The first thing you should understand about The Little Stranger, the new film by Room director Lenny Abrahamson, is that it's only partly a ghost story. The period film, which follows a country doctor tending to a high-society family in its crumbling mansion, speaks to a shift in the class system of post-World War II England. With this concern, ghosts become mere supplemental metaphor, yet are still an important aspect of the film’s atmosphere. Abrahamson, who was fascinated by Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel on which the film is based, says balancing the supernatural and dramatic made for a unique challenge.
“There’s the way that Sarah manages to combine the extraordinary, rich period drama with an incredibly absurd ghost story,” he says, “and as a filmmaker, trying to make both those things work in a movie is a real challenge. I just felt I wanted to have a go at it.”
Abrahamson says he had many reasons for wanting to turn the book into a film. “I think the atmosphere of the book is really about what happens to somebody who cannot deal with the stuff that they carry with them... Faraday is a guy with tremendous longing in him,” he says, referencing the film’s protagonist, played by Domhnall Gleeson. “[He has] regret, anger in him, all from his childhood, the things that many people carry. But he cannot handle this, so what he doesn’t deal with ends up kind of poisoning other aspects of his life as he gets older. That was the thing in the novel that I found most moving — how skillfully Sarah told that story — and I wanted to keep that. I wanted to make sure that the ghost-story elements of the film were in service of that.”
Abrahamson began his career by making low-budget feature films in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland, in the early 2000s. Not until 2014 did he begin making U.S. productions, starting with Frank, an oddball film featuring Michael Fassbender acting under a giant papier-mâché head as the leader of an indie-rock band. Then, the following year, came Room, about a mother and her young son who escape a kidnapper’s lair and struggle to adjust to their newfound freedom. The film made a star out of a young Jacob Tremblay, and Brie Larson was recognized with a Best Actress Academy Award. The film was also nominated for Oscars in Directing, Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.
As he was making these movies in the States, The Little Stranger was always on Abrahamson’s mind. He had actually begun developing the movie with screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and producer Gail Egan while finishing up Frank. “In the end, once all the craziness of the awards campaign of Room was over, I was just able to go back,” he says.
Room's warm reception may have allowed Abrahamson to achieve his own vision for The Little Stranger; after the 2015 film's awards and critical acclaim, he was granted final cut on this major production. “I’ve never had to make a cut in the end or release a film that wasn’t my version," he says, "but I think that the formal clause that sort of gives you final cut is harder on a bigger film like this, and perhaps the success of Room gave me that possibility.”
Directors, especially ones coming off a high-profile Oscars film such as Room, often feel pressure to make award-ready movies. However, Abrahamson says, he didn’t allow that kind of pressure to steer him away from his project. “As soon as you start thinking strategically in that way, you’re lost as a filmmaker,” he notes. “You couldn’t say of any film I chose to do, ‘Oh, yes, that’s an obvious move.’ It’s just always been the one that I wanted to do.”
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He recognizes that the hype of awards, especially career-defining moments such as the Oscars, can feel infectious. “I suppose there is a temptation because when you experience the kind of buzz of an awards film, it’s a bit of a drug and much of it’s exhausting, and there are aspects of it that are really tough. At the same time, there is a kind of rush, and I can imagine falling into thinking, Oh, I’d better choose something else that’s got awards written on it. But I just don’t think it would be a good thing to do.”
Ultimately, Abrahamson feels strongly about having chosen to make a movie that is true to his own spirit as a filmmaker, even if it will present a challenge to audience expectations of both period dramas and ghost stories.
“I chose to do this, another quite tricky, hard-to-categorize film that studios don’t quite know what to do with, but I believe [it] really has an audience,” he admits. “But, you know, I just feel the audience needs to know what it isn’t so that people don’t go in with an expectation of a jump-scare horror, which is not what this is.”
The Little Stranger. Starring Ruth Wilson, Josh Dylan, Domhnall Gleeson, and Charlotte Rampling. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. 111 minutes. Rated R. Opens wide Friday, August 31.