Inside the Room: how do you shoot a movie inside one 10x10 foot space?

“The scale of the room turned out to be a practical challenge but not an aesthetic one.”

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The film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room posed a number of challenges for the crew. Making a film about a young woman kidnapped and imprisoned for seven years (played by Brie Larson), alongside the child (played by Jacob Tremblay) fathered by her abuser, is tricky. How do you prevent the story from becoming oppressively dark? How far is it appropriate to shy away from key details? These are difficult questions to answer. But it also poses practical ones: how do you create such an intense level of intimacy between two performers? And how do you shoot a movie that spends so much time in one 10x10 foot space?

Room’s director, Irish-born Lenny Abrahamson, was committed to making this work. “The scale of the room turned out to be a practical challenge but not an aesthetic one,” he says. “Almost the full range of shot sizes was available, right up to full body and well beyond. The key was to see the scale not as a constraint but an opportunity to capture the richness of even the smallest, lived-in world.”

Cinematographer Danny Cohen told the LA Times, “We built a shed on a stage. Essentially, everything you shouldn’t do as a filmmaker, we started doing, which is find smaller space and then try to put two actors in it, two cameras. But what hopefully comes across in the film is that, in setting ourselves those restrictions, you really get the tension and the claustrophobia.” So how did the Room team ensure the freedom to shoot creatively within such a small space?

“If we wanted to take a wall off, we could. But what we ended up discovering was that keeping it as a solid four-walled shed just gave it a bit more atmosphere, if you like. What we did do is you could take bits of the wall out, so you could put the camera lens on the plane of the wall, but you could actually have the body of the camera outside the shed. And we could take the floor out, if you wanted to get very low shots. In the room, we very much wanted to tell the story from [Jack’s] point of view.”

As production designer Ethan Tobman explains to Variety, “The idea I proposed was that we approach it like an inverted Rubik’s Cube. So the floor, the walls, the ceiling – they were all comprised of one-by-one-foot tiles that were modular and could be jettisoned out.” This enabled cameras to film inside the space without dismantling the shed and disrupting the atmosphere on set. “That created an incredible challenge for the crew, but an incredible intimacy for the performers.”

The relationship was also aided by Larson and Tremblay’s involvement in the production process: the two spent much of the rehearsal period making the props that Jack would have made with his mother: Tobman adds that the egg snake (pictured below) took “ten days of playing”. Abrahamson notes, “It was one way of getting them to spend time together outside of formal rehearsal. So they made lots of the stuff: loads of the drawings, loads of the mobiles.”

These weren’t the only features of “Room” (so-called by the characters themselves) that were laboured over: authenticity was key throughout the space. “Because Jack in the novel and in the script personifies every object, they’re all of equal import,” Tobman explains. “They all have these backstories and these personalities; they are his friends. We’d ‘audition’ them. We had ten beds, and ten lamps, and ten side tables, we had ten rugs.” “Rug” was a particularly important prop, because of its visual prominence in the space, and its role in the plot as a key device in their escape attempt,

“I do remember that we ordered five or six rugs and immediately jettisoned them, and we thought, ‘None of these are going to work’. And the rug that ended up working; I knew I wanted to do a rope weave, a woven rug. I knew I wanted to do that because I wanted many, many colours in it that would be quite muted, and I wanted to show the weird tear, the blood stain of Jack’s birth to mirror his rebirth in the back of the pickup truck. That rug was a character: it needed to roll up at a certain speed, it needed to roll out at a certain speed. He needed to be able to breathe in it, but it couldn’t communicate any movement inside. It needed to be semipermeable. So, we auditioned them.”

After so much attention to detail on set, the editing process had to remain similarly intensive to preserve this groundwork. “Essentially, being protective of what were great performances, not trying to be overly gimmicky, not trying to get in the way of those things,” says editor Nathan Nugent. “There were tiny moments where we accentuated the tension. For example, how Old Nick comes into the room – the first time, you hear that rather than see that. You often imagine worse than what you can see sometimes by hearing things... Little techniques like that. Details from the background gain a kind of visual complexity that you wouldn’t normally have if you’re changing location all the time. Your brain begins to map this space and all the little details the way Jack does in the film and turns into characters.

“The production design department did such a great job of making the place look weathered and run down,” sound designer and effects editor Steve Fanagan told Sound and Picture. “Things are a bit broken and so they would generate sounds that aren’t smooth. We thought about how things would sound if they were a little rusty, or if they were a bit worn out. Because you’re in a space that’s so confined, and because it is such a limited palette of sound, every sound you hear needs to have a meaning and be emotionally correct for the moment.”

To ensure that the sound stayed true to the intimacy on set, the sound team layered in a breath-track for Jack. “If we wanted to feel Jack a bit more in the scene, we would see if adding in his breath would help make it more in his POV,” explained dialogue editor Niall Brady. “The production performances were really important to preserve as the relationship that Ma and Jack had was so genuine.”

The first 50 minutes of Room are vital in establishing a sometimes unbearable intimacy between mother and child. Each technical choice was made with that in mind. Ultimately, these decisions enable the film to have its final impact, by helping the audience develop a deeper awareness of Ma and Jacks emotional lives both before and after this incomprehensible trauma.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.