Interview with Emma Donoghue, writer of Room

Dec 19 2017, 6:15 pm

One of the highlights of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival was the gala presentation of Room. The film rolled into town with deafening buzz, thanks largely to its recent success at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award.

Based on the renowned best-selling novel of the same name, Room‘s author, Emma Donoghue, was in town to support the film during the festival.


Emma was kind enough to chat with us while she was in the city about the journey of bringing Room to life.

Hi, Emma. How are you doing?

I’m grand, thanks.

How are you enjoying Vancouver?

Oh, very much. It’s very tantalizing not to be here for longer, you know? The festival looks great. The program is so strong, especially in Asian films.

Do you think you’ll have time to check some of them out?

Oh, I won’t have the chance to see any, I’m afraid. That’s the problem with tours, you know? You go to your own show, and then you do interviews, and then you fly off again. But it whets your appetite for when the films come out later.

Were you present at the Toronto International Film Festival with Room?

I was, yes. I got to see Room with 2,500 people.

Congratulations on the People’s Choice Award, by the way.

Thank you. I know I was amazed by that. And the funny thing is, with a really big crowd, they get all the jokes as well. It’s as if a big dense crowd gives people the chance to laugh at the funny moments even though it’s such a dark premise.

Was there anything that surprised you with the audience’s reaction watching the film?

It’s funny, there are moments that when I was writing the script I felt that maybe it was a bit too sweet. But watching it with the audience, say when Jack finally meets his step-grandfather’s dog, I realized how desperately people need those sweet moments. I’m so familiar with the storyline that I almost forget how upsetting it is. They desperately need the moments of comfort in the middle of the darkness.

Did you spend any time on set while the movie was being filmed in Toronto?

I did. Very luckily over the years that I was working with this Irish company, I kept saying, “make it in Canada” and well, tax advantages were a big advantage too. But I like to think that my nagging was a bit of a contributing factor (laughs). They filmed it not far from London, Ontario, where I live. So I got to go up on the train at least once a week and it was such fun because every time I visited they were doing something different. It’s a whole new world to me, this is my first feature film, so I’d go around writing down all the jargon I was learning from everybody from marketing to the grips to the electrics.

Room - based on the novel by Emma Donoghue

Elevation Pictures

It’s obviously an emotionally heavy story. What kind of things did you see being done on set to help keep the mood up?

Having a kid around keeps everybody light. Jake and Brie would film some really upsetting scenes and afterwards she would be taking a moment to shake it off and he’d be like, “why are you sad? It’s break time!” Kids just live so much in the moment and that’s so much in the story as well. I mean, the story is all about how kids can adapt because they’re so pragmatic, they’re natural Buddhists because they live in the moment. Whereas adults have these leftover legacies of emotion. I showed the movie to my kids the other day, they’re eight and 11 and I showed it to them on video. We skipped over al the scary bits but my daughter said that she thought Brie was very good but in the second half she goes on about being sad a lot. I was thinking, that’s so typical of a kid. They’re thinking, “okay, we’re out in the world now. What will we have for dinner?” That amazing toughness of kids is really what the story is all about.

How do you think Jake handled some of the heavier parts of the story?

I’m sure it was demanding of Jake’s energy because he’d have to spend entire days sometimes rolled up in a rug or lying in the wardrobe. There were endless technical demands, so I think that was arduous for him. I honestly don’t think that he found producing the emotion difficult, except in the very early days with Brie – he had to shout at her, they had an argument scene, and he found that embarrassing because she was his new friend and he liked her so much. They got all the crew on set to shout. They all had a group shout and that gave Jake confidence. But scenes where he’s crying, I don’t think he finds that hard. I think he’s simply a natural actor. This stuff is play to him. He wasn’t having to act against his own nature and he wasn’t having to have anything really terrible done to him. It’s not a film about a child being abused. He had to be scared at times and pretend to run away but it wasn’t anything uncomfortable for him to go through. And I think any child can easily empathize with a child who’s younger than him. He could literally remember what it’s like to be five, he’s only eight.

Were you consulted during the casting process?

I was. Now, the writer shouldn’t abuse her powers, right? You’re consulted but you don’t want to test your powers by saying, “no, I don’t want him – I want him!” So, they may have made the same decisions without me but I so enjoyed being in on the process. I think I watched every film starring a woman in her mid twenties.

Very interestingly, on the casting of Brie, Lenny (the director) said to me very early on, “we have to get somebody who can do comedy.” And I said, “really? Comedy?” And he said, “Yeah, we don’t want somebody who looks like she was born to be locked up in a shed. We don’t want one of those exquisitely tragic faces with pointy bone structure. We want somebody who looks like she really could have been the girl next door; she really could have had an ordinary life. And somehow fate has put her in this position where she’s produced extraordinary heroism from loving her child. And Brie has that warmth and naturalness.

Did you see Short Term 12?

Of course. And that film was what really confirmed for me that we were safe in her hands. Also, she auditioned for Room, which was really modest of her, really. Because at her level she could easily have said, “oh, I don’t audition.” But while watching the tapes, I really believed that the child was there because she was really acting in this vivacious way with the child. So I said to Lenny, “did you have a child actor?” and he said, “no, that was me sitting on the floor.” She conjured up this child through her acting. I think she really has the amazing ability to turn on a dime, to go from tragic and steely and the next moment she’s playful. And I find, in my experience, that parenthood is a lot like that anyway. Talk about mood shifts. Just as their emotions change very fast, I find my emotions change very fast too. And the premise of Room is just a way of highlighting that extraordinary thing that happens to when you have a child and you have to suddenly think about somebody other than yourself. So I think Brie captures that amazing vibration back and forward.

And when you have William H. Macy and Joan Allen coming in too, that really kind of seals the deal for casting doesn’t it?

It was. It was, “bring on some royalty!” We were so happy to have them. And also I’m so glad that Tom McCamus will get a lot more attention from this film because he’s pretty well known in Canada but not so much outside of it. I think he just steals the show as the step grandfather. His absolutely warmth and relaxed welcome of Jack, this totally unexpected new child in his life, I thought he did a beautiful job.

Vancity Buzz Interview with Room writer Emma Donoghue

Punch Photographic

This is your first screenplay?

Yes. Well, my first one to have made it to the screen.

When they approached you about optioning the book, was writing the screenplay part of the deal you made?

I’m afraid I was a bit cheeky; I didn’t wait to be asked. What typically happens is that they come and buy your book. And I was interested in writing for film and I had a strong curiosity about what it would be like to adapt this book for the screen. I thought it was a test case of the limits of literature, and the limits of cinema, and that each of them does different things really well. And as a sort of exercise in point of view, I just really wanted to try it. I wrote the script before the book actually got published, because I thought then would be a good moment to quietly work on it without anybody telling me that I should be giving it to a more experienced screenwriter, or telling me how to do it.

I wrote the script on spec, which I know is odd. And then when many people were interested the particular production company I went with, Element, they were interested in purchasing an option. And I said “no, let’s develop it together with me as the writer.” I think it was an unusual way for them to work but I think it’s worked out beautifully for all of us.

Was there anything in the book that you really wanted to make room for in the screenplay but you just weren’t able to fit it in?

Oh, of course. You see, the timing of a book is so different. People normally give a book more than two hours of their lives so there are a lot more moments there. You can do a lot more social commentary there, like in the second half of the novel. And you can put in little bits of backstory. Like in the book, we learn that Ma had a stillbirth before Jack was born. Whereas the film I think has to have a cleaner line. So the first thing I did was to reduce the number of characters in the second half because we’re already meeting all three of the grandparents and there isn’t room or time for us to take on a lot of other characters as well. So, Ma’s brother and his wife got cut immediately. There was a natural streamlining of the second half. But I didn’t feel that anything crucial got lost. I felt that Lenny and myself in particular totally appreciated what the book did but we wanted to translate its magic into film. It was never about arguing percentages; it was never about “please put those lines back in.” It was about, what’s the best way to communicate this truth? And on the day, the actors improvised a bit, which worked beautifully. When you’re trying to really naturalistic dialogue out of a child, there’s nothing like improvisation. In a way, the whole experience has relaxed me about the business of what lines are in the script’s dialogue. I’m not so obsessed with controlling the dialogue anymore. I’m 100% happy with [the final film].

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When was the first time that you saw the finished film?

I saw a rough cut back in March and I just wept like a baby. I have to say, it’s really hard to make people cry with a book compared to a film. With a film, especially with the combination of visuals and sound, it’s just a knife to a heart. It can get into peoples’ feelings in a massive way.

I’ll bring some tissues to the screening tonight, thank you for the heads up!

I have to say, especially when men cry at the film, I feel deeply satisfied. It’s harder to get men to cry. So I think that counts as 150 per cent.

Will you be at the screening tonight?

Oh yes, I want to “sit through” and take any chance to see it on the big screen.

The story was kind of inspired by the Fritzl case, correct?

Yeah, well what I kind of took from it was the one line concept of “how to be a good mother in a locked room”. And then I changed everything else about it.

You went from the major success of the book now to the movie, which is getting a ton of buzz. How does it feel to go from one rousing success to the next?

It’s wonderful. A writer’s life has plenty of quiet days. There are plenty of days where nobody’s calling up to interview you and you’re just putting words together on the screen and writing the story. And I like that, but it’s kind of quiet. And to be honest, I like having three months of publicity and living in the world of my imaginary characters. I’ve been working away on a novel set in 19th century Ireland, so I’ve been very quiet and isolated places in my head. In contrast, all of this going to film festivals and getting makeup done by groomers and so on is a completely different world. And it’s kind of fun. I wouldn’t want to do it full time, but I’m so pleased a lot of people are going to now be seeing this film. It isn’t from a big studio and it doesn’t have a huge budget but I was hoping that making it in an “indie” style wouldn’t doom it to having only small audiences. So we seem to be having the best of both worlds – our artistic choices and getting big mainstream attention. I couldn’t be happier.

Do you see yourself writing another screenplay?

I would love to. I would be interested in all forms of writing for the screen, actually. I can imagine I’d enjoy adapting other peoples’ works, I can imagine enjoying writing original screenplays. I love it as a form and I always like to work in a lot of different genres and formats.



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