A high-profile Oscar nomination should, in theory, guarantee immediate good fortune, assuming that person chooses his or her next projects wisely.
Lenny Abrahamson, who made the Best Director nominee roster for 2015’s “Room,” seems to have done all the right things. His next act, “The Little Stranger,” opening Friday, is an adaptation of a well-received 2009 novel by Sarah Waters that put its own spin on the Southern Gothic horror tradition ― just the sort of thing that could lure genre faithfuls and arty cinephiles alike.
Emphasis on “could.”
Despite Abrahamson’s Oscar foray and the popularity of Waters’ novel, the marketing behind “The Little Stranger” has felt muted at a time when non-franchise movies can’t afford to slacken their advertising crusades. Making matters more precarious, the film is opening in something of a death slot: The end of August misses out on both the summer blockbuster wave and the glitz of the upcoming awards season.
To go from headlining the Oscar derby to crossing your fingers in hopes that people will pay attention to your work sounds defeating. But when I talked to Abrahamson, he was relentlessly Zen. Maybe it’s his cheery Irish lilt, which lends every sentence an air of optimism. Or maybe the film industry’s fickleness is old hat for Abrahamson, who broke through a few years back with the small, eclectic indies “What Richard Did” and “Frank.”
“The Little Stranger” reunites him with Domhnall Gleeson, who played a wannabe musician in “Frank.” Here, Gleeson is Faraday, a doctor in 1940s England treating a family whose decaying 18th-century mansion creaks and leaks in all the wrong places. The house’s odd, ghostly occurrences require the bulk of Faraday’s attention, and he is steadily drawn into a mystery that evokes shades of his own childhood. Co-starring Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter, “The Little Stranger” is more of a psychodrama than an outright horror show ― and were it released a month later, Abrahamson might have seen his name again featured in Oscar prognostications.
I asked him about that and about one major change he made to Waters’ novel.
Let’s start at the end of the “Room” experience, by which point you’d made off with an Oscar nomination. We like to think of doors swinging open in the aftermath.
Carpets being rolled out.
Yes. Given the popularity of the novel, was the “Room” experience what you anticipated it would be?
No, it was more intense than I thought it would be. People had told me, with an Oscar campaign, “Oh, don’t forget to eat” and “You’re going to be absolutely exhausted.” Someone said, “Are you thinking about moving the family out to LA?” I said, “What are you talking about?”
But it is just absolutely full-on for six months. I was pretty much traveling for six months, with the occasional trip home to see everybody and then back. Before that, I’d never had a film in that conversation, so I didn’t quite know how it operated. And then it’s very intense because, much as you might like to think you won’t get obsessed with it, you’re so embedded in that world.
“It” being who’s up, who’s down, might you win, might you not, might you be nominated, might you not. And you think, “I’m not that sort of person. I’m above that.” And yet we all are affected by the environments we’re in, and it’s impossible to resist the big pressures in culture. Globally, in terms of what society you live in, you think your thoughts are all your own, but very little of what you think is actually yours. That’s something I always think about. But when you’re in such a pressure cooker like that campaign, it becomes your life for that period of time.
So I was surprised about how involved in it I got. You’re looking up [prediction site] Gold Derby, and you’re like, “I can’t fucking believe I’m looking at Gold Derby. Who am I?” [Laughs]
We shouldn’t believe anyone in Hollywood who says they aren’t invested in their own Oscar odds.
At the end, actually, it was a funny thing, because you’re spat out of the other end, back into civilian life. It takes a little while to remember: “What am I doing this for? Why am I doing it? What do I really want out of it?” And that question becomes sharper when you’ve had success like that because the possibilities are suddenly much greater, so you can sit at home as a fledgling filmmaker going, “Would I do a big movie if I was offered it? Or would I say I would never do a big studio movie?” It’s very easy to refuse something that has not been offered to you.
When you come out the other side of a film like “Room,” which catches a wave, you really do have to sit down and think about what it is you really do want to do. Other people will have views as well, and certainly doors absolutely opened. They opened throughout the process. Scripts came. I got to read everything, and I still do, which is great.
But that little naggy voice has always been the one that eventually I’ve listened to and why I’ve made the odd choices I’ve made in the films that I’ve chosen to do. I’ve never been strategic. It’s always been like, “Oh, I want to do that because I want to do it.”
What was the appeal of “The Little Stranger”?
“The Little Stranger” had been sitting there for quite a while. I’d been working on it way before “Room,” and I’d read the novel before “Frank” and “What Richard Did” — way back. And I’d really been obsessed with it as an idea and a piece of writing. I came out of the other side of a successful literary adaptation really not wanting to do another one. But we — myself and Lucinda Coxon, the great screenwriter behind it, and the producers — had been working on it. They waited for me through “Room,” and I thought, “I still really want to do this, and if I don’t do it now, other stuff will take over and I won’t get back to it.”
I just ultimately did it because I really, really love it. I know it’s an odd choice in a way, but I don’t know what good thing isn’t an odd choice.
Were you offered a big studio movie?
Nobody came and said, “We want you to do the next ‘Star Wars’ or something like that.” But I certainly read lots of big, meaty things. I don’t really want to do that stuff. I saw somebody was doing a list of who Marvel’s going to tap in the next five years, and I found my name on those lists. And it just makes me laugh because I can’t imagine doing it. But it wasn’t like anybody came and said, “We’re going to pay you loads of millions of dollars to do this,” and I said, “Away with you.” But I think I probably would have said, “Away with you.”
I was asked by my agents, “Do you want to put your name in the hat for X, Y and Z?” And I said no. And it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. It wasn’t, like, deeply courageous, with me going, “Oh, I desperately want to, but I feel it’s wrong.” I just know what I’m into. And it tends to be the case that the people who do things well are the people who love those things. I always laugh when art-house filmmakers say, “I want to make a popular movie. I’m sick of not making any money and living in obscurity.” You think, “It’s not easy to do those films. It’s really hard.” And there are people out there who have lived and breathed that stuff since they were kids, so they’re always going to be better.
But I did read lots of stuff. I could look at some films and say, “Well, that could be in the conversation for awards.” But it was time to make “The Little Stranger,” and that’s what I chose to do.
What’s the biggest thing you turned down?
I can’t really say, but there were projects where I was talking to friends and saying, “I can’t believe I’m saying no to this.” Listen, I’m not a saint. Had something come in that I was profoundly compelled by more than anything else, I would have done it. So the things I turned down, even though they were juicy and delicious and big in the independent world, just didn’t feel right for me. So I didn’t have any soul-searching moments.
And I never do that thing where you go, “I could have done that,” because it’s a shitty thing to do. You didn’t do it and you might have fucked it up. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and I don’t think about it anymore. And there also isn’t a lot of magnificently great stuff out there. Any filmmaker will tell you that.
Did “Room” make as much money as you thought it would?
I don’t know. It did do pretty well. It made way more money than it would have made had it not gotten into the Oscar conversation and won a [Best Actress] Oscar for Brie Larson.
Even though it was based on a celebrated novel?
The novel was really helpful as well. But it’s still hard to get people into a cinema for a film they know is about a kid and a mother in that situation. Much as [film distributors] A24 are incredible marketeers, it’s still hard to persuade people to do that. But a lot of people did go see it around the world and continue to watch it. It will have a long and happy life. It’s a really tough market to get challenging stuff seen.
That’s a perfect segue to “The Little Stranger.” On the surface, the movie has familiar genre elements, specifically in the supernatural horror realm. But it really isn’t as familiar as it might seem. Maybe that’s a marketer’s dream. You can dupe people into thinking it’s a more conventional movie than it is. We’ve seen a handful of arty horror titles do that lately.
I think it’s a risky strategy. I’ve gotten on extremely well with Focus Features [the studio releasing “Stranger”] and I had final cut on the film, so the film is the film I wanted to make. But no director has charge over the marketing. They’ve made a decision as to how they go out there. They haven’t gone full horror in the marketing, and I think that’s very wise of them.
But at the same time, it’s extremely difficult to make a trailer for this film and not have people expect more jump scares than they’re going to get, short of going for a festival release and a slow build where the word about what the film is like is the first thing to hit people. When you go out wider, which is what they’re doing, the worry is that you get a lot of people going, “Hang on a second, that’s not a horror film.” Much as you’ve hoped in the trailer to somewhat soften those expectations, it remains to be seen whether that strategy is correct or whether we should have gone for a slow build. But that’s easy for me to say. I don’t have the pressure of making that decision.
I like the festival route. It’s a filmmaker-friendly route, and you tend to be reviewed by the more sophisticated reviewers first. That sets a precedent. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this film, whether audiences go, “Wow, that took me on a journey I wasn’t expecting, hurrah,” or whether they go, “I wish it was a bit more scary and a bit more gory.” I don’t know.
The marketing is one end of it, but it’s also opening on a weekend that’s always precarious for movies. The end of August is not always the most advantageous time to make a splash at the box office, at least not in America.
I feel the same. Why do you think that happens? I’m interested to know what it feels like from the outside. It’s a hard weekend because people are on holiday?
The deluge of summer blockbusters has tapered off, but we’re not quite into the prestige of Oscar season and the festival circuit yet. So those last couple of weekends in August don’t have much of an identity. You can’t hang your movie on any particular trend or M.O.
So I’ll tell you what [the studio] would say, because we’ve had these conversations. I think they would say they have had success with films in this very slot, that they’re trying to break away from the gridlock of post-festival awards season, which seems like an artificially crowded time. It’s gotten crazier and crazier. And I buy that because I saw how hard it was with “Room.” We did get it through, but it was so hard.
I think what they feel is this is a weekend where the film can have something of its own space. If it were me, what I would argue for would be either a small release post-festival or possibly an early 2019 release, just after the madness. So we’ll know in a couple of weeks. But also, a distributor’s idea of what success is and a filmmaker’s idea are different. I want people to appreciate the film that I’ve made, and I want its audience to find it.
Whether that audience is large or small.
Whether that audience is large or small. But it’s a big enough film, this one. Although I was always super clear about what I was making: “This is going to be a hybrid. It’s going to look like one of my films.”
The thing I find that’s kind of tantalizing is I do think there’s a sizable audience for the film, but messaging it correctly to get to them is the tricky part. It would almost be easier if there were no ghost story. You would talk about this film differently. But once you add that little dimension, it’s a huge gravitational pull. As soon as you mention that genre, it’s there.
People assume it will be a crowd-pleaser type.
Even though you had final cut on the movie, when you showed it to the studio, did you feel like they appreciated what you showed them?
I think it varied depending on who saw it. As human beings, they all had different tastes and different reactions. People recognized the quality of the film and were very supportive of that. I think if they could wave a magic wand and add just 15 percent more genre, they wouldn’t be able to resist. Having said that, they’ve been extremely supportive of what I’ve done.
The festival circuit provides the word-of-mouth rollout we were talking about, as well as a portal into the Oscar conversation. Slotting it right before that comes with the implication that this is not an Oscar movie. With just a couple of weeks’ difference, you’d automatically get shoved into the awards derby, even if nothing comes of it. Coming off of “Room,” what did you make of being sent the message that you’re not quite right for Oscar contention this time?
I mean, listen. Do I think it’s an obvious Oscar film? I don’t think it is. And I never thought it was, even when I was making it. So that itself doesn’t bother me, and I do think it’s kind of silly how we have created this system. It’s nobody’s doing — it’s just the way it evolves when you’ve got such a powerful thing as the Oscars. Everybody feels that’s a mechanism to get more challenging films before a real audience.
It’s like the equivalent of boxing being a way out of tough communities. That’s your shot. For smaller, more challenging films, that’s your little catapult. But it’s so attractive that you end up with this huge glut of films in one place. I think something’s going to change, I really do. The Oscars are in a funny space at the moment.
Clearly, with this new popular-movie Oscar.
Hmm, yeah. Let’s not even get into that.
Let’s talk about one big detail in your version of “The Little Stranger.” Because the book is told exclusively through Faraday’s perspective, it ends far more ambiguously than the movie.
Yeah, that’s true. What we did with the movie — and not because I wanted to make it easier, but because it felt more satisfying in film terms — was to put the pieces of the puzzle all there. The film does incline you towards a certain interpretation, probably more than the novel.
I would argue the movie isn’t really ambiguous at all, even though it has a certain haziness to how everything comes together. Why’d you chose to go that route?
I had a very strong feeling about what it was in the novel, but I know people have been very uncertain. And Sarah [Waters] herself said she was surprised that it was considered as ambiguous as it was. We also shifted the emphasis a little bit with that last shot. There’s something very powerful in the idea of looking at someone both as the person they are and as the child they were. The film allows you to maintain the tension between those two entities.
In our lives, those two things are deeply mixed up. Maybe it’s the odd moments in therapy, when you suddenly go, “Oh my God, that’s why I behave like that. That’s the unresolved shit that’s caused all this trauma and trouble.” Faraday doesn’t have that insight into himself, but we allow the audience to feel the tension between that rather damaged and longing and baffled child and the lost, unloved character that we meet as an adult. That, for me, is the emotional center of the novel, but we want to make it explicit in an image at the end in a way that isn’t there in the novel.
What was Sarah’s reaction to that?
She sent me the loveliest email after she’d seen it and said she absolutely loved the end. I just saw something released on social media, which is a quote from her, and it’s really positive. I know her as a person — she’s not someone who would just say that. She genuinely feels, I think, that the novel and the film are the same thing, but the film does its work in a slightly different way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.