His latest movie is “The Little Stranger,” a hard-to-pigeonhole period drama set in post-World War II England, starring Domhnall Gleeson as a doctor who becomes caught up in the creepy occurrences in Hundreds Hall, a decrepit mansion belonging to an aristocratic family on the decline. Based on Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel, the story centers on the budding romance between Gleeson’s Dr. Faraday, an ambitious commoner, and the family’s upper-crusty yet approachable daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson). But is it a ghost story, as the film’s trailer would have you believe? Or an allegory of class resentment and paranoia, as Waters herself has said she set out to write?
We asked Abrahamson, who phoned in from New York during the film’s press tour.
Q: What is "The Little Stranger"? Ghost story or big fat metaphor?
A: It’s a ghost story to the extent that there’s a ghost implied in it. And it does certainly nod toward some of the classic ghost-story tropes: the big, crumbling house, strange goings-on, people beginning to get worried about it, and other people assuring them that there’s a rational explanation, etc. But it borrows from a much older tradition of literary ghost stories, which use the form to talk about Freudian ideas. This is what struck me so about Sarah’s book. It’s also about class, and what happens to a society when groups of people are divided, and there is an implicit hierarchy of value.
Q: Watching the film, I couldn't help thinking of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." How much borrowing is there from that story, or its various film adaptations?
A: I think “The Turn of the Screw,” both the story and the famous 1961 film adaptation “The Innocents,” is probably the finest example of the use to which a ghost story can be put. I didn’t try to make specific links to that, but they are there.
Q: Are you a fan of genre films?
A: I can enjoy genre films as a viewer, but I’ve never been drawn to make one. That’s the thing about Sarah’s novel I was most excited about. In the novel, there’s quite a long time where nothing untoward happens. I was quite surprised when the story took the turn it did. That journey she puts you on — where you don’t really know what the tram lines are, or there aren’t tram lines, in the way of a conventional ghost story — was very exciting.
A: With “Room,” we created an entire marketing campaign trying to address exactly that. That’s a hard one, because the horror pitch is so immediate. With cinema, much more so than literature, people have gotten used to marketing categories. It becomes a kind of shopping exercise: What do I feel like today? A thriller? A meaty drama? A romance? “The Little Stranger” is all of the above.
Q: Faraday, the film's ostensible hero, is a bit of a stuffed shirt, and Caroline, a representative of the snooty aristocracy, is quite captivating. Who is the hero and who is the villain here?
A: The hope is that by the end of the film, some of those categories will have dissolved a little bit. I’m always interested in stories where you encounter someone you think you understand but that you find harder to pin down at the end. What Faraday represents at the beginning is the rational guide that you get in stories about supernatural things: the [vampire hunter] Van Helsing guy. By the end, it’s very difficult to keep people contained in the boxes you’ve put them in at the beginning of the story.
Q: "The Little Stranger" is only the latest of several films you've made based on books (including "Frank," which was adapted from a newspaper article). Is there a danger, when translating written material to the screen, of the source material becoming too literal?
A: There’s almost this extraordinary brutality to the process of literary adaptation. In the dance of literature, everything is hidden, unless the writer chooses to reveal it. In film, it’s the complete reverse. Everything is present, unless you hide it. The thing that film does have, which literature has to work so hard for, is the existential presence of things. I really didn’t want to do another adaptation, but the idea of doing “The Little Stranger” had been around much longer, even before “Frank.” When I read the book, it was the first time I thought, “Okay, I wouldn’t mind doing this optioning thing that people sometimes do. But at that time, it was very hard for someone like me to get my hands on a big book. Later on, as my reputation grew a bit . . .
Q: I suspect the Oscar nomination might have helped.
A: It didn’t do any harm. After “Room,” I just knew if I didn’t do “The Little Stranger” now, other things would jump in and I wouldn’t get back to it.
Q: Both "Room" and "The Little Stranger" use architecture in intriguing ways: as an existential presence, to use your phrase, as metaphor and to enhance a mood of claustrophobia. Where does that interest come from?
A: I really like having a boundary. Like in “Room,” the physical setting helps you limit the massive set of choices that exist. But I’ve always been interested in the emotional effect of spaces. As a kid, there were always various houses we’d pass on the route to school that really affected me — I don’t know why — certain doors or windows or yards that would have some electrical charge. Later, when I started to write, I realized that the way I was constructing events was more cinematic than literary. How time passes in a room. How life ebbs and flows in a space. Hundreds Hall, though much bigger, is actually more claustrophobic than “Room.”
Q: Your last three films all feature characters who have suffered some form of psychological trauma. What's the appeal?
A: Seeing that sort of damage in a person, there’s an effect in the observer that can create a set of circumstances in which deep empathy is possible. That’s probably what I’m really drawn to: that moment of feeling with another character.
Q: Talk about the film's sound design, which uses noise to great effect.
A: Let me give a huge shout-out, as the young people say, to Steve Fanagan, a brilliant sound designer with whom I’ve worked on four films. He came to the set and started recording sound from the very beginning of the shoot. It’s a thing I love to do — we did it on “Room” — where we start adding sound from the beginning of the picture editing process. It’s highly unusual, but Hundreds Hall has to become a kind of creature, in sympathy with Faraday. Its noises echo whatever Faraday is feeling. There’s a whole vocabulary of creaks, bumps, rumbles, winds, etc.
Q: This film takes place in 1940s England. And yet, as a metaphor for our world today . . .
A: I know where you’re going with this.
Q: . . . does it have anything to say about the current rise of populism?
A: I think it does. It might feel like a bit of a stretch, but when there is this distinction being made between some people who are of value and those of less value, that leads to a degeneration, not only to those who benefit from that distinction, but to those who suffer from it. Faraday is a character who clings desperately to a kind of myth about himself. One could say that, at a societal level, not dealing with the truth, say, about the history of the United States — inequality, slavery, continuing racial injustice — and clinging to the myths of exceptionalism and the American Dream, you end up where you have the dream but it is just that: an empty dream.
Q: Are you suggesting that "The Little Stranger" is really about Donald Trump?
A: Everything is about Donald Trump. Or Brexit. Trump will eventually go, and there may be some serious damage that may take a long time to undo. But Brexit, in a way, is permanent, and that could ultimately lead to a disintegration of the European settlement. Why do we destroy the institutions that we took so long to build? The National Health Service and the BBC — they’re all under attack
Q: Now there's a real horror movie for you.
A: I know. We’re living in one.
The Little Stranger (R, 111 minutes). Opening Aug. 31 at area theaters.