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Never Let Me Go is only Mark Romanek’s second feature (not counting Static, his 1985 debut, which he himself has removed from his résumé), but his relatively scant cinematic C.V. is balanced out by a music video reel that includes Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” and Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” among many others. It’s been a relatively quiet eight years since Romanek’s most recent feature, One Hour Photo, during which several projects came and went, but the interim has served him well. The new film, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, has a subdued delicacy that’s light years from One Hour Photo’s incandescent mania. The movie places Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield in a British boarding school in the 1970s, only this 1970s is different from our own. Subtly at first, and eventually in radical ways, the story unfolds a dreadful alternate world, one in which the school’s children have a definite and terrible purpose. Although it’s nominally science fiction, you’d never guess it with the sound turned down, which is part of what gives the film its power. The world looks and feels just like this one, which prevents easy dismissal of its more ostentatious departures. The visuals take a backseat to fine performances, proving that Romanek is as skilled at directing actors as he is at engineering mechanical pig heads. Romanek sat down with The A.V. Club at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about mortality, the inspiration of Japanese philosophy, and how Brian De Palma gave him his start.
The A.V. Club: It’s been eight years since One Hour Photo. What happened in between?
Mark Romanek: Children and marriage and living and having a life.
AVC: There’s a glib shorthand when music video directors turn to film, which usually involves a highly stylized look, rapid editing, and so forth, some of which applies to One Hour Photo. But Never Let Me Go is much more muted in its style: The pace is languorous, the color palette quite limited. Where did the look of the film come from?
MR: Well, when you’re doing a music video or a commercial—not to compare an Ishiguro adaptation with those things—there are these aesthetic problems you have to solve. You have to create a world and harmonize people’s contributions so there’s a cohesive concept to how it’s presented and what the thing is going to look and smell and feel like. This is an adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. It’s very discretely written, and gently written, and beautifully written, so I try to approximate a visual analogue to that quality when you read the book.
AVC: The movie has that elegiac Ishiguro quality to it, as if it’s just one long sigh.
MR: That’s a nice way to put it. Isn’t there a Kurt Cobain lyric about Leonard Cohen [in “Pennyroyal Tea”]? “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally.” That’s a nice way to think about it. I’ve always loved that line: “sigh eternally.”
AVC: A lot of times when people adapt a book, they just tend to cherry-pick the emotional highs and lows, but there’s more of a sense of continuity here.
MR: Ishiguro could easily become a sub-genre. It’s a very original body of work he’s written, and it wants to be that, I think. I did some research on Japanese art and aesthetics and stuff for the film, and one of the concepts I thought was really germane to the film was this idea of “mono no aware,” which is sort of what you’re saying. It’s another way of saying a perpetual sigh, this quality of indefinable eternity that you can find in the most mundane things, and the sense of the transience and the impermanence of things. I think that’s a lot of what the book is about in some ways, and I tried to make a cinematic equivalent of mono no aware in this English world, which is a strange hybrid.
AVC: Ishiguro has worked with that hybrid before, of overlaying Japanese and British cultures or sensibilities.
MR: Yeah, and it was my task to make that into a cinema version of this Ishiguroan form of expression.
AVC: One of the obvious questions about the movie is why not just set it in the future? You’re dealing with a fictional past, an alternate history rather than a speculative future.
MR: There’s something about looking back that seems important in Ishiguro’s work. From a filmmaking standpoint, I never questioned it, because it seemed such an original opportunity to make a film with this subtle science-fiction quality that’s set in the past and not the future. It just seemed like an interesting opportunity.
AVC: It also has the benefit of simplifying your task from a visual standpoint, and putting more emphasis on the human drama. If you set it in a past that is physically recognizable, even if the circumstances are radically different, you don’t have to come up with designs for silver jumpsuits or rocket cars.
MR: It’s not only that we didn’t have to, we didn’t want to. There was some discussion with my production designer, Mark Digby. There was some temptation to put in some futuristic buildings, or make this about gadgets. It never felt right. And one day I said, “Well, maybe this is the science-fiction film with no science fiction in it whatsoever.” And everyone got very excited by that idea and aesthetic approach. From that point on, it was that. It was more about seeing the wear of time on things rather than anything that was clean and new, which is another Japanese concept, this idea of “wabi-sabi,” that the thing that is broken or rusted or torn or frayed is more beautiful than the thing that’s perfect.
AVC: There’s one shot that seems vaguely futuristic or dystopian, that low angle of the awful concrete block where Carey Mulligan’s character lives.
MR: That’s brutalist architecture. It’s not really futuristic. You see a lot of that in England. It’s a hint of dystopia, and a hint of a lack of respect for how people need to really live pleasantly. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s relatively easy to connect emotionally to the love story, but what resonance does the greater situation have for you? Mulligan’s character says at the end that perhaps their lives aren’t so different from normal people’s, but the differences are fairly glaring.
MR: I read it as a parable and a metaphor, and it was a clever way to discuss these bigger ideas of our mortality and how we come to terms or not with the fact we have to deal with, that we’re all not going to live forever. I found the exploration of this idea of what becomes important to us when we can’t push that notion to the back of our minds anymore. And you know, that’s a big, wonderful, excellent, pertinent thing to write about and make a film about. How do we get to the end of our lives and not regret how we lived it and how we spent that precious small amount of time, that short amount of time? That’s a brilliant conceit that he invented to compress these people’s lives into 25 years so that all those questions become more pressing.
AVC: A friend of mine said that having a child is like a daily reminder of your own mortality. Adults don’t age visibly from one month to the next, but children so quickly it points out that your life is moving ahead at the same speed.
MR: From a personal standpoint, I’d say that, yeah, seeing how quickly children grow, you realize how fast life goes by. And I was struggling with issues of having to make this film away from home, in England, being away from my children. So I’m making this thing that was a beautiful thing, and a wonderful opportunity, and ultimately may be good for our family, because it’s a career opportunity. But I’m struggling with it in that I’m sacrificing time with my children in order to do it. And here I am making a film about the preciousness of those things, and the film is a reminder that those are the important things. So that was an irony that was not lost on me as I was making the movie.
AVC: You got one of your first breaks on Brian De Palma’s Home Movies, which he shot with his film students at Sarah Lawrence. What was that experience like?
MR: It was incredible. I just managed to develop a relationship with Brian De Palma, who was really mentoring a lot of kids at the time. I was best friends with Keith Gordon at the time, and I became the second A.D. on this super-low-budget Brian De Palma film. It was trial by fire. It was learning everything the hard way, which I think was the point of it. And it was a weird, fun memory, and I learned a lot from him. He’s very rigorous about film grammar and film technique. Whether you like or dislike his films, he thinks deeply about film grammar and visual grammar, and he taught me to be rigorous about that stuff. I think I developed a grammar that was very different than his, but still the principles of thinking about it carefully.