Being nominated as best director at the 2016 Academy Awards for the claustrophobic captivity thriller Room seems to have messed with Lenny Abrahamson’s head. “By the time you get to the actual Oscar night, you’re just knackered,” reflects the 51-year-old Dubliner. “It’s a full-on six months of interviews, receptions, screenings and waking up in the mornings in some hotel not quite sure where you are, but knowing there’s a black SUV outside waiting to whisk you away somewhere else.”
We meet in a sun-filled office in a Georgian terrace just south of Dublin’s city centre, home to Abrahamson’s production outfit, Element Pictures. In person, Abrahamson is affable and as articulate as you’d expect of someone who started off at Dublin’s Trinity College studying theoretical physics and then switched to mental and moral science – philosophy to you and me.
Eleven years into his feature film career, Room, his fifth release, proved a breakthrough. Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her muchlauded novel, its daunting story – about a young woman locked inside a suburban outbuilding with the small son fathered by her kidnapper – was certainly a hard sell. But the empathy and intelligence of Abrahamson’s handling brought the film four Oscar nominations, with Donoghue winning for best adapted screenplay.
Abrahamson isn’t ungrateful for his Oscar nomination – on the night he lost out to Alejandro G Iñárritu for The Revenant – but he speaks of feeling like he was “spat out at the other end”, and finding himself “back in Dublin having to make your own breakfast. You realise it’s hit you like a drug. It’s like a chemical imbalance… you want to get back to that place and the best way to do it seems to be to make another Oscar-worthy film. As soon as possible.” The Little Stranger may be that film.
In contrast to Room’s contemporary, American-set family drama – and indeed its predecessor, Frank, a quirky musical odyssey about a singer who performs under a papier mâché head – The Little Stranger (in cinemas from Friday 21 September) is an austere, subtle production, set after the Second World War. It’s an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s richly atmospheric, Booker-nominated tale (first published in 2009) of a malign, ghostly presence in a crumbling English country house.
After Room, Abrahamson found himself surrounded by scripts, uncertain which way to turn. He spent six months in a funk. “Then the penny dropped: I’m actually good at stuff I’m drawn to and can’t let go of. I’d be waking up in the middle of the night and making notes on The Little Stranger. That tells you something.”
As for being lured to Hollywood, “I’m lucky [success] happened to me when I got a bit older. If I’d been younger, I might’ve had my head turned.” He confirms he was never in any danger of moving his Polish wife Monika, two kids and their dogs to a mansion in Burbank. Rather, his tranquil home base is an island off the Irish west coast.
Working with screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, for The Little Stranger Abrahamson has delivered the essence of the expansive page-turner, with the events that beset an aristocratic Berkshire family seat sharing equal billing with the conflicted feelings of Domhnall Gleeson’s social-climbing doctor as he grapples with the spooky happenings. His pent-up passion for daughter of the house Ruth Wilson comes from the spell the house itself cast on him as a working-class schoolboy.
“I like a challenge,” Abrahamson says. “You’ve got character study, social study, period drama and a ghost story escalating in intensity, all looking to be brought together to make something coherent. And at the heart of it is this doctor, who’s excluded from this world of aristocratic entitlement. He’s fascinated by the thing he doesn’t want to want – but can’t help himself.”
If there is a thread to Abrahamson’s varied filmography, it is protagonists who are divided souls. Gleeson’s gnawing contradictions echo the unease felt by the captive mother in Room: she longs for freedom only to find it tainted. In his breakout film, What Richard Did, an elite rugby-playing alpha male is forced into self-examination after a drunken incident.
The bestselling Waters has confided to him that The Little Stranger is her favourite adaptation of one of her books. So how has he handled the spectral element of a seemingly accursed old house without the usual cheap jump-scares or tricky digital enhancements? “I have absolutely zero belief in the supernatural,” says the science graduate.
“But it’s that thing where you can experience a frisson in particular places, certain houses that don’t feel quite right, or you visit a city where things somehow seem that bit off. You start to lose your commitment to the natural, the solid, and get a heightened sense of the possibility of bad things happening. If you can manage to convey that on screen without the usual CGI and gore, then the effect on the viewer can only be stronger.”
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The Little Stranger is in UK cinemas now