When Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson burst onto the international film scene with the unforgettable FRANK (2014), starring Michael Fassbender, he already had three hugely acclaimed Irish films under his belt - ADAM & PAUL (2004), GARAGE (2007) and WHAT RICHARD DID (2012) - that had won numerous Irish Film and Television Awards, including Best Film for the latter two films, and Best Director for all three. He also won the Best Director Award for his 2007 mini-series Prosperity. Lenny's latest film, the powerful drama ROOM (2015), was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won Brie Larson the Best Actress Award. I spoke with Lenny about growing up Ireland, starting out in his career, the themes in his work, and his newfound international success. 

Growing up, what films and filmmakers affected you the most? 
I was the average film-loving kid of the 70s growing up. I watched all the stuff that everybody watched – STAR WARS (1977) and INDIANA JONES, and stuff like that. I was very affected by things I caught by accident on TV like LOST HORIZON (1973), which is this hokey film about these people who find Shangri-La, and SILENT RUNNING (1972) with Bruce Dern. I liked those atmospheric films that were somewhat mainstream. They'd never get made today of course. As I got older I got into more serious movies. BBC2 would put on a Bergman or a Fellini season, and I would watch them really intensively because I found them unaccountably powerful. They sat with me, even though I didn't really understand them until later. I also watched mostly films from the European canon, but also films like BADLANDS (1973) and Cassavetes' THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976), Scandinavian filmmakers like Aki Kurasmaki and Roy Andersson, and early Jarmusch. These all really informed what I was thinking about when it came to film.

Are there any particular literary influences that you find yourself returning to? 
I haven't really thought consciously about it, but I find a lot in common with some of the great short story writers. There's an elegance and a spareness if you read a Chekhov or a Raymond Carver story. I'm interested in the impenetrable profundity of the great Russian writers. It's not given up in the story but it's present somehow. That is something I always strive for in my films - that low key, revelatory quality that those great writers had. 

Both sides of your family were originally from Eastern Europe and you were raised Jewish. Growing up in Ireland, did you feel different or something of an outsider? 
You accept whatever your circumstances are as a child. They're rock solid, but that different identity was fundamental to me growing up. We weren't religious but we were culturally very Jewish, and it was something noted by others. Ireland is so uniformly Catholic and Christian so it was very unusual to be from this tiny community, and we were very aware of it. Culturally, I definitely identify with that Middle European intellectual tradition that so many Jews who were living in Europe were drawn to. TheJewish sense of humour infused the house, and also a respect for ideas, for academia, for learning, and for the professions. It was a very typical half-assimilated Jewish experience. It definitely had an effect on me. Of course I am also deeply connected to the Irish culture as more usually understood. I've lived in other places but I always come back and I don't see myself moving away. 

How do you feel about the way Irish films generally present Irish life? 
As I was coming through I felt that the early attempts at an Irish film industry were sub-Hollywood with a little bit of faux European earnestness but not much in the way of depth. I felt that it should be possible to make films here in the best European tradition, and that is what I was interested in with ADAM AND PAUL and GARAGE particularly. I wanted to avoid the parochial, simply not very good quality that characterised a lot of the Irish films at that time. 

Do you feel that your own background gave you an empathy and an interest in people who have been marginalised or cornered by society? 
I remember as a small child being emotionally affected by any stories of people who were neglected or outside of things. But their outsideness is not the full story of them, which is why I'm not drawn to films which are primarily polemic. I don't think it's okay to use representations of marginalised people as instruments to make political points. Such representations don't do people justice as fully complex human beings. With a character like Josie in GARAGE, the aim of the film is to give the viewer as profound as possible an encounter with him. To see the incredible depth in him. Part of the method in GARAGE, as in other films that I've made is to put the central character under great stress, to cause a break in his life around some central shift in circumstances. I am always attracted to these stories of stress and disjunction. 

Would you say that you have disdain towards the categories that we place on people, whether it be 'good', 'bad', 'mentally disabled' or others? 
I have a philosophical background and I'm drawn to question the categories in which we're supposed to think. If you can just cut out all that talk in your own head and watch people as they are in the society that you're in, many of the the categories that we impose reveal themselves to be flimsy and absurd. 

Do you see society as something that on the surface is benign, open and all-inclusive but actually has an underside that is cold, oppressive and cruel? 
We learn to tune out great amounts of suffering and injustice and despair because it would be impossible to get on with our day if we allowed all of it to flow through. The lived experiences of other people are largely invisible to most of us. I think real wellbeing comes from our relationships with other people and to meaningful work. Lifestyles in most of our cities don't really allow for that kind of community that is essential to people's mental health. 

We put people in boxes. 
We don't actually value the things that we talk about valuing or operate as if we take these values seriously. 

You seem interested in the consequences of people not receiving proper role models or their basic emotional needs satisfied. In GARAGE, Josie has had neither, and the only contacts he really has are the truck driver who gives him a porn magazine, and teenagers who love drinking and smoking. 
I don't think Josie had a pal when he was a fifteen year old. So he's just giggling over a porn magazine with his pal like any fifteen year old would. He doesn't understand the power relation he has with his teenage co-worker as it would be seen by an outsider watching a forty year old man and a fifteen year old boy. What's so tragic about his story is that he just wants to be part of the gang. 

I like how multi-faceted your characters are. Richard, for example, is just a person, not necessarily good or bad. 
The way we are taught to deal with characters in conventional Hollywood drama is by deciding in advance exactly who they are. I always start the other way round. I believe in the reality of the characters as you encounter them, but I don't deconstruct them into a series of traits. The great thing about drama is that you have an actor too, so you've got a three-dimensional presence that you can observe and study and work out what is happening. I discovered the story and the way Richard works from reading the book, working with the scriptwriter Malcolm Campbell and then working with Jack Reynor and reworking the script to fit Jack. I felt like we had been on a journey and that what ended up on screen is the result of a real evolution and a real series of discoveries. 

How important is 'truth' and 'realism' in your approach to filmmaking?
There's a certain truthfulness I am going for, but I find the 'realist' label that has been applied to my films not useful. I always try to find a poetic dimension to what I do that transcends the naturalism. I think I work in and around a naturalistic space, but what actually is going on is different. What I hope is that audiences don't really notice that. I hope my films feel like the world as they encounter it but that everything is inflected in a way which brings them more deeply into the characters and their lives. I want the audience to feel as though they are drawing themselves into the story. It should look like conventional naturalism but it is not actually that. 

Your films don't feel as though they're trying to be necessarily one thing. 
Yes, and sometimes the films can move into different registers. I've always been interested in the freedom that really is there in filmmaking to break out of tones and into other ones. So, in the same movie you can have something that is observational. There's a scene in WHAT RICHARD DID where the lads all sit together after they have been to the pub and they're all just talking shit like young guys do. But then the next morning, Richard's walk to the beach is an entirely different type of observation – it's much more thoughtful. I tend to move around a lot, and hopefully it is energising for somebody watching it. 

You seem to be comfortable with the idea that it is a film we are watching. 
That probably comes from my love of the love of the crazy Scandinavians like Aki Kurasmaki and Andersen. They're definitely all over FRANK, where I was consciously presenting a story and what you're hopefully enjoying is the creative playfulness of the storytelling. I'm not afraid for it to feel like a film, and yet sometimes I like to break out of that and just have these moments where the camera is focussed on someone's face and it absolutely feels like something is immediately happening in front of you.

I  like how you have an unpredictable tone that you manage to keep compelling. 
If you really are controlling the tone of a film as a director then it's amazing how freely you can move an audience through a story. I always give the example of someone in a bar telling a story. A really good storyteller will digress, shift gears, take a moment to throw some aside, and them bring the mood back to where they were and continue. The listener never goes ''Hang on, what tone is this? What kind of story is this?'' You just accept there are different ways of telling stories. If you really believe the characters in a film, there's a grounding in that, and that gives you the freedom as a director to shift gears. The biggest challenge in ROOM, for example, was to make the shift from the first half to the second half and not lose everybody. You've been in a certain kind of film for 45 minutes, and you think that is the kind of film you're watching. But you move into a very different kind of film in the second half. What keeps you involved is your absolute commitment to these two people and their relationship. That creates the hole in the eggtimer that allows you to move into this other space on the other side. The audience wants to know these characters are going to be okay, and I don't let it be okay until the very end. 

I found it interesting in ROOM that it seemed once the mother put her mind to escaping, she achieved it. It was as if she didn't really want to escape before because she feared the consequences of living outside the room. 
There's something you see in her eyes when the electricity goes off in the room. There's a terrible fear that she has to escape now and leave the room. She knows that her son is old enough now, and that's terrifying. I think there's a fear of change for anyone, even if they are in a terrible situation. That's why bad marriages last! 

One thing I found incredibly effective was that when we are in the room, you don't belabor the dark and disturbing circumstances, and you make the reality of their situation more disturbing in hindsight once they join the outside world and try to adjust. 
We buy into their rituals and rhythms more than we think we do, to the point that the audience is also quite comfortable in the room. We are also shocked by the end and how small the room is because we've somehow lived in it also. It expanded for us in our mind. It was difficult to make the first half work, but at least you know where the bad guy is, you know what the task is and it is slowly revealed where they are. The second half is much more complex. You feel there's nothing that can save them. There's nothing obviously wrong other than the presence of that horror. Yet when you're in the middle of that horror, actually in the room, you're like she is, you're somehow aneasthtized to it. I find all the dimensions from inside the story become metaphors for what it is like to watch it. Even when we were making the film, I was dying to get out of the room. We shot that part first. When we got out, we actually missed the room, because life was much more complex shooting on the outside in the real world. 

Did you get claustrophobic editing the picture in a small room after the experience of the film? 
Editing is actually my favourite part of the process because you get back to this weird, monk-ish existence where you go into the same cell every day and you concentrate. No, I found it quite cosy! The shoot is always the most intense and brutal part of any film. 

When you make films like FRANK and ROOM outside Ireland, do you feel pressure for them to be accepted in your country? 
Generally the reception has been great. You do get the occasional comment like ''Oh, as soon as he could get out of Ireland, he got out.'' It's always important to me that people respond to my films here in Ireland because this is where I live and I'm part of the community. I wondered in particular with FRANK how it would be received here. It was received positively but not to the same extent as ROOM. It was quite a small release here, whereas ROOM had a really big release here and a significant profile. 

Are you surprised by the huge success you have had in Ireland? You've won a lot of awards. 
It's amazing. It's not a big industry, so if I'm not in a great mood I think ''Well, it's a small pool.'' But it's a great thing. I have some really good relationships inside the film industry here. I've had success, but there's not a lot of begrudgery about it. That's nice. 

Is it a different experience directing actors from outside Ireland? 
It's not so much a question of nationality as status. You get to work with people who are better known and are more powerful. That's where you have to be careful that the character of the actor-director relationship doesn't get changed. On WHAT RICHARD DID I was working with a bunch of brilliant but really young actors starting out. For them, I had already made two films that they would have known. I was like their dad, and there was no question who the boss was. There was a way of working there where I could be a bit more mysterious and not explain everything if that's the way I wanted to do it. But when you work with more established actors, you need a different approach. If they don't trust you, they're not obliged to hide that. If they want to do it a different way, they'll fight you and argue with you. I've learned over the past few years how to deal with that. The only difference in working with Irish actors, is like working with an Irish writer on ROOM, is that there's a shorthand and it's hard to bullshit a fellow National! 

On FRANK, how helpful was it to you as the storyteller that the audience knew it was Michael Fassbender inside the head? 
The initial version of the film in my mind played on the idea that the audience wouldn't know what the person inside the head would look like. That's the position that all the characters in the film are in. When we started talking to Michael, I realised that now the audience would know what Frank looked like, and that actually it would be better because it took the heat out of the whole ''Who is Frank?'' question. Also, expecting to see a certain kind of person when the head comes off and seeing that version of Fassbender that we see was so different, and much more fun to play with. On some kind of meta level it made the film more interesting because in the film we are talking about the way that people become obsessed with these fake personae, as in Domhnall Gleeson's character trying to present a different version of himself on social media. Then you take a famous actor like Michael, and actors like him are constantly trying to fight their way out of that mask. 

Were you nervous about asking Fassbender to play the part? 
Actually it came about the other way. His agent and partner in his production company, Conor McConlan had read the script because it was at his agency for another role. He thought Michael should read the script with a view to playing Frank. Michael read it and loved it. It came as a great shock to hear he was interested in playing the role, but it was a wonderful thing. Now, I can't imagine the role being played without that masculinity that h Michael brings to things. We could have ended up with a fey, Michael Jackson kind of strangeness if we hadn't been careful. Michael brought this tyrannical Captain Beefheart quality to the part that we found just so interesting. 

How do you feel about the concept of 'A Lenny Abrahamson Film'? Would you prefer to be more anonymous as a director? 
In the craft of it, I like the direction to work subliminally. Bit there are things about all the films that link, and a personality in them that I can recognise as my own. I'd like my films to be more like that, and I am pushing myself to do more writing and do more personal projects. There are things that I'd love to explore as a filmmaker. I like the idea that you leave a body of work. A good model for a life is to use all your resources and capacities to dig deeper in whatever you're doing. I sometimes beat myself up about not doing that enough. 

As your career progressed, did you start planning it carefully? 
No, I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life but I wasn't planning it from a strategic point of view. That's what made the first three films so joyful for me. They were just what I was drawn to, whereas after WHAT RICHARD DID there was some thinking going on about the need to grow and keep moving and do different kinds of projects that would have bigger audiences. So there was a strategic moment where I thought ''OK, I'm going to be open to bigger films.'' I had a conversation with Tessa Ross at Film 4 and out of that came FRANK. Not that FRANK is a multiplex crowd pleaser but it is bigger and more of an invitation to pleasure than the first three films I did. Nowadays the fun factor of a film seems to be the most important. People think you're some kind of a religious nut if you talk about value, meaning, depth or the existential dimensions of a film.

I'd say you never neglect the entertainment value in any of your films. 
I'm fascinated by the attention of the viewer and how you keep it. I have a sense of humour, but I can switch it off, as I pretty much did on WHAT RICHARD DID. ROOM is more of an emotional engagement with the audience, not an intellectual one. 

How has Brie Larson winning the Oscar for ROOM changed the way the industry looks at you? 
Well it has given me some power. Power is primarily 'what actors want to work with you'. It gives you power over a studio. I've had some amazing meetings and met some actors whom I have huge respect for who are keen to do something with me. In a really crude way, now people always call back. 

How does it feel to be at a similar crossroads in your career to say, Christopher Nolan after MEMENTO (2000)? 
I feel like my decisions are being closely watched by the industry and the media. The good news is that there is already a slate of stuff that I care about that's been there since before ROOM. I'm sure I'll do a film with a studio because life is too much of an adventure not to experience that. It'll be interesting to see what I do next because I know I won't be happy unless I do something close to my heart. At the moment I have to think strategically to sustain my career and to look after my family, but not at the expense of some kind of independent, satisfying creative life. 

I spoke to Lenny by telephone on 9th March 2016 and would like to thank him for his time.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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