Awards Interview: Mark Romanek Talks ‘Never Let Me Go’

By  · Published on December 28th, 2010

Never Let Me Go, upon its initial release, was met with mixed reactions. It’s a polarizing type of film, never quite fitting the standard sci-fi mold. In truth, it’s more of a love story, which may have surprised some not familiar with the source material. This isn’t Logan’s Run or The Island, although, based on the core storyline, it could be mistaken for as much.

Romanek’s adaptation doesn’t end with an uprising from the clones, but a realistic and truthful ending instead. And though some have trouble getting past Kathy and Tommy not running, Romanek’s passionate about his film’s take on the material and open about the torn critical response.

You’ve said that Never Let Me Go represents what you want to be as a filmmaker. Can you elaborate?

Well, “who I want to be as a filmmaker” (or otherwise) is an evolving thing, as it is for everyone. It’s certainly not that I want to exclusively make sad, literary films. I’d like to make all sorts of films – more fun, commercial films too, perhaps. I guess what I meant (in the context of that particular Q & A) was that I don’t want to be pigeonholed strictly as the ex-music-video guy. Never Let Me Go represents one aspect of my taste in films, a type of film that some people seem to find surprising coming from the same guy who made Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” or Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”

Do you consider Never Let Me Go, in a way, a love letter to filmmaking and art? Tommy wants his work to be loved and accepted, like most artists. Do you sympathize with Tommy in that way?

I do sympathize with Tommy, as I did with all the characters in the film (even Miss Emily, to an extent). But I wasn’t making a “love letter” to anything abstract. I was just trying to be faithful to this book I loved and faithful to Alex Garland’s adaptation.

The tone of the film is very subdued and understated. Was that the feel Alex Garland initially struck in the script? Or is that something you found throughout the making-of process?

Alex implied no specific tone in the script itself. It was implicit that the nature of any Ishiguro adaptation would be somewhat subdued. With the help of my entire team, I was trying to create a visual grammar that might begin to approximate the beauty and deceptive simplicity of Kazuo’s writing style. The themes of the book are quite disturbing, yet the story is told so beautifully and with a great deal of emotional restraint. I was trying to capture that tone. it seemed a bad idea to attempt to impose another.

Narration is really tricky. If not done right, it can easily be heavy-handed. And while there’s not a whole lot of it in the film, can you talk about working with Garland when it came to the amount of information Kathy would offer up through narration?

I think we felt that it was necessary to anchor the film with Kathy’s voice, but to do it gingerly, once per act, and once in summation. There was a certain amount of factual information that was best just spoken directly (rather than attempting to insert it via improbable expository dialogue). We disagreed about the amount of VO at the very end. I always felt that the audience should be left to feel their own feelings without quite so much verbiage there, but I lost that particular creative debate.

How precise and detailed-oriented are you going into a shooting day, both visually and when it comes to dealing with actors? Do you have a clear vision for every tiny detail or is improvisation welcomed on set?

On a film of this budget, you need to begin each day with a clear and achievable shooting plan. My DP Adam Kimmel and I created a shot list for the entire film and generally stuck to it each day. It was not the type of script or story that lent itself to improvisatory dialogue, but there were some visual ideas that were embraced on the day. One wanted to be respectful of Alex’s script, yet not be too inflexible or stiff about how to play the scenes. A lot was determined in rehearsals. I am not a stickler for a certain line-reading, but I certainly try to be a stickler for capturing performances that feel engaging and committed and truthful and alive and original (when possible).

How much do you storyboard? Was your preparation process for Never Let Me Go any different from how you planned your music videos?

I didn’t storyboard this film, but – as I said before – it was completely shot-listed. We sometimes veered from the plan, but rarely. The preparation was similar to some of my music videos only in that there was a great deal of visual research done, and a certain rigor to the design, color palette, and look of the film. I like to develop a set of aesthetic rules for each project and try to stick to them… albeit irreligiously.

You are a filmmaker known for your visuals. How do you stay invisible behind the camera and avoid calling attention to yourself?

Well, some would argue that I don’t. I think there’s a time for a film’s style to call attention to itself and a time for it to recede. Cassavetes, Kubrick, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Welles, they all have very pronounced styles. As do many other filmmakers. I think the exciting thing about telling a movie story is in the way that the “what” of the story and the “how” of it can resonate off of each other. With NLMG, I tried to tell this very British story in a certain kind of Japanese way, so the style seems a bit more Zen or more “invisible” as you put it. In a way, the style also emerged from Kathy’s stoicism and the graceful way that she accepted her fate.

Why do you think Ruth and Kathy are so intent on finding their “originals”?

Oh, for the same reason adopted children are often desperately keen to locate and know about their biological parents – a natural curiosity. It’s also a manifestation of another one of the myths that arose at Hailsham.

Ruth is a character that could be seen as cruel. How did you find the balance between her manipulation and her vulnerable moments of fear?

Well, it’s a balance that was Keira’s challenge as an actress to find and embody and modulate, which I think she did with tremendous subtlety and skill.

We talked a bit about this in our previous interview, but were you at all taken aback by the reaction of “why don’t they escape” from some of the critics and public?

I think “taken aback” is far too strong a way to put it. We discussed it a great deal all through the process of prepping, shooting, and making the film. It’s hard for an audience to believe that a natural will to survive could be brainwashed and/or otherwise modified out of these creatures. It was something that never occurred to me or bothered me while reading the book. If anything, I was excited by the authenticity and daring of this notion. It felt true to me. I was a bit frustrated by some audiences’ inability to appreciate that the whole cloning concept was meant to be experienced as a sort of metaphoric delivery-system for these larger, very Ishiguroan themes – the very human tendency toward self-delusion, an often willful lack of perspective about our lives, and our inability to really grasp the preciousness and brevity of the human life span.

While the film did receive a lot of critical praise, there were some who were mixed and polarized by the film. Were you surprised by the slight divisive reaction?

Yes and no. I knew that the book was beloved by many and that it also didn’t connect with some people. It would be silly to imagine a faithful adaptation would be received any differently. One works hard on these films, so you always sort of hope against hope that it will win everyone over, but that’s not terribly realistic. Kazuo’s story sort of holds up a mirror and that isn’t always the most comfortable sort of entertainment.

What are your thoughts on the test screening process? There’s a scene in the film that can be interpreted as bashing the idea of showing a work in progress, when the other kids ask what Tommy is drawing, and how aggravated he seems to get.

I don’t mind it. It’s a tool that can be used to gauge an audience’s emotional or intellectual connection to the story at any given juncture in the telling. It is a terrifying and unpleasant experience, but – sort of necessary, I think. It is for me anyway, at least until one were to become more masterful at this process, which I am certainly a long, long way away from being. But I find most aspects of feature filmmaking to be pretty terrifying and unpleasant, so – there ya go.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.