By Ali Moosavi.
As an overall trend I’m thinking the world is in a very precarious situation at the moment and why is it that the majority of films at this major film festival are about this elite community of film makers and artists and conductors and intellectuals? That did trouble me.”
Though it may seem beneath a Nobel prize winning author to write screenplays, there have been a number of Nobel laureates who have succumbed to the fame and fortune of the movie world. These include William Faulkner (The Big Sleep, 1946), John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata, 1952), Gabriel Garcia Marquez and most notably and successfully, with a couple of Oscar nominations, two BAFTAS and a host of other awards, Harold Pinter. The latest Nobel laureate to join the list is Kazuo Ishiguro. He came to the UK aged five with his parents from Japan. He has been writing scripts for almost forty years, though they only total about a handful. Some of his books such as The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go have been made into films, though he wrote neither film’s screenplay. Kazuo Ishiguro is also one of my favourite authors and I’ve read and deeply enjoyed most of his books. His latest script is for Living, a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru. This new remake is some 40 minutes shorter than the Kurosawa original and is set in England of the 1950’s. It stars Bill Nighy as Williams, an old type, very reserved English gentleman. Not too dissimilar to Stevens, the butler that Ishiguro masterfully created in The Remain of the Day. Williams has been working as a senior civil servant for a long time without having much conversation, let alone any social relationships with his colleagues. He also finds it difficult to communicate with his two grown up children. When he is notified by his doctor that he has a very limited time left to live, he becomes determined to do something worthwhile in that time. Bill Nighy is superb as always and director Oliver Hermanus, with whose work I was not familiar before, shows a visual flair and economy of style. Living is a very different film to Ikiru and deserves to be judged on its own instead of being compared to the Kurosawa film.
I talked to Kazuo Ishiguro at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.
You’ve written a number of original screenplays but you’ve never written a script based on your own books; they’ve all been written by somebody else. Are you loathed to touch your own work for cinema?
I’m not tempted to do that. It’s not very interesting for me because this is material that I’ve already gone through and I’ve finished. So the idea of going through it all again, except this time with executives saying you have to change this, is a nightmare! It’s like Groundhog Day or something! That’s one reason. By the time somebody is wanting to make a movie, I’ve got another project, I’m somewhere else altogether. I also think from the point of view of the film, it is much better if somebody comes to it fresh. I think you do need to see it clearly as a different thing, you have to be quite ruthless about cutting things and changing things and trying to discover what is there in this material that will make a good movie.
I have to emphasize I’m not a regular screen writer and all my life I have written fiction at home just to myself. But I’ve always had this other relationship because my books have often been under option. Somebody is trying to write scripts based on my novels and this has been going on for 30-35 years. At the moment I have something like seven projects under option, so it’s always in the background. People are sending scripts and things are in development and that collapses and then it goes to somebody else and so there there’s always been this in the background of my life all the way through. I’ve always found it fascinating because I don’t rely on it, it’s not my main job. If it was my main work I think it would drive me mad, it’s so insecure! So much of it is to do with raising money and going into meetings rather than doing the actual creative work. I would be a nervous wreck. But because it’s something that happens in the background for me, I enjoy looking at the film world and being slightly distant from it. I really enjoyed being on the Venice festival jury last month and I’ve been on the Cannes festival jury as well. I enjoy talking about movies, I watch movies all the time and it’s a very important part of who I am as a writer. I wouldn’t have written what I have written it wasn’t for my relationship with films. For me fiction on the page and fiction on the screen are very tightly connected.
What made you want to remake Ikiru?
Kurosawa and Ozu were the two directors that were often shown in British art house cinema when I was a teenager. It was quite hard to see other Japanese movies and so for me with my Japanese background, they were very important. It was almost like my window to Japan, particularly contemporary dramas because it was like the Japan I remembered from my early childhood. This particular Kurosawa film, Ikiru was also very important to me, not just because of its Japanese-ness but as a young person when I was about 19-20, the message of the film was very important to me and it seemed to me to say something about how I should live my life when I became an adult. And it was different to lots of other stories that I was hearing. There seemed to be stories like A Christmas Carol where somebody who’s not a very nice guy, realizes he’s not a nice guy and he completely changes. They never quite convinced me. I thought it’s impossible, people can’t change like that. Then there were movies like It’s a Wonderful Life where somebody thinks that my life is terrible, is worthless, is stupid, and then somebody says no actually you don’t realize but you’ve done all these good things. Fantastic film but as a young person growing up I thought this is not going to be good enough for me if my life seems empty and small. Ikiru seemed to have a different message. It seemed to say that chances are you are not going to do anything amazing in your life. You’re not going to have a chance to create something famous. You will not get enormous credit from the outside world, but you have to accept the person you are, the person that you’ve become. You have to accept the place you have in the world, but you can still just do a little bit more and excel and the important thing is that you’re living your life to the full. You are making the best of the hand that is dealt to you and I found this a very inspiring message. And I have to say a lot of people around my age, not Japanese, we all found this film quite inspiring when I was a young person. So I always thought this could actually be a very interesting film to remake but in an English setting for a new generation. Now that I’m older, I thought well I wondered if this same message might inspire a younger generation of people.
It’s very easy to get an emotional reaction from an audience by presenting a view of the world or life that isn’t in any sense true, but you can manipulate emotions of an audience very easily and it’s diverting, people enjoy it, in a way it’s harmless but to do this hour after hour after hour, perhaps we’re preventing ourselves from thinking about important things. I think this is why it’s very important to have good film criticism, to have discussions about what is good art and what is bad art. To have things like film festivals where we try and choose what we think of the really interesting films and then argue about them and see which ones of those we want to give prizes to. Sometimes the decisions are wrong, but I think we have interesting discussions about why we think they’re wrong. I think it’s our way of thinking about who we are, and I hope this film Living is such a movie. It’s a movie that makes people think about how you live your life. I don’t think it gives an easy or sentimental answer. It doesn’t suggest that if you make enough effort you’re going to change the world and everyone would applaud you and you die with the whole world celebrating you. That’s not a realistic view. The chances are that the most you can do is something small and most people forget you but that doesn’t matter because while you’re doing this, it’ll matter to you. You have made your small life meaningful. I hope that’s a positive message to many people today who are working these routine jobs and it’s very difficult for them to understand how it connects to the outer world. So many young people are working long hours and they’re not quite sure where this effort goes; whether the company they work for is a good company. I think that many people question whether what they do is just a waste of time or not. I think to say just accept what you’ve got and see if you can make it better it’s a much more hopeful thing than saying you can become an astronaut, or you can become a famous actor, or famous singer if you just make a bit more effort.
Or win the Nobel Prize!
(laughs) Well, yes this is the irony that when I was a young person this movie meant so much to me because it said these things to me, and I thought my life would be a very small life but I can make the best of it and I wouldn’t mind that I wouldn’t get any credit. So the big irony is that because of some strange fluke I’ve become a Nobel Prize winner! But the film says almost the opposite: chances are you will not win a Nobel Prize but your life can be lived to the full if you live in certain way or with a certain attitude.
Did you have any apprehension remaking a film which is considered a cinema classic?
To be honest I never thought about this, partly because I’d grown up with this film. Also, I think there is a long tradition in cinema of Kurosawa films being translated very successfully. You might not like the movies, but cinema history is about Kurosawa films being turned into things like The Magnificent Seven or Star Wars or A Fistful of Dollars and other films, that are less well known like Runaway Train. And Kurosawa himself adapted Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Maxim Gorky very boldly. He was very courageous in the way he adapted Shakespeare. For instance, he didn’t bother with Shakespeare’s language. He turned it into cinema language. So I never really thought much about this and also to talk about sacrilege, I don’t know if I should be saying this publicly, but I always thought that film Ikiru had an almost perfect script but the way it was directed, it never quite felt right to me. I felt it should have been directed in what is called the shomin-geki tradition in Japan, the tradition of Ozu. Kurosawa directed it almost like an action film with zooms and camera moving. It’s quite melodramatic and I always imagined what it would have looked like if Chishu Ryu, who appeared in Tokyo Story as the father and in a lot of the later Ozu films, had played the main character instead of Takashi Shimura. He would have played him much more stoically, with a smile and sense of humor and quietly rather than in this kind of very melancholic way. So I always thought it was very nearly a masterpiece, but not quite the masterpiece it should be and I thought we have in Britain an actor who’s very much like Chishu Ryu which is Bill Nighy and we could do a British version. I have to say I don’t think any of us involved in this just want wanted to do a remake, but we wanted to marry this wonderful Kurosawa script and film to some other material that we had. I was very interested in this theme of the English gentleman and certain kind of Englishness that kind of has evaporated from English society, but I think it’s still there in some way. Also, Stephen Woolley, the producer, and I are huge fans of a certain kind of British cinema that was made in late 1930s to just after the Second World War and then British cinema changed quite a bit. I’m talking about the last movies Hitchcock made in Britain, like The Lady Vanishes for The Man Who Knew Too Much or the Powell-Pressburger films made during the war like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or A Canterbury Tale. There are more obscure films that we love that were made by directors like Basil Dearden, The Blue Lamp or Anthony Asquith, The Way to the Stars. There’s a certain style of British filmmaking that disappeared and I think it’s quite a forgotten school. For a little while, oddly during the war when there was funding from the government and the Propaganda Office, paradoxically the film makers seemed to have a certain kind of freedom and some great films were made. I think after the war not just British filmmaking, but British society lost its confidence about a certain way of being British and so the kind of hero that you see Michael Redgrave play in Lady Vanishes, you will not see that kind of hero again after about 1948-49. The British heroes had to behave differently, stand differently, speak in a different kind of way. They had to be more American, and a brilliant generation of actors appeared like Michael Caine, Sean Connery, but they were different when you compare them to the old English gentleman. It came from an era where British people believed they were the most important people in the world and that confidence disappeared and along with it a whole cinematic tradition disappeared.
What do you think about the current Japanese cinema and how it compares with the golden age of Japanese cinema?
I think Japanese cinema at the moment is quite strong. I think Koreeda and Hamaguchi are major figures, Naomi Kawase is a very interesting director. Koreeda won the Palme d’Or and Hamaguchi he was nominated for Best Picture Oscar, not just Best International Film, which he won. So I think the Japanese art cinemas is in a strong position at the moment. There’s also been strong figures like Juzo Itami.
With Japanese films made in 1950s, it’s crazy the number of masterpieces that appeared within about six years. You look at these Sight and Sound polls or things like that where a number of films are voted by international critics as the greatest films ever made. You will see the Mizoguchi films, the Ozu films, the Kurosawa films, even Kobayashi, Ichikawa, they were all made within a period of about five or six years. It’s crazy the way they were bringing them out and then suddenly it stops. I don’t know if it’s because of television but I think a similar thing happened in Britain a little bit earlier, around 1948-49. In Japan a huge number of people went to the cinema until the 1960s and then they stopped going to the cinema. Cinema was incredibly popular in Japan. The cinema ticket sales were unbelievable in Japan in the 1950s. That is partly how films were funded; you could appeal to the domestic market, but why artistic generations come and go, I don’t know. Things change in the industry; some companies fold and disappear. You have this in other countries as well, Italian cinema has gone through beautiful phases. I like the Italian cinema of 1970s. I love that traditional Italian cinema of Francesco Rosi, Taviani Brothers, in many ways I like them more than Fellini and Antonioni. Perhaps there are a lot of interesting films in Italy now but I I’m less aware of them.
Has winning the Nobel prize changed the way you approach your work as expectations are naturally higher now? Are your editors less likely to suggest any changes to your manuscripts?
This is a big problem and I have to say, and I’m not mentioning any names, but having watched 23 movies at Venice I think this also applies to a lot of movie directors. You get to a certain stage and nobody is going to tell you that your movie needs to be cut by 45 minutes or that you need a proper screenplay before you make your movie. Just because you are a fantastic director it doesn’t mean you don’t need a good script!
I was 62 when I won the Nobel Prize. I suppose if you’re 82 then you kind of think well all right, I have to retire! But if you’re 62 then you’ve got to carry on. It’s a little bit too early to retire! I was talking to a lot of the scientists who won the Nobel Prize and in the scientific community there’s a well-known phenomenon called the Genius Syndrome where scientists who specialize in a particular area, win the award and they think they’re experts in areas of science they know nothing about and of course in science that’s very obvious. It’s less obvious in literature but I have to be careful of the same thing. I was given Nobel Prize for just a small little thing and that’s what I know and do well. It doesn’t mean to say I can do lots of things.
A lot of discussion goes on about the difference between the book and the film. I’m not sure if anybody cares very much about this question. When you go to the cinema the only thing that matters is: is this film going to involve you? is it going to move you?”
Do you find it difficult to watch movies made from your own books and what do you think about those which have been adapted?
There are two movies made from my books and there’s a television film made from another book of mine. I find it’s a very interesting experience. It’s different when I’ve written a screenplay and I watched the resulting movie on the screen. I’m very aware that if I have objections, it is completely irrational and unfair because I’m often thinking they shot this room and the door is on the wrong side or something like this because I have a particular picture in my mind. So I know I’m not a very good judge of it so when I watch a movie based on one of my books. I try as hard as I can to see it as how someone coming completely new to it would see it. I also try and see it as though I have not read the book, never mind that I have written the book. I think it’s very important that the main question about films based on books is: is it a good film? A lot of discussion goes on about the difference between the book and the film. I’m not sure if anybody cares very much about this question. When you go to the cinema the only thing that matters is: is this film going to involve you? is it going to move you? This question about what is the difference from the book and is the book better is an academic question. I always say that to people who are trying to adapt my books, and far more people have tried to write screenplays and develop things that have actually made it to the screen; at the moment I have seven projects in development of my books.
Perhaps Koreeda may make The Unconsoled.
That’s the one book of mine that is not under option!
Do you have a say in who makes the films adapted from your books?
Yes, sometimes. In three cases people own the rights so I have limited control. Other times they are optioned, so if it’s an option I have no control. I try to ensure that good people work on it and I try not to interfere too much. Sometimes I’m involved as producer. I’ve got well used to this as I’ve been doing it for 35 years. People sending me scripts and nothing happening and then a new person is writing the script and there’s a new director and then the whole thing collapses and somebody else takes it up and this is always going on in the background. So it’s an interesting relationship to the film world for me. I’m principally a writer of fiction but I’ve always been related to the film world and as author of the book or occasionally writing a screenplay or sometimes judging films at film festivals.
How was the jury voting at Venice? Was the final selection unanimous?
I wouldn’t say it was unanimous. I had COVID, so for the second half of the festival I was watching movies in my room and the weird thing was I could concentrate much better on the movies in my room. Going into the big cinema with red carpet and everybody shouting and the spotlight on the cast, it’s very difficult to watch a movie objectively. As soon as the film finishes everybody cheers. I found I could concentrate much better just in my room watching on my laptop. These things are very rarely unanimous, but I would say that there were about five or six movies that we all liked and the prizes were distributed amongst those. There weren’t any serious disagreements. I thought that there were some very interesting movies. Personally, for me the Alice Diop movie (Saint Omer) was the real discovery because it’s the first feature film that Alice Diop has made. She’s made documentaries before and it was completely different to how I imagined it would be. When I read the synopsis I thought it was going to be something quite obviously political about racism and so on and it was completely unexpected. I think she’s a really interesting new voice. I liked Jafar Panahi’s film (No Bears) very much too.
Talking of Panahi, are you familiar with the Iranian Cinema apart from Panahi; say Kiarostami, Farhadi?
Only those three. I don’t know very much about Iranian cinema. In one of my jury duties a while ago I remember there were three of us and we gave the award to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. That was a real revelation to me. I remember seeing a Kiarostami film for the first time when I was on the Cannes jury in 1994 and it was a completely new experience to me; it was Through the Olive Trees. I thought this is a very different kind of cinema, a very different kind of voice. I like Panahi a lot and I’m very sorry to hear about what’s happened to him and some of his fellow film makers at the moment. I think he’s a major film maker.
A number of movies that I watched in this festival deal with the issue of immigrants and refugees from a humanistic point of view but there is a paradox because in real life more and more people are voting for right wing governments in Europe. What is your view on that?
This is why cinema is very important. The kind of movies you’re talking about are not mass audience movies. I suppose these are movies that come out of the kind of liberal elite part of the world, but I think it’s important that both novels and cinema can show the human side of side to the story and remind people that we’re talking about human beings. What troubled me at Venice and I don’t know if this is indiscreet; as a judge I watched 23 movies that were in competition and I counted that 13 of them featured as the main character a movie director or a great conductor or a famous writer or a famous intellectual, or a famous movie star, Panahi’s film also had a director as central character. I must say this troubled me. I’m not criticizing any of these films individually, some of them were fantastic. But as an overall trend I’m thinking the world is in a very precarious situation at the moment and why is it that the majority of films at this major film festival are about this elite community of film makers and artists and conductors and intellectuals? That did trouble me. Are we just telling stories about our own special elite community and speaking to a very small audience? Another film comes on and once again the main character is a famous director or something and the festival finished with a biopic of Marilyn Monroe, come on! Some of these films were wonderful but collectively is this just a coincidence? something to do with COVID that we’re all looking at ourselves? Shouldn’t there be more films addressing the kind of things that you said? I’m not criticizing any of those things individually, but as a trend I was disturbed by this.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).