‘Room’ Author/Screenwriter Emma Donoghue on Her “Deeply Feminist” Film and Industry Sexism

RoomThe release of "Room" will likely spell the beginning of Brie Larson’s career as an A-list star. While Larson won great favor with critics for her heartbreaking portrayal of a group-home worker in 2013’s "Short Term 12," it’s "Room" that will introduce the powerhouse actress to a much larger audience, especially since Larson has been dominating the Best Actress Oscar conversation since the drama’s world premiere at Telluride.

Women and Hollywood had the chance to speak with "Room" screenwriter Emma Donoghue, who adapted the script from her own best-selling and award-winning 2010 novel of the same name. The Irish author, who is based in Canada, discussed writing the role of a lifetime for Larson as Ma/Joy, who has the tragic misfortune of being raped and held in captivity for seven years after she’s kidnapped as a teen. Despite her circumstances, Ma hasn’t given up on life, largely because of the life she brought into the world while imprisoned: her five-year-old son Jack (played by the astonishingly good Jacob Tremblay).

Donoghue, who describes the film as "deeply feminist" and a "hymn to motherhood," shared insight into re-framing the characterization of a sexual-abuse survivor, the importance of writing female characters and sexism in the film industry compared to the world of publishing. 

"Room" opens in theaters October 16. 

W&H: Congratulations on "Room" winning the audience award at TIFF.

ED: I know, can you believe it? I mean, it’s not just that we’re not a big studio film. The film has also got a very dark premise. So I’m just so thrilled that the audience was willing to go on this difficult journey and that they found its so satisfying: I think it’s such a testament to what [director] Lenny [Abrahamson] has managed to achieve.

W&H: Some people may assume that the film is really dark and depressing based on the plot — a woman is impregnated by her kidnapper and forced to raise her child in captivity, but —

ED: But you see, that’s all the back story, but people tend to hook on to it. Really, it’s the story of a childhood in a strange place. I think one reason Lenny was the perfect director for this project was that he’s never been scared of the peculiar aspects of the book.

At our first meeting, he was already full of confidence about the film. He never saw the fact that the first half took place in a locked room as any kind of limitation. He never suggested any kind of twist, flashback or breaking that [part of the story] up. He was never bothered by aspects like the long hair of the child or the breastfeeding.

W&H: I feel like the film is ultimately actually very hopeful. Would you agree with that?

ED: Yes, absolutely! I mean, it’s funny, everyone assumes it will be some kind of story about an abused child, but really, Jack is so well-loved. I think he and his Ma have to struggle through some really hard times, but the bond between them — even in the first half of the film — is really cheering. They manage to find humor and make magic out of dark, dark moments.

I think ultimately the film is a kind of hymn to motherhood and to the everyday heroism of parents who find their smiles in terrible times.

W&H: You’ve said that Lenny was very respectful of the source material, which you wrote. Not only did you write the screenplay for the movie, you also executive-produced it. When the wheels first started turning on getting this story on the screen, were you adamant about being involved in the process or did you need to be convinced?

ED: I was deeply keen to be involved, [though] I wouldn’t say adamant. I was more like, “Look, I would like to be the screenwriter. I’m going to try my hand at it.” I wrote the first draft of the screenplay before the novel was published.

W&H: Oh, wow.

ED: Yeah, I wrote the novel, and then I thought, “This could work on film, and I want to be the one to do it.” So I went ahead and drafted it.

I’m really aware that in fiction, women are pretty much equal. There’s a lot of very successful women novelists. Not so much [for women writers working] in film. I thought one way to try to hold on to the power was to write the script myself. That way, I could say to filmmakers, “I’m not asking you to hire me unseen. I’m just saying, ‘Here’s my script. Can we work together?’” So that worked out well.

I also needed to do a lot of saying no. I had a lot of [interest] from people who I just didn’t think were quite right for it. And I didn’t want a bad film to be made of the book, either a sentimental one or a creepy one, so I did a lot of, “No thank you.” Then when the right filmmaker came along, yes, I suppose I presented myself very much as wanting to be the writer.

What’s crucial about being an executive producer is that you stay in the loop, information-wise. They have to share all their major decisions with you. I wouldn’t say I ever tried to abuse my power in casting or anything; it was ultimately Lenny’s call.

I think the way we worked, and the way I sold them the rights, is that we worked together for several years before the deal actually went through. So it wasn’t one of these sell-your-rights-and-walk-away [type of scenarios]. I think this kind of model is a very promising one for a lot of women in the industry, actually. If you have written something that the film people want, like a book, it does give you a way in.

W&H: Like you say, female screenwriters are really underrepresented in Hollywood, but also female authors are outnumbered when it comes to prestigious literary awards. Can you talk a little bit about sexism in the film industry versus the publishing world?

ED: Sure, in the publishing world, most editors are probably women. So I don’t see the publishing world as a male-dominated one, especially within fiction. There may be certain genres that men dominate, but fiction not so much. The question of prizes is tricky because there are so many prizes.

Something we do know is that review coverage does go to male authors more than women authors. That’s a fact. I think it’s one of those examples of unconscious bias: If you hire a lot of male journalists, they’re more likely to pick up the latest Ian McEwan novel than the latest A.S. Byatt novel.

But the film world is far more male-dominated. I mean, the numbers are staggering at the level of how many people on set there are, and almost all the trades in film, there’s a lot more men. So I can see without anyone intending to be biased [that] we have kind of a collective choosing of men’s stories and a collective of taking men’s stories seriously.

I’ve certainly seen stats that if you have a woman director or a woman screenwriter, the number of female characters goes way up. So to me, it wasn’t crucial to find a woman director, but it was crucial for the whole project to retain that focus on Ma and Jack that I wanted it to, and that the story not to be pushed into more familiar film roles.

W&H: Speaking of the representation of women, many of your novels portray lesbian characters. You’ve said that you don’t object to the label of lesbian writer “on principle.” Can you elaborate on that?

ED: I say "on principle" because whenever you get one of your minority labels applied, like “Irish Writer,” “Canadian Writer,” “Woman Writer,” “Lesbian Writer” — any of those categories — you always slightly wince because you’re afraid that people will think that means you’re only going to write about Canada or Ireland, you know. I don’t find any of these labels inherently insulting, so I mustn’t object to one if I don’t object to another.

And I must say, in the case of "Room," both the book and the film, I don’t think being a lesbian author held me back at all. I think in a way the only lesbian angle in "Room" is that because I live in a statistically unusual family — meaning we’re two mothers with two kids — I think I know what it’s like to have a family that the outside world sees as peculiar or lacking. So I think I gave some of that [perspective] to Ma in the story. She sees her and Jack as this functioning family unit even though it looks to others like a stunted or damaged thing.

W&H: You’ve been calling yourself a feminist since you were 16.

ED: Yeah, I think I read Susan Brownmiller’s classic book called "Femininity" when I was about 16. So yeah, it’s been part of my mindset since a very early age. To me, what’s crucial is to tell women’s stories but also to tell them in a way that is fearless.

For instance, in the case of "Room," we’re starting with a character who has been sexually abused for seven years, and yet she is presented as courageous and interesting. She doesn’t have to be “innocent.” She doesn’t want to be “pure.” She’s weathered. She has lived through so much, but through motherhood, she’s become this sort of icon of strength. So I think that makes "Room" a very feminist story.

W&H: I agree, and something that I really admired about the film is that you see Ma in her weaker moments. She isn’t perfect all of the time; she’s fallible.

ED: Absolutely.

W&H: She wasn’t made into this angel free of flaws.

ED: Yeah, she can be totally flawed. I love the fact that Brie didn’t wear makeup for most of the film. There’s this commitment to finding the radiance, or the beauty, in those interactions between her and Jake even when all that surrounds them is ugly.

I think Brie’s performance is just astonishing. One thing that interests me about parenthood is that it makes us quite moody. We tend to flicker back and forth between being fun and loving with our kids, then losing our temper the next minute. I think hers is a very extreme example of that. You can see her go from that amazing range from genuine fun and laughter right to pain, irritation and boredom. She goes back and forth between those extremes many times in the film.

W&H: She gives an amazing performance. Were you involved at all in casting? What did you first see in Brie and Jacob?

ED: I was fully involved in all the discussions, but I don’t think I had any power. But I was so happy we got Brie. Even in her audition tape — first of all, it was so incredible she was willing to audition — but in her tape she seemed to be interacting in such a genuine way with this off-screen child. She was saying her lines in such a way that I could nearly see the child. I said to Lenny, “Who was the kid?” And he said, “No, that was me on the floor.” So I thought, if she in her acting can conjure up a child who isn’t even there, we’re definitely good to have some magic when we put her together with a real child.

Brie actually is responsible for some of Jake’s performance too. Although he’s a wonderfully smart and sensitive child actor, of course he needs a lot of coaching. Just little reminders: “Oh, put your left foot back,” or, “Oh, come on, don’t move your elbow.” Brie had this way of being both nurturing and playful with him, half-mother, half-buddy, just like Ma is with Jack. She was right there with him in most scenes. So as well as the guidance he was getting from his parents and from Lenny, Brie was also right there beside him tucking his hair behind his ears.

So I think their performance is symbiotic. It’s not two separate performances. The two of them together really made something that neither could have done on their own.

W&H: They have such great chemistry together.

ED: I’ve always seen this as a love story. To me it was absolutely crucial for the audience to believe in, and to be charmed by, the relationship between the two of them.

W&H: You’ve suggested that all writing is political. Is "Room" a political film?

ED: I guess the feminism in "Room" springs to mind most, yes.

W&H: Is that something that’s being commented on a lot, the feminism of the film? Have journalists asked you about this much?

ED: No. No. I mean, feminism is still one of those taboo words, so hardly anybody talks about it. People usually go gender-neutral and say the book and film are about “the triumph of the human spirit.”

It’s funny. I actually tried to think of the story in gender-neutral terms at first and said to myself, “OK, would this work if it were a man?” Well no, you can’t make a man pregnant, so it’s got to be a woman.

I think any film which takes somebody who the world would define as a rape victim and concentrates on their strength, normalcy and ability to turn their pain into something wonderful, I think that’s a deeply feminist film. I think there are few films out there that take motherhood so seriously. The escape sequence, for instance: it’s like a ten-minute birth metaphor. The pounding heartbeat, and Jack wriggling and wriggling out the rug. Lenny jokes that he’s made such a feminist film that he can afford to make [movies about] cops and robbers from here on out and he’ll still always have credit with women. Ha. 

W&H: I saw on IMDb that you’ve written a short before, and now this is your debut feature-screenwriting credit. Do you have interest in writing other screenplays, whether they are adaptations of your own work or not?

ED: I’m very keen. Adaptations of other people’s work, too. I got fascinated by the adaptation process, so I think that’d be a really interesting task. I would happily write original screenplays as well. I think it’s become one of my favorite genres. And now that I’ve got a way in [to the industry] — because it can feel a bit like, “How can I possibly write a film?” — but now that I’ve got at least some experience in the film world, I’d absolutely love to do it again.