At Fantastic Fest 2010, I sat down with a few other journalists and Mark Romanek, the director of my favorite film of the festival, Never Let Me Go, starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley and adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name. Here is what Romanek had to say about his film. Warning: the interview contains spoilers.
Question: I think what resonated with me was the docility of the clones and how they never really like fought the man, tried to run away, or tried to fight the system. So I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.
Romanek: Did you think they should of? What was your feeling about it?
Of course we all sympathize with them, so yeah I wanted to see them run away, escape, do something to break the cycle.
Romanek: Why do you think they didn’t?
I don’t know there’s some kind of gentleness in them, that acceptance and they just… that was their fate, maybe they thought that was their purpose and so they had accepted it. But you know, as someone who is sympathizing with them and doesn’t want to see them hurt, you want them to escape.
Romanek: I mean, you know if you ask Ishiguro about this, who’s very very more eloquent than I am, he’ll tell you that it’s just not the story he wanted to write. He’s much more fascinated in his whole body of work, not just this book about the ways that people tend not to run and accept their lot in life. I think he thinks it’s a more authentic idea of the way people tend to behave. He cites things like how slavery didn’t come to an end because slaves rebelled, it came to an end because it was abolished. There are lots of stirring stories of brave slaves that rebelled the oppressive system, but he didn’t want to write that story. He cites how people who receive a terminal prognosis, they don’t bungee jump off a bridge, or they don’t tend to climb Machu Picchu, or go see the Great Wall of China, they usually stay in their routines. People stay in marriages that are abusive or unhappy. People stay in jobs that they don’t find fulfilling.
Then there’s all sorts of practical story reasons why they don’t. They’ve been institutionalized since they were small children in a society that’s… the fabric of that society is different than ours. They’ve been taught that it’s a privilege and an honor to be performing this duty for society, so they don’t want to run. And in a way that’s what the film is about.
The question cuts to the heart of what’s different, I think, about this film then maybe other films or other stories. It’s also a very American question, because Ishiguro was born in Japan and moved to England when he was 6. So the book is kind of a hybrid of a Japanese and a British sensibilities and in Japanese culture it’s considered heroic to perform ones service to the greater society and in England there’s still a very pervasive class system that makes it difficult for people to rise above their station in life. So those are all the reasons.
On that note, do you think that most people, especially in America, go through their entire lives without really making a sacrifice? They don’t’ really understand what it means to make a sacrifice or they only make a sacrifices when they are placed in a position of either necessity or circumstance. Do you think that if our society possibly had preconditions from the time we were born… If we knew that at this point in time we were going to be making a sacrifice do you think we would maybe live better lives, richer lives, lives without regret or do you think that it really wouldn’t change the natural state?
Oh gee, I don’t know. That’s a big hypothetical. I’d need time to think about it. But, you know, I do think that you know people. I think people in America take for granted how cushy their life generally is. I mean it’s not cushy for everybody, obviously, but most people in other countries have much more challenging lives filled with more sacrifice.
I don’t know that’s just a big question, that’s a big what if. I mean I can only speak for myself. I mean, I just renewed my drivers license and I didn’t tick the donor box. I didn’t do it because I don’t want to help someone in need. It’s more that I kinda feel a sense of… a weird sense of ownership about… like I guess I want to try to control what happens even after I’m dead. I’m such a control freak. I don’t want like “what’s gonna happen to all my…” I don’t like the idea of being treated the way Ruth is treated in the film when she gives her organs and is sort of left there like a piece of meat. I guess I don’t want to be a piece of meat. Part of it probably has just to do with my fear of dying.
I’m sort of rambling now. I’m not really answering your question. But I don’t know it’s too big of a question. It’s interesting to talk about the literal story, science fiction aspects of the story, but those things are really just a metaphor and a delivery system for the bigger human themes that interested Ishiguro. It turns the film into a parable about our predicament of having a limited life span and what do we decide is important when we can’t push that notion to the back of our minds anymore. I think Ishiguro is saying what’s important is love and friendship and treating people well.
One of the things that really struck me about the film is for all intents and purposes it’s a science fiction film, but the you the way you approach it is very pedestrian. I love the fact that all this stuff is happening. I mean the important people look like truck drivers, you know that kind of thing. So how was your approach to doing a science fiction film and making it so low key?
Romanek: I wasn’t making a science fiction film. I was making a love story that had a science fiction context. Science fiction is sort of between the lines of the love story. So my thinking on it was that I wasn’t making a science fiction film. I wouldn’t describe it as a science fiction film that’s sort of pedestrian science fiction, I would describe it as a love story where the science fiction is this subtle patina on the story. The science fiction-y things that we could have done that might have been more overt, like futuristic buildings or this or that gadget, I mean.
They’re not in the book and it’s this… The tone you’re describing is in the book. We took our cues from the book. We tried to make a faithful adaptation, capture some essence of the book, and tonally capture the quality in the book. That’s how the book tells the story. That’s not a poster for science fiction film. But it is. So you know that’s maybe what’s interesting, hopefully somewhat original about it.
While working on this film, did you possibly discover something different about your own human nature? Did it maybe change your outlook a little bit on your previous perceptions of life, death and living in anyway?
Romanek: I would think any film would because making, I mean more so because it’s on the subject matter, but making a film is such an incredible experience. I mean it’s a marathon, it’s like some sort of boot camp on every level. It’s exhausting physically and mentally and, in this case, emotionally because the story is so emotionally fraught. You know, it’s months and months and months of traveling all over England, and there’s a lot of moments when your humbled by your inability to handle something or you’re cheered by the days when things seem to go smoothly. It’s a whole journey.
The editing alone is a journey. That’s nine months. I don’t think people really have any real inside conception of how much work goes into making a film by just so many people. So any film is going to be a process where you’re going to learn about yourself. I was away from my family a lot the make the film. That felt like a sacrifice. It was ironic in light of what the story is really trying to say, which is that since our time here is so limited we have to be in the present moment and cherish our loved ones. I was away from my family out of necessity because we just had a baby. Just during pre-production. My wife in Los Angeles couldn’t really travel. So, that was hard. That was the hardest part about it.
When I could get outside of it enough to have perspective on a question like what you’re talking, which happens occasionally, I would go, “God I’m really lucky to be doing this.” They don’t let you make films like this very often and Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors. I’m adapting a novel by one of my favorite authors. I can’t believe I’ve met the guy. So there was a sense of being appreciative of the opportunity. I don’t know if that answers your question. I tend to ramble, I’ll keep it short.
There are a few times where the characters are walking through lush environments or they’re driving through canopies of trees. Other times it’s a bleak environment. Can you talk a little bit about creating that aesthetic and designing that?
Romanek: Well, you’re pointing out one detail. I mean we’re just following the story. I like making rules so that the crew and the team are all kind of on the same page, so we’re not just all over the place. We kind of limit. So I had a limited color palette. I wanted the colors to be gentle. I didn’t want there to be strong contrast or bright colors. I felt that because the truths that the book are dealing with can be kind of disturbing, but Ishiguro’s writing style is so gentle and beautiful and deceptively simple that I wanted to capture some of that. Part of it had to do with the palette being gentle. It’s even announced in the titles these are gentle colors. I forbade the color black from the film. It crops up occasionally, and when it’s needed, because I felt that’s too harsh for a film about mortality.
Also, we created these sort of meta-strategies. Where the first part of the film is school, second part of the film is farm, third part of the film is hospital. I also tried to draw out some of the Japanese quality and sensibility. So that there’s a simplicity to the filming and hopefully you find some resonance in simple things, or an appreciation of nature and the sound of nature. Partly I just wanted the film to be beautiful because I thought the book was beautiful. I thought if the film was too naturalistic or harsh or gritty that, combined with this message, it would just send people screaming from the theater. I just thought it would be too much to take. It needed to be a gentle delivery of these disturbing truths.
Speaking of the book, one of the things that you hear a lot about it, is the term “un-filmable.” How did you take to the task of adapting an “un-filmable” book. Do you actually believe that anything is un-filmable?
Romanek: Well, I don’t think anything is un-filmable, especially these days with computers. Kubrick said “if you can think it or write it you can film it” and that was back in the ’60s. But he was Stanley Kubrick. But that’s a famous quote of his. I’ve never heard that. Un-filmable. I didn’t hear it when I was reading it cause no one was talking about it. I read it the week it was published in 2005, so I read it and I was just deeply moved. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. Went back and read it again, and the second time I read it I thought it was eminently filmable. I thought it was filled with wonderful images and great characters. It was not logistically demanding, in terms of scale. It was boarding schools and hospitals, I didn’t think it was remotely un-filmable. I thought there was a degree of difficulty of the emotional delicacy of it and the strangeness of the tone was going to be challenging and I was challenged by that, but I had a lot of help.
It was a very collaborative thing. I wasn’t hired to be the auteur on this film, I was hired to take part in a collaboration with three really smart guys, [Alex Garland], Andrew McDonald and Allon Reich, the producers at DNA Films. They invited me to take part in a collaboration with them, so we all made it together really. I mean, I was the director of record in that I made the shots and created a tone, maybe visually. I think maybe they did bring me in because I was thought of as a visual guy and they wanted it to have a strong visual component. But I didn’t think it was un-filmable. I thought there were at least 10 set piece sequences that seem super cinematic.
Also, Ishiguro’s style of storytelling to me seems very cinematic because he does this sort of drip feed. He has a trick that he does that Alex Garland pointed out to me, where he’ll write “I’m about to tell you something really important” then he tells you half of it. Then he goes “Okay, now I’m gonna tell you something else really important” that’s building on only half the thing he told you. Then he’ll tell you half of that. It really pulls you through the story and that’s good for films, that form of storytelling.
Did you have any challenges with filming any of the scenes with the children since there were so many children and then going through those different stages?
Romanek: That was probably the biggest challenge of the movie, knowing that the first act of the film was going to have to be carried by 12-year-olds. And if it didn’t work, we were screwed. And if they didn’t resemble the older actors, which is something I think usually doesn’t work in films. It was very demanding that they not only be terrific actors, but that they strongly resemble their older counterparts. So a lot of the rehearsal time was devoted to helping ensure that that first act would be successful.
I had the older actors read the first act scenes and had the younger actors observe this. Which served a double purpose of the older actors created sense memories of having played those scenes and the younger actors, it was kind of a sneaky to get them to see what a more experienced actor would do with those scenes. Then we mixed and matched, where Carey would play a scene with Charlie, who played young Tommy. Or Keira would play a scene with Izzy, who played young Kathy. They also just spend a lot of time together, playing and talking and bonding and having their mannerisms blur a little bit. We took them to the location and they just played frisbee and hide-n-go-seek and stuff. So they got to know the layout of the school and, again, had sense memories of having spent time there. So that was maybe the biggest challenge.
The movie is definitely not making a political statement about cloning or the morality of cloning at all. It was very muted but it was there. That there had been some movement in the art gallery and how they wanted to show people that the clones had souls. So there was a little undercurrent of the politics or the morality of cloning.
Romanek: Yeah, it’s more present in the book. The scene where Kathy and Tommy seeks out Madam and Miss Emily to try to get this deferral of more time… In the book it’s quite an extensive explication of all of the politics and it’s really interesting. But because we were making a film where we’re really strongly emphasizing the love story, it seemed like it wouldn’t be emotionally engaging. If people are connecting with the film emotionally, they don’t want to hear all that stuff at that moment it’s not relevant to the characters. So it’s all kind of implied and inferred, all that stuff.
Yeah, it was very subtle. There was just a little bit of it, but you got that a lot of stuff was going on behind the scenes politically and with the morals.
Romanek: Yeah, I think the idea was, the Hailsham campaign was because there was starting to be a public outcry about how these “creatures” were being treated. So they tried an experiment. Hailsham was an experiment. To see what would happen if these human beings were treated almost like free range humans rather than battery farm humans. One of the tragedies of it, of course, the tragedy upon the tragedy is that they didn’t really anticipate or couldn’t legislate for all the emotions that would emerge in these creatures. Hence the story. But more of that is explained in the book, in some detail.
Speaking to the love story aspect of the movie. One thing that I thought was interesting, and I’d love to get your take on it, is it seemed to imply or have the statement that love was unable to save the clones and then it makes that comparison to human beings. You said this is a love story and that you really wanted “to do the love thing” but then it kind of comes out a pessimistic tone about the fact that love doesn’t save you.
Romanek: Well, but it doesn’t. Nothing does. I mean, there is nothing that’s going to allow you to not have your life come to an end. I think what I find deeply moving about the film, and maybe hopeful is too strong a word, is that she got what she wanted. They got what they wanted. They finally acknowledge their love for each other. That’s something that doesn’t happen in most people’s lives, even if they live to be 100. They also behave with tremendous dignity, I think. They behave very very well, as decent human beings. They’re not after material goods or power. They just want to acknowledge each other’s love, stay bonded in their friendship. Ruth wants to redress a terrible mistake she made and succeed somewhat in doing that. Seek some sort of redemption. What I find most moving is this graceful place of acceptance that Kathy comes to at the end of the film. We all have to figure out what our relationship to our own mortality is going to be. We can either fight against it, or try to figure out a way around it like Tommy does. Or get plastic surgery to look like we’re not gonna die.
In doing my research on concepts in Japanese art and aesthetics, I came across this notion called yugen, and it’s this exactly that. It is the joyful acceptance of the inherent sadness of life. Which is a really beautiful idea and I feel like that’s where Kathy is at the end of the film. I find that very inspiring and I aspire to have that sort of relationship with things.
No love doesn;t save them, but, you know, it doesn’t. It’s important, a way to spend our time, but it doesn’t forestall death.
When discussing this do you think this would appeal to a boomer age more than another or do you think it can go around?
Romanek: You know we can not figure out the demographic of who has responded so strongly to the film and who doesn’t. Young people? A friend of mine just told me they took a 14-year-old boy to the film, who likes Transformer movies and he leaned over in the middle of the movie and said, “Dad this is really good.” There are older literary, literate, people who read who don’t connect with it. They may be frightened by what it’s saying. There’s other people who cry buckets. We’ve had rave reviews that are rapturous. We’ve had people that don’t connect with it. But we can’t break down the demographic of what that is. And I don’t know why that is. I do know that people that connect with it are moved very deeply by it and that’s really gratifying.
In the end, what do you hope the audience will take away from it?
Romanek: I had someone write me an email that said “I saw your film and it made me cry and I haven’t reacted to a film emotionally like that in years. And I called my father, cause I realized I hadn’t spoken to him in 3 weeks and I told him how much I love him and how much I appreciated what a good father he’s been.” It’s just one of those reminders of what’s important, maybe, and a gentle reminder, I hope, that life is brief. I hope it’s more complex and nuanced than a simple carpe diem. It’s just that reminder about what’s really important. Friendship, love, behaving well… Those are the important things. The rest is a lot of nonsense and it’s ephemeral. So maybe that. That’s what the book did for me, so we just tried to transfer that.