"MAINLY I'm a novelist," says Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. "Screenwriting is like a hobby." It's an interest he's indulged between writing such acclaimed novels as "The Remains of the Day," "When We Were Orphans" and the current "Never Let Me Go," with screenplays including the well-regarded 2004 Guy Maddin film "The Saddest Music in the World."
The latest foray into screenwriting for Ishiguro, who was born in Japan and grew up in Britain, is "The White Countess," which opens Dec. 21. Set in Shanghai in the late 1930s, the film revolves around a refugee Russian countess (Natasha Richardson). Working as a taxi dancer/prostitute to support her family, she finds herself in the employ of a blind American executive (Ralph Fiennes). Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, plays her aunt, while her real-life aunt, Lynn Redgrave, portrays her mother-in-law.
The film was directed by James Ivory and produced by the late Ismail Merchant, the same team who brought Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day" to the screen in 1993.
"I didn't have any active part in making that film," says the writer. "But I was welcomed into the Merchant Ivory family at that stage. And James Ivory and I started to talk about the possibilities of writing an original screenplay or a screenplay."
Initial conversations revolved around Ishiguro's adapting the classic Japanese novel "Diary of a Mad Old Man." Other ideas bandied about included a drama set in contemporary New England.
Ultimately they settled on "The White Countess."
"Some of the inner parts of the story had been in my mind for a long time," he says. "There are short stories I had written many years ago that have some element in it. A lot of [the concept] came from Jim. I remember what he said to me about doing a film about an effete, someone who is fascinated with art objects. But I couldn't really relate to that too much."
So Ishiguro changed the object of desire from art to seedy bars. "We have a central character who has a refined taste for sleazy bars in Shanghai," he says. "He is moving around at nighttime Shanghai in the 1930s checking out different bars because he wants just the right blend. Then he gets his chance to do it himself."
Adding the element of blindness came late in the game. "We always felt there was some dimension lacking in the central character," says Ishiguro. "I think everything was set to go, and then Jim had lunch with a blind friend and he kind of said, 'This would be a good idea.' "
Ishiguro's "When We Were Orphans" is also set in Shanghai, and during his research for that novel he learned about its extensive community of Russians who had fled the Communists two decades before.
"They arrived in Shanghai, where they had no citizenship rights. The reason they settled there is that no one was in charge of Shanghai. No other country would take them in -- people didn't want that political hot potato."