Before his critically acclaimed indie hit Room earned Brie Larson an Oscar in 2016, director Lenny Abrahamson was toiling away in Ireland, looking for his niche as a filmmaker. His first film, Adam & Paul, was a modest success, taking the Laurel & Hardy approach to a pair of Dublin junkies in search of their next fix. Then came the tragicomedy Garage, about a rural Irish gas station attendant on an earnest quest to change his life. And next, Frank, starring Michael Fassbender as an erratic and genius musician (ironically, it couldn’t bank on the actor’s face, as he donned a giant papier-mâché head for almost the entirety of the movie). With Room, Abrahamson finally stumbled on his magic story formula — a woman in search of agency — a premise which Abrahamson, a man, unexpectedly connected with on a deeply personal level.
Abrahamson’s newest film, The Little Stranger, an adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel of the same name, continues the themes of a woman trapped in a hostile environment. The gothic tale tells the story of a post-WWI British country doctor (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who revisits a grand estate he knew from his youth, only to find the home dilapidated and the once-great family inside it worn down to a small, impoverished, grief-stricken clan. The doctor takes a fancy to the daughter of the family, Caroline Ayers (Ruth Wilson), but also finds himself more and more obsessed with the Ayers’ home, even as Caroline is trying to escape it and the spirit she thinks lives there. In a conversation with Vulture, Abrahamson spoke about venturing into genre filmmaking, obsessing over locations, and finding kinship with women who are on a quest for autonomy.
You’ve done two novel adaptations in a row, first Emma Donoghue’s Room and now The Little Stranger. And Frank was loosely based on the comic persona of the late Chris Sievy. People are going to start thinking adaptation is your thing. Is that something you’re seeking out now, or do the stories find you?
I read this book not intending to do another adaptation, I promise, but life doesn’t work in those nice, neat ways. I’ve been thinking about this novel for ages, and when I finished Room, the script adaptation Lucinda Coxon was writing for The Little Stranger was finally ready. I happened to have a gap in my schedule, and I just knew that if I didn’t make it then that I wouldn’t be the one to get to make it. I couldn’t take that chance. The next one isn’t going to be an adaptation, but when really good material has taken root in my head, it’s impossible to let it go.
What about the story ended up attracting you? So many filmmakers who traditionally work in drama or comedy these days are throwing their energy at horror, trying to catch the genre boom. Were you hoping to find an audience there, too, or did everything come together by accident?
First, I read the book when it came out [in 2009]. A friend said, “You should read this, it’s really good,” and I was sent through, by accident, only half of this book, before it was published. I said “This is fascinating stuff, but it feels like it’s missing an ending,” and so I came up with a bunch of suggestions of where I thought it might go and sent those off not knowing it already had the perfect ending. And they wrote back apologetically that they’d mistakenly only sent half. But I was still engrossed in this book even though it was entirely truncated, if that tells how you good it is.
Generally, I’m not interested in genre films and not a horror aficionado. The story is such an interesting hybrid of all these elements that Sarah [Waters] manages to weave together so beautifully and with a profound emotional impact and it’s not just, “Oh god it’s chilling, and I’m terrified and on the edge of my seat.” But if you compare this story to something like Downton Abbey, which I suppose you could, this is going through this undergrowth of those people in Britain and finding this odd tribe that’s not the clean and nice noblemen, and I’m attracted to that.
Did you ever meet people like the Ayers — aristocratic Brits from giant country estates?
I did, actually. I went to a university much loved by posh British people, so I ended up meeting a lot of people who came from places like Hundreds Hall in the story, and it’s fascinating to me that this life still exists with all its peculiarities.
When I watched your film, I was struck by how closely the images you created resembled what was in my head when I was reading the novel. You went for a straight adaptation, which also utilizes literary devices like an unreliable narrator and first-person interior dialogue. How did you accomplish translating those elements to the screen?
One technique we used was getting the camera very close to Domhnall, so it was clear the story was being told through his flawed point of view. Ruth gets a few big closeups, but they’re very held back, because we’re seeing her only how Dr. Faraday sees her. You can do a lot of prep for something like that, but we discovered you send it all out the window when you really face it and look at rushes and learn what works and what doesn’t. We don’t know why it works, but we discovered with Domhnall’s Dr. Faraday, that if we moved close to him with a particular lens, that it just felt right. It’s a little closer than conventionally, but we’re not looking up his nose or anything. I’m sure Domhnall wouldn’t like that. It’s one of those things that you can’t put your finger on, but it’s odd. It puts you off-kilter, and we’re lucky we stumbled on or developed this style.
So you’re saying it could have been a disaster.
It was a delicate soufflé, and any bit of wrongness would have shown. But a lot more of this than you’d think came together in the editing. We spent a lot of time reworking the first 15 minutes of the film, doing very small tweaks in terms of how much we stick with Faraday, foreshadow how much is going to happen. And the tiniest changes would entirely shift how the film landed in the end.
Back to the idea of horror: the convention of a “gothic” story isn’t exactly synonymous with “horror,” though there is quite a bit of crossover. Do you ever worry that audiences will be disappointed by the lack of “scares”? Your star Ruth Wilson already caught a little of that when she starred in Oz Perkins’ gothic film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, which also refrains from conforming to horror conventions.
The danger in marketing this film is that people will go in expecting a horror movie, and it’s not really that in a traditional sense. And gothic stories are diverse as well! Some with jump scares and all that. What’s fascinating about Sarah’s novel is that for ages, nothing untoward or “creepy” happens, but the dread grows out of the situation.
Speaking of the “diversity” of gothic stories, you’re actually going against the grain with The Little Stranger. Most scenes take place during the daylight, and you’ve got a warm color palette, which seems almost antithetical to the gothic genre.
You can imagine going super-gothic on this, picking a Tudor house with really creepy vines, but as soon as you do, you’re saying you’re in that kind of film. It’s harder to inflect the tone of the story. The audience is finding these clues you laid for them rather than you’re doing the work to tell them. I don’t want people to know why this is spooky. We looked in loads of places for the right house, at every British manor house and stately home, and if you were to go the house we selected now, you’d be very surprised, because it’s surrounded by concrete and a car park and everything, but the bones of the house are exactly what we needed. It’s a very odd house, and it has these loads of interconnecting rooms that allow you to look through doorways and see other parts of the house, so we could create this tiny, three-dimensional map that we played with in planning. Of course, once you get in the house, the temptation would be to go super dark or shafts of light for contrast, but we went for a more faded gaiety — lots of golds, salmon pinks, pale blues, rich and warm colors. And yet the house feels wrong somehow. But you can’t point your finger and find exactly what makes it wrong. That’s the aesthetic, hiding the unnerving parts.
This is also your second film in a row to focus on a female character who’s trapped in a place. First a room, now a haunted house.
Well, this film does have a lot to say about men and women and how men’s expectations of women’s desires are very problematic. Caroline, of all the characters in this film, is the one who finds her way to a sense of agency. You go online and see how people treat strong women, and it’s, “Oh my god!” But Caroline is the character who begins to understand herself. It’s a thread that sneaks up on you in the story and I find that a compelling thing to watch, and I feel that women saying what they want or think is something our society has not liked traditionally. It’s amazing how powerful that impulse is, for men to shut women down who are assertive. I’ve got a Civil War project — not an adaptation — that has a central female character who’s dealing with that in a time when women weren’t allowed to do many things, including fighting in a war she believes in.
What do you personally get out of working with complex female characters in crisis?
I really, really enjoyed working with Ruth [Wilson] and with Brie [Larson], because I’m distanced from the characters myself as a man, and it allows me to not bring so much of my own self and to listen to the character more truthfully than if it were a character I were closer to. Gender is not the defining aspect of the person, and it’s diminishing to think it is, but I do think I have much in common with those female characters. The humanity is the fundamental thing and we all share that, and in the case of Caroline’s recognition that her role need not be defined as it has been by men, I understand that. We all fall into patterns of behavior and conform to other people’s ideas, but that movement and desperate push toward autonomy and agency, it breathes in and out of our lives at times when you feel objectified. And we all feel that sometimes.