23 October 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
Lenny Abrahamson Talks with IFTN
19 Sep 2018 : Nathan Griffin
Ahead of the release of his new film ‘The Little Stranger’, IFTN caught up with the Oscar nominated director to find out all about the journey bringing the film to screen, his relationship with genre film and why he always does his post-production in Ireland.

One of Ireland’s leading film directors, Lenny Abrahamson made his first feature film, ‘Adam & Paul’ in 2004, which won Abrahamson an IFTA Award for Best Director. This was followed by the critically acclaimed ‘Garage’ (2007), which won four IFTA Awards including Best Film, Script and Abrahamson’s second for Best Director award. He then directed a four-part drama series ‘Prosperity’ for RTÉ, which saw him continue his collaboration with O’ Halloran for the third time having written the scripts for the directors first two feature films.

In 2012, Abrahamson released his third film ‘What Richard Did’, which received a five-star review from The New York Times and picked up five IFTA Awards including Best Film, Script, Lead Actor and another for Abrahamson. This was followed by ‘Frank’, which was described as a “whimsical delight” by The New York Post and saw the director receive another IFTA for directing. Abrahamson received worldwide acclaim for his Academy Award winning film ‘Room’, which starred Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. The international hit was adapted from Emma Donohue’s novel of the same name and received four Oscar nominations – including Abrahamson’s first for Best Director.

‘The Little Stranger’, which is based on Sarah Waters’ best-selling novel and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (‘The Danish Girl’) opening in cinemas this Friday, September 21st. The film stars Domhnall Gleeson (‘Brooklyn’) as Dr Faraday; Ruth Wilson (‘The Affair’) as Caroline Ayres; Will Poulter (‘The Revenant’) as Roderick Ayres; and Charlotte Rampling (‘45 Years’) as Mrs Ayres. The film is produced by Element’s Ed Guiney and Exec produced by Andrew Lowe. 

The film tells the story of Dr Faraday, the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked.  The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries.  But it is now in decline and its inhabitants - mother, son and daughter - are haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life.  When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with the Oscar nominated director below.

IFTN: You turned down a number of offers in the US following your Oscar nomination for ‘Room’, and instead focussed on this project, which you had wanted to make for a number of years. What was the contributing factor to finally getting the project off the ground and into production?

Lenny: “It was getting into good shape actually before I shot ‘Room’. There was still a little bit of work to be done on The Little Stranger because it was a very tricky adaptation. They said the craftsman did amazing work on it and it was a process of gradually refining it to the point where we felt it was really working as a film .That was happening around the time Room was cranking up to shoot but then I had to jump ship and finish Room. I also did a job in the states as well, a television thing, while Lucinda was continuing to work. I think probably on the one hand it was just the timing was right because the project was right, but the other factor was that the success of Room certainly didn’t hurt. It certainly didn't do any harm in raising the money and helping us to raise the money to make Little Stranger at a level that we were all comfortable with, that we can do it justice.

IFTN: In what way was the adaptation tricky?

Lenny: “The hardest thing was just navigating through this very complex novel in a way that leads to a satisfying film, but doesn't lose the complexity of what's underneath in the novel. Then, when the picture of Faraday settled, when Domhnall became Faraday in everybody's mind, it did take some work to just reconfigure the script a little bit because the Faraday of the novel is older. The gap in age between Faraday and Caroline is bigger. We just wanted to make sure that it worked because when you make any sort of fundamental change like that, it takes a while to be absolutely sure that the thing is still right and that there aren’t any leftovers from the previous version.”

IFTN:The Little Stranger’ marks your first venture into period drama with the film being set against the post-war, classist society of the English countryside. As an Irish director, how did you find the experience of delving into that part of British history?

Lenny: “I find that aspect of Britain fascinating. I've always found it fascinating, the class system as it operated - from a point when it operated in an unquestioning environment to now where it's still there but in a very different and fragmented version. Also, growing up on the east coast of Ireland, we had British TV. We were just very familiar with British culture, much more than American culture. Now, there is an awful lot more from America. Then it was less and Britain was the big centre of gravity, culturally. I felt like it's not an alien place and I suppose Britain in the late '40s is another country to everybody because it's a long time ago. I suppose I was just like anybody trying to delve into it and be part of an era that's radically different in so many ways.”

“I remember also being a student in Trinity College in the '80s and meeting Anglo-Irish people for the first time. The remnants of the Irish landed gentry and becoming just fascinated by the world they inhabited. So, all of those things I think meant that there was both interest and enough familiarity in me, and the rest is just what anybody would have to do, which is to delve in and research and try and imagine.”

IFTN: Characters such as Rod, played by Will Poulter who is excellent in the film, really showcases a forgotten side of post-war Britain. The complexities and depths of his character as a representative of those who came back damaged from the war, especially someone who came from such a privileged background.

Lenny: “And someone who puts such great expectations on himself, has very high standards for himself in terms of inhabiting the position of head of the household and yet he's totally desperately damaged. Yes, he's amazing.”

IFTN: This brings me onto the cast itself who put in an excellent ensemble performance. Could you tell me a little bit about the casting process?

Lenny: “Well often and nearly always, one part that needs to be cast before everybody else because it’s that part that everybody else is referenced against; that was Faraday. It was originally another part that I was thinking about Domhnall for, but then he put his hand up and said, "I think I could play Faraday." That was the beginning of a really interesting conversation, which led eventually to that being the decision. Around that then, Ruth was just somebody that I've loved as an actor for a long time. I've seen her in lots of things, both on television and in film, and had met her before. She just has a very particular way about her.”

“Caroline is such a specific character and needs an actor who can be idiosyncratic and Ruth can. She's got this completely fearless approach to acting. She will go wherever she thinks the most interesting version of a character is. She's just very instinctual, very clever. We were absolutely delighted that she was interested. “

“Will Poulter I knew him from his work, but also he's a friend of Jack Reynor so I met him before, because I am close to Jack. He always impressed me just as a person. Will has himself and if you follow him on twitter, if you're aware at all of what he says and what he does, he has a great belief in behaving well and doing the right thing, in being decent, in being kind, in being respectful. That impulse to hold himself to high standard really overlaps with Rod; Even though Rod's version of what proper behaviour is, is very problematic because he's quite arrogant and feels quite superior to people. Whereas Will is completely different. The same impulse to judge yourself harshly is there in both characters. That was just interesting. Will also has great maturity in him and yet at the same time, he's still so young. That was something, which added this tremendous pathos to Rod's character, recognizing that he's just next door to being a kid.”

“Then, Liv, who I auditioned and is such a great talent. She's going to do amazingly well. She's got real understanding of comedy; just instinctive understanding and great emotional range.”

“Charlotte is an icon. To have somebody who carries that weight from all the films she's made and from her own place culturally, it just adds tremendous power to Mrs. Ayres and allow the audience to feel the intimidation that Faraday feels. That was a total pleasure. Charlotte's wonderful to work with; very collaborative and very warm, actually. That was a great addition to the troupe. It was a very happy cast. It was a very cohesive cast. People enjoyed each other's company and that always seems to come across on screen.”

IFTN: Then of course, you had some Irish regulars that are never too far away from you such as Ed Guiney, Stephen Rennicks, Nathan Nugent and Steve Fanagan. It must be great having such a great core group around you whenever you're starting into a new project.

Lenny: “It's brilliant. It's the absolute best thing. I'm incredibly lucky. Ed, we've been partners for so long in these films. For Stephen, I think, it's his best work, this film, it’s score is really beautiful, really subtle. Then Nathan, who is such a key creative collaborator because we always take everything apart and put it back together again in the edit. Nothing remains unquestioned: Nothing about the script, nothing about the way I shoot, even remains unquestioned. Nathan's always pushing at the rushes to get to the very limits of what they can do. For me, knowing that, particularly, in post-production, I've got this gang of people who all know how everybody else works.”

“I've total faith in them. Steve Fanagan’s job in this is immense because along with Niall Brady the post-sound in this film is a huge part of what gives the atmosphere to the film that it has. Just knowing that you've got all of those people there, it's such a great situation for me to be in. I always do the post in Ireland, which means that  even if the film isn't here, at least half of my time on every film has got to be spent here working with those people. There's another person, Gary Curran, who is the Telecine grader, who has graded everything that I've done and is absolutely world class. Himself and Eugene McCrystal have a company called Outer Limits. So they did all the on-lining as well. The film is completely finished here and that's great.”

IFTN: I’m curious to know if growing up, was there any particular genre filmmaker that you admired?

Lenny: “My awakening into watching films properly was in my late teens and then I was all about the European masters and then some Americans as well. When I think back now, some of the films that I saw around then and also earlier, they did have an effect on me. I don't think there's anything really of this in The Little Stranger but I found The Shining really amazing when I was younger. That definitely stayed with me.”

“That was probably the first time I've seen a horror film which wasn't cheap in its effect or its message. You know what I mean? It was a series and beautiful piece of work at the same time. I remember seeing The Exorcist and The Omen and stuff like that and being really freaked out by it. I don't know if there's a particular filmmaker that I latched on to. I can say I know people who are massive film lovers who have an encyclopaedic knowledge of genre filmmaking.”

“They really do see the refined differences between different directors' approaches and stuff. I don't really have that relationship to it. So I made this film  in a way that I was an outsider to those elements but that helped me because by not knowing what you're supposed to do, you can sometimes find unusual ways of using those throw-ups and ideas.”

‘The Little Stranger’ opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday, September 21st, 2018.

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