Interview: Kazuo Ishiguro

Posted on:

Never Let Me Go was first published in 2005 and was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, who grew up in Japan and moved to Britain at the age of five. Other novels of his include The Remains of the Day (1989) which won the Booker Prize, and The Unconsoled (1995) which was the winner of the Cheltenham Prize. Never Let Me Go was adapted into a film last year in 2010, directed by Mark Romanek, and stars Carey Mulligan as Kathy, Keira Knightley as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield as Tommy. The story surrounds these three main characters and their lives at Hailsham, a boarding school where they are destined to die young, as their organs are used for transplants that will allow humans to live beyond a hundred years old. They have become accustomed to their life as “clones”, as they do not know any different. The three best friends suffer from various situations; love and loss, and we learn how they spend their very short lives until time is almost up.

In this interview Kazuo Ishiguro talks about the novel in particular, and the importance of how we interpret things; whether that is the director and the novel, or the audience and the film. He also discusses some of the more obscure themes within the film, such as what it is to be human and his views on cloning, as well as his future work, and how Never Let Me Go as a film has developed the characters in ways he never thought was possible.

Q: Do you have any problem with ‘letting go’ and allowing your novels to be made into films?

A: I don’t have a problem with it. I think it’s partly because I’ve worked as a screenwriter myself. And it’s also because I think I’m in the fortunate position that when I publish a book, it has a very strong life of its own. It gets published, a lot of people read it, it’s reviewed…so I don’t feel that the book itself can ever be harmed. In fact, it’s the other way round. It’s tough for films. The film Never Let Me Go will always be compared to the book. And that’s to some extent a red herring. Other films don’t have that burden.

Q: Of course, people will inevitably say it’s not as good as the book…

A: Yeah, they may say that. Or even if they like it, they will say ‘Well, that was in the book, so why isn’t it in the film?’ I can understand that. But I just think it’s not really the appropriate way to look at the film. I can understand why people do it. It’s a relatively recent book – it’s only five years ago that it was published – and it’s in people’s minds. As far as the ‘letting go’ thing is concerned, it doesn’t really come into play for me. I’ve had the luxury, and I do think it’s a real privilege, of having very secure publications, where my books find a particular place and they’re quite safe there. The other thing is, I started off as a songwriter in my teens. That was my big ambition – and I’ve gone back to doing that recently, co-writing songs for Stacey Kent, the jazz singer. If you’re a songwriter, it’s all about letting go…you write a song and what you really dream is that lots of different artists will take your song and find new things in it. They’ll do their version. And that’s how I’ve always seen it. It’s an interpretation – and for me that’s deeply flattering, that people have found my original source material fascinating enough to want to work on it themselves. And that’s kind of what I want to do. I don’t want it to just end with my book. I’d like there to be a musical of Never Let Me Go!

Q: How involved with the film of Never Let Me Go were you?

A: I saw versions early on, rough-cuts. I’m friends with the people who made it. Alex and I have been close friends for many years, and that’s really how the whole thing started between the two of us. I’ve been kept in touch all the time.

Q: Were you on set?

A: I wasn’t on set that much. I think I went on set three or four times. But that’s often because I was helping to make a making-of featurette – so I had some business to be there. If you were the author of the book, I feel it’s often not helpful to be on the set too much. It’s like a really busy day at the office – and then this visitor turns up. So what are you supposed to do with this person? I didn’t think it was so good for me to be there on set too much. I kept in touch all the time. Alex would phone me nearly every day to tell me what had happened, and what the issues were, or what they were worried about. I was more involved in the early stages, because it was just me and Alex.

Q: How did Alex Garland come to write the script?

A: It happened very fast. Ever since he published The Beach, when he was still very young, we started to meet in North London, in local places for lunch. And we’d have these rambling conversations as writers do – about whatever they were working on. So all the time I was working on the novel of Never Let Me Go, I was having these conversations about it with him. Then I saw him evolve as a screenwriter from nothing. I remember reading the very first draft of 28 Days Later, when he said, ‘Do you think I should take this to the people who made The Beach?’ – meaning Andrew Macdonald and co. So I kind of saw his screenwriting career take off. I felt I knew Alex very well, the way he was made up as a writer, what he felt about writing issues, thematic issues. When he said ‘Can I have a go at turning this into a screenplay?’, long before the book was published, it felt really natural to me.

Q: Did you discover anything via watching the movie about the book?

A: I did, actually. And it was almost always to do with the acting performances. Alex’s screenplay was startlingly good, but that wasn’t a surprise because I’d been reading the drafts, and having discussions about it. So I knew what to expect from the screenplay. What really surprised me were the performances by the actors. In every case, I discovered new things about those characters that I didn’t know. I think they found layers in those characters that weren’t there in the novel.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: They would probably say ‘I got it from the novel’ because they always try and be polite to me. But it wasn’t until I saw Andrew [Garfield] play Tommy, that I realised how stubbornly he clings to the idea that the world around him is essentially benevolent and that the powers-that-be wish him well, despite all the evidence to the contrary…he just will not let that go. There’s something about him…this touching faith he has in the adults or the adult world, and it only crumbles when he’s faced with the truth in that house right at the end. That perspective on Tommy, that emphasis on somebody who, despite all the evidence, for some reason continues to believe in the benevolence of the world, and that people wish him well…I found that heartbreaking. And that was an insight I got from Andrew’s performance that I didn’t have before. Keira [Knightley], I understood from her performance, how desperately lonely that girl is. A lot of what she does…she’s absolutely terrified of being left alone. Apart from these two friends of hers, the world is a complete blank. Absolutely frightening, nothingness…and I think she shows the fear. That scene on the beach where she apologises…there is a corresponding scene but it doesn’t happen like that in the book. Keira’s performance there, you understand so much about this fear of the wilderness, loneliness. Carey [Mulligan]…I thought, in those final scenes, the really subtle, nuanced performance she gives, I feel that Kathy…although she’s sad that Tommy dies, she’s not completely and utterly devastated, because the one thing that’s really important to her, she’s got. All through her life, she’s wanted to know that Tommy loved her. And she does get that – late in the day but she gets it.  And there’s part of her that is satisfied. So she’s sad but she’s satisfied. And I only understand that by watching Carey’s interpretation.

Q: That must be fascinating for you…

A: Yeah. As I say, I think songwriters have this all the time. You write a jazz standard, and then jazz musicians…that’s what they do. Each person takes a different corner and they explore it. It’s no wonder really. There’s only one of me, and I can’t explore these characters. I have to worry about the story and descriptive passages! You get these very creative people going off for weeks thinking about one character, and it’s really fascinating. And these are very, very talented actors.

Q: How do you feel about the film/book being labelled as science fiction?

A: I don’t mind the sci-fi label, but everyone is very wary of it because it misleads people. In the cinema context, sci-fi tends to me certain things – explosions and monsters. But I don’t feel any stigma or anything like that from that label. I’m just wary like everybody else that it’ll bring in the wrong audience with the wrong expectations. In my world, literary fiction, for years there has been a prejudice towards sci-fi writing, which I think has been to the loss of the literary world, and not vice versa. It’s Alex’s generation – Alex is fifteen years younger than me – or David Mitchell, the novelist…that generation have come along and they said. ‘We’re going to use everything.’ And it’s almost like they’ve given us older writers licence to use it. It was ghettoised and stigmatised. And things like graphic novels now, people are taking seriously…

Q: Plus there were always classics like Brave New World and 1984

A: Somehow people always think of them as exceptions. It hasn’t always been that way in cinema. A lot of the greatest movies in cinema history are sci-fi – from Metropolis to 2001 to Solaris to Blade Runner.

Q: What influenced you when writing the book?

A: I’m not very aware of where my influences are. Just intrinsically, I’m influenced by cinema, because I grew up watching so many films. I didn’t read much when I was young, I watched films. So my idea of storytelling comes from film storytelling, to a large extent. So when I try and write a novel, I do try and write a novel. So I can’t myself analyse what’s influenced me, the films I’ve seen, the books I’ve read…to me it’s all just story.

Q: You grew up in Guildford. But were you influenced by Japanese cinema?

A: Well, I used to love westerns when I was young, and I still do actually. Some of the greatest movies are westerns, although there are very, very few good literary westerns. But I actually discovered Japanese cinema pretty early. I was 10 or 11 when I watched The Seven Samurai, which is a great thing for a boy to see. And I like Samurai films. Because of my childhood, my Japanese background, I always like Samurai stories anyway. I was always being sent Samurai manga from Japan. So I was familiar with the whole Samurai genre. Very easily from there, I got into other kinds of Japanese movies – Ozu particularly was a huge influence on my teens and my early days of writing fiction. I’m typical of somebody of my generation. I guess a lot of the great arthouse directors of that time were big influences on me. People like Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Orson Welles…there was a canon of people who we were told were the great masters. I watched them and they had a big influence on me. I liked film noir, gangster films, and I loved those films of the Seventies – The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Easy Rider.

Q: Was cinema a way for you to rediscover your roots?

A: Yeah, looking back, I think that was a lot to do with it. Having said that, a lot of people who were interested in cinema were interested in Japanese cinema. Because those people were seen to be the great masters – Mizuguchi, Kurosawa and Ozu. People who were seriously interested in cinema always felt they had to see those three in those days, just as you had to see Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and so on. But for me, there was this added dimension – particularly when I saw Ozu’s films, domestic dramas as opposed to Samurai films, I could see my childhood. Those were the rooms I remember from my childhood. Those family relationships were relationships I knew – the women will speak in the way that my mother spoke. So for me it was a very intense, private thing as well, and it did have a huge impact on the way I wrote my early novels.

Q: You also wrote the screenplay for Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music In The World. How was that experience?

A: Terrific. And we’re trying to work on something even more weird and eccentric! Guy e-mailed me just very recently. We keep in touch. He’s brilliant and crazy and a hilariously funny guy.

Q: How did that all come about?

A: I wrote the screenplay. Atom Egoyan passed on it, and then Maddin came across it. Without any of us realising it, Guy went off to his place in Winnipeg and just worked and worked and worked, on his version of it, with no permission or anything, and then he turned up in London, begging me to let him do his version. I really liked him and I was genuinely blown away by his films, which I wasn’t familiar with. After that I just became a straight guy. I was like a script editor. He just came up with one brilliant idea after the next. I tightened the story a little bit. I said, ‘You can’t just sprawl all over the place.’ But I was like an editor for him, and it became very much his project, and that relationship worked fine. It worked well enough for us to want to do it again.

Q: You famously saw your novel The Remains of the Day adapted by Merchant/Ivory. How did that come about?

A: I didn’t know them well when they did The Remains of the Day. That was originally going to be a Harold Pinter screenplay, directed by Mike Nichols, for a long, long time. I’d worked with Harold on the screenplay, which in itself was a privilege and a really interesting thing. Then it was the year of The Last Action Hero, when Sony lost a lot of money. They cut the projected budgets on a lot of projects, and so it became impossible to do the movie. Mike Nichols remained on the project as producer, and he gets the main producer credit along with Ismail. And they took it to Merchant/Ivory, who had inquired about the rights two years before. And they said they could do it for a third of the budget that Mike Nichols had planned to do it for. And they did, but it looked like an expensive movie – though they made it on the cheap. Oscar winning stars having to walk across muddy fields! But they put every penny up on the screen. As a result of that, we became friends and we were always going to do The White Countess. It just took many, many years to reach the screen.

Q: That was Ismail’s last film, of course…

A: Yeah, it was dogged with all kinds of problems. Partly because it was one of the first western films to be shot in mainland China. There were all kinds of problems. Ismail died during post-production. Then Natasha [Richardson] died of a freak accident, only two years afterwards. Lynn Redgrave also died…it just seems to be associated with sad things. Ismail dying was very hard to recover from. Merchant/Ivory operated almost like a family. People who worked together for years and years. Some were literally family – nieces and nephews that Ismail had trained up. People who were almost like sons. So the whole thing became quite traumatic.

Q: Do you have another novel on the way?

A: Not really. I published a book of short stories last year. People think short stories are easy to write. They take longer. They’re really five novellas.

Q: Going back to Never Let Me Go, do you have any strong feelings about cloning?

A: I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other about cloning. In fiction, it’s an interesting device – as it brings up the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ So it’s actually a very handy…you get to the heart of that question very quickly, as soon as you bring on a clone, or a robot. HAL, the computer, raises that question in 2001. You don’t need people sitting in rooms having philosophical conversations about what it means to be human – you just bring on a robot or a clone and the audience starts to think along those lines immediately. So what is it? What is it that makes a human being a human being?

Q: So what was your main interest in the story?

A: My main interest was to create a situation where the life span in a group of young people was unnaturally short. But for them it’s normal. I was trying for a long time to figure out how to do that. I abandoned the project twice in the ’90s, because I couldn’t think of a way of doing it. I wanted them to have a limited perspective. So to what to the rest of us looked like a cruel fate was to them normal…

Q: What convinced you to set it in this parallel society then?

A: Well, the science itself had changed. It had gone from being shiny spacesuits to being about biotechnology. It seemed to have become frighteningly close to us. It was something else altogether. It moved from ‘Are there aliens out there in space?’ to ‘What the hell does it mean to be a human being?’

Q: Do you think being shot in Weston Supermare gave it a very otherworldly quality?

A: I think it’s all the more effective because of that. When I wrote the original novel, I wanted it to be exactly like the real world, but with one swap historically. I wanted the breakthrough in nuclear physics to be after the Second World War. I wanted to swap that with a breakthrough in biotechnology, and imagine what would’ve happened if we’d have gone down some other path and ended up in another moral cul-de-sac, as we did with the breakthrough in nuclear physics. Apart from that one change, I wanted to imagine the world evolving in exactly the same way.

Q: Talking of technology, how do you feel about the iPad and books?

A: I think it’s fine. I think it’s good. I don’t think it will change stories that much. Maybe it will have some sort of effect. But I don’t think stories have changed that much, through the parchment era, through the oral tradition era. If you read The Odyssey, it’s surprisingly like a modern novel. I don’t think the means by which we read will change things very much. I think the industry might become more efficient – it’s a very clumsy industry, the book industry. So it will become more efficient.

Q: Do you have one?

A: I don’t but I may invest in getting one. I’m not really a technology person but the iPad does appeal to me. I can see myself reading the stuff I want to read on it…I don’t like reading on a normal computer. I’d never read a novel on it, but magazines and stuff, it’s great. I love vinyl but it had enormous disadvantages – they would crack and pop! I think people will always want the book. It’s a wonderful, tactile piece of technology. But I think it’s a great supplement…to be able to read in airport lounges on an iPad…

Never Let Me go is released today, 27th June 2011, on DVD and Blu-Ray. Keep watchful eyes out tomorrow for my article covering the event to celebrate the release with The London Girly Book Club, and my review of the DVD.

Comments are closed.