It’s been a winding road to “Never Let Me Go” for Mark Romanek, who after years as a major music video director (his best know work includes the videos for Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” and Michael Jackson’s “Scream”) found his way back to the film world with 2002’s “One Hour Photo,” starring Robin Williams. A string of non-starter projects followed that release, among them adaptations of “A Cold Case” and “A Million Little Pieces” that never made it to production, and then “The Wolfman,” which he dropped out of in 2008 after creative disagreements with the studio — Joe Johnston replaced him. A longtime fan of author Kazuo Ishiguro, Romanek was brought on board to direct “Never Let Me Go” from a script by “The Beach”‘s Alex Garland, and the result is a thoughtful work of dystopian melancholy featuring the outstanding cast of up-and-comers Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, along with Keira Knightley in an unexpected role.
What is it about Ishiguro’s novel that made it seem like good source material for a film?
The thing that I’m always looking for is: “Is this moving me? Have I connected with it emotionally?” Not that films of ideas aren’t important, but movies are best when they really just engross you emotionally. This book did that quite strongly. The other thing I ask is: “Have I seen this a million times before, or is it something fresh?” And if you can get that combination of something that’s a sincere expression about the human predicament, and that feels new, even in a small way, then you maybe have a chance at doing something that has some reason for being.
I fell in love with the characters — they felt really dimensional and real to me — but I was a little scared of the idea of adapting it, because it’s so odd and original and delicate and beautiful. I worried — do I have the skill set to tackle something this nuanced? But when I read Alex Garland’s adaptation, I felt that he had really cracked it, as a film, and I felt more emboldened to tackle it.
The novel seems slower in its reveal about the true nature of the world in which the story takes place.
It’s all condensed. The book’s broken into three parts. The reveal, so to speak, is revealed toward the end of the first act, and the same is true of the film. You have to cram it into 100 minutes.
There’s a really distinct voice to the book, which is told in the first person by Kathy (Mulligan’s character) — she’s a typical schoolgirl with a lot of typical adolescent experiences, and yet underlying all that is this extraordinary world. What were the challenges of bringing that voice to screen?
Capturing that voice was a matter of finding the perfect actress for Kathy — for all the characters. When we discovered Carey Mulligan — the head of the studio at the time saw “An Education” at Sundance. He knew we were struggling to find the perfect Kathy, and typed me a text in the middle of the film that said, “Hire the genius Mulligan. This is the girl to play that role.” That’s a big part of it — Carey brought her to life.
You’ve said that you’d initially considered some more traditional sci-fi elements, visually, and then discarded most of them. Can you tell me about that decision, and whether you feel like there are some sci-fi influences on the film?
Part of the appeal on the filmmaking side was that I felt we could create a world that you hadn’t quite seen before, and that was a style of science fiction that you don’t often get to see. But if people go to the movie expecting to see a science fiction film, they’ll be disappointed. It’s a love story, and the brilliant, strange alternate history that Kazuo concocted gives the whole film this discreet science fiction feel, but it’s not very up front.
Early on, we were toying with more obvious science fiction tropes. We kept trying to get them in there, because we thought maybe it would make the film more fun or visually appealing or punchy. And they never felt right. One day, a light bulb went off, and I said, “I don’t think we should do any of this. This should be the science fiction film with no science fiction in it.” And that felt absolutely right, because the science fiction is really just a clever delivery system for the bigger themes.
I saw the film with a colleague who remarked that she found the main character very passive. Does that seem fair to you? How do you portray someone who never challenges that awful path she’s set on?
Technically, she is passive in the sense that she doesn’t always drive the action and she’s an observer of her world. But I think Carey plays it brilliantly, because she comes at it from a position of such moral and spiritual strength. She exudes this quality of stoicism that becomes a form of emotional activity. It’s a predicament of a lot of 20th century movies — there’s a quality of alienation, the characters are not driving the action. There’s other things they’re dealing with that are more internal. I find it deeply compelling, the grace that she displays in the face of her predicament.
This notion that she doesn’t rail against her fate, that none of these characters struggles to escape — Kazuo speaks really eloquently about this. He never set out to write the book about the brave slaves that rebel. There are lots of good stories like that, and that’s not what he was interested in. In almost all of his books, he’s simply more interested in how people don’t tend to escape.