Never Let Me Go: Interview with director Mark Romanek

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Mark Romanek is the director of "Never Let Me Go," starring Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan. The film, which based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, is being released by Twentieth Century Fox on September 15, 2010.

Says Romanek, “Many science-fiction films are about attempts to escape from some oppressive government or the like, but in our film, the opposite is true. These characters don't escape because they've been taught since birth to feel a sense of pride and duty about their place in this alternate society, terrible though it may be.  Also, they don’t run, in part because there is nowhere to go. The film is about the urgency of embracing the people you love in the moment because time is so short.  With NEVER LET ME GO, I wanted to make an unashamedly beautiful and un-ironic film.  Our hope was to sweep audiences into the world Ishiguro created. It was especially important to me that the film be romantic, and an aesthetically pleasing experience, because the truth that this film explores is a bittersweet one.”


Ishiguoro's novel to the screen


“I had a powerful and strange reaction to this story, which I felt was so daring and beautiful.  I could not stop thinking about it and I began to dream about making it into a movie,” Romanek says.  


Romanek was also thrilled by Garland’s adaptation. “It was a really deft, intelligent distillation of the complex ideas and emotion of the book,” he observes.  “Just as I had at the end of the book, I wept at the end of the script.  Alex writes in a very minimalist mode.  This script was very lean and direct, and that was exciting because this script felt like it was just waiting for a filmmaker to put flesh on its bones.” 


That process turned Romanek’s initial dreams of the movie into reality. He concludes:  “What excites me is that there’s not a single scene in this film that I’ve quite seen before.  The nature of the story renders every human interaction, no matter how seemingly familiar, somehow strange, filled with tension and pathos.  The science fiction aspect of the story, issues of ethics and morality are things that will be debated, but for me, the focus was always that this is first and foremost a love story, one that is greatly intensified by a terrible truth and this conceit of an artificially condensed human life."


On his cast


“Carey is the perfect actress for an Ishiguro story,” says director Mark Romanek.  “She is one of those artists who have a natural allergy to cliché. Her performance is in an outwardly minimalist mode, but the depth that it radiates is profound.  She has a relationship with the camera, an understanding of how little she needs to do to communicate a great deal. To be honest I was, at first, intimidated by how unique her talent is, and in some ways struggled to find ways to assist her. What I was able to offer her was to create a secure place to work; and to aesthetically create the environment, with the help of the cinematography and production design, to allow her to really feel the atmosphere of this world.  Carey’s style of acting actually started to inform the structure of the film, it dovetailed so beautifully with my ideas of Ishiguro’s style. And she helped me fine tune the visual grammar that I was trying to create as an analog to Ishiguro's prose."


Adds Romanek, “Carey and Keira being friends in real life brought that tangible sense of closeness to their performances.  I don’t think two actresses who were strangers, no matter how good, could have replicated that in that same way.”


On his male lead, Andrew Garfield: “I instantly became a big fan of Andrew when I saw him in both LIONS FOR LAMBS and BOY A.  He brings a sensitivity and originality to how he approaches things, which means he's always watchable and surprising.”


For Romanek, the trio of Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield added up to more than the already substantial sum of their parts.  “They would continually stun me with the emotional intelligence that they brought to their roles, and yet would always approach their work with a sense of fun and lightness. They each work in their own way — Andrew works in a very immediate, surprising way, Keira I think comes more from the head and Carey is this incredible alchemist – but together they gave everything to make this story as engrossing and meaningful as possible. They don't just say the lines. These actors create works of art, which is astonishing given their age."  


The film's design


“I wanted to create a visual experience that mirrored my personal experience of having read the book,” explains Romanek, “I had very specific ideas about how to do that.  We all agreed the film should be devoid of typical sci-fi imagery and that felt exciting to everybody. Instead, we wanted the feeling that there is something off, something slightly fantastical running through it, yet to also have the feeling of something very real taking place.”  


“There were no real reference points, which was exciting,” says Romanek of his locations.  “The only other film I could think of that was vaguely similar was FAHRENHEIT 451 [based on the Ray Bradbury novel], but this was still quite different. Our strategy was to start with the three main locations, which each seemingly represent well known institutions:  a school, a farm and a hospital.  The fundamental secret of the film was to make these three seemingly very relatable places seem rather strange and alien in non-specific ways.  That is the fantastic tension in Ishiguro’s novel.”  


For visual inspiration, Romanek went back to one of Ishiguro’s favorite filmmakers, the Japanese director Mikio Naruse, who in the 50s and 60s made “shomin-geki” (working-class drama) films, rich with elegant storytelling and stripped-back imagery.  “There’s a quality of restraint and simplicity in Naruse, as well as deep pathos, which matches with Ishiguro,” says the director.  “His films have a fascination with transience, impermanence and the value of time.  We didn’t want to imitate his style but watching his films and other Japanese cinema of that period definitely influenced the way I thought about things.”