In his elegiac adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting novel about a very unusual boarding school, director Mark Romanek reintroduces us to the lovely Carey Mulligan.
By now, you’ve certainly heard about Mark Romanek’s movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go. Without giving too much away—it’s better to discover the story as you watch the movie, especially if you have not read the book—it takes place in an alternative universe modern-day Britain, and stars three of Britain’s most promising young stars: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley.
Adapted for the screen by writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), the film makes the most of Ishiguro’s sad, wistful prose, constructing a world in which these three young people have a predetermined purpose in life, one which they don’t seem to question as the story unfolds.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Romanek (One Hour Photo) to discuss the film, his Anglophile ways, the inspiration of Ang Lee, and Carey Mulligan’s genius.
Tribeca: What attracted you to this story?
Mark Romanek: I love Ishiguro novels. I’ve read them all, and I read this like the week it came out, and it made me cry. I found it deeply moving, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it—a lot of his books are like that. I fell in love with the characters. The second time I read it, I thought, “This could make a really interesting film.” Tonally, it would be something I’d never seen before, and yet what it’s expressing is something that’s so sincere. That’s the killer combination: something that’s sincerely expressed, and yet has that chance to be a new experience for audiences.
Tribeca: I always use his Remains of the Day as the perfect example of a well done book-to-movie translation. And I think yours is too. You struck all the right notes, but do you think there’s something about his work that makes it ripe for cinema?
MR: I love that film. He writes very dimensional, real characters that jump off the page. He takes a drip-feed, mysterious approach to conveying information—which is a very cinematic way of telling a story. He conjures great images—there were many, many in this book. There were a series of scenes that if I felt like if we got those right, then the film would be visually striking.
And his voice is so unique—there’s something about a Japanese sensibility that he hybridizes with other worlds that’s very interesting, and the restraint of it… For drama, to kind of withhold information so teasingly and elegantly is really good storytelling for movies.
Tribeca: How do you describe it to someone who hasn’t read the book?
MR: It’s a love story about three young people who grow up in a seemingly idyllic British boarding school in the 70s, but it’s an alternate universe, where history has taken a tangent, and that gives the whole love story a discreet science fiction quality that makes it really unusual and interesting.
Tribeca: Can you talk about how and when you got involved, and when Alex Garland got involved, etc.?
MR: Well, Alex was friends with Kazuo, and they discussed the book as it was being written. Alex got the book in galley form, and immediately called Kazuo and said, “I’d like to make this into a film.” They operated on a handshake for a while. I heard through the grapevine that Fox Searchlight was involved, with whom I’d made One Hour Photo, so I called them and asked if I could be involved. There was another director attached initially, and then he didn’t work out, so I got a call from Peter Rice, who was running the studio at the time. I sat down with the producers and Alex, and I guess I said the right things, and we all decided to go on this journey.
Tribeca: The novel is haunting, and wistful, and forlorn, and I think your movie is pitch-perfect in getting that strangeness right. Do you think your background in music videos is helpful as a filmmaker to evoke moods? [Romanek made the award-winning videos for Johnny Cash's Hurt and Madonna's Rain.]
MR: The great thing about music videos was that each one was a different aesthetic challenge, and I did try and kind of make them immersive worlds, where you could sort of plop the artist into this maybe unexpected context, and they would stand out in relief in an interesting way. You try to create a harmonious, coherent aesthetic experience for 3-4 minutes.
It’s the same challenge on a larger scale with a movie—you’re trying to create a world that feels harmoniously orchestrated and with the sole purpose of that world enhancing the storytelling.
The other thing that was good about music videos on a more mundane level is that I became comfortable with the craft side, the technical aspects of filmmaking, since I made like 80 music videos and another 50 commercials. So I shot a lot, and learned how to orchestrate a crew’s contributions so that it felt like one thing. When it comes to making a movie, [this allowed me to] not worry about that stuff so much, so [I could] focus on the more important things: modulating the storytelling, helping the actors—or staying out of the actors’ way. Those are the two things that are more important in a movie: the acting and the storytelling. So it was like an elite film school I got for 12 years; I was very lucky.
Tribeca: What were the challenges to creating that alternate Britain?
MR: I felt like if I could approximate, in a visual grammar, Kazuo’s writing style, and what’s so appealing and interesting and pleasurable about it… I identified an interesting hybrid in his work between a Japanese and a British sensibility, and since everything I was going to be pointing the camera at was going to British, I figured if I could frame it in some sort of sense that felt Japanese—even if I grew up in the suburbs of America—that that would start to become an analog to the style of the book.
So I kind of immersed myself in Japanese cinema, poetry, and concepts of aesthetics, which I’d had an interest in before. I looked at Mikio Naruse—he’s a filmmaker that Ishiguro mentioned in an interview once as being influential, and I’d never seen his films. I looked at Woman in the Dunes, and Ôshima and Ozu films, and a bit of Kurosawa. That was a really pleasurable form of research.
Tribeca: Have you read a book called The Elegance of the Hedgehog? It has the same combination of European (in this case, French) and Japanese sensibilities, and it’s very thoughtful. And Ozu plays a big role.
MR: I just started reading that! You’re the second person to mention that. Well, I bought the book, because of recommendations, and I started reading it, but then my wife stole it. As soon as I can steal it back…
And then there was the usual designing of the movie, with my production designer Mark Digby, and Michelle Day.
Tribeca: And as an outsider, were there other challenges in remaking Britain?
MR: I think that’s an interesting question. I am very chuffed when English people say it’s very authentically English. I’d spent a bit of time in school in England, and I’d traveled there many, many times, and I’m kind of an Anglophile. I have a love for English movies, music, culture, TV…
But I used to think a lot about Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, because I grew up in the American suburbs of the 70s, and I thought that film was astonishingly authentic. And he’s from Taiwan. So I took that as a kind of inspiration—sometimes if an outsider has a love for something, they do have a perspective on it that could maybe be helpful.
And I had a lot of help, obviously. I mean, I didn’t go to an English boarding school, and three out of the four producers did. So if I was ever getting something really wrong, they would tell me.
MR: Yeah, he’s proof that if you do your research, and you have an affinity for the subject, there’s no reason why—through imagination and intuition—you can’t do something authentic.
Tribeca: How was Ishiguro involved in the process?
MR: He consulted on drafts of the script, he was always available to answer questions. I had sort of a long, marathon lunch with him when I started the project. He was available to us during the production—some things weren’t specific in the book, and you have to concretize when you make a movie, so I [was able to ask him].
He visited the set a couple of times—he always felt like he was intruding, but we were always thrilled to have him. And then he screened cuts of the film, and made suggestions. But he was very gracious, and took a very light hand; he wanted it to be our expression of the story.
Tribeca: It sounds like he trusted you.
MR: I think he trusted Alex, because they were friends, and he wrote me a beautiful inscription in a first edition of the book, which was very inspiring.
Tribeca: Ishiguro grew up in England, right?
MR: He grew up in Japan, until he was 5 or 6 years old, and then he moved to England. It’s interesting that [came from] Nagasaki, so I think he [was there long enough] for the effects of the dropping of the bomb to... an event that gigantically traumatic I’m sure was still reverberating. And so maybe it’s some sort of lay psychology, but I kind of feel like the reason mortality is such a presence in many of his books must have something to do with that.
Tribeca: When you cast Carey Mulligan, had you seen An Education yet? And you certainly hit the Andrew Garfield zeitgeist right on the nose. [He’s been cast as Spider-Man in Sony’s 2012 reboot of the franchise.]
MR: Well, we were having difficulty finding the perfect Cathy, and Peter Rice saw An Education at Sundance, and he sent me a four-word text that said, “Hire the genius Mulligan.” And he later told me he wrote that midway through the film—he didn’t even have to get to the end. So everyone was astonished by her performance in the film.
Tribeca: Had she been on your radar before?
MR: People were aware of her, but she was doing a play in New York, and so she wasn’t easily available to audition. And frankly, we didn’t think the studio would finance the movie with her because she was so unknown. But then An Education changed all that. We met her, and she loved the book—it was her dream to play that role—so that just felt very lucky and fated that we discovered her before the rest of the world.
And then when we cast Carey, Keira Knightley’s agent called us and said, “Have you cast the role of Ruth? Because Keira is very keen to work with Carey.” And that was pretty fantastic for us.
Tribeca: They had worked together before.
MR: Yeah, they had become friends on Pride and Prejudice. And then, I had seen a film called Boy A that Andrew Garfield had starred in, and which I highly recommend to your readers.
MR: It’s like a perfect small film, and I thought that Andrew’s performance in that was as astounding as Carey’s in An Education; it just wasn’t as widely seen. So he was always the one to beat for that role; it felt like the perfect kind of triangle, those three together.
Tribeca: What do you want people to take away from this story?
MR: I hesitate to answer that question, because so many people have had so many reactions that I don’t want to instruct people how to engage with it. I can talk about what it meant to me. It’s just a very poetic and beautiful and gentle reminder to remember that we’re not here for a very long time. It’s more complex than just carpe diem—it’s an exploration of the beauty of the sadness of our predicament.
There’s a concept I came across in my Japanese research, which comes from Noh drama, that’s called yugen: one of the ideas of yugen is the joyful acceptance of the inherent sadness of life, of our situation. I think that’s what I was trying to usher from the book on to a screen, was this beautiful notion.