Lenny Abrahamson is one of the most highly feted Irish filmmakers still working today. The director behind the likes of
Adam & Paul
, his latest is
What Richard Did
The film tells the story of a young man living a privileged life in South Dublin City who finds his world shattered in the aftermath of a terrible accident.
Just before the world premiere of the film at
in September 2012,
caught up with director
in Dublin to talk about the unusual casting process for the film, getting into the mind of the South Dublin set and plenty more.
VIDEO CLICK: You’re off to TIFF now, will you be very busy there Lenny?
LA: I think it'll be ok, I have a few meetings and I have something else I'm going to start working on in December so there’ll be a bit on that but you never know until you go there.
CLICK: Why don’t you start with telling me how you got involved with the film?
LA: So the project originated with Ed Guiney in Element Pictures. And Kevin Powers’ book Bad Day in Blackrock. And I read the book and liked it but I was particularly drawn to following one of the characters. The book follows a number of different ones and I was interested in Richard, who’s the kind of golden boy of his group. And that started me thinking about his story and I started to develop that idea with a writer called Malcolm Campbell who worked on Shameless and Skins. And we developed that idea fairly loosely from the book; we didn’t stick to the book. And then we started to cast it very early so that I got to work with the cast, as we wrote the script. Which meant that we were able to use our work with them to sort of inform what we did within the film. So it was a very organic process.
CLICK: That was the workshopping process – is that something you do all the time?
LA: No in this case it felt right. I suppose to contrast it it wasn’t workshopping in the usual sense; we didn’t do an awful lot of improvisation. It was really just conversations and I really wanted to hear people of the background and the age of the character we were talking about. I wanted to hear them speak and I wanted them to have really honest conversations about their lives and talk to them about the film, test them against the group. And so myself and Malcolm made pages of notes and lots of ideas for scenes came out of that process. But it wasn’t an improvisation process – we then went off and Malcolm wrote the outline and that’s how we got there.
CLICK: And Jack what was the process like from your point of view? You came on quite early?
JR: That’s right I came in just at the start of 2011 actually, I had my first audition in November 2010 and coming into it it was a case of there was maybe five or six of us who would sit down every now and again and we’d workshop scenes and rework it. And have quite candid conversations about growing up in Dublin and being that age and what it was like. Different things, you know. so we did that for about eight months and just went through six drafts of the script and made it very, very tight and we actually the cast became really close as a group, we became really good friend and the same with Lenny and Malcolm. And I think that lent a lot to the film in the end.
CLICK: Was there initial casting as well? Obviously this was after Jack had already been chosen…
LA: Well there was the first thing was we started casting and it’s quite interesting because we picked some people for specific roles. So I knew Jack was going to be Richard and I cast some other people. But then there were a few people who we cast but we had no role for in that draft we cast from.
CLICK: So you cast the person before the role?
LA: We cast the person before the role! We said we wanted them in to do something. So for example Paddy Gibson who ends up playing Jake in the film, the younger kid who Richard takes under his wing, Paddy’s part didn’t exist, wasn’t in the book. But there was something about Paddy that just felt so right in the audition so we felt that he could be useful as somebody to refract Richard’s status and his changes through this kid. As a counterpoint.
CLICK: So you never had the point where you sit down with 100 guys to choose someone?
LA: Well we did look at a lot of people for Richard. So some of that casting process was traditional but then I knew Jack was going to be Richard, I knew Roisin was going to be Lara and a few others. But outside of that I just wanted to get this group in a room and we’d find something that’s right for them. And once we’d gone through that period we got into casting all the other roles in a more conventional way.
CLICK: Did you do it because you don’t have a personal experience of that kind of world?
LA: No I did I [A waiter comes with tea] This is where you get the tea service as you’re transcribing! [continues] I’m a good old south Dublin boy from a middle class family. I went to a rugby playing school – not one of the classics!
JR: Not one of the good ones!
LA: Yea exactly I went to one of the crap rugby playing schools! So I did grow up in that world but things really changed since I went there. And there’s nothing worse than that sort of tone deaf dialogue you get when older people write for younger people. And it brought back a lot about my own childhood talking about Friday nights and where would you go. And it’s really interesting when you drill down into people’s memories they remember loads more than they think. And we’re really interested in concrete questions about where did you buy your clothes, before you could get into pubs where would you meet. What was your relationship to older brothers and sisters and when did you start going out with people?
JR: We used to have DMC’s
LA: Yea, Deep Meaningful Conversations!
JR: Yea we’d delve into our deep conversations.
LA: I was really interested in, it sounds really patronising but it isn’t, we all did it. But the sorts of conversations you have when you’re really young.
CLICK: Sure the really naïve waffly conversations
LA: Yea and the real intensity of that. So I wanted to get the cosmology and metaphysics of the south Dublin teenager, what they talk about!
JR: We loved the idea of a group of lads sitting around talking about how brilliant they are to each other! ‘Aw you’re my best mate man, I love you!’ You know that was fun.
LA: And some of it ended up in the film. I’ll always remember people would be into physics and start talking about quantum mechanics and there were other people who would play their favourite track and others who would get sick in the corner because they drank too much! And it’s just this lovely feverish sort of atmosphere.
CLICK: There’s one specific scene like that where they’re just chatting to each other – was that more scripted or ad libbed?
LA: That was half adlibbed. It’s like a halfway house between improv and scripting where for the DMC scene which there is one, what we did was we had a range of topics. We knew what stories guys would tell but we didn’t script it. But we ran it maybe 20 times in rehearsal. And it would be different every time but everyone got very comfortable with it. And then on the day we did it and ran two cameras and I would throw directions in from outside. And Jack and interestingly enough Paddy who are both very good improvisers in fact everyone was, I could just chuck them an idea and they’d twist the conversation around to it.
CLICK: Jack is this a world you’re familiar with?
JR: You know the way it is is that I actually went to one of those types of schools but I was never really part of that society and clique of the rugby guys. That wasn’t something…
LA: Really because you’re utterly crap at rugby!
JR: Pretty much
LA: One of the reasons there are no rugby scenes in the film
CLICK: Yea I was going to ask!
JR: It was something that I had observed growing up so it was something I knew I would be able to relate to but I’d never really inhabited it.
CLICK: Was it interesting to try to embrace it a little more?
JR: Absolutely because I got to take the piss out of it a bit as well [laughs]!
LA: But he’s a more complex character than just a jock. So there are loads of parts of him that you definitely knew about.
CLICK: He’s a good guy fundamentally.
LA: He is a good guy. Yea I mean I think maybe the way to think about it is there are many possible lives that Richard could have had. 99 out of 100 of them would have him be a good member of society, a good friend. Had he been allowed to grow up without this thing happening. And that’s the tragedy of the film. But he does have a certain darkness in him as well and that comes from having incredibly high expectations for himself. So if he lets himself down at all he can’t handle that.
CLICK: Is that how you see the character Jack?
JR: Yea I think it just comes from the absolute frustration of things not going the way he wants them to be. Because he feels things should go why it shouldn’t be the right way, the morally just way. It should all be this way. And when that doesn’t work out for him it’s just too frustrating for him to handle. And I think that’s where the darkness comes from and this seed that eventually culminates in what Richard did!
LA: Most of us growing up…. nicely put Jack!
CLICK: Yea that’s the pull quote!
LA: Most of us growing up have more than our fair share of experiences of failing and being rejected. And actually that’s pretty important in the formation of a healthy ego. And I think if you’re Richard and everyone has been in awe of you since you were small, even your own parents because you’ve succeeded at everything – you’re attractive and athletic. All of that I think there is an aspect of the ego that is incomplete or doesn’t get squared off. And that’s a very complex thing. It’s maybe just a way for somebody who like me who wasn’t that athletic and didn’t get all the girls it’s my revenge on the successful ones, I’m going to make them do something awful! Fill their moral emptiness!
CLICK: Lenny your films tend to be about characters who are beaten down by life – is it a very different energy to make a film with young people filled with potential?
LA: Yes it is. And I think what’s interesting about the film is that although in many ways it looks diametrically opposed, it looks like a contrast with young and well to do people, as you say people with lots of potential which you couldn’t say about Adam and Paul or Josie in Garage there’s a similarity nevertheless which is that both Adam and Paul and Garage deal with characters whose position in the community is removed. In Adam and Paul it’s already happened at the start but you get the sense that they’re marginal even in their own world and Josie doesn’t fit in either. So Richard finds himself on the other side of this thing, basically having lost the sense of himself that he had. And maybe the darkest part of What Richard Did is that, unlike Adam, Paul or Josie, he may be able to get away with it and live with it. We have to ask ourselves that question at the end of the film.
CLICK: Jack there are a lot of standout scenes but one particularly raw moment – how did you prepare for that?
JR: It was a case of… I take it you’re talking about the beach house scene? That was something that we knew needed to be in the film, we just knew that absolute mental breakdown had to take place. And I don’t think there’s a lot you can do to prepare for that to be honest, you kind of just have to go for it. And then you find yourself in it and I surprised myself in that scene because I never really would have a breakdown [laughs]!
LA: We did talk about some things which would happen, some patterns you had in your life. So we started off with things you could physically identity with. Like the night particularly. And we did a day in the factory on that scene. And we did find some things that you physically could… and I tend to direct physically rather than psychologically. But there’s a certain kind of physical tension and muscle thing that you got into. But it didn’t prepare me for the scene itself when you shot it. You really went for it and it was as intense on set and it is in film.
JR: Yea because we did it three or four times
LA: And then you were completely knackered. And so I shot it very carefully.
CLICK: Almost voyeuristically
LA: Yea very differently to other scenes in the film. The other interesting thing about that scene was I had this one image in my mind which I won’t describe because it gives too much away. But there’s a particular body shape that you would get into at the end of that scene. And I had it in the schedule loads of times and we never got to do but we did carve out an extra day for it and it let us do it properly.
JR: It was the kind of scene that if you hadn’t had the day for it, it wouldn’t have worked. We needed to have the time.
LA: You needed to work your way into it.
CLICK: There are so many scenes like that in movies that just don’t work…
LA: I think you really believe it in this film
JR: I think also the fact that there’s no soundtrack in that scene, it’s just raw screaming it’s just really unsettling for people to watch. I know when I go back to it even still I get quite upset watching that scene.
CLICK: The ending is purposefully ambiguous – did you ever want it to be more clear cut?
LA: We did also shoot a scene in college with a less ambiguous flavour. It would still have been a shot of Jack but it would have been a more obviously diminished image of him. But in the end that moment that we end it with is powerful because of its ambiguity. And it’s probably the bit that critically, my sense of the reaction has been extremely positive and I think that some people really love that ending and some people really won’t but I am very particular about endings and I like to go out on an intake of breath, I don’t like to resolve things. And you suddenly find yourself spat out at the other end of the film going – Jesus.
CLICK: And do you ever consider what might have happened to the character after?
LA: I never think about that. It’s weird because I believe the characters are real when I’m making the film but I don’t confuse them with something that continues. I think… I suppose if I had to say he is able in a way which is very hollowing to continue on.
JR: I think he’s going to feel it for the rest of his life. I don’t think he’s going to hand himself in but I think he’s going to feel it. And feel it enough so that we can still empathise with him.
CLICK: You’re both off to TIFF, is that exciting?
CLICK: You’ve been before Lenny?
LA: I’ve been before with Garage yea
CLICK: And you Jack?
JR: I’ve never been out to TIFF before; this will be a first for me.
LA: It’s a great festival
CLICK: I know it’s more of a market in some ways but is it still good for directors?
LA: It is, it’s huge so there are a lot of films there plus there’s a huge market around it. But it’s a very good one because everyone goes from LA as well so you end up having lots of interesting conversations and actually seeing a lot of films. It’s the festival where you get to see everything good.
CLICK: Is there anything you’re looking forward to?
LA: I haven’t even checked the programme; I’m kind of saving myself to do something. I’m away in the States before so I’ll be working for a week and then going up.
CLICK: I’m thinking Looper and Cloud Atlas!
LA: Yea Lopper’s supposed to be great.
CLICK: Do you get a chance to get to screenings there?
JR: I don’t know we’ll try
LA: We’ll try
CLICK: Have you done much press before Jack?
JR: We’ve done a bit for Dollhouse and that was fine, we went out to Odessa a few weeks ago had a good bit of press at it. So yea TIFF as long as Lenny’s sitting beside me I’ll be fine!
LA: Yea I'm going to be there for four or five days so I’m hoping I’ll get to see some films as well.
CLICK: Have you shown the film to international audiences at all yet?
LA: No TIFF’s the world premiere.
CLICK: Not even to press?
LA: No not yet. Except we screened it for sales agents and we have a good agent now which is heartening because that was the first response with an international audience.
CLICK: Have you seen it with an audience?
CLICK: Oh wow!
LA: Yea first screening is going to be a cast and crew screening this weekend just before I go away.
CLICK: So you don’t have an impression at all?
LA: I have no idea! That’s really freaky!
CLICK: At least you get to see it with a nice audience before you go out!
LA: Yea exactly!
CLICK: What’s it been like in TIFF with other movies?
LA: Traditionally Toronto audiences are really nice, very film literate and they really attend the screenings very well. And I enjoyed Garage there. I think this time because I’ve been there before maybe I’ll be able to relax a bit more and enjoy it but actually watching your film with an audience is a weird thing. It’s the same film every time but there are good screening and bad screenings and I’ve never been able to quite work that out. The way the audience collectively osmotes [laughs]!
JR: With different audiences it’s always the case
CLICK: And it’s just been picked up by Protagonist Pictures.
LA: That’s the sales agents. Yea that’s international sales and they’re really good and they’re involved in the next thing I’m doing so there’s a good relationship there. So they’ll be repping the film in Toronto.
CLICK: So it’s not sold yet.
LA: Not yet but they’re the first to bring it to market and they look after the PR so you’re not going with your sample case under your arm trying to flog your own stuff, someone else is doing that and you can just pretend to be interested in the art!
CLICK: Finally you mentioned you were working on something in December – can you talk about it?
LA: There’s a bit out on the web about it. It’s a film called Frank with Film4 and written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan of The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And it’s a very funny, strange downbeat film about a bizarre band [since confirmed to star Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson]
CLICK: So you’re looking for funding right now?
LA: Well we’re hoping to shoot in December so we’re somewhere down the line on that and casting at the moment.
CLICK: And Jack anything on the horizon?
JR: Well I’m actually out to LA straight after TIFF. I’ve got some representation out there so that’s fine and I’m an American citizen of course and I’ve got lots of scripts coming in so it’s exciting.
CLICK: But nothing you’re talking about just yet?
JR: Nothing just yet.
CLICK: Come back when you are!
What Richard Did is in cinemas now - head here for our review.