The dystopian drama "Never Let Me Go" wasn't supposed to be the movie Mark Romanek directed this year.
Thank goodness for creative differences.
Hollywood dishes out bad luck without prejudice, but the show business fates have been especially unkind to the 50-year-old filmmaker behind 2002's creepy Robin Williams stalker film "One Hour Photo." The distinguished commercial and music video auteur (he directed Apple's iconic iPod silhouette ads with U2, and Johnny Cash's poignant "Hurt" video) had seen his last three film projects fall apart one after the other, typically just weeks before cameras were set to roll.
In the beginning of 2008, years after his Tom Hanks film "A Cold Case" and his adaptation of James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" went off the rails, Romanek departed Benicio del Toro's "The Wolfman" at the last minute in a dispute with Universal Pictures about the film's readiness and budget. (He would be replaced by Joe Johnston, and the resulting film, released in February, proved to be a costly critical and commercial failure.)
"It seemed like a good thing, but it didn't end up being a good thing for me to become involved with," he says. "We never got on the same page about what the movie should be."
The years since "One Hour Photo" had hardly been lost: In addition to all of his commercial and music video work, Romanek had started a family. "I got married and had two beautiful children," he says.
But with three straight movies breaking down for different reasons, he suspected he needed to look in another professional direction — away from big studio films and their countless contingencies and compromises, and toward something more personal and manageable and important.
Something like "Never Let Me Go," in other words.
"I just realized there was a type of movie at that point in my career that I should be doing," says Romanek, who is an American (and looks like a younger version of British director Mike Leigh) living in London. "What directors want is to find someone who believes in them, and wants them."
Fox Searchlight, which had made "One Hour Photo" with Romanek, was in that camp.
The studio had been developing screenwriter Alex Garland's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel "Never Let Me Go" and was looking for a director. Romanek knew the book well.
"I had read it the week it was published, and I had read it again," he says. "Because I was so haunted by it." Soon after the novel was published in 2005, Romanek asked his talent agent to explore the book's film rights, only to find that Garland — a longtime friend of Ishiguro's — had beaten him.
But three years later, with so many false starts on the other movies behind him, it looked like Romanek's luck was changing. Fox Searchlight asked him to direct Garland's "Never Let Me Go" script.
"Mark had a tremendous specificity of visual style that really fit the world of 'Never Let Me Go,'" says Claudia Lewis, Fox Searchlight's production president. "It's recognizable but slightly other. It's an off-world."
About a year after he was supposed to start work on "The Wolfman," Romanek was filming "Never Let Me Go." Now the movie — premiering at this weekend's Telluride Film Festival and arriving in theaters on Sept. 15 — has emerged as one of the fall's most provocative and unsettling releases, a probable awards contender in any number of categories.
Something that certainly can't be said of "The Wolfman."
It's not directly evident — that's the way Romanek wanted it — but almost everywhere you look in "Never Let Me Go," things are starting to fall apart. A sweater might have a small hole, the upholstery on a chair might be a bit ratty, a teacup chipped.
In most other movies, such wear and tear could just be a production designer's partiality for authentic detail, but then you start to notice other small things in Romanek's frame and sound mix, particularly the countless ticking clocks. The message is subtle but unmistakable: Time is running out, and the film's characters are powerless to do anything about it.
"Never Let Me Go" is a science fiction film with none of the conventions of the genre. There are no rocket ships, alien life forms or sentient computers — just a group of outwardly normal schoolchildren and young adults whose lives will be truncated by a procedure forebodingly referred to as "donation" that ends in "completion."
"I never wanted it to be a science-fiction film in terms of its being fantastical. I wanted it to be relatable," says Romanek. "We said, 'Let's make a science-fiction film that doesn't have any tangible science fiction in it.'"
To discuss the narrative themes of the movie and the book without spoiling both is more than a little complicated, but the film's trailer (as well as reviews of the novel from the author of "The Remains of the Day") hints at what might be happening in the story's seemingly idyllic English countryside.