Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room is the story of a 5-year-old boy who lives in a single room with his mother and has never seen the outside world. Donoghue recently adapted her novel into a screenplay, and the resulting film, starring Brie Larson, has been sweeping up accolades. It’s nominated for four Academy Awards on Sunday: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Picture.
Public Books co-editor in chief Sharon Marcus has long been a devoted reader of Donoghue’s work. She spoke with Donoghue about the process of adaptation, learning to trust actors, and how screen heroines find time to shave their underarms even when fighting vampires.
Sharon Marcus (SM): What are the first movies you remember caring about deeply?
Emma Donoghue (ED): The first movie I ever saw and cared about deeply was The Sound of Music, and in my teens I saw Yentl and had the most overwhelming lesbian response to it.
SM: You spent time on the set of Room. What were your insights into the acting process?
ED: Room was filmed more or less in order, which is unusual, and several of the actors, in particular Joan Allen, told me how much they enjoyed that.
Film acting struck me as very reactive, even more so than theater acting. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, playing mother and child in our film, were responsible for a lot of what was good in each other’s performances. Brie did a lot of gentle coaching and playful reminding of Jacob, and he was this massive source of stress relief for her because she was very intense in her process. Sometimes she’d be shaking or crying after a scene and he would just snap straight into talking about Star Wars. It really echoed the story of the film itself. He was very restorative for her, because for him the stakes were not as high. He wasn’t thinking, “I must do an Oscar-worthy performance.” He was just thinking, “What’s for lunch?”
It’s also quite hard to separate the director from the performances, especially with a child actor. Male directors are often stereotyped as macho, demanding slave drivers, but Lenny did a huge amount of gentle, slightly teasing, slightly joking, nurturing interaction with our child actor to tease that performance out of him. Tough love would not have worked at all.
SM: As both a novel and a film, Room is very much about television.
ED: I sweated over whether or not to give Ma and Jack TV at all because I was nervous about introducing that very potent element into the room. I thought it might take some of the purity of their improvised fun away. But I thought if they didn’t have TV, it would be too much like they were living in a 19th-century cottage, unaware of modernity, and then, when they got out, Jack would be confused by every car and every escalator.
I didn’t want that to be the issue. I wanted Jack to think that he knew our world, because it looks visually familiar, but, in fact, he has not experienced it, he has only seen it. I thought it would be subtler to have TV, but for there to be this immense gap between watching things on TV and experiencing them, which Jack doesn’t realize is a gap. I also decided to make Ma very firm about limiting it because I did not want them sitting there watching and discussing TV all day.
SM: You’ve said many times that you wrote the screenplay for Room before you even had the novel published. How did you prepare to write the screenplay? Did you look at handbooks and guides? Were you using screenwriting software?
ED: I had done one or two scripts over the years, so I was familiar with the basic format. But I never really tried hard to get into this field. I’d been hired to write a screenplay based on my very first novel 20 years ago and that never came to anything. In the case of Room I thought, “Somebody’s going to make a film of this because it’s peculiar, it’s a gripping story.” And I wanted that somebody to be me. I was aware that people wouldn’t necessarily welcome the novelist doing her own screenplay, especially if she had no experience, so I thought, “Well, I’ll write it first and it’ll be harder for them to say no.”
SM: When you wrote it, did you storyboard it in your head? Were you putting in shots, like here’s an aerial shot, here’s a close-up?
ED: I got a batch of about 20 books on screenwriting from the university library and I was most relieved to hear that most of them thought it was very old-fashioned to attempt to tell the director what to do with the camera.
So I didn’t include any description of shots. I just said what we could see at every point. If we were under the bed, I said, “We see at shoe level,” and if we were in the wardrobe, I said, “We see from inside the wardrobe.” I stuck to noting what the audience could see and tried to think as an audience member would. I also tried to think in visuals and not have it be too dialogue-heavy. Most of the book is actually dialogue between Jack and Ma. It’s not all in his head.
SM: Were you involved with the film’s set design? I was struck by how thoughtful it was, and by ways it embellished on the book. For example, at one point we see a light switch that’s been painted to look like a face. I thought that captured really well how the mother has tried to make the room as creative a space as possible, but that detail is not in the book.
ED: That’s a perfect example of how the circle of collaboration widens out in film. Our production designer had read the book, had looked at videos of kidnapping situations, had looked at a lot of the homes of the poor and thought, “What are ways that people make some pleasure—some visual pleasure out of poverty?” He’d done a huge amount of research. Before he got the job as our designer he put together this amazing slideshow of images and textures that he drew from.
Similarly, the costume designer took me through the costumes and talked about each character having an “arc” in their costumes. Jack’s clothes go from the nasty ones that Old Nick has bought for him to ones that are a little bit too Ralph Lauren–ish, because his grandmother is buying him new outfits. Then by the end Jack is in clothes that he would actually choose himself.
SM: As a professor of 19th-century theater I always tell students, “You have to remember that most of these plays were heavily scored to music by full orchestras.” They’re always surprised—musical scores for nonmusical plays?—and then I remind them that almost every TV show and film they watch has a full score—that they probably don’t notice. What did you think of the music for the film version of Room?
ED: Lenny, the director, is from a very art-house tradition. I loved his first few films but they were very austere. Having seen them, I said to him, “You’re not going to make this in black and white, are you?” He was like, “No, no, I promise.” And then I said to him, “Please, will there be some music?” Because, in one of his films, Garage, I think there are only two moments where there’s any music at all. If you are used to a constant diet of music in films, having no music can be quite a strain. He said, “Oh, don’t worry, there will be music.” I also made him swear to put some breast-feeding in.
SM: Was he ever tempted to take that out?
ED: No, but I knew he would be advised by others to take it out. Luckily he could stand up to them.
Back to your music question. One thing I hadn’t known at a technical level was that they use a temporary score in the editing because often you can’t get your composer to write the music for you until very near the end. But quite often they get attached to bits of the temporary score, so for instance the pounding music that you hear during the escape scene—that was something in the temp score that we all just got attached to.
SM: I wanted to ask about another Oscar category, which is makeup. It is extremely unusual to see women in movies wearing no makeup, even when it would be realistic for them not to be made up.
ED: There’s this thing on Facebook at the moment. It’s presented as a sort of faux-congratulations. It’s “women who managed to shave their underarms even when fighting vampires or castaway on desert islands.” You know, they couldn’t possibly have shaved but still. So, Brie did not shave her underarms for months before the shoot.
SM: Of course—there’s no way that her captor rapist would let her have a razor. I’ve noticed that movies where female stars don’t wear makeup are often directed by women. For example, Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, with Sandrine Bonnaire: no makeup. People talked about that when the movie first came out. Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, gives us Carey Mulligan in very tight close-ups: no makeup. Even when it suits the situation or the historical period, it’s a choice that disrupts our conventional sense of how women are supposed to look in movies. Did you have to ask Room’s director to do this, or did he already get it?
ED: Lenny is very naturalistic, and genuinely feminist. I never had to push the woman angle of this film at all. He got it. It’s why he wanted to make this film.
SM: Was Brie Larson happy to play a role where she could look like a normal person? While watching the scene where she does the TV interview, I experienced the makeup on her character as a kind of violence and deformation. At the same time, in that scene I also realized, “Brie Larson really is a movie star.” In a way, this highlighted Larson’s achievement as an actress in the earlier parts of the film, where she really managed to look like a “normal” person.
ED: Brie joked that she had a lot of trouble getting roles because she was too pretty to be the plain friend, but not pretty enough to be the pretty girl!
The book is so much from Jack’s point of view. What were the opportunities that
emerged when you changed the story so that it wasn’t told exclusively from his
point of view?
ED: It was great to seize the opportunity that the film gave me to tell the story again, but this time showing Ma as central too. Limiting myself to Jack’s point of view in the book was at times frustrating for me. It was a real discipline, a technical challenge to try to conjure up Ma as a really real character, but through Jack’s very limited perspective.
In the film I thought, all the readers who wanted more Ma or for me to tell the whole story again from Ma’s point of view now get to meet her more directly. I found it a relief to be temporarily let out of the single point of view of Jack and to allow the more shifting point of view of the film. But as films go, it’s still very glued to Jack. We don’t see any scenes that he’s not in. You see three seconds of Ma when the door shuts, but then immediately we’re back with Jack.
SM: One thing that I was struck by in the film version was the scene where Brie Larson and Joan Allen—Ma and her mother—are having a fight, and Ma says to her mother, “Maybe if I didn’t have your voice in my head, always telling me to be so nice, I wouldn’t have gone to help the man with the sick dog.” Was that improvised, or did you write that into the film version?
ED: You know, there’s a gray area in between. That line didn’t come from me, but I’m not quite sure where it came from. Lenny said that it was something that the actors came up with, but I don’t think it was improvised on the spot.
Screenplays accrete material. I remember when Lenny said to me that in the screenplay, at some moment where the family were gathered, “Oh, you can just write, ‘they chat amongst themselves.’” And I thought, “No, no!” He said, “They’re going to improvise anyway.” His point was to trust that the actors, by the time scenes are being filmed, have the characters; they have thought hugely about them, just like the designer did, just like the costume designer did. You have to accept that you have now taken on a bunch of collaborators and they get the story just as much as you do and you have to let them bring their creativity to it.
SM: You have written several works of historical fiction. Are there links between the process of turning historical knowledge into a historical novel and the process of turning a novel into a film?
ED: Well, certainly for writing Room the novel, historical fiction was the best preparation, because in historical fiction, it’s a bit like science fiction this way, it’s a strange world. It’s a world that is strange to modern readers, but you have to present it in a very blasé way. You can’t be going, “Oh! Tudor London smelled of armpit!” You know? You’ve got to have a main character who thinks it smells the way London has always smelled. And if you want it to seem strange, then you have to bring in a character who’s from the countryside, who’s never smelt London before, and you have to mention it through them.
That kind of nonchalant presentation of a world that you have researched in all its tiny details is exactly what I was doing with Room. Even though it was technically a contemporary novel set in our world, I think I was bringing to it that perspective of writing historical fiction. And having fun with the gaps between the reader’s expectation of things and the reality.
In historical fiction, one minute your characters seem just like the present-day reader, and then the next they express some attitude towards something like slavery and the reader thinks, “Oh, you are so not me!” And the same with Jack, sometimes he’s sounding like a totally everyday boy and the next minute he’s breast-feeding and half the readers are panicking.
SM: Did you fall in love with screenwriting through this process? Do you think this is going to become a big part of your repertoire?
ED: Yeah, I think it’ll be an important sideline for me. I mean, fiction is my main squeeze. I don’t see myself moving away from fiction. Also fiction allows a writer to be absolute queen of her domain. And you get to pick every word. There’s nothing like that power.
On the other hand, writing fiction, you’re home alone with it. Of course I’ve got my characters to talk to, but it’s still not quite as fun as people that you can go out for lunch with. So, the social aspects of making films are more exciting.
In my experience, theater is so brief a flower. You have three exciting weeks and then it’s over. Whereas the film has been a very satisfying interaction over a couple of years. Working closely with Lenny, our director, has been the most satisfying working relationship of my life.
SM: You are now adapting Room as a play.
ED: Yes, for a British theater, and I’m going to be working with a very, very brilliant Scottish director, Cora Bissett. Because the film is a very naturalistic take on the story, the theater version can afford to go in a very different direction and embrace its theatricality. It’s not trying to construct a totally realistic Room set. It’s bringing back the elements of the book that I see as very theatrical; the sense of improvising fun and improvising drama between these two people who are really alone in the dark.
SM: Two final questions. First, are there any questions you hoped I’d ask you that I haven’t?
ED: Oh, believe me, every question you’ve asked is so much more fresh and intelligent than most of the guff I’ve had to deal with in the media.
SM: Can I include that in the published version?
ED: Yes. The average question that I’m doing in an interview these days is, “So how’d you pick your dress for the Golden Globes?” Your questions are wonderful.
SM: Well, here’s my final, fluffy question, which is, “Who would you want to play you and your partner, Chris, in a biopic about your life?”
ED: [laughs] I would not authorize any such biopic.
SM: In the unauthorized biopic of your life, who do you want playing you?
ED: The happiness we’ve had over the past two decades is totally anti-narrative. There’s no narrative arc to it, there’s nothing to say.