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Writers-In-Contention: Room’s Emma Donoghue on Her Screenwriting Debut

To kickstart the Hollywood awards season, we will be speaking with writers from some of the most acclaimed films of the year every week to discuss their writing process. Welcome to Writers-in-Contention!

Today’s Golden Globe nominations included Emma Donoghue among contenders for best screenplay. A novelist and playwright, Donoghue made her screenwriting debut with Room, based on her 2010 award-winning novel. Currently considered one of the top contenders during the award season, Room is the story of Jack, a 5-year-old who has lived his entire life in one room and only knows his Ma, until the day they escape their captor. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star as Ma and Jack, alongside Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers, Amanda Brugel, and Tom McCamus, in a movie directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson.

I spoke with Donoghue about adapting her own book, importance of finding the perfect Jack, and value of collaboration.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): When adapting your own book and writing the screenplay, had the book already been optioned for a film?

Emma Donoghue: Not at all. While waiting for the book to be published I had a feeling that it would make a good film. And I know that the film industry tends to suggest someone more experienced than me to adapt books. So I thought I would just go ahead and give it a try. That might seem a bit naïve, but I thought it couldn’t do any harm if I could show them what I had written. It felt easier to write the screenplay before anyone gave me any advice or there was any publicity.

TMS: When you came up with the initial story, did you ever consider writing it as a film rather than as a book?

Donoghue: No, never. I’m a novelist first and foremost, and I thought the novel was the right format for this story initially, because I wanted to truly be in the head of a five year old boy. And in order to know what someone is thinking every minute, there is nothing better than a novel. But after doing that I thought it would be an enjoyable challenge to tell the story dramatically and visually in a film by really seeing him going through his everyday life. You get fewer thoughts but you get more of his body, and five year olds say so much with their bodies. So I think it gains as much as it loses as a film.

TMS: What kind of pitch did Lenny Abramson give when he approached you about wanting to make the film?

Donoghue: What is funny is that he wrote me a 10 page letter, explaining everything he liked about the book and detailing everything he thought about it. He understood that the kidnapping story is just a pretext for a more universal mother-child bond. And he gave a lot of detail about how he would film the movie if he were to be the director. And he says he was trying to compete with all these other directors who must have been sending me detailed pitches, but no one else was sending me detailed pitches. I had plenty of overtures, but it is unusual for someone to be that upfront and generous with their ideas. People don’t usually want to give that much away. So from receiving that letter and watching his other films, I had no doubt that he would be the right person to make Room. His previous films have such warmth and burning liberal heart, but they are always artistic and subtle, never exploitative or propaganda.

TMS: The kidnapping and what happens to Ma had to be secondary, because this is Jack’s story. Were you concerned about how that would change in the film simply because you are showing more of her life in Room with Old Nick?

Donoghue: Even in writing about rape overheard by a child there was a risk of salaciousness, so on screen that is an even greater risk. So I knew I had to find a director that wouldn’t want to push towards the sleazy side of things. I knew that any move towards making Room more of crime genre would be wrong and a waste of the material, because we already have so many movies about psychopaths and rapists. That is a well-mined subject. And Lenny had no interest in exploring the fascinating pathology of a person like Old Nick, our focus was always on the victims. And we wanted to tell the story on Jack’s terms, and for him, this is the story of a childhood, not a crime.

TMS: When thinking about what to include and exclude from the book, did you set rules to make sure you were adapting the book, rather than translating from one medium to another?

Donoghue: My initial rule, although it wasn’t a permanent rule, was no voice over. Because when adapting a novel, especially when adapting a novel written in first person, the tendency is to use huge pieces of undigested first person narration. And I thought that would be really lazy. And my first few drafts had no narration, because I wanted to really show Jack’s life, first in Room and then in the real world. But we ended up using some voice over, but Lenny used it very cleverly to work against the emotion in the scene, rather than to milk it. And we never used it simply to convey information. So that was one of the rules, the other was to limit the number of new people introduced in the second part. It would have been startling enough to have new people introduced, but you don’t want too many. So the first thing I did was axe a lot of secondary characters. For example, Ma in the book has a brother with his own wife and child. And we cut them. So I tried to simplify the second part, to make it less episodic story. I really had to find the dramatic core, and ended up concentrating on Ma’s relationship with her own family.

TMS: Did you feel it would be easier to adapt the screenplay yourself because you had the freedom to cut and change things, rather than have a writer who has to interpret your work and concern themselves with being respectful of the book?

Donoghue: No, whoever is adapting the material has to have a deep appreciation of the material and ruthless ability to throw it away. If the novelist does it herself, she has to be willing to throw some of her work away. I felt I was being protective of the novel by keeping in mind what I thought the core values were, without being protective of the details. I didn’t cling to any one line or scene or image, because it was about telling the whole story again, this time through cinema. There are many good examples of people who aren’t the novelists adapting a novel. It’s interesting that Nick Hornby adapts other people’s novels so beautifully, but not his own. So it by no means has to be the novelist, but there also shouldn’t be this prejudice against the novelist doing it.

TMS: Were there elements that you felt worked better on screen than they did in the book? I know for me as a viewer, having those scenes when Jack is saying something, and we can see Ma’s reacting to something else, those are such powerful moments in the film that aren’t in the book because he can’t translate her thoughts.

Donoghue: There is a technical limit to the book, because I was so totally committed to being in the child’s perspective, so you can’t show Ma’s perspective. And some people found her to be too opaque a figure and are then shocked when she behaves differently in the second part of the book. They write to me as if she’s their mother and she betrayed them, because they didn’t pick up on the little hints I tried to submit through Jack in the first part. So I knew while working on the screenplay that this would be more of a two hander, because we could see Ma directly. And so many readers felt so passionately about her, I thought it would be great to allow her to step into the spotlight a bit more.

TMS: It’s interesting that you say you had to cut down some of the characters, because while some characters were cut completely, you had the opportunity to see characters interacting on a much deeper level, often doing something unsaid that Jack isn’t noticing but we are. And that requires the acting to be perfect, because so much of that additional information is unspoken. Did you have the opportunity to talk with Lenny about the actors that would play these roles?

Donoghue: I had a chance to be in on the discussion regarding every role. I don’t know if I had any real power, but I was an enjoyable part of the process. And I knew that because this film was relatively well funded, $12 million for a film which isn’t exactly elaborate or action packed. So I knew that we would be able to get pretty good people, especially after we started getting buzz. But the great unknown was whether we could possibly find a child that looks five and could carry such a weighty role. There is a huge amount of dialogue and voice over and he’s in every scene, and he has to go through such an astonishingly big change. And we couldn’t cast the role too early because they outgrow the role. So we had to wait until a few months before, and I was panicking while Lenny was saying “don’t worry, there are special child casting directors.” He now tells me he was lying awake in a cold sweat until we found Jacob. And we looked at 100s of casting tapes, but when we found Jacob we were so relieved. And he was such an uplifting part of the film production. Because he was so young the hours of the shoot had to be kept reasonable, so the shoot was relatively slow. It lasted 49 days. And we got to film almost in sequence, because that made more sense for Jacob. But through his sheer energy and enjoyment of the process, he was so much fun to work with and set such a nice tone. No one had any tantrums on the set.

TMS: Why did you decide to focus on a bond between mother and son, rather than mother and daughter or father and child?

Donoghue: I thought of all those possibilities. And I seriously considered father and child, but you can’t make a man give birth. So I wanted it to be about a wonderful relationship which grew out of something which just happened against their will, so it had to be a woman. Then I thought about mother and daughter, but I didn’t want it to be seen as an allegory of “women and girls brutalized by men.” So I thought it balanced the story better if it were a mother and son. Then the maleness of Jack, which is so joyful and vital, is balanced with the bad masculinity of the capture. But I think Lenny managed to make it in such a way that people are seeing it as a universal story. Fathers are saying they are as touched by Ma’s story, and young people see themselves in Jack. He’s managed to make a universal story.

TMS: And you have the mother-daughter relationship with Joan Allen and Brie Larson’s characters.

Donoghue: And that really came forward in the film, because we have fewer characters in second part, so the nuclear family comes forward. And Joan Allen’s character has probably changed the most from the book to the film. In the book she is quite a flawed, vulgar character that keeps messing up. And Joan brought out this noble, strong side of the character.

TMS: When I saw Brie Larson speak about the film she mentioned that the line which really resonated for her was when she told her mother, “Maybe if you weren’t in my head, telling me to be nice, I wouldn’t have helped the guy with the dog.” And that was the line that connected with her because there is this contradiction for girls and women to be nice and well-behaved, but that isn’t the best advice for parents to give. Were you surprised that she had such a personal connection to that piece of dialogue?

Donoghue: Not at all. I’m pretty certain that line came from a rehearsal with Brie and Joan. And that was just an example of how many lines and ideas don’t originate from the source material or screenwriter. The script is a collage of all the work we did, and the actors improvised quite a lot, especially because we were working with such a young child. So we got a lot of lines and ideas from the actors which made it into the final script and film. But I’m not at all surprised that that line meant a lot to her. I think you are absolutely right that we tend to give these very mixed messages to girls, especially the academics of date rape. You don’t blame girls, but you do ask yourself “why didn’t you say no.” But that ability to say no, to say stop, to refuse, is essential. I think this is a deeply feminist film and I think Brie has really captured that rage of a young woman who has suffered but isn’t defined by her suffering. And I liked the fact that because we start 7 years in, she isn’t this innocent who has fallen and been dirtied. She is damaged from the start of the film, so what we can focus on is her strength.

TMS: In a lot of films about women recovering from a trauma, there is some kind of romance, which isn’t in this film and we actually know nothing about Ma’s romantic or sexual life before or after her capture. Did you consider that part of her life?

Donoghue: In the book we know that she’s had a previous abortion, so she wasn’t some kind of deflowered virgin in the story. But we don’t know anything about her future romantic life because that would be too soon. And what I’m really trying to do, in the book and film, is suggest that mother love can be this vast, all consuming force. There are so many film which ask if romantic love is enough to build your life on, and I wanted to ask the same thing about motherly love. She has been damaged by things, but she has this enormous passion for her son to hold onto. But is that enough?

TMS: One of the things you realize in the second half of the film is that Jack is a living memory of that past and of Old Nick, which we don’t really consider in the first part. Did that change the tone of the second half?

Donoghue: I think it is a key element, but I also don’t think it has much to do with Jack’s genetics. It isn’t a case of people looking at Jack and thinking he’s a bad seed. But it’s all about what happened in Room, his games and dreams about Lucky the dog, remind her of Room. It’s his history, not her genetics which trouble her. I don’t think she cares about his genetics, it’s about his fondness and memories of life in Room. That’s why I find it so moving when he asks her to say goodbye to Room, because the last thing she wants to do is express any fondness for this hellhole. But because Jack asks her to, she manages to mouth the words.

TMS: And there is the great scene when she’s woken by the Dora the Explorer music, which has a completely different meaning for them. For her, it’s a trigger. When looking at the psychological realism, did you look at things beyond abduction and kidnappings?

Donoghue: I did. I looked at pretty much any situations which could give someone PTSD. Soldiers who return and fall apart when they come home. Solitary confinement in American jails. I thought it was important not just to focus on situations of kidnappings but the broader legacy of how people deal with trauma.

TMS: The book has a storybook quality, because Jack understands life through the books he’s read. And the film also has that fairytale quality. Did you write that style into the original screenplay or was that an aspect Lenny wrote about in that initial letter?

Donoghue: The great thing about Lenny was that he was a fan of the book, and I would change something and he was the one telling me to put it back. So we were always trying to find ways to capture and retain the spirit of the book. So when I stepped in to the set of Room, I thought it was so small and so ugly, it would be impossible to make it something Jack treasures. But Lenny was able to film moments which made it look like a fairytale world, in the eyes of a child. And something I loved was sometimes he makes things look very large, and other times he makes things look very small. But I always wanted the story to have an archetypal feeling. The damsel and small heroic child against the ogre man. Which is why we named him Jack, to connect to those classic fairytales. But we wanted there to also be a realism, so no one would think the kidnapping was just a metaphor. You have to believe in that locked door, because why would you allow your emotions to be worked on that way. So the question was, how do we give it that archetypal feeling and make it feel realistic at the same time.

TMS: And it’s interesting because in just a few scenes we sense that creepiness of Old Nick, because he clearly isn’t a monster, he’s an evil person who doesn’t see that he’s evil. Which makes him much scarier, and the believability that he could pass everyday as some average guy is more unsettling.

Donoghue: He thinks he’s an okay guy, bringing the groceries. And there are moments when he’s justifying his behavior. After he’s told Jack’s died, he says “medicine wouldn’t have made any difference.” Constantly rationalizing in his head. And that is what makes the escape convincing. He’s constantly telling himself he’s a good guy, and because he thinks of himself that way, she can manipulate him. She knows he won’t unroll the rug and would bury him for her in a nice place. He isn’t a monster. It’s important for him to feel like a good guy, and that is why he unknowingly goes along with Ma’s plans.

TMS: I was crying my eyes out at parts of this movie but I know some people find any movie that makes audiences cry to be manipulative, and others go to movies wanting that catharsis. Did you want to make a so-called tearjerker?

Donoghue: I wanted it to be cathartic, and I don’t think the film is manipulative. In manipulative movies, you can tell when the film wants you to cry. And Lenny managed to get a lot of humor into the film and people cry at different moments, and the saddest moments catch you off guard. He doesn’t squeeze every moment for tears. He keeps the film’s tone trembling, on the verge of sorrow but without going after every tear.

TMS: The movie received excellent critical acclaim but also a number of audience awards. Did the immediate reactions to the film catch you off guard?

Donoghue: The audiences’ awards were thrilling because it’s great to please critics, but to have entire theaters vote for it on the spot was amazing. But since seeing the film, I’m not surprised by the success its had because I really do think Lenny did an extraordinary job. But our greatest stroke of luck was finding Jacob Tremblay, because without the right Jack the movie would have fallen apart. And the fact that the film has been embraced is a big help, because the film’s premise isn’t an easy sell. I know many people have been scared off by the premise, but the praise it’s received has persuaded some people to go see it.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book, Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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