Lenny Abrahamson on The Little Stranger
Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room, Frank) discusses the creative processes behind The Little Stranger, his Film4-backed adaptation of Sarah Waters' acclaimed Gothic novel.
We last spoke three years ago when Room had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. A lot has happened since then - not least of which, Brie Larson winning the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in that film. Let’s bridge the gap between that and The Little Stranger. I suppose one question is, does awards buzz count for anything when mounting the next feature?
It does, it definitely does, in terms of the capacity to raise finance. Actually, The Little Stranger was something that I’d been working on for quite a while before Room, even before Frank. But people’s interest in what you do is raised by awards, and by having a successful film. I think it’s important as a filmmaker to not get too caught up in that, and certainly not make decisions about what you do based on wanting to sustain that buzz, because I think that leads to bad choices.
But it has been great, and it helps. Just the simple thing of not having to introduce yourself in those conversations with studios or investors, just to have that calling card, it cuts out a lot of the self-selling that otherwise you would have to do, and it’s nice not to have to do that. The way things are financed outside of the studio system, it’s that combo of actors and directors, so if you’ve had a film which was successful, particularly if it got awards, it also means that they know that actors will be interested in working with you. So if somebody’s got a project out there in the world, their lists of possible directors will be people who bring that with them.
There’s such a diversity of tone, style and setting in your films, especially between Frank, Room and The Little Stranger. When you’re developing a project, is that what you look for, the challenge of the new?
I do like that challenge. And what is interesting is, quite often, the same ideas and shapes and patterns of storytelling find their way into these films, which on the surface may seem very different. But the idea of getting to the same thematic territory, but through very different routes, is exciting to me. And playing with the genre elements of something like The Little Stranger was something which I was titillated by. Because I’ve never done it - I’ve never worked with that palette before.
The Little Stranger is also your first film that is entirely set in Britain. It's also set in a very specific period, and grapples with the shifting social fabric of class and gender roles in the years after the war. How did you approach that new territory?
It feels like an Irish film, too, because of myself and Domhnall [Gleeson], and [producer] Ed Guiney was involved along with Gail Egan and Andrea Calderwood over here. But it is an entirely British story, filmed completely here, and I really enjoyed that experience. I’ve been connected to London for a long time, and have had a relationship with Film4 for a long time. And Irish people - particularly on the east coast, where I’m from, with British TV - feel very familiar with this culture.
For me, coming from outside of Britain, but being familiar with it, feels to me like a good balance. It gives you a perspective that is slightly different. I went to university in Ireland, to Trinity, where quite a lot of Anglo-Irish people, people with deep connections to Britain who would have been educated in public school in Britain, went. So I met those people and became friendly with many, and I was really fascinated by that world, as somebody who had grown up in a middle class family in Dublin, in a society that doesn’t really have that same class stratification. So the Faraday experience of being fascinated by it, wanting to be accepted by those people but also resenting the fact that they were the gatekeepers to this world - that nexus of desire and resistance - is where The Little Stranger lives.
You mention the new 'palette' you're working with here - and it's one with many colours and textures. The Little Stranger has elements of the gothic and of social drama, and there's a twisted romance at the heart of it, too. It's also a ghost story. How did you keep all of those competing, conflicting, complementary aspects working together while making the film?
For the director, there’s a kind of double consciousness, and that applies to any film. In the making of the scene, the job, for me, is to be the human being in the room. Everybody else has a job: the DoP is concentrating on whether the exposure’s right, and the make-up person is looking to see if they have to come in and fix something. The director has this lovely freedom to just watch what’s happening and think ‘do I believe it? Is it ringing true?’ and to respond to it. At the same time, you’re thinking, globally, about the whole project, and how this fits into the mechanics of the story and the flow of narrative.
In this, I did not ever want to make a purely genre film where it really is just the mechanics, where everything is functional. In other words, where everything is there to get you to the next jump scare, or to set up the big reveal. It has to work as something real, rich or human. Otherwise those elements of the chilling and the unsettling don’t do anything other than tickle you for a while. I think the film plays with genre, but it never settles into it. In that sense it resembles more the classical tradition of literary ghost stories, than the modern movie horror genre, and that’s where I’ve located it, at least tonally.
The ultimate aim is to make something which, in itself, has life. And to do that, the director plays all sorts of parts - working on the script, developing relationships between actors, bringing out the best from an actor, and thinking technically, as well. But the hope is that all that business, eventually, amounts to some little spark of life. So I think I’m trying to create a living and breathing thing, and all of those skills - and I love working with actors, I love working on screenplays with writers, I love all those parts - but the point of it is a communication between that piece of work and an audience, which is meaningful and real and alive.
The Little Stranger is released in UK cinemas on 21st September 2018