Known for both his music videos (including the direction of most famously, Nine Inch Nail’s "Closer" and Johnny Cash’s cover of "Hurt") as well as his feature film work (having written and directed 2002’s One Hour Photo) Mark Romanek was responsible, last year, for the critically acclaimed adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s bestselling novel, Never Let Me Go.
Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, Never Let Me Go is a story of love and mortality against a science-fiction background.
With the film hitting DVD and Blu-ray this week, Romanek spoke with CraveOnline about the film, it’s genre-defying structure and what he hopes his creative future has to offer.
CraveOnline: When did "Never Let Me Go" begin for you? I assume you were a fan of the book?
Mark Romanek: Well, I don’t know if I can remember exactly the start. I’m not good with that stuff. But I read the book just as it was published and was a big fan. I was really haunted by the book. I had a very strong reaction to it. I heard that Fox Searchlight had the rights to it and I had done "One Hour Photo" there. I called Peter Rice, who was running the studio then. He said another director was attached, so I was pretty disappointed. I got involved with some other things and got a call probably two years later asking, "Are you still interested in ‘Never Let Me Go’?" I said, "Yeah, I sure am." So I went and met the producers and pitched them about what kind of film I would do. They seemed to like that and it just went from there.
Crave: Can you talk a little about the film as it fits into the science fiction genre? There’s been some fan discussion about whether or not someone should even know about the science fiction elements before sitting down to watch it.
Romanek: Yeah, it’s complex and I know that Ishiguro doesn’t like the idea of it being called science fiction because he thinks that it’s misleading. That the science fiction aspects of it are really just a delivery system for the larger themes. I was making a love story. I was aware that there was a science fiction premise behind it, but that word is so subjective. It conjures so many tropes that the film doesn’t contain. When I was first working on the design of the film and the look of the film, I assumed that there would be some science fiction tropes. I thought there would be the occasional futuristic building or some kind of gadget here or there, but every time I considered those things, it just didn’t feel right until, ultimately, we decided that maybe it was just a science fiction with no science fiction tropes in it, really. That seemed like the most exciting and original way to approach. But I think that if people go in expecting a science fiction film, they might be disappointed. But, at the same time, it does have those elements, so it’s a little hard to pin down.
Crave: Can you tell me a little about recording the song that the title references? It’s a very key element from the original story.
Romanek: Well, I had assumed that we were going to have to make up a song. But I thought, "Well, if we can kind of find a song and get the original tracks and replace the vocals, it would sound much, much more authentic, like a found object." It’s very, very hard to replicate the sound of those original recordings. So I basically just went to iTunes and discounted all the standard versions of that song, "Never Let Me Go", which just wasn’t the right kind of song. Then I stumbled across this Lloyd Price version and loved it. I played it for everybody and they all thought it was fantastic. It also seemed obscure enough that it wouldn’t really be recognized by most people. We had access to the original masters, but the vocals weren’t really recorded discreetly from the track. So George Darkoulias, my music supervisor, did an exquisite job of recording a period-style recording and we got an incredible singer named Jane Monheit. We tried to record the whole thing with vintage microphones and actually re-recorded it coming out of a crappy cassette player. We went to a lot of pains to make it sound authentically like a found object.
Crave: It’s been some time since your last film, "One Hour Photo". What do you look out for when moving into a new project?
Romanek: It’s not entirely a process of me being so selective. I tried to make a couple of films that ran into some weird sort of problems and delays and I got involved in a few that I worked on for years that I left just before we started shooting. So I was busy trying to make certain films that just didn’t happen. But I have some criteria that I think is pretty subtle in that the first question I ask is, "Is this moving me? Am I emotionally engaged in the story? Is it something that the writer or the novelist seems to be expressing in a sincere way?" Then after that, I ask, "Have I seen it before?" I’m looking for things that seem sincere, but also daring and fresh. It’s really hard to find that combination. You sometimes find one and not the other. So I thought "Never Let Me Go" had that in spades. Ishiguro’s world is so original. Some of the plot elements, sure, are similar to this or that other film, but tonally and thematically, the story is very original and very moving. I wept at the end of the book and I actually find the film moving just because of the performances by the actors.
Crave: Speaking of actors, you come from a music video background which captures the visual element of directing but not really the actor performance side of directing. Your films, though, are very character-based and I’m curious if that was a big shift for you.
Romanek: It’s totally different. I never made narrative music videos, really. Everything was always sort of jumbled and fractured and enigmatic. Usually dealing with actors is just telling people to be at eleven the whole time. You want it to be as exciting as possible. Making a feature film, particularly an adaptation of an Ishiguro novel, is very much a tapestry of subtetly. It’s not easy to answer that question succinctly, really.
Crave: Tell me a little about coming in to an adaptation. You wrote "One Hour Photo" and you wrote "Static" with someone.
Romanek: I think you have to have a deep personal connection to whatever you’re doing whether you wrote it yourself or you didn’t. But early on in the process of "Never Let Me Go", I wasn’t as personally connected to the material as if I had written that script, let alone the novel. I could never write a novel that stunning. So you come in with a vision of the film — or an idea of the film. I prefer "idea" of the film because it doesn’t sound quite so pretentious — with all that detail in your head. But you have to allow for other people’s input and collaboration so it doesn’t just become a dead thing. At a certain point, there’s no difference whether I wrote it or not. If don’t connect with it, there’s no motivation to get up in the morning at 5:30 and work for 16 hours.
Crave: Tell me a little about your cast. Who came aboard the project first?
Romanek: Well, we didn’t think that we could cast the film until we found the perfect Kathy. We were actually having a bit of trouble finding the right actress for her and the head of the studio at the time, Peter Rice, saw the premiere of "An Education" at Sundance in 2009. He wrote us a text in the middle of the screening saying, "Hire the genius Mulligan". It was just so obvious to him that this girl was amazing. So we screened that film about a week later. We got that same Sundance print shipped to London and screened it. We were astonished to Carey’s performance in it as the rest of the world would be in a few months. We offered her the part and when she came on board, Keira Knightley’s agent contacted us and said, "Have you cast the role of Ruth? Because Keira loves the script and is anxious to work with her good friend Carey." So then we had Carey and Keira and Andrew Garfield was always the one to beat for me. I saw him in a film called "Boy A", which is an amazing film and an amazing performance. It just wasn’t as widely seen as "An Education". I always wanted Garfield and really don’t think we could have gotten three more perfect English actors for those roles.
Crave: It seems pretty incredible because, a year ago, these were names that no one was that familiar with and now they’re on the precipice of being instantly recognizable.
Romanek: I think they’re instantly recognizable to people in the business and to people who follow these things. One of the problems with the film when it played theatrically was that I don’t think people knew who Carey and Andrew were yet. People in New York and LA and Chicago knew and they’re starting to be known after "The Social Network".
Crave: What’s up next for you?
Romanek: I don’t know. I wrote an original script that I might make, but I’m also developing a black comedy with Ben Stiller that could be the next thing. But I’m also reading script, looking for something to do. So I’ve got a number of things on the burner.
Crave: Is there a dream project for you?
Romanek: I’d like to make a hard science fiction film someday, but I don’t have anything specific in mind. But I’m excited about these things I’m developing now. I don’t know what a dream project would be. Maybe if I could adapt a J.D. Salinger novel. (Laughs) That’s probably the cinematic equivalent of a suicide mission, though. It would be impossible to please everyone with an adaptation of Salinger, but he’s my favorite writer.
Crave: Oh, of course. But he was never a fan of adaptations.
Romanek: Well, you never know. Things might change now that he’s passed on.
Crave: Speaking of adaptation, "Never Let Me Go" is a novel with a very big fanbase. When you’re adapting something like that, is there an element of giving up something of yourself to please that element?
Romanek: Well, it’s a collaborative experience. I made the film with Alex Garland and the producers, Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich. They had been developing the project for two years before I became involved. They wanted to hire someone who was going to collaborate with them. I wasn’t just going to go off like an auteur and make the film on my own. So it was sort of a team effort where the goal was to be very faithful to the book, but not so faithful that the film wouldn’t work in its own right. I wasn’t really crippled with fear about it. I sort of had a clear idea of what I thought the film should be tonally and pursued that each day. You can’t really go in in the morning and give yourself extra reasons to be stressed out. I had a strange confidence that I felt such a detailed affinity for the book and a clear idea that, if I succeeded at that, it would be a de facto faithful version of the book. We certainly weren’t intending to stray from it.
Crave: You mention wanting to do a full-on science fiction and your first film has sci-fi elements. I’ve also read that "2001" was one of your big inspirations to be a filmmaker. What is it about the genre that draws you in?
Romanek: I read a lot of sci-fi as a kid. A lot of sci-fi novels. "2001" was a big, kind of mind-blowing thing to see when you’re 13 years old. I love a lot of science fiction films. The tricky thing is that so much of it has been picked over and repurposed for various films. It’s hard to thinks of something that could be as seminal as "2001" or "Alien" or "Blade Runner" or "The Matrix". It’s hard to come up with something really new. So until I feel like I found something that could be as new as those films, I’ll probably let it go.
Crave: You mentioned a dark comedy with Ben Stiller. "One Hour Photo" is a very dark film as well, even if you wouldn’t call it comedy. Is that darker side of human nature something that intrigues you?
Romanek: Well, I don’t particularly think of "Never Let Me Go" as a dark film. It’s a metaphor for our own mortality and that our lifespans are of limited length. But that’s not dark. That’s just fact. You may choose to interpret that as dark, but I think that one of the things that’s moving about the film is that Kathy finds a way to really reach a graceful place of acceptance about that, which you kind of have to because there’s no way around it.
Crave: No, I agree — but "One Hour Photo" definitely has a dark streak.
Romanek: I don’t think I’m ever going to be attracted to fluffy things. Or romps. Or rom-coms. Listen, this thing I’m developing with Ben is extremely funny, but it’s very human and has dark moments. Actually, if anything, I’d like to explore more of a comic side to my personality. Most people that know me know I have it, but most others don’t know I have one. I don’t know. I just want to make all kinds of films. Eventually, when I get more films under my belt, I want to be the guy that you can’t really pin down about what types of films I can or can’t make. I’d like to try and do everything.
Never Let Me Go is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.