Oscar nominated director Lenny Abrahamson talks with Lawsoc

Lenny Abrahamson received the Praeses Elit Award on Monday evening.

“Wow, this is really nice on a Monday evening.” Lenny Abrahamson appeared humble as he received the Praeses Elit award from TCD Law Soc. In the Robert Emmet theatre, Abrahamson was no stranger to Trinity, having studied physics and philosophy as an undergraduate student. Like his father and grandfather before him he went on to be elected a scholar, continuing on to a masters in theoretical physics. He swapped his career in academics for film in his twenties and has gone on to direct notable films such as Frank, Oscar-nominated Room and Little Stranger. He is currently working on the much anticipated TV adaptation of Normal People, which he filmed in Trinity during the summer.

Abrahamson began the talk with an assortment of wise words for students: “Look after your teeth; don’t join a cult – that’s a big one; don’t have kids too early; don’t buy insurance for things like DVD players from Harvey Norman – you won’t need it; call your mum; and you can get away with any clothes at all if you wear good shoes”.  These words set the tone of the evening as Abrahamson lectured the eager audience on not just film, but life and growing up. Beginning his speech with his journey as a filmmaker and how he initially thought his job was to be “absolutely certain of everything”, Abrahamson noted his own mistakes and offered advice to attendees. “If you have too fixed of an idea of what you want, that gets in the way – it stops me being present in the room as a filmmaker”. Abrahamson continued on this tangent and related it to the pressure felt by students at the end of their time in college: “The danger in our culture now is that we are all encouraged to be sure amazingly certain and know exactly who we are and feel as if we’ve failed if that isn’t happening; a certain kind of humility and capacity to not know everything in advance opens me up to the real world.”

To begin the interview portion of the event, Law Soc auditor Milly Farrell Kelly asked Abrahamson how it was to return to Trinity while filming Normal People. “It was really nice, in a way it feels like not much has changed but it also feels like everything has changed.” He spoke of how he used to live in The Rubrics and Front Square and how nice it was to film around those areas. Abrahamson also pointed out that they filmed in the Robert Emmet Theatre, where the event was taking place. “I feel this connection to this place and a warmth to it, I hope Trinity recognises that it’s such a nice thing to put your college on film,” he remarked.

Abrahamson became involved in directing Normal People due to the input of a former Trinity classmate of his, Ed Guiney, a fellow founding member of DU Filmmakers. Both Guiney and Abrahamson loved Sally Rooney’s novel and saw its potential as a TV series. Abrahamson was quick to praise the book for its excellent writing and depiction of relationships. He remarked that he was drawn especially to its positive account of first real love and sexuality, and commented on how in a pornified culture it was nice to see two people love each other and be intimate with each other in such a beautiful and natural way. With Normal People being Abrahamson’s first time working in Ireland in seven years, he says he wants to continue working at home. He spoke of an ongoing project set in the west of Ireland in the 1980s filming in County Clare about an eleven year old boy and his family reeling after the death of their father.

When asked if doing book adaptations is something that appeals to him, Abrahamson reveals that after finishing Room, he didn’t want to do another book, but ended up doing two.  “I don’t like the fact that the industry relies so heavily on pre-existing material or intellectual property as they call it, so I want to go back to the primary process of making films out of nowhere.”

Questions then turned to diversity in the film industry with the mention of Joaquin Phoenix’s speech at the BAFTA awards where he spoke about the systemic racism in the film industry. Abrahamson agreed with what Phoenix articulated and said “it is a symptom of dysfunction across the whole society, it’s socio-economic and to do with prejudice and misogyny”.  Abrahamson spoke of Ladybird director Greta Gerwig and You Were Never Really Here director Lynn Ramsey – both films saw no nominations for the 2018 Oscars though they are among his top films of recent times. “There are not enough ethnically diverse, socio-economically varied and gender balanced people are going into filmmaking.” He concluded that education is key, and that we need things like workshops in disadvantaged areas in schools to encourage people to pursue a career in filmmaking from an early age.

A young film student asked for Abrahamson’s advice on what she could do being a black woman trying to get into the film industry and he was quick to note that this is the best time there has been historically to be a woman of colour in film and encouraged her in her efforts.

Abrahamson’s own children are interested in working in film, he told his audience. He told an amusing and sweet anecdote concerning his nine year old daughter with aspirations of becoming an actress who had a small part in Normal People. His 11 year old son, he said, is less enthused and wants him to do some action films, which amused the audience greatly.

Lenny Abrahamson is now a member of the Academy after his Oscar nominations for Room and discussed selecting the nominations for the coveted Best Picture award, entertaining the audience with the image of the nominated films arriving to his house and spending Christmas watching the best films of the year.

Abrahamson had some sentimental and philosophical words to share with students: “You have quite a lot of time, you’re not over the hill at 25 and you should interrogate your choices and be prepared to change if you’ve chosen something that doesn’t make you happy.” The talk ended with rapturous applause for Ireland’s finest director of the moment.

Suzanne Flynn

Suzanne Flynn is the current Deputy Life Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Law and German student.