Lenny Abrahamson on Room success, his next big project and Belfast Film Festival appearance
Oscar-nominated Irish director Lenny Abrahamson will be at Belfast's QFT tonight for a special Belfast Film Festival screening and ‘in conversation' event. The Dublin-born film-maker spoke to David Roy about his career, life after Room and how he's gearing up to becoming a fully-fledged writer/director
LENNY Abrahamson first came to wider public attention with his best director Oscar nomination for 2015's superb 'abduction and its aftermath' drama Room, but by that point the Dublin-born film-maker was already well established as a rising talent thanks to his first four features, Adam & Paul (2004), Garage (2007), What Richard Did (2012) and Frank (2014).
While 'Oscar buzz' can actually end up derailing some directors – Michael Cimino's disastrous career trajectory from the Oscar-winning high of The Deer Hunter to the phone-silencing low of mega-bomb Heaven's Gate being one of Hollywood's most infamous cautionary tales – according to Abrahamson (52), getting a nod from The Academy has only been beneficial to his post-Room career.
"It has been very positive, actually," the director tells me during a break from pre-production on his upcoming adaptation of Co Mayo writer Sally Rooney's best-seller Normal People for the BBC.
"It's made it easier to get other films moving; it's made it much easier to talk to whatever actors seem most appropriate for a role and you don't have to kind of 'announce' yourself or explain what you've done. It takes away a lot of friction from the process and that's really helpful.
"I think [Oscar buzz] is what you make of it: you can try and sort of leverage it into the biggest possible next film or you can just get on with what it is you're about and enjoy the fact that that increased profile really helps – and that's sort of what I've done."
Indeed, Abrahamson's post-Room CV has a pointedly 'steady as she goes' feel to it, consisting of last year's atmospheric supernatural drama The Little Stranger, starring Dohmnall Gleeson (who also featured in Frank) and two episodes of Hugh Laurie's short-lived TV crime series, Chance.
In addition to Normal People, which is currently at the casting stage, the director's other current projects include a pair of reality-based films; A Man's World, about the late US boxer Emile Griffith's rivalry with Cuban pugilist Benny Paret, and a First World War prison-break picture called The Grand Escape, adapted from Neal Bascomb's non-fiction book The Escape Artists.
"I get sent a lot of things, but I've never jumped on anything" comments Abrahamson of the 'bigger' projects that have come his way in the wake of Room, which also saw star Brie Larson winning Academy and Bafta awards for best actress.
"It's nice to read scripts and be considered for stuff. But I think the danger is either thinking you've got to get as 'big' as you possibly can as quick as you can, or trying to make sure that every film you do is another that gets you into the 'Oscar conversation'. That's a real dark vortex into which it's very easy to fall.
"It's always hard to operate in a way that's close to your core impulses anyway – that's why we all spend so much time wondering what to do with our lives and going to therapy."
He adds: "But I'm not 20: I've done a few things already and I sort of know what I like. I think my method [of choosing projects] is to be slightly tempted and to kind of flirt with something for a while, knowing that, if I wait long enough, my normal process will kind of kick in and my cynicism and self-awareness will gradually assert itself until I finally say, 'D'you know what? This really isn't me'."
And, while the Dubliner laughs at the notion of tackling big budget studio blockbuster fare such as a superhero film or Star Wars picture, he's not ruling it out entirely either:
"Life is also short and you have to think carefully before you turn away from opportunities," he tells me. "Maybe someday I will go 'What the hell – I'd love to do a film like that'. The only thing is, I've seen people go there and they think that they can drag the studio with them: occasionally it works, but more often than not, it doesn't.
"The example I always have in my head, which is not from our 'world' at all, is when Germaine Greer went on Celebrity Big Brother: I just know that she thought that she was 'bigger' than it, and wasn't going to fall into the trap of all the petty silliness that goes on – and of course, it was totally bigger than her. So you've got to be pretty careful."
Now firmly established as a skilled adaptor of literature – Room, The Little Stranger and What Richard Did were all based on books, to a greater or lesser extent – while Abrahamson has yet to get an actual writing credit on one of his features, he tells me he's written on on "almost everything I've done".
At the moment, he's currently co-writing on his interpretation of A Man's World –"We just did a major rewrite and really shifted things around and I've really enjoyed it," he enthuses – a process which seems geared towards helping him to finally grasp the nettle of becoming a fully declared writer/director on something which could well turn out to be career-defining.
"That [co-write] is like me sidling up to the solo writing chair by slightly less terrifying means," admits Abrahamson. "It's like diving boards: you start on the low ones and work your way up to the high ones. I have a very substantial project in mind which is three films about one thing, and I will write them all.
"I've been tormenting myself [about writing something] for years and beating myself up, so I really look forward to being a position where I've got a bit of time and space to finally start working on it."
In the meantime, today finds the soon-to-be writer/director returning to the Belfast Film Festival for 'in conversation' event at QFT preceded by a personally selected screening of a Polish feature called The Last Family from first-time film-maker Jan P Matuszynski.
"My wife [Monika Pamula] is Polish and we go over a lot," Abrahamson tells me of how he discovered the film he will be introducing in Belfast this afternoon.
"I was on the jury at a film festival in the north of Poland and we gave this film the main prize. It's just amazing. It's a really brilliant piece of film-making. I found it really inspirational."
He adds: "I really do enjoy Belfast, but I haven't been up for a while. In that respect, I really am a typical middle-class Dublin person who looks west and south but rarely looks north. So I'm really looking forward to coming back up."
:: Lenny Abrahamson is 'in conversation' tonight at QFT Belfast, 7pm. Tickets via Belfastfilmfestival.org