Emma Kiely interviews Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson.
Lenny Abrahamson has established himself as one of the greatest Irish filmmakers of his generation. From the emotional intensity of Room that earned him an Oscar nomination for ‘Best Director’ and won Brie Larson the gong for ‘Best Actress’ to the two Dublin native heroin-addicts Adam and Paul, it is safe to say that Abrahamson’s work has garnered him a reputation as a “Jack of all traits” when it comes to the subject matter of his films. I got the opportunity to pick his brain on a multitude of topics such as the Me Too movement, the transition from working with Irish to American actors and his wide range of movies.
Abrahamson’s most recent film The Little Stranger, is a gothic ghost story starring Domhnall Gleeson, released last year. He believes that to make a horror film great they need to be “more than a calculated exploitation of our squeamishness or phobias. Great horrors illuminate the deepest fears - of death, grief, absence of meaning, moral failure, alienation from self and others. To do that they can never be formulaic or predictable because predictability is comforting.”
Lenny is a former student of Philosophy in Trinity College Dublin. He says that he does not directly apply his studies to his filmmaking but “the impulse to break out of the habits of lazy thinking which is at the heart of philosophy is also central to making a good film.” I asked him if he would advise young aspiring filmmakers to obtain a third level degree before trying to embark on a career in filmmaking, he says due to his lack of maturity straight out of secondary school and the way in which university broadens one’s way of thinking, he says he would: “I can say that the years I spent in third level were incredibly rich and formative.”
Having made films that concern a wide range of topical issues such as drug addiction in Adam and Paul, Abrahamson said he carried out background research into addiction prior to the film, which he did along with the two main titular actors Mark O’Halloran and Tom Murphy. “With Adam & Paul myself, Mark O’Halloran and Tom Murphy spent a lot of time with recovering addicts and it was a really significant part of our preparation. It felt important to test our ideas against reality, to do justice to the lived experience of people out on the streets”. Although the film is a blatant reminder of how horrific addiction is, Abrahamson intended for the film to be “a piece of social realism” and says that the real life stories were a great source of inspiration.
We moved onto the topic of Me Too, to which he expressed great relief in the increasing awareness surrounding the issue of sexual assault in cinema: “it strikes me that people are at last more aware of how awful behaviour in the industry has been allowed to go unchallenged and there is a healthier culture beginning to take root”. However, we both agreed that the industry is not yet cleansed of its problems due to the lack of representation of “people outside the more privileged economic classes.” Abrahamson notes that two of his favourite films from the past year, You Were Never Really Here and Leave No Trace, were both directed by women who did not receive the recognition they deserved in the awards circuit. In response to this, Abrahamson admitted “not that awards are the be all and end all, but they do signify a certain kind of affirmation in the industry.” In terms of making changes to this problem, Abrahamson notes that we must reach a point “where the sight of an all-male set of nominees, for example, just seems ridiculous and stands as an indictment of the industry.”
For his future projects, Abrahamson hopes to adapt the book Into The Darkness by Gita Sereney which centres around “Franz Stangl, a pretty ordinary Austrian man who ended up as the commandant of Treblinka concentration camp.” He hopes to bring a sense of familiarity with the story: “my idea is to tell Stangl’s story from his point of view, to have the audience begin to feel the possibility of someone not so different to them doing these appalling things.”
Needless to say, it seems as though the future of Lenny Abrahamson’s work will be just as vibrant as his past body of work, maintaining his central position in the evolution of Irish cinema.