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Lenny Abrahamson

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What Richard DId is Irish director Lenny Abrahamson's withering attack on class entitlement. LWLies met him to talk youth, society and the joys of Robert Bresson.

Lenny Abrahamson’s new film What Richard Did is bleak yet thoughtful and psychologically probing. Following Richard (Jack Reynor) through his comfortable life in Dublin – chasing girls, drinking, partying and playing rugby – Abrahamson builds a strangely sinister picture of middle class life in the Irish capital, only to later shake it to its core by a sudden act of violence.

Following Abrahamson’s two previous strong films, Garage and the bitingly funny Adam & Paul, this is a change of tone for the director; realism and minimalism instead of the cracked out high-jinx of his previous hit. Little White Lies spoke with Abrahamson ahead of the UK release of the film.

LWLies: How did Malcolm Campbell (the writer) and yourself develop the story of What Richard Did?

Abrahamson: The film was scripted, not improvised, but after writing the first draft we realised that we needed to be talking to people from the world of the film. We’re both older, and although I have something of a similar background to Richard, it was a long time ago. In order to imagine ourselves into their lives, we needed to start forming relationships with the kids who were going to act in the film. So, we cast the film a year before we made it. Then we talked to the actors about their lives and became close to them. And then we shamelessly stole lots of details from their lives and put them in the film. We learned their language too and then went off to redraft the film. In the end, the script emerged as something we could really believe.

You portray a peculiar sense of inertia in the film. Is that a comment on Ireland in particular, or on contemporary society more generally?

It is dangerous to generalise, of course, but I do think that there is a free-floating quality to a society where young people are not really driven to think about anything other than their own pleasure and comfort. We don’t think of anything outside of our own immediate plans and needs. It isn’t healthy. But in saying that, I didn’t want What Richard Did to be a hatchet job on the middle classes. Acts of violence like the one portrayed in my film happen across the social spectrum. I think my point is more about how Richard is ill prepared to deal with his actions. His sense of self is utterly fabricated – it’s a fantasy. He has never been tested in any real way before this point, and when he is, his ideas of himself as a decent, noble, well-intentioned person fly out of the window. That is really what my focus was on.

And yet there is a sense of responsibility that you attribute to the middle class.

I think it’s too easy to make that point. There are more fundamentally human traits at work in the film, like people's desire to preserve themselves, which is about as fundamental as it gets. It crosses any historical or social border; it’s just that the middle classes have a good way of expediting that. It is easier to get away with things if you have the support of influential people. It’s easier to compartmentalise aspects of yourself in middle class, and that might be the danger and temptation a person of privilege might have – like Richard. There is a way that he can reconstruct his life, or at least, he imagines he can, which would insulate him from what he has done. So, that might be the aspect in which his social class marks him out.

I was thinking about your other films too – Garage and Adam & Paul – and how your films could be read as a 'Tale Of Two Cities' of Dublin. Which version of the Dublin you portray through your work is closest to your own feelings?

That is a very good question. I’m fascinated by how these universes co-exist. For me personally, the world I grew up in is similar to Richard’s; that was my Dublin, and I ventured into the north side only later – the world of Adam & Paul was alien to me when I was a kid. Perhaps because of this, Adam & Paul is a more stylised film, in that it is very consciously a nod to Beckett and a whole host of other literary traditions that are reflected in my portrayal of that world. With What Richard Did – perhaps through self-criticism – I felt I could approach the material in a more naturalistic way, because it is a world that I recognise in three dimensions. Perhaps for that reason too, the film is very minimal and pared back.

Which filmmakers – in terms of that pared back, minimal style and that slowness of pace– have influenced you?

For me, the master is Robert Bresson. His work had the biggest effect on me once I started to think about cinema. Also Aki Kaurismäki, who has an amazingly comedic but pared down style, and Roy Andersson, Bruno Dumont  too many to mention. Oh, the contemporary Romanians as well, whose stuff is very pure. I think a lot about narrative and style. For me, the challenge is to create something compelling with very little. Often, filmmakers think it isn’t enough to be minimal. The imperative to create, to have a thought, to drive something forward, to make the audience feel the pull of some kind of chord, or a sense of a tension that moves the audience – that’s when style becomes powerful. Its something I’ve been exploring, to see how I can give a scene a vibration, a feeling, even though little is happening.

Read the LWLies review of What Richard Did.

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