Mark Romanek on Never Let Me Go and Who'd Pull Him Out of Music-Video Retirement

romanek_nmlg_500.jpgIt took a while (and a studio debacle over The Wolfman), but Mark Romanek finally has a second feature under his belt. And it's not wanting for prestige: Opening today in limited release, Never Let Me Go features Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield as a trio of school friends turned romantic rivals turned... well, it's complicated. And, as Romanek sympathized, worth keeping on the downlow for folks unfamiliar with Kazuo Ishiguro's celebrated, genre-bending source novel. The director spoke further with Movieline about the variety of his young cast, the perils of marketing, and the pop star who might have the sway to draw him back to the music-video form that made him legendary.

A guy from Chicago directing this material seemed kind out of left field for me when I heard about it. What do you think an American sensibility brought to the adaptation?

I don't know if it was an American sensibility. I think maybe they thought it was OK if the filmmaker had a deep affinity for the story -- to have an outsider's perspective on an English world. But I don't know if they were looking for any sort of American flavor to be infused into it. I didn't think about that -- that I was an American filmmaker making a movie. I thought I was not English, but that I had a love for England and English movies and English TV shows. I spent a lot of time in England; I went to school there and lived on and off there several times. So I wasn't new to England, and I have a knowledge of it that was beyond the tourist's knowledge. But I think I was brought on by Peter Rice at Fox Searchlight because we had a good experience making One Hour Photo together, and I don't think a national attitude or tone really came into it.

The British do dystopia better than anybody, yet I was never sure Never Let Me Go chronicled an actual dystopia. What do you think?

I wouldn't pick that word. It's dystopian in the sense that it's this kind of alternate reality; in the fabric of this imagined society, there's an ugliness obviously going on there to treat human beings like that. But when you think of dystopias, you think of a series of tropes that this movie doesn't truck with so much. It's not Blade Runner. There's not ruined buildings or hordes of rogue mutants. It's not dystopian; it's very subtle. Technically it's not a utopia, I suppose. Does that make it a dystopia? It's somewhere in between, I think.

It's sort of our world. I don't think that all the ethical issues of biotechnology and all that stuff are that germane to the story. But there are people in third-world countries selling their organs to first-world recipients. So there is plenty of dystopia going on; we live in a dystopia, sadly, right now.

You think?

Oh, yeah. Things aren't going so hot. Though I'm reading a book called Pronoia, which is the opposite of paranoia. The concept is that things actually are going better than they've gone throughout history; it's just that we've been programmed to believe it's all going to sh*t. But there's less war, there's less violence, there's less child mortality, there are fewer starving people, there are fewer wars on the planet right now than there's ever been in history. So as bad as it seems, things are going better than they've ever gone.

Do you buy into that?

I think I'm happy to grasp at reasonable reasons for optimism rather than just sinking into total cynicism. I have to want to believe that we're going to be OK.

If you impose that standard on Never Let Me Go, it would imply that the characters, once they accept their fate, will be just fine and can live happily.

Well, they're not going to be just fine, because they're going to die before they're 30 -- unnecessarily, one could argue. But they feel like they have a sense of purpose that maybe other people don't have. In this alternate world, they do have a pride in the service they're providing. And I think that Kathy comes to this place of a really gracious acceptance of her mortality and her place in this world that I find really moving. That's what makes people cry, I think: That strength and pride and gracefulness in coming terms with our mortality. Because we have to come to terms with it. We can fight it all we want, but we're never going to win.

I love your story about Peter Rice texting you after seeing An Education: "Hire the genius Mulligan."

That's a true story. I might even... Literally, as we're talking -- and I've never done this -- I probably have it here in an old e-mail. [He pulls out his iPhone] I don't want to screw up the interview, but I'm actually kind of curious now. I'll prove it to you.

I was at that same screening, and I thought, "Yep, this girl's going places."

It's undeniable.

What about casting the others? How did you go about building and working with that trio?

We had this really fruitful, exploratory, fun rehearsal period where it was kind of like a speed-intimacy class and a discussing-the-script class. There were acting exercises and field trips with the kids, playing Frisbee and hanging out at the real locations. Everybody got to know each other, and there started to be a blur between their characters. They all approach their craft from different perspectives that I thought really wound up complementing each other. In a way they all had slightly different styles of acting, which is really a good thing because it created like a three-way circuit between them in the film.

"Different" how? In what ways?

Well, they're all very smart. I wouldn't say any of them approach it from a purely intuitive place -- maybe Carey more than anyone. She's kind of a minimalist. She seems to radiate an enormous amount of emotional content by doing seemingly very little. Andrew is in his body a lot; he thinks about movement. He comes to the character, I think, through his body and talks about a lot of different styles of movement. Whereas Keira is all about the motivation and why her character is doing what she's doing at that very moment. She needs that to be clear so she can make a clear choice. All those things suited their characters and kind of complemented each other.

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