Five minutes with: Emma Donoghue

By Nina Subin

Five minutes with: Emma Donoghue
Just before her novel, Room, was published to huge acclaim in 2010 Emma Donoghue decided to write a version for the screen.

“I love films and I’ve always wanted to write for film as well, and it just never happened until now,” she says. “Although fiction is my default form – it’s usually the way I think first ­– as long as I’ve been going to films, I’ve thought if you could possibly write in that collaborative way, using all those other elements as well, like music and camerawork and acting, then you can touch people so much.”

She knew, too, that once the book was published there would be interest from filmmakers and, perhaps, pressure to let a more experienced screenwriter adapt her novel.

“Yes, with this story in particular I thought, ‘this one is probably a strong enough storyline to carry it.’ Even though it’s odd and I knew we would need a tiny child, and it’s technically peculiar in that the first half is in a locked room, I still thought this one has a strong enough concept and a strong enough storyline.

“So yes, I started writing the screenplay right before the book was actually published. There had been a lot of hype about the selling of the book, and I knew there would be a lot of attention on me as soon as the book was out, so I thought, ‘well, before they start crowding round telling me what to do or pressuring me to hand it over to a better screenwriter, I’ll have a bash myself,’” she laughs.

Room, the deeply moving story of Ma and her 5 year-old son Jack, who are imprisoned inside a tiny, 11 x 11 foot garden shed, was a literary sensation and shortlisted for several awards, including the Booker Prize.

Both a riveting thriller – Ma meticulously plans an escape that will save their lives – and an uplifting story about the incredible bond between a mother and her son, Room touched readers all over the world and even now, five years after it was first published, many still contact the author to tell her how much her book has meant to them.

“Yes, they still do. The range is amazing. If they’re writing from the West, they’re writing about their personal stories. It will be a grandfather saying, ‘I have a grandson I’m mad about.’ Or it will be a mother saying, ‘my son has Asperger’s.’ Or it’ll be a woman saying, ‘my husband used to beat me.’

“Or it’ll be a man saying, ‘I was raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses and it felt exactly like that.’ People relate to the story so passionately. Then, from China or Iran, they’ll say, ‘thank you for your allegory of life under an oppressive regime.’

“You think, ‘Oh my god, they’re reading it politically.’ So that’s made me realise that a book transforms in the head of its reader. In a way, I’m writing the first half of it and they finish it themselves.”

Several filmmakers were indeed very interested in making a film of the novel but Ms Donoghue was determined to wait until she found exactly the right director.

“I had a lot of nibbles, at least, and they were often quite big names and I would get briefly excited, and then I would think, ‘well that’s a big name but it’s not the right big name.’ It was never the perfect director.

“I was very nervous of selling it to any one studio or producer without knowing who the director would be, because I’m from that European tradition where a film is the auteur’s. A film is the filmmaker’s. So I so needed to have a director I could trust not to make it either sentimental or creepy.

“It could have been such a bad film, couldn’t it? Also, I didn’t feel a film had to be made of it. I’m not desperate for the money to feed my children, so I thought, ‘I just won’t sell the film rights if I can’t get the right director.’”

And then she received a letter from Lenny Abrahamson and she knew she had found the perfect creative partner. “The man is way more of an intellectual than I am, he studied philosophy, and so his ten-page letter quoted Plato. He completely understood the book and he went straight on with how he would make a film of it.

“He was terribly confident and direct – he wasn’t saying, ‘well my people will meet your people for lunch.’ There was none of that bullshit. It was like, ‘how I would film the sequence where Ma is depressed and gone for the day is the following: my camera would be there…’

“He was plunging in with great verve, and then at the end he said, ‘Please entrust your book to me,’ and I thought, ‘I think this is the man.’”

Casting was, of course, crucial especially finding the young boy who could play Jack opposite Brie Larson as Ma. Jack is oblivious to the outside world that he has never experienced and unaware of the terrifying reality that his mother endures – abducted as a 19 year old and raped by the shadowy figure who turns up after his bed time, known only as ‘Old Nick.’

After their daring escape, Jack and Ma are plunged into an unfamiliar, strange and at times, terrifying world that wants to know their story. Ma, who has had to fight to survive and protect her son, suddenly has to readjust to life outside the room. Ma’s separated parents (played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy) can scarcely believe that she is still alive and struggle to come to terms with what has happened to their daughter.

Ms Donoghue admits that at one point, she feared they wouldn’t find a child actor who would be up to the considerable challenge of playing Jack.

“The funny thing is, in the planning of this film – and we were planning it for years – they would always say, ‘Okay, we need to find one great child, obviously.’ And I would think, ‘what if we don’t?’ “

The search ended with Jacob Tremblay, a then seven year old from Vancouver, who, both Ms Donoghue and Abrahamson agreed, stood out from the hundreds of hopefuls who auditioned for the role.

“I saw about 40 clips of boys talking. Jacob was just so much more relaxed with the whole business. He has such a natural charm and he’s actually consciously acting in a way that child actors don’t always,” she says. “He always knew he was acting younger than he was. Also they filmed it more or less in sequence so that he would understand at every point what Jack was scared of and where he was.

“We never discussed the rape premise with him, not at all. All he needed to know was what I told my own kids when I was writing the book: ‘This bad guy has kept her locked up in a room and she’d rather be outside.’ In a way, the sex is incidental.

“The important thing is, ‘do you have the freedom to go out the door? Is the guy mean to them?’ We never needed to have any uncomfortable discussions about rape with Jacob.

“Also, one of his parents was always with him, so he was always very protected and looked after. I never felt, ‘Oh this is exploitative of the child.’ He has such a zest for the acting process.

“He’d come off and have his breaks but then they’d say, ‘Next take,’ and he would bound back into the room and into wardrobe. I just thought, ‘this lifestyle, weird as it is, suits this child. He’s having enormous fun.’”

The film, and the performances, won huge critical acclaim when it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival before screening at the Toronto Film Festival.

“Brie not only stunning in her acting but also really, really good to work with, too. She’d be sitting round in Ugg boots in a completely unpretentious way chatting with everybody.

“There was no, ‘I’m a star.’ Also, she really gave extra energy to the child as well. Not just making a bond with him, but often she’d be right there with him in every scene, reminding him where to put his foot or reminding him not to move his hand, tucking his hair behind his ear. She really mammies him in a lovely way, which I think kept him very relaxed and looked after.”

Ms Donoghue clearly enjoyed the filmmaking process and she’ll write for the screen again in the future.

“Yeah I will do. I like the collaboration. It’s so different to working on my own. You have to give up some power. That’s a little bit scary, but it’s the same with theatre as well.

“I would happily write original screenplays as well, and I would adapt other people’s work – that would be an interesting challenge, too. It’s really nice in my mid-forties that my writing is starting to take on this whole other direction. I’ve been writing books since I was 20. Not that I’m sick of that, but it’s fun to learn a whole new set of skills.”

Ms Donoghue was born in Dublin and now lives in Canada. Her novels include Stir Fry, Hood, Life Mask, Landing, The Sealed Letter and Frog Music.


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