Interview: Room Writer Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue, shortlisted author for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, poses with her novel Room at the Royal Festival Hall in London

Room without question is one of the most devastatingly emotional films that you will see this year. So, fair warning, tissues will be required. I was lucky enough to speak to Emma Donoghue earlier this week who both wrote the original novel that the film is based on and who also adapted it into the screenplay for the film itself.

There are some slight spoilers regarding the film, but very little that haven’t already been spoiled by the trailer.

TYF: Were there aspects of writing the script that you enjoyed more than writing the original novel, or vice versa, were there parts that you found more difficult?

Emma Donoghue: When you write a novel, you know, you’re the queen of your little realm. You have all the power and it’s very private, you’re writing it and nobody is looking at it at first, so that’s very satisfying. Then, writing a film, it’s not just the moments when you’re at home writing it, it’s all those moment’s that you’re discussing it with the director. I was really lucky that I got to have a close working relationship with Lenny [Abrahamson the director] as I was writing multiple drafts for him and with him. So that was really satisfying because writing novels is quite an isolated business. I love the collaboration. Also, there’s so much about the film business that’s entirely new to me, so because Lenny is so much more experienced he was really able to guide me through how writing a film works.

TYF: How was it working with director Lenny Abrahamson as the director-I heard he wrote you a letter pitching why he should direct the film?

He wrote me this ten page letter yes. It’s funny, you know, every other overture from either an actor or producer came in the form of an email, maybe via an agent, just suggesting slight interest, where Lenny just went for it, he just wrote me with enormous confidence and generosity, spelling out exactly how he’d like to make this film and he showed such an understanding for the book and such a passion for the material and I didn’t get any other overture like it. It just blew me away; it was such an intelligent letter.  Also, his previous films really moved me as well. I could see that he manages to get warmth and humor out of really tragic situations. Like his first film (Adam & Paul) is about two heroin junkies on the streets of Dublin and he gets this wonderful kind of Samuel Beckett style of humor out of their situation.

TYF: By the very nature of the film and the book, it is a very emotional story-did you ever have to actively remove yourself from the content?

I remember the research for the novel was very upsetting because it was just soaking in these stories about mistreatment of women and children but as soon as I started to write it I didn’t feel as upset by it anymore because I was telling a much positive version of these real cases because it’s really a best case scenario for a kidnapping story, in that he [Jack] has this ideal, energetic, healthy mother protecting him and they have enough food and vitamins and she’s managed to shield him from a lot of the knowledge of the abuse.

It felt like I was telling a way more life affirming story, and also, I never mind putting my character’s through suffering so long as I’m heading towards the light.

I mean, it’s just a fact that if there isn’t darkness, you don’t see the light. If you focus on the amazing heroism of parental love, sometimes you need a dark context to show that up because otherwise it’s just a story about a mother and a child in a house, that’s so banal. We’re just so used to that that we can’t see what a big deal it is unless you sell it against darkness. I’m thinking for instance, the family scenes in The Sopranos. There’s such a wonderful contrast of the nasty business and killing he’s doing on the side that it really highlight the ordinariness of talking to his children and getting exasperated. The context makes us see that fresh.

TYF: You mentioned how the character of Ma is so integral to helping Jack get through his time in “room”, so how important was it to you writing the Ma and Jack dynamic. I would say that Jack helps Ma survive the situation almost as much as Ma helps Jack.

Definitely. I think that parent and children relationships are very interesting anyway because they’re never static, you know, every day the kid’s a little older and needs a  little bit more freedom and a little less safety and sometimes the child glimpses that before the adult and sometimes the adult is wanting the child to grow up before the child so it’s a wonderfully alive relationship. It’s funny, quite a few people have said to me so far ‘how can you take a novel that’s all in a child’s head and possibly turn that into cinema’ but actually I thought of Room as mostly being composed of conversations between Ma and Jack, rather than just Jack thinking on his own. That level of constant exchange and even fun and questions and answers and speculations together, I thought that of the substance of the book and I think that translated very easily to the screen.

You just have to obviously be very disciplined about how much dialogue you use. Dialogue in film is really important but there’s even less of it then in books. So I had to think a lot about which bits were really crucial.


TYF: How was it seeing Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as these characters you created onscreen?

Magic! It was magic and I think one of the very smart decisions that the producers made was that they got the set completely ready three weeks early so Brie and Jacob got to play in that space and really make it their own. They made a lot of the crafts you see in the film for instance. You can’t expect a child to just turn on the warmth and I think giving Brie and Jacob enough time to get to know one another lead to the success of the whole film.

TYF: I’m going to selfishly ask about my favorite scene in the film, which is the escape scene, what I imagine is one of the most visceral moments in film this year. How was it writing such a tense, visceral moment?

It’s very like the book except that it seems to take him [Jack] longer because he wriggles out and then he leans up against the side of the truck and everyone watching is thinking ‘get out, get out’. One thing I love about that scene is that if Old Nick was a better driver, and he had checked his mirrors, he would have seen that child. Of course he’s ruthlessly egotistically driving forwards so he doesn’t see it. So I think the fact that Jack takes a while to jump out makes it so much more tense. It’s funny, that scene is probably the first really suspenseful things I’ve ever written and I found it really enjoyable to write something that would grab people in such a visceral level.

One thing I remember from filming it was that they were meant to use a body double for the actual jumping out but Jacob [Tremblay] begged to do it himself so I think he was jumping onto a mattress. They do a fantastic job and the music at that point, the pumping heartbeat makes it so like a birth scene to me.

TYF: Did you get a lot of directors that were pitching you ideas, wanting to take us out of the room, afraid that keeping it in one place would make people restless?

There were a lot of suggestions, certainly, that you would need flashbacks, or to show the kidnapping, but to me if you did that it would be making it a much more generic, “girl in peril” kind of film. I think it really rejects the kidnapper’s terms to start seven years in that says ‘this is not the story of your crafty kidnapping.’  It’s the story that starts at the point of the kidnap duration has already become sort of grindingly domestic on both sides. It’s like a bad marriage and it’s the story of an escape instead.

TYF: How was it seeing the film for the first time and what was the most rewarding part of seeing the production all coming together? (Spoiler Warning: for those who haven’t read the book/seen the film there are some slight spoilers in the answer below)

I saw a rough cut in March and I got to visit the set a lot, they really let me in. Even during the filming I got to see the dallies every night on a website. I got to see audition tapes, they were really generous in how they let me into the process.

I remember on the last day when they were filming the farewell to room where he production designer really wanted snow so he asked for fake snow but apparently that’s really expensive. So ironically, even though the weather was quite wintry, and they had some snow in previous days that they’d had to brush away, he wasn’t allowed fake snow and was disappointed. But then on the day of filming it snowed.

TYF: What’s next for you?

I have an adult novel coming out about an eleven year old girl in 19th century Ireland who appears to be living without food and my first kids book comes out after that.

TYF: What a great contrast to be writing both and then also promoting Room.

Exactly! And I have to say, writing for kids is wonderful discipline in itself because it’s fiction and yet you always have to remember that there’s so much that your reader won’t know yet.

Room  is out Friday, October 23rd. Make sure to check back tomorrow for my review.

She is a 23 year old in Boston MA. She is hugely passionate about film, television and writing. Along with theyoungfolks, she also is a contributor over at . You can contact her on Twitter (@AllysonAJ) or via email: