The dystopian drama “Never Let Me Go” wasn’t supposed to be the movie Mark Romanek directed this year.
Thank goodness for creative differences.
Hollywood dishes out bad luck without prejudice, but the show business fates have been especially unkind to the 50-year-old filmmaker behind 2002’s creepy Robin Williams stalker film “One Hour Photo.” The distinguished commercial and music video auteur (he directed Apple’s iconic iPod silhouette ads with U2, and Johnny Cash’s poignant “Hurt” video) had seen his last three film projects fall apart one after the other, typically just weeks before cameras were set to roll.
In the beginning of 2008, years after his Tom Hanks film “A Cold Case” and his adaptation of James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” went off the rails, Romanek departed Benicio del Toro’s “The Wolfman” at the last minute in a dispute with Universal Pictures about the film’s readiness and budget. (He would be replaced by Joe Johnston, and the resulting film, released in February, proved to be a costly critical and commercial failure.)
“It seemed like a good thing, but it didn’t end up being a good thing for me to become involved with,” he says. “We never got on the same page about what the movie should be.”
The years since “One Hour Photo” had hardly been lost: In addition to all of his commercial and music video work, Romanek had started a family. “I got married and had two beautiful children,” he says.
But with three straight movies breaking down for different reasons, he suspected he needed to look in another professional direction — away from big studio films and their countless contingencies and compromises, and toward something more personal and manageable and important.
Something like “Never Let Me Go,” in other words.
“I just realized there was a type of movie at that point in my career that I should be doing,” says Romanek, who is an American (and looks like a younger version of British director Mike Leigh) living in London. “What directors want is to find someone who believes in them, and wants them.”
Fox Searchlight, which had made “One Hour Photo” with Romanek, was in that camp.
The studio had been developing screenwriter Alex Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go” and was looking for a director. Romanek knew the book well.
“I had read it the week it was published, and I had read it again,” he says. “Because I was so haunted by it.” Soon after the novel was published in 2005, Romanek asked his talent agent to explore the book’s film rights, only to find that Garland — a longtime friend of Ishiguro’s — had beaten him.
But three years later, with so many false starts on the other movies behind him, it looked like Romanek’s luck was changing. Fox Searchlight asked him to direct Garland’s “Never Let Me Go” script.
“Mark had a tremendous specificity of visual style that really fit the world of ‘Never Let Me Go,’” says Claudia Lewis, Fox Searchlight’s production president. “It’s recognizable but slightly other. It’s an off-world.”
About a year after he was supposed to start work on “The Wolfman,” Romanek was filming “Never Let Me Go.” Now the movie — premiering at this weekend’s Telluride Film Festival and arriving in theaters on Sept. 15 — has emerged as one of the fall’s most provocative and unsettling releases, a probable awards contender in any number of categories.
Something that certainly can’t be said of “The Wolfman.”
It’s not directly evident — that’s the way Romanek wanted it — but almost everywhere you look in “Never Let Me Go,” things are starting to fall apart. A sweater might have a small hole, the upholstery on a chair might be a bit ratty, a teacup chipped.
In most other movies, such wear and tear could just be a production designer’s partiality for authentic detail, but then you start to notice other small things in Romanek’s frame and sound mix, particularly the countless ticking clocks. The message is subtle but unmistakable: Time is running out, and the film’s characters are powerless to do anything about it.
“Never Let Me Go” is a science fiction film with none of the conventions of the genre. There are no rocket ships, alien life forms or sentient computers — just a group of outwardly normal schoolchildren and young adults whose lives will be truncated by a procedure forebodingly referred to as “donation” that ends in “completion.”
“I never wanted it to be a science-fiction film in terms of its being fantastical. I wanted it to be relatable,” says Romanek. “We said, ‘Let’s make a science-fiction film that doesn’t have any tangible science fiction in it.’”
To discuss the narrative themes of the movie and the book without spoiling both is more than a little complicated, but the film’s trailer (as well as reviews of the novel from the author of “The Remains of the Day”) hints at what might be happening in the story’s seemingly idyllic English countryside.
Tommy ( Andrew Garfield, who’s starring in the forthcoming “The Social Network” and Sony’s “Spider-Man” reboot), Ruth (“Pride & Prejudice’s” Keira Knightley) and Kathy (“An Education’s” Carey Mulligan) are classmates at Hailsham, a British boarding school that seems acutely keen on monitoring its students, tracking their health and not letting them travel beyond campus boundaries. “Students at Hailsham are special,” head of school Miss Emily ( Charlotte Rampling) tells her young charges. But it’s not the same sort of generic praise that children often receive.
Indeed, these students are told that their lives have been set out for them, as unalterable as the seasons or the tides. As they grow older, Tommy and Kathy try to find out if that prophecy can in any way be modified: if the couple has free will or, equally important to the plot, souls. “Never Let Me Go” might be a love story, but it’s also a tragedy, a romance as doomed as “Romeo and Juliet,” a view of medical progress as disquieting as “Brave New World.”
“It’s very difficult not to moved by Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel,” Garfield says. “He’s dealing with universal themes about what it means to be alive and what you choose to do with the little time that you do have.”
Garland, who wrote the novel and the script for “The Beach,” obtained an early copy of the book from Ishiguro and brought it to London-based producer Andrew Macdonald, who had collaborated with Garland on director Danny Boyle’s films “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.”
“It just took a long time to find the right elements to put it together,” Macdonald says. “It was not ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’ It was not a book that was selling 25 million copies.”
Garland’s script, as it lay fallow, was listed among the best unproduced screenplays, a small consolation. Peter Rice, the then-head of Fox Searchlight, said to Macdonald, “It’s a fantastic script. But is it a movie?”
Rice had called up Romanek just after he had left “The Wolfman,” hoping to cheer him up. “He called to say, ‘How are you?’” Romanek says. “He said, ‘You’ll work again. I’ll hire you in a heartbeat.’”
He did as he promised.
Like his other novels, Ishiguro’s book is exceedingly patient, driven as much by language and interior thought as action. The chess-playing Garland, Romanek believes, was able to make the novelist’s story cinematic. “He managed to not only distill the emotional essence of the book but also selected and ordered scenes in a way to make it into a movie,” Romanek says.
Still, the pressure to get it right was considerable. “I feel a huge responsibility to Ishiguro and to the book,” says Garland. “I love the book, so the last thing I want to be is the guy who screwed it up.”
While staying close to the novel, Garland and Romanek added small sequences and details not found in the source material, including a scene in a hospital and having the film’s children and young adults carry some sort of microchip in their wrists that records their movements.
To ensure that his cast related to each other as if they were lifelong friends, Romanek spent much of his rehearsal time not working directly on the script but sharing personal stories. It was a metaphysical salon, a place for the actors and director to discuss big ideas like destiny and love. “We felt like we all needed to be a family,” Garfield says. “And to be a family you need to be able to sit in silence and be comfortable with each other’s company.”
Romanek’s interest in distressing costumes, furniture and sets grew out of his emphasizing the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which holds that things gather (rather than lose) beauty with age. “Nothing in the film is new. Everything is rusted or used or worn out,” Romanek says. “I would say, ‘Tear a hole in that fabric, it’s too new.’”
Says Fox Searchlight’s Lewis: “He has an odd sort of fascination with mechanical things — slightly creepy and anachronistic things.” The movie, she believes, “is both ethereal and oddly tactile.”
Unusual even for a film from a specialized distributor such as Fox Searchlight, where Rice’s successors Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley completed the film, “Never Let Me Go” leaves many things unsaid, excising to a large measure the novel’s protracted closing expositional scene.
“I think there is something more cinematic and visceral about a movie experience” than reading a book, Romanek says. “It can be more engrossing and overwhelming on an emotional level. You don’t want to short-circuit that with too much information. Our challenge was to create a visual analog to [Ishiguro’s] unique voice. And one of the characteristics of that voice is a drip-feed of information.”
As it turned out, some members of the “Never Let Me Go” preview audiences were thrown by what the film intentionally left vague. Was it unfolding in the real England of the late 1990s, or some parallel reality? Romanek worried that the audience was so busy trying to sort that out that it wasn’t hooking into the story’s emotions, its chronicle of first love. So working with Ishiguro, Romanek and Garland added a new opening card that reads:
“The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952
“Doctors could now cure the previously incurable
“By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years”
As the movie makes clear, that breakthrough came at an unimaginable price. And that’s the heartbreak of “Never Let Me Go.”
“I just think it’s a sad and beautiful story,” Romanek says. “It’s a parable of how brief our lives are, and how we forget that.”
Los Angeles Times correspondent Mark Salisbury contributed to this report.