Never Let Me Go isn’t Logan’s Run. With its concept, you’d imagine its setting being futuristic and dystopian. Instead, director Mark Romanek has made an alternate universe period piece. The film feels timeless, as if the universe got stuck in the 1950’s. There’s nothing overtly sci-fi about it.
Being the character piece that it is, it never really focuses on the ethics of cloning; a word not once mentioned in the film. No character gives a rousing speech about how wrong this concept is and that they need to, “Fight back!” Romanek doesn’t think the film argues the ethical side of cloning, because it’s unquestionably wrong and that it doesn’t need to be argued in the first place.
And while I could have asked Romanek a thousand questions about his return to the big screen, we mainly covered the two topics discussed above as well as the film’s commentary on art and the style of the film.
Here’s what Mark Romanek had to say.
I know you’ve said how you didn’t want to go into the ethical questions of cloning, but couldn’t you argue that the film does a little bit?
No. I don’t think it does. I mean, I think you can have those discussions about it after the fact, but it’s not about that. The science fiction conceit of the film is a metaphor and a way to talk about these more universal themes. The universal theme is that there’s this notion our lives are limited, and when we can’t push that notion into the back of our minds anymore, what do we decide is important? What do we decide is an important use of that limited time?
You know, Ishiguro wanted to write a story where young people’s lives were constrained to twenty-five or thirty years because he thought that was going to be an interesting way to explore those themes. He was searching for any sort of science fiction gimmick that would allow him to do that in an elegant way. At one point, he was considering having them exposed to radiation. So the idea of cloning is not what the film is about, but it was a manner where he could create this parable about this love story that explores our mortality.
The scene that made me think of the ethical side is where Tommy and Kathy go to visit the heads of Hailsham and they say how they were one of the few places that explored the ethics of cloning and they mention the idea of souls.
That’s the manifest content of the story, but that’s not what the story is about.
I’m not trying to say that’s what the film is about. I don’t think it is, but that that scene does bring up the ethics of cloning.
Oh, yeah. Clearly, listen, with creating human clones and raising them in battery farms or even a nice environment like Hailsham to harvest their organs there’s nothing to debate. It’s a horrific conception. There is no debate. It’s like saying you made a film that debates apartheid, there’s no debate (laughs). It’s a terrible thing. It’s a metaphor. As all good literary science fiction does, it creates a metaphor to talk about things that are really relevant in a more universal way.
You did a nice and simple text scroll at the beginning to help set up the world. Can you talk about working on the script with Alex Garland, in terms of finding the right way to introduce the world?
Well, I didn’t work with him in any fundamental sense of changing his adaptation. He had done an excellent adaptation of the book, but the reason I knew it was excellent was because it was a page-turner, and I cried at the end just like I did in the book. I felt it captured the essence of the story without losing much. He had done a very smart job of editing the book into a hundred-page screenplay.
I did go through the script page by page and went through the entire book with him over an 11 marathon session with Alex [Garland] and the producers, Allon [Reich] and Andrew [Macdonald], because he did write a very lean script and it was very essential. They all admitted that a director needed to come in and flesh it out a little bit, but I didn’t change anything structurally or fundamentally about what Alex had done.
How did you want to go about introducing the world itself?
Well, we didn’t initially have that title card at the beginning. When we previewed the film once or twice to audiences, they became a little confused about the rules and that it was an alternate history. They became so concerned about that in the first act of the movie they weren’t really engaging the film emotionally and they were still trying to figure out all the rules with whether or not it was the past or the future. That seemed like our most direct and elegant way to get that taken care of, so it would give people a chance to be taken away by the love story and not worry about the rules of the world.
Did you find that odd, though? I feel like if that text was taken out it’d be just as easy to get into it.
Well, we found it weird, but that’s just the way it was. When you shoot a bunch of scenes of a movie and you put it all together and put it in front of an audience, there’s always unexpected reactions and maybe your intentions don’t come off clearly; that’s the advantage of the preview process. A lot of directors think that the preview process is so scary because you have to present something that is unfinished to people, but I find it pretty helpful in that way. You do find out what you’ve done successfully and what you didn’t do successfully, what’s clear and what isn’t, and where people are bored or when people are ahead of you. Those are important things to find out.
The interesting thing about the world is how it feels like a period piece as if it’s stuck in the 1950’s. Was that a stylistic approach from the book?
It’s the idea from the book that history took a slight tangent sometime after World War II and, instead of breakthroughs in nuclear science and physics, there were instead breakthroughs in bioengineering. That’s Ishiguro’s conception that human cloning and genetic engineering became the fabric of this alternate culture, much like nuclear weapons and nuclear culture has done in ours.
The book doesn’t really have any hard science fiction tropes and there’s no mention of gadgets or futuristic buildings, so it didn’t seem appropriate. What seemed more appropriate and original to me was the idea it was a futuristic conception that took place in the past, and that’s what I got excited about as a filmmaker. As I read the book, I thought, “I’ve never quite seen something like that.” I mean, there are some films that are a bit like that with Fahrenheit 451 and Alphaville, but it just seemed like an opportunity to create a slightly new tone for a science fiction film.
And when it comes to the tone, on paper the film could read as very dark. It is, but not bleakly so. Do you see the more elegant side of the film as a way of balancing the feel of the movie, with it not being completely gritty?
I think that what the book is telling you is that life is short, and that’s a tough message to be reminded of. I feel like Ishiguro’s writing and sentences are so beautiful and that his manner is so restrained that he would inject these difficult truths with a lot of gentleness. I felt that the film needed to have that same gentleness and beauty. Otherwise, it would just be all too blunt and too gritty. I didn’t feel like that would be as evocative of an experience for an audience to be told a harsh truth in a blunt way. It’s not very artful, so it was my task to create some sort of analog to Ishiguro’s style.
Possibly one of the darkest ideas in the film is the idea of being raised in an environment without affection or love. With that type of setting, where do you think they learned to love?
I think they would bond with each other and they found the affection where they could, and I think that’s why Tommy, Kathy, and Ruth and certainly other students at the school form such a tight bond. A part of the tragedy of the film and the motion of the film is the coming together and pulling apart of these very, very bonded young people. I didn’t go to an English boarding school, but a lot of the guys on the crew did and they would explain the intensity of the relationships that you make there and that they’re very, very strong because of the environment. So this is even more exaggerated because of the nature of Hailsham. It’s something we discussed in rehearsals.
There was a book I referred the actors to that was a book about the psychology of orphans and children who grew up in foster care, and I think Andrew in particular found that as useful information. We didn’t want them to behave like aliens because they’re clones. I didn’t want them to behave so strangely that they weren’t relatable. The whole cloning idea, again, is a metaphor. Kathy states it quite clearly in the end that they’re not really that different from the people whose lives they saved. You’re hopefully watching a film about yourself and not some weird creatures that behave strangely. There needed to be some psychological truth to this notion that they were institutionalized and parent-less.
With how they’re raised to it kind of makes that argument of, “Why don’t they escape?” a bit ridiculous. Did you see it that way?
Yeah, it doesn’t occur to them to escape. They’re proud and have a lot of dignity about the service they’re providing for this very different society that’s not our society, it’s this “What if?” society that Ishiguro created. It’s also that it wasn’t the story Ishiguro was interested in telling. He’s interested in the ways in all of his books how we tend to not escape our fates. He would make really eloquent analogies to cancer patients who were given a six-month terminal diagnosis and they don’t runoff to climb Mount Everest or bungee jump. They continue in their routines.
People stay in their marriages that are unloving or abusive and people stay in jobs they’re unfulfilled by. He’s simply more interested in and feels it’s more of an exploration of human behavior and how people tend to not escape their fates. But I understand people may have a knee-jerk because in most films that’s how these stories are told, but that’s not the story he wrote.
One thing I always like to ask directors who’ve worked in music videos is going from a format where you get to be unrelenting and be able to go wild versus film where you’re usually more subdued. Is there a big difference to you working with those different sensibilities?
Well, it all depends on the assignment. Obviously if you’re adapting an Ishiguro novel, there’s understatement and restraint in a certain elegant pace from the nature of how he writes. I didn’t really take too much from music videos that I can use in my film work other than developing a comfort in the craft side of filmmaking. I’ve made so many music videos and commercials that the technical side of filmmaking is no longer that mysterious to me, which is a good thing. It allows me to focus my energy and attention on the more important aspects of making a film, which is modulating the storytelling and helping your actors do their most interesting work, and those are things that matter in telling a movie’s story in over one hundred and twenty minutes. I would hate to be a first time director and all the technical stuff was new. That would be too overwhelming.
You’ve said how Never Let Me Go represents what you want to be as a filmmaker. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
The music videos were assignments to be fulfilled. I was in a type of service industry. But One Hour Photo and this new film are expressions of one type of film I’ve always wanted to make. I don’t intend all my films to be so melancholy, but the chance to collaborate on an Ishiguro adaptation is a far more personally fulfilling experience than any music video. My point is: I didn’t grow up dreaming of one day making music videos. They didn’t exist then in the form they eventually took during the MTV years. I grew up dreaming of making films.
Lastly, a big theme of the film is the importance of art. There’s the scene where Tommy hopes that his art is recognized and appreciated to prolong death and to survive. As a filmmaker and artist yourself, was that something that heavily resonated with you?
I believe that art can be expressive of someone’s inner life and their souls. I don’t believe there’s any method to stave off on mortality. It’s like the Woody Allen joke, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” Once you’re dead, it’s nice if the work sort of goes on, but it’s of no real comfort when you’re dead. I take pleasure in the making of things, the creation of things, and being involved in a creative endeavor and collaborating with other people. That I find useful, fulfilling, and an enjoyable way to spend my time, but how it comes out? Whether it comes out well and can live on in any sort of way beyond you is sort of gravy and it’s not really the point for me.
Never Let Me Go is now in theaters.