6 Filmmaking Tips From Lenny Abrahamson

Advice from an Oscar nominee who traversed theoretical physics and philosophy on a winding path towards moviemaking.

Lenny Abrahamson Directing Frank
Magnolia Pictures

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson‘s road to directorial success was far from a straight shot. After completing an MA in Theoretical Physics at Trinity College Dublin, he switched to philosophy, which took him all the way to Stanford in pursuit of a Ph.D. before he finally refocused on film. In direct opposition to conventional wisdom, Abrahamson left California to return to his native Ireland in pursuit of a career behind a movie camera.

In the midst of putting together several well-received indie films, starting with 2004’s Adam & Paul, and helming a number of popular commercials, including the influential Carlsberg’s “Dream Apartment” advert, Abrahamson wrote a 10-page fan letter to Room author Emma Donoghue regarding her novel. In it, he elaborated not only why he thought her book should be adapted for the big screen, but how it should be done (and not done), and why he would be the best man for the job.

While Donoghue continued to turn down offers from Hollywood A-listers, Abrahamson managed to climb to a degree of prominence to make himself a viable candidate for the job, boosted by the success of his 2014 film Frank, which featured more international appeal and star power than any of his earlier films, with a cast including the likes of Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The huge success of 2015’s Room culminated in an Oscar nomination for Abrahamson and a win for lead actress Brie Larson, propelling the director from being an indie star in his home country to a major directorial player on the international stage. With his unique blend of scholarly thoughtfulness from years of philosophical study and commercial savvy from work in advertising, Abrahamson has plenty of great movie-making advice to give. Here are six of his best tips:

Use Patterns Creatively

In the Spring 2013 issue of Film Ireland, Abrahamson discusses his film What Richard Did, which did well in his home country but failed to receive proper stateside theatrical distribution despite positive reviews from screenings in both the Toronto and Tribeca film festivals. In response to interviewer Ross Whitaker noting his skillful avoidance of cinematic stereotypes and cliches, Abrahamson had the following to say:

” I used to talk about off-the-shelf scenes and you see that all the time in films — you feel that you’ve seen the same scene a thousand times with a slight variation. It’s not always bad. You can use patterns very creatively and, for example, the Coen Brothers often play with scene shapes and always find something interesting to do with them. I think even before I made a film, it struck me how different real life is from what you see in films, how different having a real conversation is from the standard shots you see in films. It comes down to that, how you temper the dramatic with the banal and yet you owe it to the audience to try to engage their interest; to me that’s the greatest challenge.”

Lenny Abrahamson Adam And Paul

Choose Projects That Mean Something To You

In an interview with online publication Shifter, Abrahamson was asked the immortal “What advice would you give aspiring directors?” question, to which he replied:

“I would say that some very simple advice from me would be to do the things that you feel passionate about and compelled to do and not think of it as a career-maker. I think if I decided to choose projects with a view to becoming successful and well-known or getting an Academy Award nomination, I wouldn’t have chosen any of the movies that I’ve done, because all of them are strange, all of them are challenging. But they were the ones that I felt really compelled by and therefore they were the ones that I was able to bring something special to. I would say to directors:

Think about the work. It sounds reasonable and obvious, but sometimes when people are talking about their project, I find they’re saying, ‘Oh yeah, I think this would be really cool and I think it will do this and people will think this about it,’ but what is it in the project that you are drawn to, why do you want to tell that story, what is it about that film that is meaningful to you in terms of your relationship to the world and other human beings? That for me is the key to having a career which is satisfying to yourself. And then of course if that also connects with other people and you achieve some measure of success that’s wonderful. I think if you chase the success, it never works.”

Play To Cinema’s Strengths in the Adaptation Process

Talking about Room to London-based publication Culture Whisper in 2016, Abrahamson summarized what immediately made him want to direct a film adaptation of Donoghue’s novel and in doing so provided valuable advice regarding the possibilities of cinematic adaptation:

“What drew me to [Room] was the belief that you could do something in a film that could achieve the same things as the novel did, using the language of cinema. If my history as a filmmaker has brought me any insight, it’s that film is so much more robust and open to structural invention than common wisdom would have you believe.”

Frank Lenny Abrahamson

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

While this column has recently featured other directors swearing against rehearsal—most recently Marc Turtletaub—Abrahamson takes the exact opposite stance, as he elaborated to Conn Holohan in an interview published in a 2008 issue of the scholarly publication Estudios Irlandeses: 

“I use exercises to free actors from that over-meant, over-played, projected kind of acting. When I’m rehearsing, I play the scene so many times, in a rhythmic kind of way, that you get into this profoundly non-naturalistic thing. But what you’re doing is, you’re making the scene so familiar that it becomes invisible. That repetitive method is something which I got a hint of from Bresson’s films. I don’t have the luxury, like him, of doing take after take, but I do it beforehand in rehearsal.”

Look Beyond Protagonists For Identification

In a profile focused on his career-making hit Room published in the February 2016 issue of Sight & Sound magazine, Abrahamson addresses the rationale behind his tendency to avoid a more traditional first-person perspective in favor of a more creatively challenging distant approach:

“It’s always seemed to me that you get the most limited view of a situation when you’re actually inside it, so I’ve resisted the idea that what you’re doing in a film is to get the audience to identify with the protagonist. What’s profound about cinema, especially in its European tradition, is that you can look in from outside and really test the degree to which you can empathize with a whole array of different people, precisely because – though it’s an awful expression – you’ve got no skin in the game.”

Lenny Abrahamson Directing Room

Don’t Diss The Soundstage

In an IndieWire interview published October 19, 2015, Abrahamson, who filmed the eponymous room in Room on a soundstage, debunked another widely-held moviemaking belief, arguing:

“People say that soundstage sets never quite look like reality. But actually, they can. They can be as real as you want as long as you pay attention to the kind of detail that is given for free in a real place. We always joked that this was probably the set over which the most conversation had been had, per square foot.”

Bonus: Go For The Duck-Sized Horses

Back in July, for this column’s Christopher McQuarrie spotlight, we featured McQuarrie’s response to a question asked by Texas high school paper The Rider that seemed too weird, and therefore wonderful, to not feature as a bonus:  “Would you rather fight, if you had to, one hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?” (McQuarrie chose the horse-sized duck).

However, what we had thought to be an anomaly appears instead to be, even more weirdly, a trend, as Abrahamson and actor Domhnall Gleeson (star of Frank and Abrahamson’s latest, The Little Stranger) were asked the exact same question by Irish news site JOE.ie back in a 2014 video interview (around 6:12).

As opposed to McQuarrie, both Gleeson and Abrahamson immediately go for the 100 duck-sized horses, with Gleeson saying “you can kick them out of the way very easily,” and Abrahamson elaborating:

“Yeah, you can do them one at a time. I think if you had a hundred duck-sized horses, you’d find—you’d get yourself into a very narrow hallway with one door, and then keep stomping on them one after another, but it would be very hard to defend yourself against a horse-sized duck.”

Abrahamson goes on to admit that this idea was taken from the film 300.

What We Learned

Like so many filmmakers featured in this column, Abrahamson’s winding road towards a successful directorial career should be seen as a strength. His unique path left him with an equally distinctive skillset and perspective which has served him incredibly well — and will continue to do so in future. And who knows, maybe someday we’ll see him put that MA in Theoretical Physics to work in making the next great sci-fi film?

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.