Interview: 'Never Let Me Go' Director Mark Romanek - Part 1
by Alex Billington
September 9, 2010
One of my favorite films from Telluride was Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, adapted by Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro's bestselling novel. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield & Keira Knightley, and is a emotional drama about a love story between these three set in a slightly dystopian England (without giving away too much). I loved the film, giving it a 9 out of 10 in my review, and I was very excited to speak with Romanek. Both Peter Sciretta and I interviewed Mark Romanek together and we ended up speaking with him for 45 minutes, so we decided to cut the full interview into two parts - the first of which is below.
This is Romanek's second feature film following One Hour Photo from 2002, so Peter and I decided to start out talking about his background, before getting into the details on Never Let Me Go (watch the trailer here if you haven't yet). Romanek is a fascinating guy and had a lot of great things to say, so if you're interested at all in him (and his history in music videos) or his latest film, you'll definitely want to read through this in its entirety, as we cover a lot of topics. Stay tuned to read Part 2 of our interview tomorrow morning as well!
I wanted to start at the beginning because a lot of people reading this probably don't know your background. I wanted to hear how you got into filmmaking? I know it's been a long, weird road, and I wanted to know if you could tell us a little bit about that.
Mark: Well, my dad bought me a really nice camera when I was 12, and he built me a dark room because his uncle had done that for him. So I learned about real nuts-and-bolts photography at a really young age. And then I loved movies. This is back in the 70's. It was kind of before Jaws and Star Wars so it wasn't that common to decide to want to start being a film director. But I borrowed my uncle's Super 8 camera. It occurred to me like it was this brilliant, original thought that you could take your uncle's camera, and you didn't have to make home movies of your family waving on the beach. You could make a story movie, which there weren't a lot of kids that wanted to be film directors back then. As I say, after Jaws and Star Wars, every suburban kid wanted to be Spielberg. That hit just a few years later. So that desire to make little films coincided with the explosion of 70's cinema, which was arguably the greatest period since the 30's. And so it was like throwing a match on gasoline for me. I just saw such amazing movies, and then I was just hooked. I basically have been doing it ever since. I started when I was 15, and I've been basically doing nothing but thinking about films and making films since then.
Somewhere along the way you got, I don't want to say sidetracked, but you went from film to music videos. It seemed like you went in to do film but ended up becoming a prolific music video director instead. How did that happen?
Mark: Yeah, that's true. I wanted to be a film director, and I made a little film in the 80's. I made a little film in the 80's called Static. And I did it because all my heroes made films before they were 25, and I thought I had to do that, too. But, when I made it, I realized that I wasn't ready to be making a feature film. I wasn't mature enough. I didn't know enough about life. I didn't have any sort of artistic point of view or themes that I had discovered I wanted to explore yet. I hadn't lived enough. I lived kind of a sheltered, suburban life. So I made the film. It actually was very well received in some places as a little cult film. But I think I was self-aware enough to know that something wasn't right about it. And that that was sort arbitrary. Make a film before you're 25. So I used a lot of pop music in the film, an eclectic score of pop music. And I met this guy named Matt Johnson because I used his music in the film. He's in a band called "The The" which was one of my favorite bands at the time.
Back then, there weren't music video directors that had name recognition. It was just like, "Oh, he's a filmmaker. Let's ask him to make a video because we know him and he'll probably do it cheap." There wasn't any of that Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze yet. So he asked me to do a music video, and I made one. It's not very good. It's embarrassing now. But I enjoyed it. I felt like maybe I had a knack for that. So, again, another light bulb went off. And I said, "Maybe if I just stick with this." Because I sensed that something was happening with this music video thing and MTV. That I can use that to kind of bide my time, get paid to learn the craft of filmmaking, try different things out. And then maybe wait until I felt like I had something to say as a filmmaker before I made another feature film." And so what happened was I got really successful at it. It clicked in that way, and so I just stuck with it. I was just kind of on this ride, having this great time, meeting my idols. I was like, "Wow, I just met David Bowie. I just met Keith Richards. I just worked with Iggy Pop. I'm making a video with Beck."
It was all so fun that I forgot. Well, it's not that I forgot. It's like I didn't realize until too late that I was kind of, I don't want to say wasting my prime years making music videos when I could have been making features, because I don't think I wasted them. I don't have those kind of regrets about it. But, in retrospect, I think I just stayed in it about four or five years longer than I should have. I should have just kind of gone cold turkey like a drug and said, "OK, no more videos. Concentrate on movies now." But I kept getting more and more interesting offers that were really hard to turn down like, "Hey, do you want to make a video for, I don't know, Fiona Apple?" And I went, "Yeah, but I really want to make movies." "Well, but listen to this song and watch this video of her." I go, "Oh my god! She's amazing. OK, yeah. I guess I'll make a video for her." And I had a hard time getting out of it.
And you were in there in an era where the music companies were throwing lots of money to make these very cinematic music videos.
Mark: Yeah. I guess I was in the right place at the right time along with a bunch of other guys. And that was part of it, too. It's like there was this exciting sense. [David] Fincher the other day was saying it was like Dogtown and Z-Boys. It was just this moment, particularly at Propaganda and Satellite Films, where you really felt you were part of something going on in the zeitgeist. And people were culturally, on a global scale, they were paying attention to what you were doing. So if you were making this thing, it would be serviced to 17 countries the next day. Back then, it's only 10 years ago or something, they didn't really do movies day-and-date globally. And TV commercials were usually pretty regional. But music videos, if you made a music video, it went out to 22 countries the day you finished the master. That's pretty heady stuff. And to young people, by and large, who are going to have an effect on the culture. And it was very exciting because I had an office. Spike Jonze had an office next to me, and David Fincher was down the hall, and David Lynch was walking around, and Michel Gondry would come over from France to do a video. And we'd all be at the coffee shop at Propaganda talking shop. It was pretty fucking cool.
Someone should make a documentary on this.
Mark: You know, I was talking about that the other day because, again with Fincher, he was comparing it to Dogtown and Z-Boys. And we were saying someone should make a documentary on it. You could make it more far-ranging than just Propaganda and Satellite, but that could be enough. Get it together, man. You should do it.
[laughs] So you made One Hour Photo. It was a modest hit. Cinephiles and critics loved it. But now it's been eight years since that film. Why has it been eight years?
Mark: Well, I had a weird string of good/bad luck. I say good/bad luck because it was bad luck in the sense that I got involved in all these really great projects that sort of hit brick walls for very odd, unpredictable reasons. But I say good luck because I learned a lot. And, most importantly, I got married and had two beautiful children. So I have this life, that's far more precious and rich and fulfilling than making movies, which I love. And so, had the professional side not been problematic, I don't know that things would have worked out that way. So, again, I don't have a lot of regrets about it. In the moment, there was a lot of frustration.
I was deep into pre-production on a film with Tom Hanks called A Cold Case which is based on this stunningly great book by Philip Gourevitch who's a writer for The New Yorker and has written several non-fiction books. I highly recommend that book. We had issues with the life rights at the last minute that torpedoed that project which was crushing to me. I kind of curled up into a fetal position for six weeks because I was so disappointed.
Then I got involved in A Million Little Pieces and I was deep in pre-production on that. I was scouting locations. We were going to shoot it in Milwaukee. And I got a phone call, "Have you seen the Smoking Gun?" I was standing in a ditch near a river in Milwaukee and I got a phone call, "Have you seen the Smoking Gun?" And I go, "No, what?" So when that book was revealed to be somehow fraudulent, that was torpedoed.
And then I got involved in The Wolfman which was exciting because I was going to work with Benicio Del Toro. And I wanted to reinvent that genre and make this dark, rich, intelligent Jungian kind of piece that I was hoping could totally work as populist entertainment and yet be legitimate, like be an intelligent film that might even be critically well-received. And I just could never get on the same page with the producers about what it should be. I think they were scared of doing it the way I was suggesting. There was so much money involved that I ultimately couldn't convince them of my idea of the film. That was really exacerbated by the writers' strike and some serious budget problems, that I thought between all of those things were insurmountable. And by then I had lost my passion for it because the film they wanted was just not something I was that interested in anymore. But I hung in there. Because I had had these other disappointments, I didn't want this one to go away. So I hung in and hung in and hung in and tried to make it work until it was literally three weeks before shooting. And I said, "Guys, I think you should find someone else that can fulfill your vision of it because there's a lot of money involved." And it wasn't actually that acrimonious. It was kind of a mutual thing. It's like, "I think it might be best for you to find someone who's more invested in your idea of the film." So that was pretty much that. And then, you know, with getting married and having two children that was the eight years. And I wrote two screenplays too in that time.
What interests you in the stories that you want to focus on, make films on? It sounds like you have such a wide range even just hearing about the projects you were interested in.
Mark: Yeah, I guess if I feel like I haven't quite seen them before. They're not necessarily… it's hard. You can't find something that's wholly original, but you can find things that feel like I can do something a little bit new here or reinvent something that people have seen before. And, you know, just a good story. And it's something that you're excited enough about that you want to spend 18 months of your life, 18 hours a day doing. That's kind of hard to define.
How did you find Never Let Me Go? Why did you want to make that into a film?
Mark: Well, I read the book the first week that it came out because I'm a just a fan of Ishiguro. I read everything he writes. It made me cry and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I picked it up again to read the beginning. I was kind of curious like with the knowledge of having read it all the way through, I wanted to read it again with that knowledge.
Then I started thinking, to your last question, it's a really original book. The rudiments of the plot maybe we've seen before, but that's not what the film is really about or what the book was really about it. And I just thought it was so, I mean, you're looking for something of quality too. To get to adapt a book by one of the greatest living novelists, come on. It's like what an opportunity. And it's not just one of our greatest living novelists in a vacuum, but someone I am a huge fan of. There was an elementary school class that they asked us to speak at, and it was just me and Ishiguro. And I'm sitting next to him, and I'm going, "I'm fucking sitting next to Kazuo Ishiguro!" So I was drawn to how daring it seemed as a concept, and I was drawn to the sincerity of what he was expressing about our lives.
You spoke at the Q&A about how you didn't want to be auteur on this film. So what was the collaboration like between Ishiguro and [Alex] Garland and you and everybody else?
Mark: Well, I wanted to be an auteur… No, I'm being glib.
I wasn't invited to be the sole creator of this. I was invited by three guys, or four including Kazuo, who had been working on it already for two years and had an idea of the type of film that they wanted to make. And I think they brought me in too because they felt that the film needed to be strongly visual. But we all agreed on what it was essentially about and what was important about it. And we also knew that it was a delicate, strange, original story that was going to take a lot of careful thought and tinkering to get to the screening safely without fucking it up. So between the four of us, five of us including Kazuo because he would be available to us when we really couldn't figure something out, we all kind of came to… Allon Reich was one of them, who you just met. We all had come to agreement on almost every aesthetic issue. But that said, I was supported in my idea of my role in it which was making the tone of the film and creating strong, beautiful images. I feel like it's such a disturbing, the truths that it's expressing can be so disturbing because they're so true [laughs] that, just like his writing, if the film wasn't an aesthetically beautiful experience, it would just be too harsh really. So they really supported me in helping me get my aesthetic idea of the film on screen at the same time. So it was a very, very pleasant experience. I don't want to be insulting, but I would say that it was the opposite of my Wolfman experience.There was enough money. There was enough time. And all a director wants is to be believed in and supported, you know?
You were talking about coming up with the tone and the visuals more than anything. When I was watching the film, it feels very much like the England of the history as we know it. But as the book is, it's an alternate version of history. Was there ever a desire to turn it more into the Children of Men-esque kind of world where it doesn't look like our actual history?
Mark: Well, I want to say also that I didn't just come in to shoot it and make pretty pictures. The performances are foremost, and the way we worked in rehearsals was taken very seriously by me. We can talk about that later. I briefly toyed with the idea with Marco Digby, the production designer, of having… We always knew that the science fiction needed to be extremely subtle. That's the way it is in the book, and that was an exciting challenge. But it was hard to find a template of a film like that. We thought of Fahrenheit 451, Alphaville. But we were having a rough time coming up with other references. And we would look at locations of buildings that were kind of very or slightly futuristic, and it never felt right. One day we just went, I think I just said, "You know what? There shouldn't be any science fiction in this film at all." And everybody got really excited by that. Everybody got really excited by this science fiction film with no science fiction tropes. Because the thing that felt wrong about it to me, and I didn't realize this without going through this process, was that the film is about time and the preciousness of time and how little time we have. And I guess in the back of my mind I felt like we needed to see the effect of time on things. Things needed to be old, not new and worn and not perfect.
And so I was trying also to bring out… I had another instinct which was that Kazuo tends to deny the Japanese-ness of his books. But I think it pervades his books and that's who he is. And what's interesting about it is that weird hybrid between his Japanese sensibilities and British sensibilities, which makes a very original, new kind of alloy.
So I knew I was going to be pointing my camera at British things. So what if I tried to have sort of a Japanese sensibility about it? So I looked at a lot of Japanese cinema, and mostly a Mikio Naruse films which some of them are really brilliant, especially When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Really can't recommend that film highly enough. What was my point? So then because of that, that led me to exploring ideas of Japanese aesthetics, concepts in Japanese aesthetics in art and painting and theater. The production manager tracked down a professor in England on that topic, and I had a couple of meetings with him. And I learned about several Japanese concepts, some of which I knew about.
One of them was this idea of "yugen" which is Y-U-G-E-N, which is the calm surface that belies the deep strong currents underneath. There's a beautiful idea in yugen which comes from Noh theater, which is this idea of the kind of joyful acceptance of the basic sadness of life, which is, I feel like, where Kathy ends up at the end of the film, which is what's so moving to me about it, and was so moving about the end of the book. I don't want to give anything away. And also the idea of "wabi-sabi" which is this idea that things that are broken or rusted or cracked or worn or torn or old are far more beautiful than things that are new and perfect. And another concept, what was the other concept? Another important Japanese concept is of "mono no aware" which some people describe as the "aahhh-ness" of things, like A-A-H-H-H, and this idea of how impermanent things are.
So all of these things were constantly on my mind as we were shooting England, because I was trying to create a visual analog, a tonal analog, to Ishiguro's writing style which is deceptively simple. So I wanted the shots to be simple but filled with all of these resonances. That's a long answer.
That was great. I'm curious about the times that you went to Ishiguro with questions, because you said you went to him a couple times, what kind of questions did you present to the author?
Mark: Oh, they were really specific things, because in a film you have to concretize things that maybe aren't described in the book because you have to make a decision about it. Like I actually came up with the idea of there being a Hailsham school song. There is no Hailsham school song in the book. And I said, well, this whole Hailsham campaign to treat these children like free-range chickens rather than factory farm chickens. They probably didn't have a big budget for it. So it's not like they're going to hire someone to write the school song, so where are they going to get a school song? Well, they'll probably just repurpose a school song from someone. And we had to ask him, "Is that OK with you? Does that sound like a good idea?" And he said, "Yeah, that's a great idea." And they talk about tokens and all they say is, you know for the sales, but that's all they say is tokens. But I as a filmmaker go, "What's the fucking token? Is it a bus token or a tube token or is it a tiddlywink or what is it?" I figured that things are going to be repurposed because they don't have a big budget. So with Marco Digby again the production designer, and my art director Michelle Day, I think Michelle or Mark came up with the idea of tiddlywinks. What if they're tiddlywinks? And I said that's a brilliant idea. So again I said, "Ishiguro, is it OK if they're tiddlywinks?" Because we wanted to be very respectful of his vision of the book.
Those are just a few examples. I think there were some more major examples. Obviously, we checked with him about these bracelets that they wear where they have to scan in so their whereabouts are tracked. That was a fairly bold addition that's not in the book and he understood the reason that was a good idea. Things like that. It was kind of, "Is this OK? Is this OK?"
Thanks for reading the first half of our Telluride interview with Never Let Me Go director Mark Romanek. The second half will be posted up tomorrow morning, so check back then!