Moviescope spoke with cinematographer Danny Cohen about Room, released on Blu Ray and DVD on the 9th May.
The film has been a critical and commercial success, taking over $35m at the box office and was nominated for a staggering 106 awards, which included leading actress Oscar success for Brie Larson.
Cohen’s work includes Les Miserables, This is England, The Danish Girl and the forthcoming Florence Foster Jenkins.
Warning: there are spoilers ahead. We suggest you watch Room first and revisit this article afterwards, you will not be disappointed.
Watch initially drew you to the project?
Danny Cohen: Emma Donoghue was the author of the book and had also written the screenplay. Emma and director Lenny Abrahamson (director) sent me the first draft of the script and it was a brilliant read, a real page turner.
From the draft that I read, they then spent time together to make it work for the screen, but even the first draft that I read was amazing.
It’s a really difficult thing to adapt a novel into a screenplay that is as good as the book. A novel can take you off into worlds that films can’t. How do you condense all of the detail that is in the book? A lot of writers who adapt their own books shoot themselves in the foot because they don’t want to give up what they have achieved in the book, but a film is a different thing. Lenny and Emma certainly did the story justice because you still get the complete essence of the book in the film.
Any normal film would have ended at the point that they escape from the room, but and they stick that halfway through the film and play out the rest.
What camera and lenses did you use?
We choose the Red Dragon for two reasons. Firstly, I had previously shot the Lance Armstrong film, The Program (dir. Stephen Frears) on the Red Epic (The predecessor to the Red Dragon) and I liked the way it had a bit of an edge to it. The default camera for digital at the moment is the Arri Alexa and the look is a little more cosmetic, it makes things look really nice – which isn’t a negative thing at all, but I didn’t want this film to look particularly nice. So, having the ability to give it an edge and texture – I felt the Red was more appropriate for this story. Secondly, it’s a bit smaller and we were filming in a very confined space. Even if the camera was literally an inch smaller than the Alexa, that gave us a little bit more freedom within the constraints of the set.
Often, if you are filming in a small space you end up using wide lenses because you want to see the space and make the room look very big. It’s counter-intuitive, but if it looks really palatial and like a hotel, then you’ve lost all the threat and claustrophobia of that situation. The mid-range lenses worked for us, so 25mm, 27mm, 32mm, 35mm and 40mm – which is a little bit tighter than the very wide lenses we could have used, but it helped tells the story in a far more interesting way. It’s working stuff out like that in a simple, clear way; choosing lenses and a frame that always put them in them in the space but in an interesting way. We didn’t want to see too many walls in one frame, because you instantly you get a reference about the size of the space. You want to feel like it is a small, horrible space and that was the motivation for shooting on those mid-sizes.
And how did you shoot in that set?
We decided not to go for false walls with the set because moving and replacing them would take so long out of the filming day. Ethan, the production designer, put it together in tiles so we could pop pieces out and put the lens on the line of where the wall would be. That gave us a bit more space.
Jacob was 7 when we shot this film and because he is a child, there are restrictions on the amount of hours you can shoot in a day. Clearly, you can’t work a child as much an adult. We had to make the most of the time, so we shot with 2 cameras and aimed to film as much as possible within the limited time we had Jacob every day.
When you’re in that confined space and working on challenging material with a young actor, what’s the atmosphere like on set?
When it comes to creating an atmosphere on set, you try to keep it as low-key as possible. Lenny has got two children himself, I’ve got 4 kids and so we definitely knew how to chat to Jacob and make him feel comfortable. For some of the really harrowing stuff, he’s not on the set at all and you can shoot it without him. Weirdly, I think it’s harder for Brie, who has to do some really emotional stuff while Jacob wasn’t in the room.
Jacob is a fantastic actor, he completely got the point of what he was doing. He’d already done a few films previously, so he knew the mechanics of shooting really well and he enjoyed it. In fact, it was a riot for him.
What’s complicated about the story is that it’s from two perspectives. Brie’s world is horrendous whereas Jake’s world is the only space he’s ever known, so we wanted to give the idea that everything in that space is really interesting to him. He’s not confided to the physical space in the way that she is. We shot some of his perspective on macro lenses because that is the detail that he is interested in.
We didn’t have too many hard and fast rules about shooting with certain lenses from certain perspectives; it’s such an unusual story to tell that you used what works.
We tried where possible to shoot it in story order and that definitely helped give us forward momentum.
We didn’t want the interior of the room to be completely miserable so there is colour there in some of the decorations. You’re always trying to find the balance between something that is real and believable. The colour palette of the room itself tells a story so once they get out into the world we might increase the saturation and push certain colours up a bit. I think you do attempt to control as much as you possibly can and hopefully the choices you make help push the narrative along.
Room is released on Blu Ray and DVD on the 9th May