Lenny Abrahamson wants you to question yourself

Lenny Abrahamson wants you to question yourself
Director Lenny Abrahamson

Director Lenny Abrahamson spoke to us at diff about the parallels between philosophy and filmmaking, his favourite films and his fears when directing the Oscar winning movie, Room.

By Maan Jalal

Published: Sat 17 Dec 2016, 11:48 AM

Last updated: Tue 21 Mar 2017, 12:37 AM

Lenny Abrahamson wants to show you something. Yes, he's a director so obviously it's a film. And often or not it's a film you can't stop watching. What makes movies he's directed such as Adam & Paul (2004), Garage (2007), What Richard Did (2012), Frank (2014) and the Oscar-winning Room (2015) so mesmerizing is Abrahamson's ability to make us look at characters and ideas that we all know and understand in a complete different way.

The Irish director was here for the 13th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival and was open, honest and candid about his experiences making movies. Something that many young screenwriters, actors and directors were very receptive to during his master class.

"I always want to be positive and give people a sense of power to use their imagination and not to obey the rules all the time," he told City Times.

Abrahamson himself didn't really follow the rules he was supposed to. He was offered a scholarship to study for a PhD in Philosophy at Stanford University but decided to drop out after shooting his first short film. Somehow, filmmaking made more sense to him. So he moved back home to Ireland and initially started directing commercials. It got us thinking. Abrahamson's way of revealing the darker sides of characters in his films, which we find unique compared to other directors, has a strong connection to his studies in philosophy.

City Times spoke to him about the parallels on how philosophy and film make us examine our worlds, what he's learnt as a director and the fears he had when directing Room.

The connection between philosophy and filmmaking isn't one we would have automatically made but when Abrahamson explains it, the link is clear.

"Philosophy is all about making the familiar strange. It asks you to question the categories that you unconsciously apply to the world. It asks you to question and see things freshly and ultimately ask better questions. Film does the same."
It's all about looking at the represented moments of life that we all experience and try to understand them in a different way. It's all about how the filmmaker explores an ordinary moment that makes you realize that there is more to the scene then meets the eye.
"If you think about a scene in a real great film its still going to be about people sitting, eating together or in conversation or walking down the street but there's something in the gaze of a filmmaker that allows you to experience that in a vivid way. It takes the ordinary and allows you to experience it in a much richer way. That way of thinking for me has always been common to both and I don't always succeed. Sometimes it just remains two people walking and talking but other times, something else happens and you feel like you've gotten under the skin of it."
So if philosophy and film are grappling with similar ideas and intentions, we were curious as to why Abrahamson decided to leave one for the other.
"I'm still am fascinated with that pure work of philosophy and I think ultimately I still long for aspects of that. But I felt that at the time I would be talking to so few people, in the work that I was doing. But film always reach more people, it's a more accessible platform. The other thing is I really like working with other people. I like the human dimension of filmmaking, which is this collective enterprise. You work with people who are so different and you find yourself in the most extraordinary places. I'm making an interesting film about boxing at the moment and I'm spending loads and loads of times with boxers. I also have another film set in the Second World War I'm going to have to get into that."
It was interesting to hear the subject matter of Abrahamson's next films. What's more interesting is to see how he will grapple subject matters and themes such as World War Two and boxing which have been depicted on film successfully and unsuccessfully numerous times.
"In the case of the World War two film I'm working on the opportunity to make something very fresh is there. We've become so used the imagery, that in a way, the real event is only experienced by people through movies or TV. And that's a problem because those mediums tend to depend on the same thing. Filmmakers, parasite on other filmmakers. They've seen the images themselves from other movies, so trying to imagine what it was actually like and give an audience the experience that feels like oh my god, you've broken out of those ways of showing!"
It's also about making us question aspects of ourselves that we might see in overtime characters that we see.
"I'm following a story of a real guy who was a police man who became a concentration camp commandant. Now we've seen those images, we've seen the guy in uniform and we know to hate him already. So my way of approaching this is, I want to take away all of that and make it really hard for the audience not to identify with this guy, which asks all sorts of questions of themselves. Would I have acted differently if I was in the same situation where professional preferment, status, respect all of these things are heaped on me if I take that path, would I have chosen differently? Because for me, the real question about those monstrous human beings, which is what he becomes, is not so much how he differs from us but how he's the same as us. If you can show that then that's not something that I've seen before."
Everyone should read the book Room by Emma Donoghue. Not only was it a popular book but it was beautifully written. And the film, likewise managed to take the essence of the story and make a filmic equivalent that doest, as book adaptations often do, disappoint.
"It was one of those occasions where I felt like I have to make this film, I know how to make it and everybody else is going to mess it up and that would be a terrible shame and I couldn't stand it. I think the biggest fear I had was that the book is told from the point of view of the little boy and he has a very, as children do, very magical picture a very, fantastical picture of his reality. I thought people would want us to capture that in some kind of filmic equivalent, in that first person voice. I thought people wouldn't believe it was possible to tell that story in a more or less naturalistic way and still capture the magic of the boy's life. My biggest fear when it came to making it was that I was going to be wrong and I wouldn't be able to capture that magic."
To take a story from a book and try to depict that in film can be both freeing and limiting at the same time. Not only are you dealing with the reader's expectations but you need to understand how to depict the world in all its nuances without words but imagery.
"The difference between a piece of literature, I mean there are a million differences, but one of the biggest differences is you control what the audience sees. As a writer, you control it as in you describe it, so the voice of the narrator or the author or the person in the novel is a filter between you and the world. But when you put a camera on something, the camera sees what it sees. You are constantly manipulating the rhythm of how that's unfolding and what it is you're pointing at. Never the less, if you're in a room, then you're going to see they are in this disgusting horrible world, they are in a shed. The fear was that the fairytale reflection of the boy and his experience would be lost and you would just be left with the horror of it. But I stuck to the original instinct I had when I read it, which was really powerful."

More news from City Times