Interview: Never Let Me Go Director Mark Romanek [Part 2]

After the Telluride Film Festival premiere of his latest film, I had the opportunity to sit down and interview director Mark Romanek for a long-form interview.  It was a collaboration between Alex from FirstShowing and myself, which explains how we were able to get so much time with the filmmaker.

Mark Romanek is one of the best music video directors to come out of the 1990's. His videos have included Nine Inch Nails' "Closer", "Scream" – Michael Jackson's grammy award winning collaboration with sister Janet Jackson (at $7 million, one of the most expensive music video ever made), Janet Jackson's "Got 'Til It's Gone", Johnny Cash's gut-wrenching cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt", En Vogue's "Free Your Mind", Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way", Beck's "Devil's Haircut", Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and Fiona Apple's "Criminal". His 2002 feature film One Hour Photo is probably best known for Robin Williams' dramatic turn. While the film is beloved by cinephiles, it pretty much went under the radar of mainstream audiences. It did however gain Romanek a lot of the respect in the movie industry. His follow-up, a big screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, premiered at the 37th Telluride Film Festival. The book was named one of TIME's 100 Best Novels (from 1923 to the Present), featured on many top ten books of 2005 lists, and a finalist in the National Book Critic Circle Award.

We ran the first part of the interview yesterday, click here if you missed it. After the jump is part two of the chat, where we talk about the casting for Never Let Me Go, deleted scenes, what's up next, the state of the music video industry, clarifying the Guinness Book of World Records-perpetrated lie that he was responsible for the most expensive music video ever made, why Michael Jackson/Janet Jackson's "Scream" cost so much, the wonders of creative producing, and what he thought of Joe Johnston's The Wolfman. Hit the jump to read the interview.

Question: I was going to ask if there was anything cut from the film? Because I would have loved to have watch an extended piece of each of those time period sequences because I just wanted to sit in each world and watch them, the characters, grow.Mark: Well, I'm a big proponent of leave them wanting more. But Alex's script is pretty concise. There are very few scenes that we shot that aren't in the film. Some of them were. There are a few scenes that were entire scenes unto themselves that became part of a montage. Like there's the scene of the children watching an old movie. In the book, at the end of the film they start screaming and applauding. They go, "Again! Again!" and they rewind it. And you get the sense that this is the only film that they have and they just watch it over and over. So that was a whole scene. And the song is wonderful. It's a George Formby song called "Count Your Blessings and Smile." There's a line in it, "One day we're all going to die, so count your blessings and smile." It was like it was the theme of the film basically. Maybe that will end up on the DVD. Right now it's still in the film, but it's part of a montage. And there's a wonderful scene with Charlotte Rampling and Hailsham where she's teaching these 12-year-olds a too-graphic version of a sex education class using a skeleton as a teaching aid. And that's in the film. But that, again, was a whole modular scene unto itself with dialogue and there's a beautiful version of it. But it seemed misplaced, and it's just part of a montage again.

Most of the extra stuff was from Hailsham. There's a really cool scene where Kathy, when they're told about...they're talking about the children that went beyond the boundary and they found the kids with their hands and feet cut off tied to a tree. Then I shot a nightmare scene, a very simple, brief, horrifying nightmare scene, that Kathy has of imagining herself tied to a tree in a forest with barbed wire and realizing her hands are cut off and then waking up. And it's pretty great, but it seemed off topic to the love story. But there wasn't a lot of stuff we cut out of the other two sections of the film. Alex wrote a very concise, precise series of beats and that's what we filmed.

Never Let Me Go

Question: Could you talk a little bit about the casting of the film? Everybody in it gives a wonderful performance and it's one of those films that has great performances all across the board. And it's interesting because you've got three time periods? So how did you approach that when you went into casting? Did you know that these actors were going to play the later two time periods or did you? Do you know what I mean?Mark: Yeah, I always knew that we needed to find actors to play the later two. You couldn't switch three times. You would lose the track of the people. Andrew Garfield was always the one to beat to play Tommy. I saw lots of great young actors, but I was sort of like, "If we can find someone better than Andrew, fine. But until then, it's Andrew." He didn't know that.  Because I saw him in this great film called "Boy A" which I really recommend your readers see. It's a kind of perfect little movie.

And his performance in that is just as breakthrough and astonishing as Carey's was in "An Education," it's just fewer people saw it. We had a lot of trouble finding Kathy. We had to start the film on a certain date in order to make what they call in England "half term" so that the children would be out of school and we would be able to actually cast enough children who aren't in school. So we had this start date that really we couldn't move, and we were having trouble finding Kathy. Peter Rice was running Fox Searchlight at the time. It's now run by Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, but at the time Peter was running it. He was in Sundance and he saw "An Education" and he sent me a forward email that said, "Hire the genius Mulligan."


Mark: Later we were talking about it and he said, "You know why that was such a brief email?" And I said, "No, why?" And he said, "Because I sent it to you halfway through the film."


Mark: He didn't even wait for the film to be over. So we knew who Carey was and were interested in her, but she was doing a play in New York and so she couldn't really audition. And to be honest, she wasn't a big enough name. We thought the studio's not going to finance the film with her even if she's good. But the head of the studio himself was telling us, "You hire her, you've got a greenlit movie. That's how good she is." So Allon and I flew to New York and met her. And, again, she kind of had the part before because we saw "An Education" by then. And she kind of had the part before we walked in the room, but we went to meet her. And she just read the narration to camera. She didn't even really...she did one other scene. But it was an unusual audition in that respect because we were never going to film that. Although when we saw her we thought maybe we should, but we never got around to it. So then we found our Kathy.

Then because of that, Keira Knightley's agent. Keira was sort of hovering around the project, but it wasn't urgent for her. Keira's agent contacted us and said, "I hear Carey's going to play Kathy in your film."

We said, "Yes, we've cast her."

"Well then Keira will be very interested in playing Ruth. Would you be interested in her?

I went, "Fuck, yes!"


Of course, I guess, they're good friends. And I think Keira not only liked the role and liked the idea of playing with Carey, but I think maybe wanted to help Carey out. She ended up not needing so much help.

Question: And I assume you cast the younger actors based on the actors.Mark: Yeah, I was very, very concerned that they resemble the older actors as much as we could humanly make it happen. I don't know that we got it perfect, but I really, really tried to find that. The most important thing is that they're great actors. But they had to really, really look like the older people, because I hate that in movies. They cut to the older person and you go, "That kid couldn't have grown up to be fill-in-the-blank." So I think we really scored with those kids. That was Kate Dowd, the casting woman in England. She looked at thousands of children. We didn't tend to cast from kids or audition kids with agents. We really went to schools. Izzy, who plays the young Kathy, had never been in front of a camera before. And she probably had one of the toughest roles in the whole movie, very complex. We really lucked out. She's an intuitively superb young actress. And they're so professional too. They knew their lines and they showed up and their parents were lovely. The whole thing was a very pleasant experience, and we were lucky.

Question: Do you have anything that's coming up soon that hopefully we can see in less than eight years? [laughs] Because I know we want to see more from you. [laughs]Mark: I can almost guarantee you it will be less than eight years. But I have a script that I wrote. And I have two actors that are amazing who want to be in the film, and we're trying to work out the schedules, coordinate schedules to do that. In case that doesn't work, as a fallback, there are two or three scripts that I'm interested in, but unfortunately feelings kind of jinx you to talk about it in more detail.Question: Do you see yourself directing movies as long as you can? You obviously love this. Do you want to stay making films as much as you can?Mark: Yeah, but boy it's tough. I'm not complaining because I'm the luckiest guy in the world. But it's really exhausting; emotionally, physically, mentally exhausting. You've got to really, really want to tell that story. So I don't know how many films I'll make. But, yeah, of course. And I can't do anything else really.Question: It must be tough looking at the music video industry now. Because the music industry has fallen, it's kind of...Mark: There's so much good music though anyway. Maybe music videos aren't as culturally relevant? And maybe the music industry is not making as much money. They're not ripping off artists as successfully as they used to. But I can't keep up with how much good music's coming out. My iPod is jam packed. I just got the new Sufjan Stevens EP. It's spectacular. So it doesn't seem like the music making thing is suffering very much. Things go in cycles, so they have to be in cycles. There's still some really great music videos. Chris Milk is reinventing the medium.Question: He's really good, yeah.Mark: He's not just making music videos now. He's coming up with these new concepts of a way of using the Internet. Like this Johnny Cash project, and this new thing he did for Arcade Fire. "The Neighborhood." What's it called? "The Neighborhood?" "Town?" I can't remember the name of it. "The Wilderness" or something?

Question: Yeah, it's something with "The Wilderness." The only other question I had is was it hard making the transition where you're getting millions of dollars to play with to do a two-minute music video, then going on to a feature film which you don't have two million dollars for every two minutes? [laughs]Mark: Yeah, I mean, listen. I want to go on record, again, as saying that "Scream" is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive music video ever made. This is not true. Guinness made a mistake.Question: Oh, really?Mark: Their book is inaccurate. There was a music video made by Propaganda Films back in the day for Guns N' Roses and for Michael Jackson that cost millions of dollars more than "Scream." "Black and White" cost $9 or $10 million. And some Guns N' Roses extravaganza with oil tankers, I can't even remember the name of is, cost something like $9 or $10 million. So I am annoyed that I am on record as this profligate maniac who spent $7 million.Question: I don't think anybody looks down at you for that.....Mark: The reason that video cost such an obscene amount of money was that the record label came to me too late with a hard release date. And they said, "We've got the two biggest pop stars in the world, brother and sister, Janet and Michael together for the first time." And Michael's crazy. Everything's got to be the biggest, biggest, biggest, biggest, best, best ever in all of history. And they gave me something like five weeks from the day they came to me to this hard premiere date. The song brought to mind, these sounds of explosions and stuff in the beginning sounded like spaceship engines igniting and stuff. So I got this idea about these two lonely brother and sister in their own private spaceship, kind of based on Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles." Where am I going to go? The spaceship location?Question: [laughs]Mark: So had to build all huge sets and do all these huge effects. Think about it. It takes two weeks minimum to figure, write it down, prep it and budget it. Then it took 10 days to shoot it. That left us two and a half weeks to edit it and do the visual effects. So they, not me, had to throw money at it to get it done. And two million dollars of that was Michael and Janet's perks and security and campers and trailers and assistants who have assistants that have assistants. So two million of that didn't even go on the screen. So that's that story. But it is not the most expensive music video ever made. I sound a little defensive about it because I am. But in answer to your question...Question: I didn't mean it that way.Mark: No, no, no. I'm glad I got to go on the record about it finally. Also, to continue in my defensive rant, I've made music videos for $90,000. The Johnny Cash video cost about $100,000, which sounds like a lot of money to some struggling film student. But, professional filmmaking, it's not a lot of money. Some of the less expensive things are my favorite things. Like the "Devil's Haircut" video, I think it was about $250,000. But all I care about is do you have the resources to do the thing well? Every project has different requirements. And I just want to have the tools, which are time, money and people's patience basically, to pull it off.

One thing I'll say is that "Never Let Me Go," people don't understand this. When you say the word producer, you think of an uncreative somebody who oppresses the director or only cares about the money or only talent is putting the package together. If "Never Let Me Go" is at all well-crafted, it's because it was also beautifully produced with creativity and intelligence and sensitivity to the director's needs and also bolstering me where I was screwing up. Like Andrew Macdonald said, "I think you're going to need these shots. We should get a second unit guy and get a couple of shots of the car traveling." And so we went and scouted locations and the cinematographer and I, we didn't just send a guy out. We told him what to shoot. That's smart producing. He knew that I wouldn't have time to do it, that we would need it in the story, and he was absolutely right. So I'm kind of losing my train of thought, but what I was going to say is that if you have, this is finally answering your question... I felt like I had enough money to do exactly what I wanted to do.

Mark: On "The Wolfman" which was $125 million film when I was involved; $107 million with an English tax rebate. So we had $107 million. I think they ended up spending tens of millions more than that, which we all knew was going to have to happen. No one wanted to face it. I was said no to every day. "Can I have more extras?"


"Can you do this with less extras?"


"Can I paint that wall a different color?"


"Can I shoot that location?"

"No, it's too far away."

On "Never Let Me Go" which was made for under $15 million, there were only two things that I couldn't do that I wanted to do which didn't torpedo the movie. They were just, we couldn't afford them. So there is a strange counterintuitive thing where you can have a lot more freedom if you have good producers on a smaller budget movie than a big budget movie. I would make another smaller budget movie in a heartbeat.

I would love to make a big film. But I didn't have the clout and the leverage to make it and organize the production how I would do it. Because there are much, much more efficient ways to make a bigger move than the way the studios make them. That's what David Fincher does. He's earned the right to say, "You give me the money and let me put together the production, my producer and my people. And I will do it efficiently and put all the money on the screen." He's not the cowboy that people think he is. He works with the studio and they're involved. It's not like, "I'll see you at the premiere." But he gets to organize it as he wants to as a production to facilitate what he wants to get on the screen, not what suits the studio's comfort level.

Question: I have to ask you this question, although I think I know your answer. Did you see "The Wolfman" and what did you think?Mark: I had to see "The Wolfman" because I felt like if I didn't see "The Wolfman" it would plague me and I'd always be curious about it. So I did go to see it in L.A., in Westwood I think. I can't remember where I was. The theater was pretty empty. And I saw a nice digital projection of it. A lot of the sets and locations were what I had selected. Some of the cast were the guys that I had selected. The rhythms of it, and the way that it was shot and lit, and the way that it moved along, and what was emphasized and what was de-emphasized was exactly, I think, what the producers wanted it to be.Never Let Me Go gets a limited release in theaters on September 15th 2010.