With Room out now in Irish cinemas we sat down with the film’s editor Nathan Nugent to talk about working on the film. We began by asking him about the awards season madness which has seen the film winning a multiple awards, including a Golden Globe. The film has subsequently gone on to earn 4 Academy Award nominations.
“I mean it’s so funny because you kind of, you know, most films you work on they are never a part of that conversation and this is the first thing that I have ever worked on that has been. You just find it unusual because you are kind of, like you are always on the outer field of it, you know. So you kind of just once in a while just kind of see “Oh what’s going in this” even though you finished working on it six months ago, you know what I means, so it’s like, it’s a really unusual thing but delighted for Lenny and Brie [Larson] for this amazing thing to happen really. Even just for people like Emma [Donoghue – screenwriter and author], you know, as well, like her first, it’s her book, her screenplay, you know what I mean, just an amazing, an amazing evolution of that story really so yeah fantastic to be associated with it in any kind of manner.”
Room marks Nugent’s third collaboration with director Lenny Abrahamson and he is keen to talk about how good Abrahamson is to work with.
“My third film with Lenny, since What Richard Did which came out in 2012 yeah, shot 2011. Yeah so it has been like quite a run of films in a row really in that like, you know, we started talking about Frank when we were finishing What Richard Did and Lenny said, you know, it came up that he would like me to work on that and that was brilliant What Richard Did was an amazing, amazing turnout for that film because, you know, there wasn’t a lot of money behind it, a very new cast. So like, you know, even though it was in Lenny’s assured hands you never know with a small film like that whether it’s going to break out or not. So it has kind of really rolled from that point onwards for Lenny in particular like it’s just, you know, everyone loves Garage and Adam and Paul but there had been a little gap between Garage and What Richard Did of about, I think five years. So What Richard Did, Frank and now Room have been kind of really, like just one has come directly after the other and, you know, in a really fantastic way in that like you just, you know, personally speaking as an editor, like each of them have presented just very unique challenges in very different ways. To work with Lenny on these things is just a very, very, the most kind of, how would I put it, just a very open kind of environment in which you can kind of explore things and try things and see if they work, see if ideas work, see if they don’t. But it’s always very open and it’s always very progressive and it’s always about trying to, you know, unravel and find what’s deep inside these stories and these performances and these characters and none more so than in a film like Room where it’s contained as it is, you know. So, it’s all about just absolutely trying to find, you know, the kernel of the story which obviously is there on paper but once you go and shoot a movie, once you shoot something, you know, it becomes a slightly different thing. Quite often you will refer back to the original source material to steer you back to where you should be. Like in all those films, What Richard Did, Frank and Room, they have been just really, really brilliant explorations. What has helped is that Lenny has been in both. In all these cases he has worked with fantastic writers, like really brilliant writers, but he has also always, you know, played a really important role in how the screenplay has come together for all these films. His thumbprint is there from the very beginning to the very end and he has got this, you know, clearly he is really the smartest guy working on the film, you know, in every capacity. That sounds like a strange thing to say but that level of intelligence is a very comforting thing and it’s a very bold thing. What it means is that there is never a requirement for him to feel that the ground has come out from underneath him, you know what I mean? He has got a deep intellect that will always guide him through these things. Knowing that’s there lets you, gives you a certain amount of creative freedom to kind of explore things throughout, you know. Yeah, to answer your original question yeah, those three movies in the short space of time is just, you know, I have really grown I feel as an editor in that short space of time working on those movies.
We mention that Abrahamson seems to be a very collaborative director, and seems to keep a stable of around with whom is is comfortable working.
“He does but at the same time he is kind of like, you know, it’s funny like he has worked with, he will always open the door to work with, like he is very loyal and he has worked with, you know, certain people again and again and again. But at the same time he has worked, and sometimes it’s based on people’s availability or not, he will always tailor each project, he will tailor the personnel to the project, in a way that maybe other people don’t quite see. That comes down to even like production designers, DOP’s and so on and so forth. Like he has got great relationships with all the directors of photography he has worked with. For example on the three films I have worked on they have all been different, you know what I mean? So it’s like, you know, he won’t be someone who will just work with you because he is loyal to you or, you know, you have worked hard for him before, he will absolutely look at, break it down into – right who is the best person for this film and just purely in the professional sense. Now, you know, nothing to do with whether he got on with someone before or after or liked someone or not, it’s purely what best serves this film in a very kind of open, democratic way. I mean working with Ed as long as he has done as well, those relationships are kind of all combined as well, you know. So the two of them together would have strong opinions about, you know, who they like, who they think would be best suited to one project over another, you know. Quite often in Ireland you can kind of feel that people lean back on similar people again and again but I would never say that about him actually.”
From his first short 3 Joes right up until Room Abrahamson has worked with musician and friend Stephen Rennicks.
“Well exactly and like it’s almost contradicting what I’m saying like they go back to college, to school together, secondary school together, but make no mistake, he would never, ever work with even somebody like Stephen if he didn’t think he was the right person for it, do you know what I mean? Like regardless of their longstanding, deeply close friendship and, you know, relationship over time. Like the way Stephen would work with Lenny suits both of them and would definitely suit Lenny. And he knows that Stephen would be on board for the journey. He wouldn’t be the kind of person that would just say ‘Oh this looks like an interesting gig, let’s do this. This may take two or three weeks’, like someone like Stephen knows it could take months, do you know what I mean? To unlock it and to find it and define it. I suppose in a way the strength of the relationship going that far back is one of the things that again gives you solid ground, you know what I mean? It gives you solid ground that people don’t get too stressed if they are still searching for something over time. They know that together they will find it, you know. So yeah exactly like if you look at Ed and Stephen in particular those relationships are very, very strong and key to kind of where Lenny has gotten at this point. He is being like, you know. I’m sure if you said to them I’m sure they would say the same, you know, in terms of how much they feel, they would feel, you know, that they would express their gratitude to have worked with him as well, you know what I mean? So it’s a whole combination of things. I mean unusual in films to have those kinds of relationships I suppose. I suppose some directors would have longstanding producer relationships, you know, but they kind of come and go and change over time and all of a sudden a director would begin a new relationship with a producer and that would last for two, three movies. In Ed’s case in particular it’s amazing. I don’t think Ed produced Adam and Paul but he did Garage, What Richard Did, Frank and Room which is incredible really.”
The success of his films to date has given Abrahamson a chance to choose his next project from a host of different options.
“Well exactly, he is at that point now so you have got like… And I mean again, it all comes down to how, you know, like Lenny obviously has great taste but, you know, he is really careful about what he chooses to do next. I can only imagine, and I have a tiny, tiny sense of just some of the stuff that’s getting sent his way now after the success of Room, would tempt any director but even now he is being very careful and likes to be, you know, deeply involved in the development of any project from a very early stage which is not usual for a lot of directors. Some people are happy just to kind of go, you know, I want a fully formed thing before I hit the set and go and shoot it. But I mean even with Room like once Lenny started shooting it and seeing the changes that performances bring to a story, he adapted to it very quickly and started to merge things and started to blend in a way very quickly, you know, so again that’s not usual. Some people would just be quite religious to what’s on paper, you know. Yeah, as you say he has got, you know, it’s quite, you know, it’s out there what he has talked about, The Little Stranger, which is kind of a chiller. It’s a 1950’s set chiller in kind of a crumbling old house in the South of England. Then you’ve got Neverhome, his Civil War drama, incredible story as well and A Man’s World, the Emile Griffith story. So yeah all like, wow, like brilliant stories. You can see how they appeal to him but each of them have their own specific challenges, you know, so he won’t go for the easy one, you know.”
We mention that with Room and with What Richard Did Abrahamson has a fairly strong base material to work off so he appears to look for that kind of grounding.
“Yes, well that’s it but what’s interesting about those two in particular is that actually, you know, you could imagine in someone else’s hands they could become very different things. Of course they would, you know, in a different director’s hands of course they would be different things but that, you know, they could possibly become slightly more melodramatic.”
That they could become made for TV, Hallmark channel films?
“Well exactly, you know, and sometimes it’s, you know, it’s making those choices is an easier thing to do. So actually not letting a movie go down that road is actually a hard, you know, that’s where the challenge lies, you know what I mean? So yeah like, you know, they all have their own inherent dramatic structure but actually that’s not necessarily what appeals to him as regard to, you know what I mean? Those things come across quite early on in your conversation. Like it’s funny because we would talk a little even before he started shooting but it would literally be a little. We wouldn’t talk much about these things. How we would work together is I would just start cutting stuff very, very early as rough as it is and just start showing it to him. I would just know from how he feels about it whether it’s going in the right direction or not. We wouldn’t have to get into long, convoluted conversations about why this does or doesn’t work.So it’s up to you as an editor or as a DOP or as anyone else on the set, or as an actor, it’s just to keep up, you know, keep up with how the story is developing and how he is moving forward. What’s great about editing is that once a shoot finishes you can kind of let the thing settle for a bit and then reengage again and it’s a whole new process as if you are starting up all over again. That’s what’s brilliant is that like the cogs are always turning and it’s up to you to just try and keep up, do you know what I mean? And try and help and try and, if possible, find something new in the footage that somebody wouldn’t necessarily have had time to find themselves or seen themselves on set because everything is happening so fast. So you as an editor have a little bit more time in the kind of confines of a room to just, you know, put footage together in such a way that you kind of go ‘Well that’s interesting, things are starting to appear here that maybe weren’t on the page and should we pursue them or should we not? Because actually maybe they are just confusing’, you know what I mean? So, that’s kind of the germ of the process really, you know, on all these things.”
Editing a film is massive task as the editor has to juggle a great many things. In addition to cutting the film they are responsible for bringing in the sound and the score.
“Yeah exactly yeah and with something like… Like I love working with music, like I really do, some editors don’t. They feel, I can understand the reservation, they feel that actually you are assigning an emotion or a feeling or a momentum to a scene too early before you have locked, you know what I mean? But actually I feel that, you know, music is great in giving you a certain momentum and a certain mood and tone that sometimes it is necessary to do, even just for yourself, to go ‘ Yeah this feels right’, you know. Then you know when it’s scored for real it’s going to be an even better thing in itself, you know. But yeah, the sound in Room was a huge, huge process. It was the first time I’d ever had the opportunity to work with sound people as we were editing because it had a slightly bigger budget. So, I worked with two brilliant sound people, Steve Flanagan who was the chief sound designer and also co-mixed it and Niall Brady who is the sound editor who mainly would work with a lot of the dialogue and so on and so forth. What was great about having both of them working early on was, you know, as the firm was forming, and I mean to be fair to Room like it was, from a very early stage the structure was holding and that doesn’t happen in a lot in films. Other films things may feel wobbly early on and you go, you kind of don’t want other people to stop working on it because you haven’t figured it out yourself but with Room you just knew there was very solid ground. Like its structure was holding even as we were shortening the film because I mean the first cut would have been three and a half hours long. The film at the moment is like, sorry at the moment but the locked film is just an hour, just over an hour and 50. So a lot of things went there, a lot of air, you know, in some places but in other places huge, you know, big, long scenes. Sometimes, you know, you can look at the three and half hour version and go ‘OK great, that’s going to make a really good 90 minute, 100 minute, like, you know, 150 minute, one hour 15 minute film but actually in the process of hacking away you just lose something, you know, but that never happened with Room. It was brilliant to have the same people working with you alongside and seeing how they were developing certain moods and tones just through sound design. I mean there is an incredible section in the film is the Escape where we have scored. The music is the driving factor through that. And it works really well because it kind of starts so quietly and then builds and builds and builds and it’s always tied to Jack’s discovery of the world. But actually, you know, what was really nice when we were mixing the film for real is you just took away the music for one moment just to hear Stephen Flanagan’s sound design because it was all created from like, from his own work because like the sound, the exterior sound was unusable because you would have trucks and camera trucks and all that kind of stuff going on and there is just a fully realised beautiful soundscape in its own right. We felt almost bad putting the music back on top of it, you know. So, that was a really brilliant experience and Lenny has worked with Steve and Niall on, you know, the three films that I have worked on with Lenny, again the same sound team, you know, and Ken Galvin as well. So like, yeah, you know, you really feel it on a film like Room as an editor that like, you know, you have just got to try your best to be across all these areas as is Lenny obviously but to, you know, particularly for screenings, for execs and producers and so on, you’ve got to try and corral and bring all this stuff into your cull as you are moving on and at the same time making last minutes changes all the time. It can feel pressurised and Room is probably, you know, there is, we would screen in London and in America as well sometimes so, you know, there is a lot of eyes on the film early on curious to see how, you know, even in early versions curious to see how this film will hold because, you know, reservations would have been there. It’s fine in the book to talk about this enclosed space but visually, you know, in the book you are discovering it through every page, things that you hadn’t heard about in the room before. It becomes a kind of voyage of discovery but within 60 seconds of seeing the movie there is the Room, you know. It’s like how do you visually rediscover these things where at the same time keeping a story going, you know, forward, forward, forward and the key was not to dwell on them, let the story bring you forward all the time and all these little discoveries are in the background, you know. And again through Lenny and Danny Coen’s choices of lenses and how they would shoot scenes, you might discover a little corner of the room, now not consciously, sub-consciously little colours and things start to form, you know, take shape in the back of the image and you go ‘Oh’ you know, the story is strong and the tension is strong and it’s keeping you moving forward but these things start to appear. Yeah I’m sure for some people on second viewing they might discover little things of Room that they hadn’t seen before.”
Room is a very immersive experience, particularly in the room itself. It is a credit to the production design that the room feels so real. Abrahamson and DoP Danny Cohen deliberately decided to contain the action within the room, adding to the experience.
“Yeah exactly and I think a huge part of that has to come down to Lenny’s decision to not cheat. He could get a lens into a space in the wall but the lens would never come out from the confines of the room, you know. So there was never, there is nothing ever shot in Room that isn’t in Room. I think that was a huge decision because I’m sure, you know, once you built the set and you saw how small it was, I’m sure he thought ‘Oh God, I should give myself the luxury of at least breaking out from this’ but never, ever did, you know. And I mean the set is tiny. I actually purposely didn’t go onto it because I was working above the sound stage in Toronto when the shoot was going on and I purposely didn’t go into it, you know, for two reasons. One, because on a film set it’s, you know, constant moving and motion with the less bodies the better. Secondly, I kind of wanted to form my own image of what Room was from the rushes that were coming in before I stood into the original room and the first time I stepped in, it just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe that this place I had been watching on screens was actually that small, you know, particularly things like ‘wardrobe’ and how they shot that and how they got into that space and how they created, you know, the sense of Jack’s, that this was another sub world within Room. When you actually stand beside that, like I mean if I sat on it, it would literally; I would feel the whole thing going. It was like again just, just lovely. Like, the whole experience of working on this film was just full of just so many kind of discoveries for me personally and creative discoveries. I feel really privileged to have worked on it, you know.”
Room is an Irish and Canadian co-production, with the filming taking place in Toronto. This afforded the crew a chance to work abroad.
“Yeah, it was unusual and I had never been away from my family. I have three young kids and I hadn’t been away from them for that long before, it was two and a half months. It was kind of like a sink or swim situation. You just jump in and try and keep up. That’s all I could say really, you know, and try and keep up with how quickly things are being shot. Every day, every scene was shot with two cameras which was kind of double the footage. Like a lot of runs these days people will pick three or four scenes to shoot two cameras but like this entire movie was shot with two cameras. Mainly so that like Lenny would never miss a moment of Jake’s performance, you know, because he had a limited the amount of time to work with Jake so, you know, he had to make sure that every time Jake was on set we were shooting him, you know. I think that was a brilliant decision but it meant a lot of footage to get through on a daily basis and I was still keen to turn scenes around quickly so that Lenny could see a version of them however rough. It was brilliant. It was like long, long hours, long work but Toronto is an amazing city. It can be a harsh winter so I wasn’t expecting, I hadn’t, you know, I hadn’t, I wasn’t used to seeing that level of snow for quite some time because we hadn’t had it in Ireland for like a few years. Yeah, we were there from the beginning of October until just before Christmas last year. So it was a brilliant experience. Like I loved every bit of it and, you know, got to be out on set with Lenny a bit and, you know, particularly when certain scenes were getting kind of augmented with extra bits of footage and so on. So yeah like an incredible learning experience and like I loved every minute of it actually getting to know all the other key personnel. As an editor quite often you don’t, you know, you are a little removed from the whole mayhem. On any film you start cutting as they start shooting but sometimes that can be in Dublin or in London and the shoot could be anywhere in the world, you know what I mean? So being that close to the film shoot was a brilliant experience, you know. I think, or I hope, Lenny found it valuable in those stages as well, you know. As I said when you come back you kind of sit down and you go ‘Right, let’s cut the film for real now’ you know. But yeah I think it was useful, you know. As I said Joe was a little behind them. They have shot it, they think, you know, that’s printed in their head but you haven’t watched it yet, you know what I mean. So it’s like you are always a little bit behind the conversation but that’s what I mean, you are always trying to keep up with them and keep up with them and keep up with them. But yeah I loved it and I loved Toronto, it’s a brilliant city, a really great place, you know. Just being in another part of the world is actually, you kind of get to talk to them less, you know, you might get to talk to them once every three or four days, so you can be working blind sometimes. I mean that said I’m not the kind of person that would be onto a director every day going ‘So, tell me about the scene before I watch it.’ I just jump in and I think it is more useful for them to just have somebody jump in than show things to them, you know. At the same time it’s nice to be kind of, in a general sense be talking to a director now and again. ”
Nugent is currently working on Junita Wilson’s newest film Tomato Red, which also shot in Canada. Working on Room meant that he was unable to visit the set on that one.
“The time difference can be hard, you know, like Vancouver in particular was like eight hours, you know what I mean? So it’s, so no I wasn’t for that one but in general I would, it is something I would like to do, you know, like travel with a shoot as much as I can. We are coming pretty close to it picture lock on Tomato Red. It’s always hard to say like it feels like, like I would say we will probably lock it in the next week or so or week or two, you know. Then it will need to go through, you know, music is at a very early stage and then it has to go through a whole process of sound, post production and mixing. So it’s hard to say like when the film will be actually finished, you know what I mean. To be honest with you with all films these days, even when you say you are picture locked, you know, you kind of have to keep an open mind about things. Sometimes a composer will come up with an idea or you will get a music cue back and you go ‘You know what, if only that shot was longer’ you know or if we open this bit… and like you don’t want to do that because you don’t want to mess people up too much, you know, who are further down the chain but at the same time I think realistically, particularly as we live in a world of digital film making now.”
Shooting on digital has given editors a lot more freedom with the amount of footage that they have the time to work with.
“There should be a flexibility, exactly. And I think, you know, we are all conscious of that, everyone who works in post I think is conscious of that these days. Even on very, very big films like, you hear stories of people, you know, saying ‘Well I finished work on this on the Monday and it was in the cinema the following Monday’, you know what I mean? So, like that’s the world we live in now. It’s getting closer and closer to the wire, you know. The hard thing about making those decisions late on is, if you have lived with a film for a long period of time and you know every move within that movie and you know every kind of flex of its muscles, you change one thing, you’ve got to really track the ripple effect of that down the line. Sometimes a film can be strong enough to take those changes like in Room it was always strong enough to take any kind of alterations or cuts. Actually quite often you were, you know, you were in a position that performances were so strong, you know, it’s not necessarily that, you know, an alternate take was better, it was as strong, it was just different and you just had to track what those changes would mean down the line for the film, you know, or how they played in terms of someone’s impression of how a character was. So yeah, like these are things, that’s the thing that you’ve got to be careful about. It’s not making the actual change late on it’s just seeing what the ripple effect of it is. It may in itself make that scene better but does it leave you with a wrong steer about the characters intentions? Or even, you know, if it’s early on people are always forming opinions about why a character does things or why they are this way. Again these are the things you’ve got to be careful about, you know. So yeah like flexibility is great but you’ve got to always keep the big picture in mind, you know.
Being editor on a feature is a lot like being a big band leader, not the author of the music but responsible for ensuring it comes out right on the night.
“Big band leader is probably right, like it is a very privileged position being an editor on a feature film because you do get to work on a film in its broadest sense, like you do get to work on every scene and have a real input into how it plays. But at the same time ultimately, you know, the absolute responsibility of whether a film works or not is the director’s. As I say it’s a privileged position being an editor but you don’t always have the, you know, you are not the, do you know what I mean? You aren’t the person who put their absolute career on the line for this thing to happen. The pressure of directing these days is considerable because people judge directors on whether a story absolutely functions or not, you know, and whether a movie moves them or not and that’s a huge pressure on anyone’s shoulders, you know what I mean. As an editor you can play a part in how the song sounds on the day, you know what I mean? But at the same time you didn’t write the song, you know what I mean, so you’ve got to be conscious of that really. Like it’s something I have been very conscious of with, certainly with, with any director’s films but certainly with Lenny, the three I have worked on with Lenny is that, you know, in spite of what you would do, you know, if you were working on something yourself as a director you’ve got to absolutely make sure you are being honest to a director’s voice, you know, and doing things that you think are a true reflection of what that director’s voice is. And sometimes it takes time to find out what that thing, you know, how that voice sounds. I mean I have never; it has always been a very easy thing with Lenny because you can tell from how he directs a scene. Like I watch every single second of the rushes so, you know, where he starts and where he ends in terms of developing a scene and shooting a scene it’s all there. Everything you need to know is there; you don’t usually need to have the conversation. It’s intrinsic in how he has directed actors and how you can track a performance changing, how you can see the blocking change, gliding change, the camera movement, all that stuff. So that’s it really but that’s a very unique thing, it doesn’t always happen that way. On other films sometimes you can see it go in reverse and actors performances only get worse the more they are directed, you know what I mean, so like again it’s a, you know, it’s just another notch to his belt that he is able to do that. You can see it in Room the kudos he has gotten particularly regarding performances, you know, to get that from a child who had just turned eight it’s just incredible, you know, incredible like and I think people in the States are talking about him. Like Brie is amazing but she is an adult, you know what I mean? So like, to have gotten that performance from Jacob who is a brilliant actor but, you know, to get as controlled and as consistent a performance is all down to the director, it really, really is, you know. I think Lenny knew from the get go it was going to be a challenge even though Jacob is very professional, his parents are amazing, they look after him, they really keep him focused but like, you know, I have young children, I couldn’t imagine that sustained period of work or time from them. Kids are flighty, you know what I mean? So like for a 10 week shoot it was just amazing and he never once, like the relationship was so strong even though Lenny had to, you know, required, you know, so much focus from Jacob but also required so much focus from himself, you know. That was the thing that I was amazed about. I thought OK if he puts all his energy just into working with a young child then how does he keep all the other plates spinning, you know what I mean? Regarding visual style, just the nuts and bolts of the story, all that stuff, you know what I mean? So it just, it was just intellectually just I’m sure like a huge workload for him every morning getting up, you know, considering what was ahead of him but he did it. That was another amazing thing is that he shot everything he wanted to shoot. He never went ‘Well I’m just going to cut this because I don’t think I’ve got time for it’. He made sure to shoot everything he wanted to shoot for that film, you know. Like some of it is on the cutting room floor, just purely for length. But again he never took the short route. He never thought ‘Well, you know, let’s just cut two pages and see how the story holds’. He said ‘No let’s shoot it, let’s shoot it and see what we need from it’ you know, as well. There is like a long scene in the hospital, sorry, there is a section in the hospital in the middle of the film when they have just come out and it plays as a montage at the moment again narrated by Jack, you know, which felt correct as the film was shortening and compressing and as his voiceover was finding a place throughout the film but every single scene in that montage is an actual full scene. At one point the hospital section was like a full, it’s hard to say for sure. I think it was like a 12, 13 minute section in the film, you know, where you kind of navigated their coming to terms with the world before they actually set foot outside the hospital, you know. So, like again, you know, it plays now as a very rich theme but only because Lenny insisted on shooting every single scene and we had fully formed scenes there, you know. With a start, middle and end to each one of them. That took a lot of time to shoot and set up and create, you know what I mean? So again that’s what I mean by the kind of richness of the footage. As an editor it was brilliant to have that. Like I’m a ‘more is more’ person so like I’m delighted when directors keep shooting, shooting, shooting because, you know, originally coming from documentaries, that’s how documentaries are shot. You don’t have a script, you are never quite sure where the moment is so you’ve got to shoot long and long, you know, so that’s what was really brilliant about some of those scenes. Even rolling up in ‘rug’ was shot for real several times. There was no shortcuts taken. It was like Brie with Jacob going ‘Right, let’s roll you up in Rug’ and having to convince him and then rolling him up and then going ‘Right, this isn’t working, let’s try it a different way’, you know what I mean? You have all those beats which just make it feel a very real, intense thing as opposed to the actual way of doing it which is just to break down, break it down into kind of constituent parts and only shoot that, you know, so yeah, yeah really, really fantastic.”