‘ROOM’ Author/Screenwriter Emma Donoghue On The Role Of A Mother, Love of Literature


Screen shot 2015-10-29 at 9.21.10 AMPreston Barta // Editor

Imagine if the only world you knew was in a 16×16 room where light only shined in from a window above and your only source of entertainment was conversations with your mother and a television set. How does one keep their sanity? How do we live in a place where the walls feel like they’re closing in by the second? These are the questions posed in Emma Donoghue’s ROOM.

This may sound like heavy subject matter to dive into – it is – and the film only goes deeper. ROOM is unquestionably an emotional and difficult watch, especially if you’re a mother. The underlying idea of a mother and a son being held captive in a garden shed for years is a hard image to shake.

However, anchored by award-worthy performances from Brie Larson (SHORT TERM 12) and relatively newcomer Jacob Tremblay, the film makes for an intimate, harrowing and ultimately unforgettable experience that hits like a shot to the heart.

Adapting her own book of the same name, Donoghue paints a vivid picture and doesn’t shy away from details in her immersive work. Fresh Fiction sat down with Donoghue in Dallas, TX, recently to discuss her novel and screenplay for ROOM. We talked about the fears we have as parents raising children, the appropriate way to interview someone, and the things in life we take for granted.

Author/screenwriter Emma Donoghue.

Author/screenwriter Emma Donoghue.

How has the experience of speaking with film audiences been compared to book audiences?

Emma Donoghue: “It is fun speaking to people right after they see the movie, because when you’re speaking to book audiences some of them will have read the book, while others may have read the book years ago. Then, there are the people who may not have read the book at all. So you know it is a bit of a mixture. But when everyone has just seen the film, you know its just more of an experience.”

Lenny Abrahamson directed your story–

Donoghue: “Oh, he’s so smart.”

He is! I had the pleasure of speaking to him before in Austin, TX, for his previous film, FRANK. What did he say that ultimately made you decide to hand over your story to him?

Donoghue: “He really seemed to understand the book. The first half of his 10-page letter was a really smart book of youth, and then he plunged into how he would make the film. It’s not that I just wanted to be told, ‘yeah, yeah, we won’t change it much.’ It’s more of how he was full of enthusiasm for the unconventional aspects of the book, like the fact that it’s in two halves and not a traditional three-act structure.

He didn’t seem worried by any of the elements of the book, which some people would find touching– you know, like the breast feeding element. He plunged straight into details about how exactly he would film certain sequences, like the sequence when the mom is sort of depressed for the day and puts her head under the pillow and Jack has to get his breakfast alone.

[Abrahamson] was already seeing it in his mind, and he shared these details with me. Whereas, you know, mostly if its somewhere other people are a lot more, cards close to the chest, and you might hear through their agent that they’re interested. But [Abrahamson] pursued direct and honest in his approach to me, and his letter just blew me away.”

Yeah, I think he did a really good job visually backing up your words.

Donoghue: “Didn’t he?”

I really like that the narration in the film felt like it was recorded in a room. It has that boxed-in sound to it.

Donoghue:“I’ve seen the film maybe seven times and towards the last few you really try and notice aspects of the film you don’t know much about. So I tried listening in for sound editing, and I was managing for about the first 10 minutes and I lost him straight again.”

[Laughs] Did you often visit the set during production?

Donoghue:“Yeah, about once a week. It was sort of each week’s shoot I got to go up. So I saw a little sample of all the different locations. It was fascinating.”

I always wondered if a director would feel any intimidation with the creator being on the set.

Donoghue: “I don’t think [Abrahamson] intimidates easy. What is crucial is if you attempt to throw your weight around I think you would find that you’re not invited back, you know?

Everything on set is costing so much money, so you don’t want to do anything that will slow it down. So, if I saw something that worried me I would sort of wait until lunch time, and I would say my worries in the director’s ear. But you don’t try undermine his authority by speaking over him at any other point.

So, I didn’t attempt to move my weight around. I found they really did keep me in the loop, and they would let me know anything we would kind of need to change, or things that were coming up. It’s all about coordinating a good relationship with the director, basically.”

Right. Speaking of relationships, as a journalist, I’m always fascinated by the relationship between an interviewer and their subject. I’m speaking of the scene in the film where Ma (Larson) is being interviewed by a news network. The journalist is hitting below the belt, and I’m curious to know whether or not there is a good way to interview someone, get the information you need, while maintaining a respectful relationship?

Donoghue: “You know, I briefly worked in television as an investor of show of my books, and I remember I was interviewing P.D James, the administry writer, and my producer leaned in and said, ‘ask about when she was suddenly widowed.’ And I had not known she was widowed. I thought, ‘do I really have to ask this question.?’ So I think I tried to put it more softly. I said something like, ‘what was going on in your life at the point where you started writing?’ She did in fact tell the story of how her husband passed and how she had to start writing books in the middle of the night to earn money for her kids.

I did feel bad about asking it. So, when people are famous just for being victims and not for being crime novelist, I think you would have to incredibly sensitive journalist to interview them to get insight without doubling the damage.

It’s funny, I’ve had almost nothing but good experiences with journalists because I’m approaching them like, ‘Hey! I’ve go a novel or a film to promote.’ So it’s more of an equal relationship, but I think if you are going to the media with a story of suffering, then it’s hard to say if it will be anything but a horrible process. And I love those things, say like video interviews with Elizabeth Smart or message boards about Elisabeth Fritzl. I was looking at them to get information about kidnapping cases, but then I started to get fascinated with media response with in itself. And it’s that combination of making a saint of these people and then being judgmental the next minute. It seems to be swinging so quickly from putting someone on a pedestal and them knocking them off.”

So, did you study psychology as well? I know you have your doctorate in English.

Donoghue: “I didn’t study it formally but I definitely read psychology papers online about post traumatic stress disorder and the resilience that makes some kinds do well when they grow up in situations that you would think would be appalling.

I looked at the theories about how families function and how a family doesn’t have to have a traditional shape. I mean, it could an uncle and a niece, or an abductive parent, or one parent, or three parents– but all families have certain things in common. There’s a sense of ritual or there could be certain things they do once a week, a sense of appreciating each member and time together, and a feeling you can somehow make your life meaningful and not be entirely dictated by others. So I try to give Ma and Jack all of this, even though they are effectively in prison.”

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson play mother and son in ROOM. Photo courtesy of A24.

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson play mother and son in ROOM. Photo courtesy of A24.

There’s a fascinating question that you pose in the film about how parents should balance their children’s playtime with technology and tangible things. There’s a scene where Ma doesn’t want Jack to spend too much time on the phone or watching TV. Did this stem from the way you raise(d) your children, or how do you go about balancing that?

Donoghue: “Oh yeah, I would say it is the main thing that I have problem with my kids about is screen time, especially my older one, who is 11. I think he would prefer to spend his entire day playing Minecraft.”

So it feels as if you’re constantly pooling them back to the real world?

Donoghue: “Yes. I think the reason I put that in was that I struggled over whether they would have TV, or I thought, ‘OK, well, if they don’t have TV at all it is going to seem like a 19th century log cabin, and also Jack when he comes out would be like, ‘Oh, what’s that what?’

So I wanted him to have at least a visual recognition of things like cars, which is not to have experienced them fully– not to have ridden in them. So it’s that gap between things, which are visual symbols in our mind, and then sort of that full-body experience of them. I decided to make the mother be quite a firm character and say watch one show them turn it off.”

Yeah, I feel like it’s those kind of small things that make us realize how much we take for granted, especially when you think about how Jack has a name for all the appliances in the room like they are more than what they are. Are you a stop and smell the roses kind of person?

Donoghue: “I certainly try to, but the thing is I go about a lot of things in such a hurry because I always want time for reading and writing. So for instance, I love the company of my kids, but I notice when I’m walking with them I’m always about six steps ahead saying, ‘come on, come on.’ So I’m not very good at just sitting peacefully in the sunshine and enjoying the sun. I’ll very quickly grab my phone and start reading something. I just love words so much. I love reading, writing and films so much that I slightly short-change every other experience in order to get to them.”

What are you reading now?

Donoghue: “I’ve just finished a novel about a graduate school affair called MY EDUCATION by Susan Choi. It’s amazing, really smart and analytical, but it is so good on the sensory overload of lust as well.”

ROOM opens today.
Dallas: Angelika Plano, Magnolia Theatre

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.