin more to the left,'" Donoghue said.
As she adapted the Jack character from her novel, Donoghue wondered whether there was a kid alive who could play the part. "Lenny never got me to tone down what we would be asking of this child," she said. "He said, 'Write it as if it were for a child genius — we will find one.' Actually, he had many a sweaty night, thinking, Will we find the child?"
After all, Tremblay is in every scene in the movie. "The whole film would have fallen apart if we didn't have the right child," Donoghue said.
Since Donoghue was sent the dailies every day, she could see how Abrahamson solicited Tremblay's remarkable performance from him. "Jacob couldn't read then, so he'd learn his lines more or less, but Lenny would be like, 'OK, here's the bit where you ask her about the truck,'" Donoghue said. "Jacob very quickly got the hang of it: Don't talk at the same time as Lenny so all of Lenny's bits were removable."
The love between Jack and Ma is the story's core; the ongoing real-life relationship between Larson and Tremblay has proven also to be entrancing, both in their public appearances and in Larson's social media feeds.
"You actually can't separate them," Donoghue said. "Because not only did Brie gently coach Jake a lot, but he really helped her in a way relax and cheer up. She would do these very intense scenes, and then as soon as the camera stopped rolling, he'd be like, 'What are you crying about?' He'd instantly go back into fun mode. Also what I liked is they were kind of buddies rather than always like a mother and child. Because I wanted that quality between Ma and Jack as well — she's pretty young, so they're kind of kids together."
7. Though Jack's voiceover is used sparingly in the movie, Donoghue tried to avoid it entirely.
"Because," she said, "voiceover can be used in a very lazy way to adapt literary novels — it's like the badge of quality. Here comes the portentous voiceover about the summer when I was 5. I just thought, this is cinema we're making, so I have to be able to tell the story through showing, rather than through Jack telling."
Abrahamson asked her to add it in a late draft. He said to her, "I want it in a punctuation way — I don't want it to explain or milk the emotion in any one scene." He wanted it, she said, "to actually cool the temperature" — to slow the film's harrowing momentum lest it turn melodramatic.
For instance, in the scene after Ma has attempted to kill herself and the paramedics have come to Nancy's house, Donoghue said, "You've got Jack talking about time and space in a way that works against that."
8. That idea of cooling the temperature was an important one for Room, which does put audiences through an emotional obstacle course.
In the case of Ma's suicide attempt, Donoghue said: "I think the outside world, and the questions of the TV interviewer in particular, have made her for the first time seriously question whether she did the right thing. I think until then she'd been holding herself together by saying, I was in a tough situation, I made something good out of it — look, he's great, he's fine. I see it as a major crisis in her confidence as a mother, as well as the cumulative damage of all the years in there."
(According to Donoghue, Wendy Crewson, the actor who plays the journalist who interviews Joy, suggested adding the line asking whether Joy had ever considered suicide during her captivity, planting the idea in her head.)
"It seemed to me that to have Ma recover too quickly in the second half would be really skimming over the reality of rape and of damage from a domestic violence situation," Donoghue added. "It would have been believing Ma's storyline: Oh, I'm fine, I'm fine. But I had to honor her by showing how deeply damaged she is."
There was also a reason to separate Jack and Ma for Room's narrative arc. "In a way, he goes through what all kids go through — but overnight," Donoghue said.
Which brings Room to one of its most moving moments — the scene when Nancy cuts Jack's hair and he says to her, "I love you, Grandma." It's not a line from the book, and it's heart-wrenching.
"Lenny said to me, 'I'm going to film it long. It cools it down, it keeps it less emotional than if you had the close-up,'" Donoghue said. "In this film, it was never a matter of finding moments to make the audience cry — that was just a given. So quite often he does things to help the audience not cry, or to delay their cry."
She continued: "One thing that's lovely about it is most kids out in the world, especially in America where that line is said a lot, they say it so easily. It's like, 'I want some juice, I love you.' But for Jack, who's come from such a different world, to be able to say to somebody not Ma, somebody else, it's wonderful. Also, what makes that scene is Joan's reaction. She kind of flinches. It's not an easy scene at all. She's losing her daughter all over again, for the moment, and having to form this new relationship with a child who is a total stranger to her. So there's a wonderful kind of flickering shiver before she finds herself able to say, 'I love you too, Jack.'"
9. Donoghue was interested in "resilience," and not another story about "an exciting psychopath."
The character of Old Nick, played by Sean Bridgers, is deliberately a cypher. "There's none of that 'Aye, I'm Dexter, I'm special,'" Donoghue said. "I love how unobtrusively he's introduced; I like the fact that you barely see him at first."
Laid off from his job, and being the bearer of groceries more than anything else, Old Nick has found that after seven years, kidnapping is not what he thought it would be. "The whole thing has gone septic," said Donoghue. "It's a perverse fantasy that's become incredibly boring and grim."
Readers know little about Old Nick, and filmgoers know even less. It's deliberate; this is not a true crime story, which Donoghue called a "cultural obsession."
"If you start the whole thing with the kidnapper or kidnapping, it's giving in to his storyline and saying, This is the story of an exciting psychopath.."
Donoghue wanted to be sure there was no possible reading of this situation as titillating. "I wasn't interested in the Stockholm syndrome story," she said. "Over the years, I've seen so many situations where kidnapping is basically eroticized, even in very playful films like Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. It's a storyline that just sets my teeth on edge — the idea that you would start to get along with your kidnapper, or fall for him. I like the idea that of course Ma's gotten used to this situation in some ways, but that doesn't mean she's fond of him. She's enormously pragmatic and strategic."
Ma is sexually assaulted every time she sees Old Nick, and she has been for seven years. Representing that on film was necessarily different from how it was rendered in Room the novel — but the movie still relies on Jack's point of view in those scenes: The camera stays inside the wardrobe where Jack sleeps.
"Sticking to the child's perspective — the child's shielded perspective — was crucial there, because anything on film would be way more voyeuristic than on the page," Donoghue said.
10. Considering the movie could seem like a huge bummer, Donoghue understands why the trailers reveal that Jack and Ma get out of room — which is certainly a spoiler.
"Because Lenny and I are so used to the story and its dark premise, we're not freaked out by it the way the average person in the street is freaked out," Donoghue said.
When it was announced the movie was being made, Donoghue saw that it was being characterized as a "horror movie" or a "terrifying crime drama." In order to bat back what Room's premise suggests, she said, "The trailer is very useful at sending out those signals that this really is a relationship film, and that it's quite uplifting."
"Although I would always prefer the viewer — as with the reader — to know nothing at all, you have to persuade them to come read the book or see the movie," Donoghue said. "The book only sold through word of mouth. And I think similarly with the film, people need the reassurance of a friend or family member saying either 'I've read the book, and it doesn't depress you' or 'The film is going to lift you up.'"
11. Donoghue wants to be particularly clear about one thing: "I'm so not Ma!"
"I think I would have suffocated the baby on day one. Especially when I stepped onto the set, I was thinking, This is hideous. No way could she live here for seven years!" Donoghue said. (The room scenes were filmed in a shed on a Toronto set with the correct, tiny proportions described in the book — the camera shot from varied angles, with Abrahamson and the crew outside.)
Donoghue and her partner, Chris Roulston, live in London, Ontario, where Roulston is a professor. Even though she is not Ma, Donoghue said her two children, now 8 and 11, did inspire how Jack talks and thinks. As well as how he gets out of a rug — when she was writing the escape scene, Donoghue bribed her son into helping her figure out the logistics of rug wiggling. "My son did a certain amount of screaming and had to be quickly unrolled," she said. "I'd reward him with a chocolate bar and then make him get back in the rug."
More than anything, Room is about knowing love can keep you alive, and constructing a family that sustains you. And there, Donoghue's own life — as a mother in a same-sex relationship — did influence its story.
"To us and to our kids, this feels normal," she said. "Every now and then we have some encounter with the outside world where my kids suddenly realize, Oh, I had to explain the whole two mothers thing. Not everybody gets that. They're wonderfully confident ambassadors for a two-mother family. So I have that feeling of: You can have trust in your family as a functioning organism, even if it's not the traditional shape."
"I tried to give that to Ma," Donoghue continued. "She believes in her and Jack as a family, even though there are others would see it as a pathological situation."