In my latest feature, Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel, I faced one of the most exciting and daunting challenges of my filmmaking career.
The first 45 minutes of the movie take place exclusively within the confines of a 10-by-10-foot shed, with no windows and one small, grimy skylight, that is the home—a place of captivity, but nevertheless the home—of our two main characters, five-year-old Jack and “Ma,” his 24-year-old mother.
The larger context of the story slowly becomes clear: Ma was kidnapped seven years earlier and has been held captive by her abductor since then. Jack is the one positive thing to come out of this situation, and Ma has given herself a sense of purpose by devoting every ounce of energy and ingenuity she can muster to making Room feel like a real home for her son.
In order to do this, she has created an elaborate set of myths, a kind of self-assembled cosmology according to which Room is the whole world. Old Nick, as she calls the man who visits when Jack is asleep, is, in Jack’s mind, a semi-real figure, the bringer of food and small “Sunday treats.” As the film progresses, though, Jack’s curiosity about the outside world grows and Ma realizes that she will not be able to sustain the fiction and keep him safe for much longer. Against the odds, a desperately risky escape plan works out, leading to a second half in which Jack and Ma must come face-to-face with the outside world.
The brilliance of Emma’s novel is rooted in her decision to tell this story, which could so easily become a bleak and miserable account of crime and suffering, from the point of view of the child. Jack is loved, he is secure, and while his world lacks so many of the things we all take for granted as essential to childhood, his curiosity, energy, imagination and talent for joy allow him to make, out of the small amount of stuff around him, a rich inner life—a proper childhood.
Moving from the novel to film, though, this essential aspect of the story—the need to give the audience a sense of Room as Jack experiences it—made shooting a real challenge. We had to shoot in a 10-by-10-foot box in a way that captured the magic of a child’s eye, while at the same time remained true to the harsh reality that lay outside of Jack’s perspective, all the time tracking Ma’s ongoing struggle and allowing the audience to identify with her growing desperation to get them out of there.
From the outset, I was certain I didn’t want any big-ticket stylistic device to mark the move into Jack’s interior perspective: no post-treated point-of-view shots, no attention-drawing extreme lens or angle choices, no animation, no literal subjectivity-markers of any kind. This would introduce a terrible artificiality into what I wanted to be an intimate encounter with real people.
OK, but there was still the issue of the sheer physical limitations of the Room location. Wouldn’t it become boring? Wouldn’t a few flourishes keep from repetition?
I think these are the wrong questions. They suggest a kind of decorative theory of filmmaking, as if the director’s job were always to add ornament for ornament’s sake. Everything we shot in Room had to feel grounded in the specific texture of their lives in that space. Any trickery—elaborate camera movements, strangely angled shots, etc—thrown in in an attempt to compensate for the small space would only call attention to itself and take the audience out of the world we had created. It would distract from the story.
And that is the story: Ma and Jack’s life in Room, the quality of their relationship, the routine that they have constructed over the years, is utterly fascinating. And how Ma teaches Jack about the outside world and prepares him for escape is as compelling as any story set in the wide-open world.
All our stylistic and tonal choices—the shots that we chose, the way we gripped, how the camera moved or didn’t—were governed by the desire to get that sense of intimacy with the characters, express what was unfolding between them, capture the most important thematic resonances, and, above all, to tell the story compellingly and vividly.
The question for a director should never be “How am I going to make this scene sexier, glossier, visually fancier?” It should be “What interesting thing is happening here, and how can I best bring it out?” If the action is interesting and emotionally involving, then the film will compel an audience. You can have a film set in the most exquisite location, but without something compelling happening, you’ll merely have a boring movie with pretty scenery.
In the case of Room, the smallness of the space of the first half is not some unfortunate problem to be solved—it’s a major part of the story. So it wasn’t always about pushing against the spatial limitations; it was very often about embracing them to underscore the smallness of the characters’ world, or to intensify the claustrophobia.
What about the times when I did want to have the boundaries recede, to get inside Jack’s head? After all, he doesn’t think of Room as limited. (Late in the film, when someone asks him, “Wasn’t Room awfully small?” he says, “No, it went all the way in every direction. It never finished.”) Shooting with relatively longer lenses and keeping the plane of focus narrow, we softened the background to create shots of Jack and Ma floating in their own space, visually unmoored from the bald geometry of Room. Or, at times, we shifted attention to a much smaller scale, to the tiny details that can totally fascinate a child—the texture of a surface, the way sunlight and shadow play together.
The more my brilliant collaborators, DP Danny Cohen and production designer Ethan Tobman, and I explored how a kid, bursting with imagination and intelligence, might experience the place, the more fascinated with the possibilities we became ourselves. Room turned into several locations for us—the kitchen, the bathtub, the bed and bedside table, under the bed, inside the wardrobe. All of these worlds had their moods, depending on weather, time of day, and which of our three light sources—tungsten lamp, fluorescent tube, and skylight—was dominant.
We also had most of the classical shot vocabulary available to us, from big close-ups to wider-than-full-length body shots. While shooting in such a small space was technically difficult—imagine trying to get everyone who needs to be near camera in place while still allowing room for the actors—it was never aesthetically limiting.
Attention to detail is everything in a space like this. Danny plotted an accurate sunpath to determine how the light from the skylight would move across the walls. Ethan used that to work out where the cork tiles lining the room would be more or less faded. These are the details that Jack notices, and we along with him. Room needed to be a place that, despite its inherent claustrophobia, could feel like a complete, boundless world to a five-year-old child. We made all of our choices in accordance with this principle.
Given how much of the film would be shot there, it was imperative that the set of Room allow for maximum flexibility. Ethan built a completely modular set: Every wall was divided into panels, which could be removed to allow access. Entire walls could be taken away, but we did this very rarely. I felt it was important that the place have as much visual integrity as possible for Jacob Tremblay, the incredibly gifted young actor who plays Jack. It helped him, I think, that Room felt like a proper place without huge swaths of studio visible behind camera.
We also frequently used two cameras, so the more of the set we could keep, the less chance that one of the two would be shooting off set. The ceiling could also be easily removed, allowing Danny to use additional lights for certain scenes that he didn’t want to light with just the skylight. All of these elements could be removed or put back extremely quickly—since we were shooting with a child, who was allowed only limited time on set each day, we had to take advantage of every moment he was there.
A rule we set for ourselves in shooting was that the lens of the camera would always be inside the boundaries of Room. The camera body might be behind the line of the wall (whether the wall was there or not) but the lens would be inside it. This was important in preserving the audience’s immersion in the world of Room, and in maintaining the sense of immediacy and intimacy that drives this section of the film. We could have cheated, but I’m certain something would have been lost.
Our approach to shooting inside of Room influenced the work we did once Ma and Jack emerge into the world. In the same way we didn’t want to be too overt in calling attention to Room’s constrictions, we didn’t want to overdo the sense of grandeur and open space in the outside world. We shot this part of the film with a fairly straightforward approach to space, dimensionality, landscapes, etc. The idea was that once the audience has been in the Room setting as long as they have, shots scaled and composed in a classical way outside would feel much bigger, just as the outside world does to Ma and Jack. A typical wide shot should look massive after 45 minutes of being cooped up in Room—and we didn’t want to push the point with shots that would feel exaggerated, crudely telling the audience how to feel.
Even if a story does not present such extreme limitations as Room’s, moviemakers are often faced with small, or imperfectly laid-out, or just fairly uninteresting locations, and they must figure out how to make them work. In the end, it all goes back to the story, to its action, ideas and mood; to what makes each moment interesting. If you find yourself thinking that the only thing that will save a scene is a great location (whatever that means), you have a bigger problem on your hands. If what’s happening is genuinely worth shooting, even a pretty limited location won’t kill it. And by using all the techniques at his or her disposal, a filmmaker can almost always find a way around the constraints. If there isn’t a wide shot, then so be it. Who says there always has to be one? Concentrate on the faces, on how time flows through the scene, on tiny, telling details of behavior. Make sure the air is alive between the actors and find a way of tuning into that.
Locations will always be an important part of moviemaking, but they are ultimately in the service of character, story, action and emotion. If those things stay in the center of a filmmaker’s mind, a 10-by-10-foot room can be as engrossing as the highest vistas of Machu Picchu. MM
Camera: RED Epic Dragon, shot in 5K
Lenses: Spherical Panavision Primo prime lenses
Lighting: In the Room, we used Kino Flos in the ceiling, a florescent fitting above the fridge and a tungsten bedside table light. For the skylight, we used 20K Fresnels, 24-light Maxi-Brutes and softer, bounced light with textiles. On location we used tungsten and HMIs.
Color Grading: Graded at 4K from 5K R3D files and finished at 4K on DaVinci Resolve using ACES color space
This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2016. Photographs by Caitlin Cronenberg, courtesy of A24.