Never one to stick to convention, Lenny Abrahamson’s self-proclaimed lack of homogeneity in his work is what has led him along his distinguished career path as a director. What’s most striking about his films is their defiance of genre stereotypes. Take the critically acclaimed Room, for which Abrahamson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director in 2016. The film is based on the book by Emma Donoghue, and centres around a young woman, abducted and raped, and the child she bears subsequently. The film could easily have been a thriller focussed on the nail-biting escape of these two characters. However, while playing with this idea in the film’s middle act, Abrahamson creates an outstandingly sensitive commentary on the parent /child bond and, how, contrary to expectations, this little boy is able to have a normal childhood. Or take his later film The Little Stranger (2018), which was pigeonholed as a horror film but which in fact is far more a genre bending character study of the central character.
Abrahamson’s film making work has earned him many accolades and in 2016 he was appointed as visiting Professor in Film and Television at Oxford University. This professorship was part of a Humanitas programme funded by the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust. From public lectures to intimate workshops, his yearlong engagement formed part of a four year programme involving three other prominent individuals within the film and television industry: Michael Winterbottom, Kelly Reichardt and Sam Mendes. It afforded students the opportunity to learn directly from individuals such as Abrahamson who have made names for themselves in the notoriously difficult world of film and television. Despite his success now, Abrahamson’s path into directing is less than conventional. Born and bred in Dublin, he excelled in science and decided to study theoretical physics at Trinity College Dublin. Although from his mid-teens he developed a real interest in cinema, he wasn’t sure he could pursue it as a career – “It didn’t seem like a real option” he noted when I visited his Dublin offices. However, whilst at Trinity he changed his studies to philosophy and set up a production company with college friend Ed Guiney. He and Guiney still work together and it’s in this company’s offices that we sit on a sunny afternoon to discuss his career and what defines his work; his process as a director; his views on the ever-changing film industry and his current project, a 12 part TV series based on the best-selling novel, Normal People, by Sally Rooney.
Abrahamson’s first critically acclaimed project came in the form of 2004’s Adam & Paul. Set in Dublin, it follows the tragically comedic drug addicted duo as they navigate a day in their life. This was followed by Garage in 2007, and What Richard Did in 2012. Then Abrahamson seemingly took a break from the darker subjects of his previous film to make Frank, a light absurdist comedy. Yet at its core, the film still has Abrahamson’s trademark serious, poignant message, this time about mental health. Then came Room and The Little Stranger.
Throughout this varied oeuvre of work, there remain several constants – one being the relationship between film and audience. Abrahamson has the knack of making his audience part of the narrative, almost creating another character. They are as involved and invested in the action as any of the characters on screen. Because of his subtlety in dealing with the narratives, he often forces the audience to visualise details of scenes themselves, rather than spoon-feeding action to them. “It’s a constant battle to prevent lazy mental habits,” Abrahamson says, “to crack open their normal way of seeing something”. He applies this mentality not only to his delicate storylines but also to the characters he presents. “You think you understand the character and are allowed to feel a comfortable familiarity with the type of person you think they are.” Then a metamorphosis creeps in, making it very difficult for the audience to continue in that frame of mind.
While he doesn’t allow his audience to rest of their laurels, he’s also very rigorous in his own exploration of the story: “the experience of breaking opening judgement and constraint is probably the thing that I’m most interested in.” In fact, when it comes to picking his projects, it’s the desire to
challenge himself that drives him towards a certain story. “The project has to wake something up in me that I can’t let go of”. With Abrahamson, it’s a very instinctive decision, which is a trait that he carries throughout his entire process as a filmmaker. Yet he also notes that while instinct is important, the ability of the director to collaborate sensitively yet confidently is the key ingredient to a successful film. “You have to work with people in a way which is respectful and exhilarating for everybody but which pushes the project into a shape that matches you. I have to make it, I have to understand it, I have to feel it otherwise it won’t work”. Being clear and convincing in his role as a director must be precisely the reason why his films are successful. If a director isn’t clear about where they stand and what creative authority they have, everything can fall apart. “And it can absolutely fall apart! To the extent that actors won’t talk to each other, no one knows what’s happening!” he muses.
Abrahamson’s collaborative mindset is something which starts long before filming. A lot of his films have been adaptations and for several he’s worked directly with the original author to create the screenplay. In fact, his current project, Normal People, is one such project. The book, written by Sally Rooney, centres around two characters as they transition from school to Trinity College Dublin. Both Abrahamson and Rooney attended Trinity, years apart, and won the same scholarship as the book’s two main characters, so there’s a personal connection to the story for both of them. Above all, however, Abrahamson emphasised that it was the sensitivity with which Rooney dealt with the relationships between characters, and how unusual they were as people that drew him to this adaptation. The book reflects the ebbs and flows in the lives of an essentially oddly matched young couple. It highlights the changes in the balance of power between them and lesser characters with whom they interact. They progress from school to university, and this voyage through self-discovery and awareness is something delicately developed by Rooney.
Abrahamson is vitally aware that the way people view and experience entertainment has become far easier, with access at anytime and anywhere. The entertainment business has embraced globalisation, particularly with the advent of platforms such as Netflix and Hulu. Directors who would have just worked in the film industry 20 years ago are having to embrace the world of streaming and television in order to remain current. Does the quality of the product suffer with this small screen target? Are we the audience missing out on the big screen experience by being able to download films to our phones? As Abrahamson muses, the audience can now view films and series on their phones to watch on the tube, walking along the street, in the kitchen. But what that means is they are never really focussing on the product. There is always an element of distraction. In a cinema you are subsumed, completely engrossed in the film, because there is no choice nor outside distractions.
It remains to be seen how Abrahamson translates his six episodes of Normal People to the streaming screen, and if he grabs the audience’s attention sufficiently to make them come back for more. If his past work is anything to go by and his understanding of present-day viewers, I have a feeling this next project will be collecting more awards.