Lenny Abrahamson interview: 'When you say something is a horror, people are expecting something very particular'

The director on why his latest, Gothic chiller 'The Little Stranger', is deliberately difficult to label

Clarisse Loughrey
Saturday 22 September 2018 09:41 BST
Director Lenny Abrahamson
Director Lenny Abrahamson (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Lenny Abrahamson isn’t one to play by the expected set of rules. His last film, 2015’s Room, catapulted the Dublin-born filmmaker from the intimate indies of his early career to Hollywood’s awards circuit, after it landed an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Brie Larson, the film’s star, won Best Actress on the night, thanks to her role as a woman held captive in a small shed, the only window a skylight, for seven years.

Many would expect a filmmaker such as Abrahamson to move on from his indie roots – such as his debut Adam & Paul (2004), following a day in the life of two drug addicts in Dublin, or Frank (2014), which starred Michael Fassbender as a musician who insists on wearing a papier-mache, Frank Sidebottom-style head at all times – to much flashier fare. A biopic, perhaps. The kind that stars Meryl Streep.

However, Abrahamson decided instead to tackle an extremely tricky cinematic genre, adapting Sarah Waters’ 2009 gothic novel The Little Stranger. The film sees Domhnall Gleeson’s Dr Faraday return to Hundreds Hall, the place he has vivid memories of from his youth, only to discover the now-dilapidated house may be hosting a supernatural presence.

The Independent sat down with Abrahamson to discuss what drove him to make The Little Stranger, whether the film befits the title of horror, and how his degree in philosophy taught him to seek the unconventional.

I feel like there’s an element of hyper-scrutiny whenever a filmmaker goes on to their next project after a big awards movie. Why did The Little Stranger feel like the right step?

I had been thinking about The Little Stranger for a long time before I started thinking about Room. In fact, it predates Frank as well. So, I’d been working on it with Lucinda Coxon, the screenwriter, on and off through two other films. And it was getting close to being ready. Before I did Room, I said: “Right, the next film I’m going to do after that is The Little Stranger.”

And then dial the clock forward and Room sort of caught this wave and we were on this crazy journey with it. You get everybody telling you that you can do whatever you like. And I think it would be very easy to become destabilised by that. I think, for a period of time, I was a little bit shell-shocked.

So it really helped me to just go, no, the thing I’m going to do is the thing that I was planning to do before this. The thing that I still feel really passionately about. And that’s The Little Stranger.

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Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in ‘Room’ (2015)
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in ‘Room’ (2015) (A24)

Did you have a lot of people around you who were thinking strategically?

I think some people would have said: “Are you sure? Are you sure this is the one? It’s an unusual project, it’s a difficult project.” Some people thought it was an odd choice. But, I have really good people that I work with, and so everybody really close to me was very supportive of it.

That element of surprise is one of my favourite aspects of your work. You’re always subverting expectations. Adam & Paul was bleaker than you’d assume, Frank was sadder, Room was more hopeful. Is that something you actively seek?

And this looks like a genre film, but it isn’t. I think, really, it’s a struggle against the habitual ways of watching things that people fall into. All of us have seen so many films and other pieces of narrative art. So patterns get worn into our ways of seeing. We know what to expect.

And actually, that’s encouraged, in a way, by some of the journalism and more popular journalism around film, which is: “This one’s a chiller.” “What are the top 10 horrors coming out?” Everything is a menu of types of films. And there’s always an obligation, I think, if you want to really move people or give them an encounter with something which feels real, you have to keep breaking those habits.

It’s interesting that you brought up horror. Because I think, for me, The Little Stranger is horror. I associate it with classic Gothic literature, with Edith Wharton, Henry James… would you call it horror?

I wouldn’t. And I might just be underselling the genre. But I think of horror as slightly more formulaic. It carries a slightly more formulaic implication when you say that. And this film is not just preying on your fear of the external, which is mostly what horror is. The people who go into the forest in The Blair Witch Project – had they not gone into the forest, everything would have been OK. I think what The Little Stranger is doing is talking about what Faraday already carries in him as a human being.

And finding a way of dramatising that using the ghost story tropes to do it. I think, when I say it’s not a horror, it’s because, when you say something is a horror in the cinema now, people are expecting something very particular. But if what you’re talking about is Henry James, or some of Poe, or Edith Wharton, that’s a label I would accept. The Gothic is such a subtle series of codes, compared to the contemporary kind of mainstream idea of horror.

Domhnall Gleeson in ‘The Little Stranger’
Domhnall Gleeson in ‘The Little Stranger’ (Nicola Dove)

You have such a reflective way of talking about your films. I read that you studied philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. Has that background influenced how you make films?

I work pretty instinctually. Even though I’m good at talking and I can analyse things, when it really comes down to it, it’s quite instinctual. And it’s hard to trace those lines. It might be that the thing that made me interested in philosophy is the same thing that makes me interested in film. I think, probably, doing philosophy, properly and seriously, for a period of time, deepened my ability to think outside of the conventional picture.

That’s what you do in philosophy. You take something that’s really given, like perception or meaning, and you try to break it open. And maybe something of that occurs in good filmmaking. Where there’s a sort of conventional way of thinking about an interaction between people or a set of relationships and what you’re trying to do is find a way that opens it up and makes it unfamiliar and, in other words, wakes up the audience to what’s really happening.

What drove you to make that transition from philosophy to wanting to become a filmmaker?

I had started to mess around with making things when I was an undergrad in philosophy and I made a short film and I then I went off to do postgrad in the States. And while I was there, that film won some prizes and, I thought, god, it was just exciting. But I was so far away.

And while that was happening, I was realising that the life I would lead if I did philosophy would be quite a rarefied one, in the sense that, the people who would read what you wrote would be a small group of academics interested in your particular field. And I couldn’t imagine that life. Film, on the other hand, was this odd, very uncertain, but really open-ended, fascinating journey that could take me anywhere.

The Little Stranger - Trailer

Did you ever expect that you’d get to here?

No! But I still feel like I’ve only kind of – and I don’t mean this in terms of, oh, there’s going to be vast amounts more success or anything, or huge films – I just mean, I don’t think I’ve really done yet what I’d like to do in films. I have odder, more challenging ideas which I think are harder to place commercially, but which I really owe it to myself to try and make.

Is that why you’ve jumped around so much, in terms of genre, like you’re almost trying to find the perfect outlet?

Oddly enough, I think I’m kind of circling the style that’s most native to me. Which is a really simple, very naturalistic style. But I am fascinated with the medium as well. I’m too much of a tart, really, to not dive into that one and that one and that one. But, it’s always the same, really. There are different ways in to similar themes and ideas and there’s a similar attitude to people, or an attempt to create a humane resonance in the audience, that goes through them all.

The Little Stranger is out in UK cinemas now

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