The US director talks turning Japanese for his latest film Never Let Me Go.
How cool is your office? It doesn’t matter – it’s not as cool as Mark Romanek’s office when he worked for music video agency Propaganda Films in LA in the mid-’90s.
Romanek worked alongside David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry – the next generation of filmmakers who crossed over from 30-second spots and three-minute promos into the fertile feature ground of Hollywood.
They’d regularly get together after hours, scheming and dreaming their way through grand plans and big ideas. But where Jonze and Gondry were feted as the wonder boys of twenty-first-century pop culture, and Fincher became the digital visionary, Romanek’s path has been less clear-cut. His debut feature, One Hour Photo, was the least aggressive, most classical work of all his peers.
That film was released in 2002, but as his friends flourished, Romanek stalled. An abortive experience with The Wolfman effectively put the director out of action for the rest of the decade. But if his latest film is anything to go by, that absence from the big screen has only sharpened his skills.
Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is both a hugely successful translation and a profound piece of cinema in its own right. As LWLies found out first hand recently, Romanek's return has been nothing less than triumphant.
LWLies: It’s a difficult to film to analyse when you have an emotional response to it. It’s hard to see the joins of it – it’s like a sculpture where you can’t imagine the statue that it used to be.
Romanek: It’s no fun to pick it apart.
Well, it’s a real experience. What occurred to us is that although there is a love story at the core, in almost every scene there is something going on that is desolate or tragic. When you know this is the story you have to tell, how do you approach it so that you aren’t just going to leave the audience with a sense of despair, which is the only sensible way to react to this situation and this world. You can’t surf a movie on waves of anger and despair alone.
Well, it’s Ishiguro. I mean, it’s the book. You take your cue from this great book and what you’re describing is everything a filmmaker looks for, which is tension attached to real emotion attached to a sincere expression about the human condition. Those are the things you look for that give something the potential to have any lasting value. And with a movie, this notion of tension, this notion of why don’t they rail against their fate, and as you said almost every scene has a quality of conflict of desolation, and a quality of oddness. Some of the scenes are really banal, you know, like people ordering food in a diner, or a young child who’s perplexed by something asking a question of one of her teachers. That’s all it is but the context and the metaphor that Ishiguro created renders everything filled with this pathos and tension, and that’s gold for a filmmaker, you know?
The way you consume a book is different from a film in that you can get away from it, get some air and lightness then go back to it. In the cinema…
It can be assaultive.
That’s the thing. There are so few scenes of sunlight in the film that don’t have the promise of rain in them, or rain coming down. It’s always bleak. Not in your face, though.
I guess the message of it, the theme of it, is in your face but the delivery system that Ishiguro employs in his writing is very gentle and very understated and very beautiful, very deceptively simple, and I tried to recreate that dynamic in the visual grammar of the movie because I think that otherwise people would run screaming from the cinema. It’s too harsh, it’s too disturbing a truth that he’s dealing with, which is our mortality, and the fact that we have a limited lifespan. Seeing young people wrestling with this is a very disturbing and poignant thing. But, I mean, I also think what’s beautiful about the story, about Ishiguro’s conception, is how dignified these characters are and what good examples of humanity I think they are.
This is something Kazuo said in the press conference this morning, they’re not after revenge or material wealth or power; they want to acknowledge their love for each other, their friendship becomes important, redressing past mistakes is important, behaving ethically. And that’s quite moving. And also the place of acceptance that Carey’s character Cathy reaches at the end of the film of her circumstances, of her own mortality, is very moving because in a way it’s the most graceful and spiritual attitude you could have towards it really.
We read an interview in which you talked about the Japanese underpinnings. Can you tell us a bit more about the idea of ‘yugen’.
I was trying to get at what makes the tone of the book so original, and I tried to parse it out as a job requirement that I had to accomplish, and I saw in an interview that he said that Japanese cinema of the '50s and '60s was more influential on his work than other writers’ work. So that gave me a clue to maybe focus on what felt like a Japanese sensibility that was overlaid on this very British story. So I came across in my looking into this stuff this notion of ‘yugen’, which is usually applied to Noh drama.
It’s a complex idea and I don’t know that it can be fully translated into Western concepts but one of the things is this notion of the calm surface that belies the stormy, deep, emotional currents underneath, which is the mask in Noh drama. And the other concept is ‘ugen’, which is the joyful acceptance of the essential sadness of life, which is a really beautiful concept. And when you put those two together, you start to describe a lot of Ishiguro’s writing – not everything but a lot of his work. And how that informed the film, I don’t know.
Everything in front of the camera was going to be British by nature – I was going to be filming British people and British buildings and British chairs and saltshakers and British cars – and if it was seen through a filter of my layman’s idea of a Japanese sensibility then it would create this tone, that it would start to approximate the tone of the novel.
In the colour palette there’s a kind of oppressive dinginess.
Everything is faded. You see these resort towns on the coast, it’s a quality of England that I’m aware of that you don’t often see in films. They’re second or third or fifth class citizens so it’s not like there would be anything appropriate about it not being faded. But, you know, a futuristic concept set in the past is very interesting and because the film is about the preciousness of time – how little time we have – everything is sort of worn and faded and old. I tried to be accurate about depicting the time period the way lit might really have been. In one sense. It’s not a kitchen sink naturalistic movie, it’s a romantic, pictorial movie I hope. But at the same time I have certain pet peeves about how things are done poorly in other films, and one of them is that periods are always too – what’s the word? – emblematic.
Things are always too emblematic of the period, whether it’s clothing or hairstyles. Look at us! Who would know this is 2010? Things aren’t that emblematic. There was another concept I came across in my research on Japanese aesthetics, which I knew about from a book called 'In Praise of Shadows', which is a great book, but it’s this notion of ‘wabi sabi’, which is the idea that – which was very radical to write about in the '50s – which was that things that are old and broken and faded and cracked and rusted and frayed are more beautiful than things that are clean and new. Which, in the '50s, people generally speaking didn’t adopt as fact or in any way truthful. So we tried to wabi sabi the movie because, again, the film is about the preciousness of time. I wanted to just see the effect of time in almost everything that was in front of the camera.
It sounds like you had a very precise sense of what you wanted by the time you came to shoot. How much room did that leave for spontaneity, improvisation, etc?
I don’t like the word ‘vision’, the way they talk about the director having a ‘vision’. It’s a pretentious word. You have an idea of the film or something but I kind of see it like you have to have a vision with margins. Every morning people want to know what they’re doing – what to do and why, and you need to be decisive about what you’re trying to accomplish and how to do it. You can’t progress and lead a film crew unless you’re that way.
The problem is on a lower budget movie, this is a $10 million film, you have to be efficient and organised. You can’t go in and go, ‘Okay, we’re going to improvise.’ There’s shit that you’ve got to do that day and you’ve got to have a plan to do it. Luckily this Japanese understated minimalism lent itself to simple coverage. So you have to go in and know what you’re doing, however you can easily be lifeless. You know, the script was kind of perfect. I think one morning I was listening to the book on tape on the way to work and there was a line in the book and I said to Alex, ‘That’s a great line, why did we cut that out?’ He said, ‘You’re right’, and we put it back in. That was like the only change on the whole shoot. But you have to be open to a little spontaneity.
I remember there’s a scene where the three of them drive back after their day trip out to the diner to see Ruth’s possible and Andrew wanted to stick his head out of the window and just feel the wind in his hair. We had rigged the whole car up – lights and scaffolding and all this stuff – so it was very difficult to just crank the window down, and the light was fading. But I said, ‘Get that window cranked down. I don’t care how long it takes. We gotta do it quickly because we’re losing the light but get the fucking window cranked down because that’s a good instinct and it’s going to make the scene more interesting.’ Little things like that.
Did you find that your approach to Andrew [Garfield] and Carey [Mulligan] and Keira [Knightley] had to be very different in terms of how you get the best performance out of them?
Yeah. I don’t know that I did a very good job of it because I tried to ultimately just stay out of their way because they’re very intelligent, professional, thoughtful, sensitive actors. I tried to set a tone in the rehearsals – get everyone on the same page so to speak. We actually art directed the rehearsal space so they could get immersed in the context of the movie. But then after that I tried to just have a quiet, secure space for them to do their job and I was usually just astonished each day.
I mean, Keira always wants to know the ‘why’ in what she’s doing; Andrew likes to be fed certain information during rehearsal that he can use and once he’s ingested that he really needs to be left alone frankly; same with Carey. Carey is very clear about what she wants to do. She’s kind of a minimalist. It actually emboldened me to go even further. When I started to see how she was playing it, it emboldened me to go further in my, kind of, Japanese influences. All three of them are pretty great.
I think Keira is more cerebral; Andrew’s very physical, he’s very inspired, he thinks about movement a lot; and Carey is very intuitive – she sort of works in a mystical way. She embodies yugen, I think, in the sense that she seems to do very little on the surface but is radiating enormous depth.