When Mark Romanek read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go for the first time, he felt like his emotional grid had been fried: He emerged from the experience both charged up and a little disoriented. Ishiguro's story of a triangle of young lovers briefly set free from a cloistered English boarding school before facing a cruel, pre-ordained fate clearly had personal resonance for Romanek. But it took him a while to pinpoint why. "I couldn't analyze it at first," recalls Romanek, who picked up the novel with no professional designs on it until, years later, he lurched at an opportunity to direct the film adaptation, which hits theaters this week, starring a trio of young English thoroughbreds: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan ("An Education"), and Andrew Garfield (Tobey Maguire's successor to the Spider-Man suit). "I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I went back and read the beginning and I ended up reading it all the way through again. In retrospect, I think the thing that moved me so much was this quality of grace in the acceptance of the sadness of our existence."
Taken out of context, it would be tempting to dismiss this insight as the boilerplate existential angst of a brooding young filmmaker whose work is frequently described as "edgy." But, it's not hard to see why Romanek might take solace in this notion of embracing hardship, especially given how professionally stymied he'd been, ever since the release of his feature debut, 02's everyman-from-Hell thriller, "One Hour Photo." It would be one thing if he was trying to redeem himself after a flop. But "One Hour Photo" posted a respectable $31 million at the box office with a slightly less favorable response from critics, many of whom were expecting a work of genius (or at least David Fincher) based on the visual dynamism he brought to his celebrated music videos, including Beck's "Devil's Haircut" and Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Romanek was poised to launch himself into the realm of other video-bred visionaries like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Instead, he seemed to drop off the map. "I made some interesting connections with interesting projects, but they were all troubled and didn't come to fruition for one reason or another," he says. "The reason I have so few regrets is I got married and had two beautiful children so I was a better husband and father because I was around more. I supported my family doing all those Apple silhouette commercials over the years, so that allowed me to be more selective because I had this other avenue of revenue."
Romanek wasn't exactly trying to make Andy Warhol art films. He just had a spectacular run of bad luck. After devoting years to developing an adaptation of A Cold Case with Tom Hanks, to be adapted from the fact-based book by Philip Gourevitch about an unsolved double-homicide in New York City, the project bit the dust when he wasn't able to acquire the life rights to the story's central detective. Romanek briefly attached himself to "The Wolfman" and "The Strangers", but backed away from each and went in search of something "more ambitious." He also came dangerously close to bringing James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, to the big screen. Romanek was in Wisconsin scouting locations for the film when he got a call asking if he'd seen The Smoking Gun. "I said, 'what's the Smoking Gun?" he recalls, still marveling at the absurdity of that moment. "Suddenly, that book was outed...and that project went away."
Romanek's fortunes reversed when, out of the blue, he received an offer to direct "Never Let Me Go". "I got a call from Peter Rice at Fox Searchlight saying are you still interested? And I said yes, I'm very interested," recalls Romanek, who felt like a starving man who'd been served up a feast custom-prepared by Alice Waters. "I was excited, but also kind of daunted because it's such an original and delicate piece. It wasn't such a logistically difficult piece but the degree of difficulty was very high to pull it off."
The script, written by novelist Alex Garland (The Beach) provided the safety net he needed to make the project his own. "Alex had done eighty-five percent of the work in making it seem feasible as a movie," says Romanek. "I think Kazuo would say Alex had an influence on the book because they're friends and they used to discuss their work over these Chinese lunches in Hampstead East. Kazuo visited the set several times and he was always available to us if we had questions. The first time we showed it to him was really kind of a white-knuckle experience and he really was very pleased and had tears in his eyes when it was done so we were very relieved. He seemed to love the film, not just like it."
Perhaps Ishiguro was responding to Romanek's effort to capture the novel's subtle subcurrents of Eastern and Western aesthetics by creating a "visual grammar" based on Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. "The most important influence is this notion of wabi-sabi, which is the notion that things are cracked and worn and used and frayed and broken are more beautiful than things are new and perfect," says Romanek. "So my production designer and would put holes in things. We even turned wabi-sabi into a verb, like, 'That's great but it needs to be wabi-sabied.'"
Romanek has yet to line up his next directing gig; and he's well aware that his future prospects will be heavily influenced by "Never Let Me Go"'s success with audiences and critics. But thanks to his new wabi-sabied state-of-mind, he's learned to enjoy the process without sweating the outcome too much. "I'm so used to so many disappointments," says Romanek, who is trying to assemble the cast for a screenplay he wrote and hopes to direct for ER producer, John Wells. "You rail against it but then you realize it's the way this business is you have to let it roll off your back."