INTerview: Ethan Tobman (Room)

Room (2015), directed by Lenny Abrahamson, captivated audiences with its honest portrayal of Joy Newsome, a 24-year-old woman that is held captive for 7 years with the son she conceived with her kidnapper. Joy, who is played by Academy Award Winner, Brie Larson, tries to create a new world with her son, Jack, in this 10 x 10 foot-space.

Normally, a space like this would be incredibly challenging to create and shoot, but Ethan Tobman, the film's Production Designer, was able to masterfully build a dynamic space that felt interesting and warm on screen. Additionally, Tobman and his team constructed the room in such a way that allowed the Director unprecedented access.  

In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Ethan Tobman, who is the Production Designer for Room. The images and floor plans are property of Ethan Tobman and his team.    

INT: We have heard you talk about the space of "Room" as an "inverted Rubik's Cube", where the floors, walls, and ceiling could all be removable. Was it always the idea that the room would be constructed in this way or did that change over time?

ET: While interviewing for “Room,” I was designing a fairly intricate job requiring math and pre-visualization: OK-Go’s “The Writing’s on the Wall.” So I approached the constraints as a riddle to be solved through geometry. How do you get 70 people on a film crew to fit in a space made for 2? I felt the answer was that you wouldn’t, but rather, I approached the set- as I mentioned before- as an inverted Rubik’s Cube: where every panel and every square could be removed from the outside, allowing us to peer in. This proved helpful both for the intimacy of performances and restricted us to create a very naturalistic environment.

INT: We have heard that the production stuck with the rule that every shot in the film should be achievable within the space itself. That's something that interests us a great deal, because you're being true to the space. How closely was this followed? Do you know of any instances where the team cheated the space in any way?

ET: Both director, Lenny Abrahamson, and cinematographer, Danny Cohen, were adamant about maintaining physical naturalism by avoiding the breaking of a 4th wall on camera. To that end, I’ve always been taught as a designer that your best work comes when you’re given a box to think outside of. Without restrictions, an artist is sometimes given too big a canvas to refine their brush strokes. As a result, we embraced the constrictions of our characters’ confinement within their literal physical space.

Even when the body of the camera was outside of room, the lens was purposefully inside it. Because of this, there is a real intimacy to the performances; we essentially made a movie peering into their environment.

Room Rendering

Room Rendering

Room Overhead Rendering

INT: What were some of the questions you had in mind after reading the script in terms of spaces and locations? What were some of your biggest concerns?

ET: I think all of our collective concerns as a creative team were in maintaining audience interest in one small space for over and hour. We would later laugh at this false instinct, and feel we weren’t given enough time to explore the chasms of history, and the nooks and details of their love within the confinement.

Due to the restriction of a minor’s hours on set, we found ourselves with time to kill; we shot an entire movie’s worth of inserts and still-life studies of objects in their confinement, and never felt we had repeated ourselves.

The thing about a world told from a child’s perspective is that each corner is a planet in a solar system. There are interiors within interiors. And so the space is essentially endless.

Room (2015)

INT: We've seen you say that one of the challenges you had was designing the exterior of "Room." It's interesting that Joy and Jack's "prison" is essentially an average shed in the backyard of an average home in an average neighborhood. In this sense, you're creating an entire world that has a seven year history in a space that exists onto itself. Can you speak about that?

ET: This was the most unexpectedly satisfying part of the creative process on “Room.” I focused obsessively on the interior without ever once considering the exterior, because Jack, likewise, had no sense of it. Once we had agreed upon the warmth, and richness, and layered life inside, I realized it was important to me to create an exterior that was entirely innocuous.

There is nothing special about Room from the outside; only Jack and Ma make it special on the inside. The horror of their confinement, and the richness of their bond, transcended the interior. When I presented it to Lenny, Danny and Brie, they were absolutely shocked. How could such a muted, small exterior capture so much life within it?-- That was precisely the reaction I wanted the audience to have.

Room (2015)

INT: In "Room," many of the items offer insight to the characters of Joy and Jack. Were there any items that were important to the characters that the audience may have missed? What were some items that made the space come alive?

ET: What’s important here in adapting a known piece of fiction is to add a layer of intelligence and heart to it, without detracting from its existing resonance.

We started imaginably, with drawings and games, and moved into more utilitarian objects that speak to a confinement’s function. Some of my favorite objects that never made it to screen were a deck of cards, hand-drawn on many different scraps of paper, grocery bags, and fabric. Also, a hole beneath the bed, that spoke to ma’s attempt to escape with a dull spoon. And finally, a schedule of every channel’s programming on TV that Jack would have spent years conceptualizing.

Room (2015)

INT: One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way the story shifts once Joy and Jack have escaped from "Room". Somehow, the outside world feels more cold and scary than inside the "Room" for the two characters. How were you able to achieve that?

ET: What first attracted me to the project was the irony implicit in liberating prisoners only to introduce them to a very different sort of confinement. As a designer, my instinct was to approach this counter-intuitively. So, Room is a place that is warm. It is personal, it is layered, it is safe. Outside Room, the world is cold, impersonal, antiseptic, unsafe. I made some very conscious choices to introduce materials Jack would find disarmingly foreign, such as mottled glass, convex mirrors, plexi-glass, motion-sensor light-switches, cell phones, stainless steel, perforated ceiling tiles, condensation on windows.

For a young boy, experiencing these things for the first time, something innocuous to us would appear positively spellbinding to him. But what’s interesting about Jack is that he’s young enough that it will just as quickly become commonplace.

So, as a designer on this film, I found myself scouting locations and drawing sets outside of room with a mix of Jack’s indelible innocence and Ma’s quiet trauma.

Room (2015)

INT: Some of our favorite moments in the film are the interior shots of the hospital and Joy's parents' house. Did the architecture of this space dictate any decisions involving certain scenes or sequences?

ET: Very much so. We purposefully chose a Danish modern house with a particularly brutal bannister, employed wood-paneling and linear wallpaper, and shot these scenes framed as boxes within boxes. We were always cognizant of treating our liberated prisoners as inmates in a new prison. Lenny once said to me recently, “this is a movie about two homes. Room and Joy’s parents’ house.” In his quest to maintain the tension the first half of the film sets-up, we embraced the idea that the architecture, furniture choices and palette restrictions of the second half’s interiors had to mirror Room’s confinement, despite initially appearing as larger spaces.

Room Elevation Drawings

Room Light Study

INT: Interiors is an online publication about Architecture and Film. We construct and analyze floor plans of films, which is obviously one of the reasons why Room is such as fascinating film for us. Joy even highlights the word "space" when she says, "We don't have room -- space, enough space." Is there anything else you can share that may be of interest to us that we might appreciate?

ET: Jack says something so poetic to his grandmother in the film’s last act. Nancy (Joan Allen) asks him if room was small, Jack says “it went every direction, all the way to the end. It never finished. And Ma was always there.”

Room is the smallest set I’ve ever built. But in many ways, Lenny and Brie felt it was the largest they’ve ever inhabited. Every square inch needs to convey years of trauma, development and love. As a result, we approached life in Room through a series of experiments and extensive research. We did light studies to show how the sun would hit the walls at different times of year through one window. We watched Brie and Jack rehearse, and noted where he scratched and hit the walls. We tried to age the walls to show how he would have interacted with them at age 2 versus age 5; how his intelligence advances with his height. In all, there were 32 different colors of bleach and darkness on the tiles. And we tried to create a tapestry to convey the enormous intimacy time in Room afforded them.

The last night before we started shooting in Room, I actually spent a few hours there by myself, feeling something was missing. I had photos of Jack as a small child his parents had given me, and I started drawing them. I realized a mother with a small child would document his growth, regardless of not having a camera. I then cut the drawings up and made them into a giant tree collage. Lenny and Brie walked in on the first shoot day, and saw it for the first time, and we all agreed it needed to be there.

That’s why I’m a production designer instead of an architect.—I look for these little details that make people feel as we think. Those elusive details are what I love about storytelling.

Ethan Tobman is a Production Designer and has worked on various Films, Commercials and Music Videos. You can visit his Website to see more of his work.