You took an eight-year break between One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go. What did you do in between and why did you chose Never Let Me Go as your second feature?
"I worked on a lot of projects that never came to fruition. I worked on an adaptation of James Frey's novel A Million Little Pieces, a memoir which turned out to be a false memoir. And I worked on a remake of The Wolfman with Benicio del Toro and I left that project very late in the process because we couldn't agree on what the film should be. It was a very strange journey where I had a lot of false starts. Then I was offered this film - and it's one of my favourite novels so I couldn't pass up this opportunity."
What attracted you to the story?
"I was deeply moved by it and I wept by the end of the book. A lot of people describe this phenomenon where they can't stop thinking about the book and that was true of me. I actually went back and read it again... it's a combination of how daring it is and how original it is as a conception... how detailed in how it's imagined, and how sincere an expression by the author it is about our situation as human beings in the world and how we have a limited lifespan. The book explores how we come to terms with that. I thought at the least it would make a very unusual film."
Was it a big decision to move away from sci-fi conventions, considering it's quite a dystopian novel?
"The book posits that there's a subtle shift in the fabric of society after breakthroughs in genetics research in the 1950s. In the design process for the film, we considered more conventional scientific tropes such as futuristic architecture and gadgets but it never felt right. It felt like Ishiguro's whole approach to writing is very understated and we thought it should be understated as a genre piece, a science-fiction film."
"There aren't many subtle science fiction films. There weren't a ton of reference points. I didn't look to other science fiction. It's a very British book, with British settings, British behaviours, British language, but Ishiguro was born in Japan. It felt like there was a Japanese sensibility framing the British. Ishiguro has also said that he was influenced by Japanese cinema of the '40s and '50s, so I immersed myself in films of those periods. I also researched Japanese aesthetics and tried to apply those to the films, to create an analogue to Ishiguro's writing."
Did you work closely with Ishiguro?
"The screenwriter Alex Garland has a long friendship with Ishiguro, who was always available to us. He was an avuncular presence, he was very trusting - he knew the film had to have its own soul and a life of its own. That trust came with a price for me because I felt like I had a responsibility to make a faithful adaptation of this great book."
What influenced your casting decisions? It's a great cast, and Andrew Garfield has now gone on to land the lead role in The Amazing Spider-Man.
"We just wanted to cast the best young actors we could. We didn't want to begin casting anyone until we had our Kathy and we had a bit of trouble finding her. An Education hadn't even been seen yet. The head of the studio at the time saw the film at the Sundance Film Festival and he texted me saying: 'Hire the genius Mulligan'. I was aware of Carey, but she wasn't a movie star yet and we didn't think we could get the film financed with her. She was in New York working on a play and she hadn't even been auditioned for the film. We screened that Sundance print in London and we were all, everyone who saw it, astonished by her performance. We met her in New York and had our Kathy."
How did Keira Knightley get involved?
You've been linked to The Wolverine - what happened with that project?
"That's just one of those stories that floated around. I was on their list... I received their script, I read it months ago before those articles came out. It's a terrific version of that thing but not my kind of thing and not something I felt passionate about."
What are you working on at the moment?
"There's a couple of things. There's a black comedy I'm working on with Ben Stiller. I've known Ben Stiller for 15 years and we've been looking for the right project to work on together for a while. Both of my films happen to have been 'sad' films, so it misrepresents the range of things I'd like to [do], so the next thing I'm looking for will ideally be different."
Never Let Me Go is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.