Garland initially made waves with his novel 'The Beach,' (get it? waves? 'The Beach'? Pulitzers have been awarded for less), and the script he provided for Danny Boyle's adaptation would mark the beginnings of a mutually grand collaboration. The British scribe would go on to write Boyle's masterpiece of a zombie-riff ('28 Days Later') as well as 'Sunshine,' a troubled space mission flick as aesthetically rigorous as it was deeply affecting. With 'Never Let Me Go,' Garland is trying his hand at something new, stepping out from Boyle's increasingly out-sized shadow to his first adaptation of another author's novel (in this case, Garland's Booker Prize-winning friend, Kazuo Ishiguro).
Garland was taking a breather from the Toronto International Film Festival grind in his Toronto hotel room, and he was extremely candid and forthcoming about both his writing process and his career in general. Garland made it quite evident that he maintains complete command over the choices he makes, and is fully aware of how his decisions impact a script as a whole. So follow the jump for a conversation (with spoilers) that touches upon atheism, re-shoots, teenage sex and everything in between.
Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' may not be considered to be as unfilmmable as 'Tristram Shandy' or anything like that, but it doesn't necessarily read as the most cinematic of novels. Did you find this to be one of the more challenging scripts you've worked on?
Honestly, I didn't find it ... no, this is probably the easiest script I've ever worked. Yeah. Look, it slightly depends on your perspective, sort of how you look at these things, but when I sit down to write a script I'm not planning to write a script, I'm planning to make a film, and so I only see the script as being just a step there. The script was easy and straightforward and the film was extremely difficult. And the reasons for those two things are complicated, but that reduction is true. In terms of what it was I saw in the book that made me think it could be a film, the book is quite sort of subtly cinematic, there's strong imagery in there. Have you read the book?
Okay, so things like the boat on the beach and stuff like that kind of jumped out at me, I guess, and also it has a number of very straightforward things -- it has limited locations, limited numbers of characters. ... I was working, at the point I read it, on a film ('Sunshine') about which one could reasonably argue we had too much money (for) and too little understanding of what we were doing ... and here was something that was very contained and kind of elegant in its construction and that was very appealing to me.
'Sunshine' seems similar in an abstract way to 'Never Let Me Go in that it's hushed and considered and it's also sort of an atheist approach to science fiction, and in 'Never Let Me Go' faith is really kept to the periphery. Was there any sort of through-line there?
I think everything I write is from an atheist perspective. I mean, it's partly from an atheist perspective because I'm an atheist, and I'm just not really interested in religious-based questions. I might be at some point, but at the moment I'm really not. The difference with 'Sunshine' is that it's actually about God in a weird sort of way, it's a bunch of people who are faced with something really powerful and how they misinterpret that thing and it sort of blows their minds and makes them act irrationally. But your sense of 'Sunshine' is likely to be different from my sense of Sunshine. When I see 'Sunshine' I see a film that part of me is kind of very proud of and another part of me is very sad about, so it's a really complicated film for me. And I've never been really able to resolve all that in my myself.
In 'Never Let Me Go' it was fascinating how you parceled out information, it sort of felt like an anti-mystery, in that the characters know more of their situation than the audience, but are totally unaware as to the more abstract truths of their lives.
Well, it never really seemed to me that the film was about the mystery, it wasn't about "are they clones or are they not clones," it was more about how people deal with mortality. The religious aspects -- how they comfort themselves and how they trick themselves and what comforts are reasonable and which are just smoke -- I guess you mentioned atheism and religion and if there's a connection that pushed a button in me it's the idea that what these people do -- and I realize as I'm saying this it might be very offensive to some people and I apologize --
[At this point in the interview, the phone line went dead.]
Hey Alex, it's David from Cinematical again. I'm not sure what happened.
Yeah, maybe it's God getting pissed off at the atheist.
But yeah, it was just these people constructing these fantasies and things that didn't really stand up to much scrutiny as ways of not looking at big, obvious, hard truths in their lives, and that struck me as being very much about the real world and real people. And that was the interesting thing -- it's not like a film covertly about stem-cell research or the evils of cloning, it's got nothing to do with that, it's about mortality and other people and love and death and it sounds trite saying it like that, but it's sort of true as well.
The slippery and elusive nature of time came through strongly and was quite visceral in the film. How did you go about pacing it, particularly in the second act in the cottages, where things are very pointed and move very quickly? Could you talk about the balance of when to flesh things out and when to really push through?
I think that what happens in the film is ... well, the first thing is that it's a judgment. It's a balancing act and it's very hard to say whether one gets it right or wrong, and it's also highly subjective, and basically I tend to err on the side of putting less information in things than more, at least the information will be there, but it's not necessarily that easy to get at. So sometimes things are there but they're just alluded to or mentioned ... you can drop a line in the first two or three minutes and people will latch on to it and carry it the whole way through the film and use it to unlock something that happens at the end of the film. Just for my own reasons I quite like the stillness and the gaps and maybe I compensate for that by having things move at a reasonable clip in narrative terms. I guess I like the shots where nothing is happening or two people are talking and the conversation ends and they're just left in silence for a bit, but they accumulate and can be quite deadly to the pace of a film.
And I thought the film -- particularly the second act -- was adept at conveying massive amounts of emotional information in very concise moments, such as the scene when, after a fight, they come back to the cottage and have their wrists scanned and it's a moment that effectively illustrates their entire dynamic with the outside world.
Well, just to say ... that's the entire problem in the way that me and the guys I work with tend to make films. Cause a scene like that -- like you just described -- will be meaningful... you will describe it in that way, but other people will watch it and say "Oh, they just came back." I think film is kind of a mass communication, the people who are really, really good at it are better at getting that scene to speak to everybody, and one thing I've discovered is that the filmmaking team I'm a part of -- which is essentially me and two producers, and we tend to work with the same crew as well -- is that we are restricted in some kind of way. We're never likely to break out too big because we ... our language just isn't the right one, I guess. (laughs). Whatever, it doesn't matter.
No, I'm surprised to hear about your take on this, and how you felt 'Sunshine' got away from you.
Yeah, but look at 'Sunshine's' box office, it was just a catastrophe at the box office and made no money at all. We made this movie, we put our guts into it, it got pretty good reviews, and nobody really gave a fuck. And I'm not complaining, I'm really really not complaining, I genuinely feel lucky that we got to make it, but all it really does is say to me "Don't try to make a film for $50 million, try to make one for $10 million," cause if you make them for 50, people will quickly stop giving you money to make films, you've got to work in the terrain that suits you and the terrain for me -- and not just me, the guys I work with, we're more comfortable in a lower zone. But that said, we're about to try to make a $30 million dollar film and -- fuck knows --maybe we'll call that off.
And speaking of the guys you work with, is there any chance you might adapt any of Ishiguro's other novels in the future, maybe something like The Unconsoled'?
I don't ... I wouldn't say I have any kind of plan to at the moment. It felt like a bit of an aberration for me, doing a bit of an adaptation, it was for quite personal reasons I think, due to the way the story kind of pushed a button for me ... I'm not the writer of 'Never Let Me Go' - - he is. I like writing, I guess ... so I'm not too keen on doing another adaptation, but Jesus, my mortgage payments might get difficult.
You felt more like a facilitator this time around?
No, filmmaker. And when I say filmmaker, I don't mean the filmmaker ... The job there was how to make this into a film, it wasn't how to make it into a screenplay, but I was always aware the writer was Kazuo, and I was working from his themes and his ideas, and it was just because I had some odd compulsion to do it, it's not something I would seek out again.
Well, I hate to keep contrasting the film to the novel because that tends to have a negative connotation.
No, no, I mean what else are you gonna do? But it's cool, you can have have a negative connotation.
Talking about how you and Ishiguro may have approached the story differently ... the character Kathy seemed a little bit more distant and removed from the audience in the film than she was in the novel, and we lose things like the scene where she's caught dancing and the passage about her quest to lose her virginity. Was there any sort of deliberate decision to keep the audience a little bit removed from her?
Uh, no. If we keep the audience away from Kathy, than that's one of the areas where we're not working effectively, and I'm not defensive or precious about that. In my experience filmmaking is hard and you tend to get a lot of things wrong even when you get things right, certainly I didn't want the audience to be stepped further back. That said, I did want to make sure that Ruth and Tommy were given their due, and that we didn't make this completely Kathy-centric, as those characters always felt important to me. In terms of those instances you brought up, one of them was the dancing and what was the other one?
Just that whole sequence where she's trying to ...
Oh, yeah, the losing the virginity thing. So there what you've got -- in those particular two examples -- are really good examples of a film/novel difference. One of them in a practical way, and the other in a kind of aesthetic way. The aesthetic one had to do with Kathy trying to lose her virginity and all that, it just felt like an extra complication to the fact that Ruth is involved in a sexual relationship and it's much easier if Kathy is just not.
It just strengthens the divide between the two characters.
That's exactly it, that Ruth is sexually powerful and voracious and Kathy is not, and that's actually why she has Tommy, that she has that power available to her, because Tommy loves Kathy. But it's Ruth's forwardness that allows her to interject between the two, and in film that kind of nuance is possible, but when you're dealing with a hell of a lot of other nuance, which we are in that kind of narrative, it just became too tricky and fell by the wayside.
The other is a practical one, and this is a really big difference between film and books. Because if you wanted Madame to see the little girl dancing with the pillow, you can try that in the novel and if it doesn't work you can keep re-writing it until you get it right. What actually happened with us is that we shot that scene with Madame in the doorway and when we got to the edit we decided that it just wasn't right. We were missing something. We were missing Ruth's moment of catalyst where she thinks, unless I interject myself between Kathy and this boy, I'm going to be left out in the cold, and that can't happen. So we talked a lot about "should we do a re-shoot of that scene, should we pick up the shot and get the actress back, [but] she looks a bit older now, so is it going to be too different?" And while we were discussing this, the assistant editor said, "I think I've found a shot of Ruth that I can cut out and drop in to that doorway from a completely different scene." So he spent two evenings doing it and we test screened it and nobody seemed to pick up that it was a composite shot. So it's really one of those bits where you're getting some blue tack and some bits of string and just fixing the broken string, and in my experience there's so much of that in filmmaking.
And so did omitting [the Kathy dancing scene] force you to make any changes to the climactic scene in which she's re-united with Miss Emily? Because in the novel they discuss that moment quite a bit.
Yeah, we had that scene in the film, too, so we had to cut it.
Thanks so much for chatting with me.
Not at all, I know these answers are not very interview-friendly, but cheers anyway. (laughs) Good luck, mate.