Q&A with Oliver Hermanus, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Bill Nighy

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Living.

Can you talk about genesis of the film?

Oliver Hermanus: The genesis is a famous dinner party, so Ishiguro should talk about that. 

Kazuo Ishiguro: I can tell you about the origin story of this film, before the real work started. I can take credit for having the original idea, because it was kind of an obsession of mine for years. It was partly because I was a Japanese kid growing up in England and I was always very interested in any Japanese film that was shown in England. From the age of eleven or twelve, I was obsessed with the original Kurosawa movie, Ikiru. And as I got older, I had this idea that wouldn’t it be great if someone made a version set in England. I just thought it would be a very interesting effect to put that story, the Kurosawa story, into a British setting just after the second World War. I could see it would become much more than just a remake. This was an idea I had for a long time, but I’m not a screenwriter, and I just hoped somebody else would make it. It was really in that spirit that I talked about it half-jokingly at a dinner party three or four years ago. It wasn’t even a dinner party, it was a small gathering with myself and my wife and Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen, the two producers. We called Bill on the telephone after we finished eating—

Bill Nighy: I had fallen asleep on the sofa.

KI: He was supposed to be there for dinner but he never turned up, so we stirred him. He came along later, and that’s when I threw out this idea. And I thought someone else could go away and do this, and it would be great. Stephen persuaded me to at least have a go at the screenplay. For us, the crucial thing was that it started off not just as the remake of Ikiru, it was remake of Ikiru set in this period of Britain with Bill Nighy. The whole thing came together around the idea of Bill being at the center of the film, because we thought that would be the gateway to the particular film that we wanted to make. That was the start of it; I wrote the script, we had backing, then the real work started when Oliver showed up.

it really is about the recovery after the second World War

Oliver, how did you react when they brought the project to you?

Oliver Hermanus: I was asked ,do you want to make a remake of a Kurosawa film? And the answer to that should be no! But then they were like, well, we want to remake a Kurosawa film written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and I was like, okay, wow, that sounds stressful. Then they said, would you like to make a Kurosawa remake written by Ishiguro and starring Bill Nighy? And I was like, very stressed. I came to a meeting with Ishiguro at BFI and he had questions for me, and we spoke about movies, and it just seemed like something I couldn’t say no to because it would give me the opportunity to work with these two men. And then Covid happened, and we started the slow process of casting and thinking about it, and Bill was sitting under a tree for about a year in middle England. I was in South Africa, and we slowly started to move forward. I did all the casting for this film except for Bill via Zoom. Then before we knew it, we were all London to start shooting.

Why were the 1950s the right time period for this film?

KI: The original Kurosawa film was made at a time when Kurosawa and his team, particularly his great screenwriting collaborators, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni—they had no idea if Japan would recover, economically, never mind turn into this powerful liberal democracy. They had come through years of fascism and a militaristic regime. I think they were justified in having a pessimistic view when the Kurosawa movie was made. We had the benefit of hindsight, both about Japan and about Britain. Personally, as someone who grew up in Britain fifteen years after the second World War, I have a lot of admiration for Britain as well as Japan, and how that generation rebuilt those countries. And not just rebuilt the infrastructure, but made society something better. Britain became this more welfare state, the health system was introduced, the public school system was introduced, and there was the determination to restart the country as something much better. It was a really fascinating time, but we had the benefit of hindsight so we could see the kind of endeavor that Mr. Williams the character shows, just in his small world. He puts this effort into it, it might just be a tiny achievement, but we can see with the benefit of historical hindsight that it went into something profound and lasting. For me, it really is about the recovery after the second World War.

Oliver, can you talk about the camera movement and the composition? As a lover of still photography, the look of this film really spoke to me.

OH: My background is in still photography. They always say that directors have one other department that they really obsess about, and for a lot of filmmakers it’s apparently production design, but for me it’s definitely photography. The joy of coming into this film from South Africa, not being English, was that I was able to approach it with a certain freedom as an outsider that was not too bogged down by my own historical understanding of a lived experience of the UK. I was able to pour over images of photographers who I love and whose work I had seen, a lot of them Americans who had gone to England in the early 50s. When there was the great fog and there was this amazing work and I started looking at what were the elements of those things that I gravitated towards. One of those things was top shots and the loads of images of people coming out of buildings like ants and this very German Expressionism. Ishiguro was actually a big influence as well, sharing some films with me and that became a motif that I thought about for Living in terms of always wanting to show ways of Bill coming out of buildings and the building being the majority of the frame and really hugging these big cranes against our locations. Then I watched Ikiru, knowing that I was going to remake it, I watched it once and I told myself I’d just see what washes over me and take an essence out of it. And what really stressed me out was that it felt like every frame of Ikiru was like a magnum image. One, because that form was contemporary so it was shot at a time when they were going out into the streets of Tokyo and sort of capturing the real world. The pressure for me was how do I take that and make it into the graphic and photographic experiences of film without feeling like a failure if I don’t achieve a similar sort of photographic control. I had shot my previous film in a made-up aspect ratio I invented called 1.48:1. I wanted to do the same thing again and I was waiting for Film4 and Lionsgate to say absolutely not, but then they said yes, and that was amazing because that aspect ratio lends itself to portraiture. Then Jamie [Ramsay, the Cinematographer] came on and I shared all my images before we shot. We had worked together four times before. He understands my obsession and is very good at managing it. He looks at all references and says I get it, and then we go forth from that point. It was a joy to think very photographically. One of my other secret obsessions for Living was Edward Hopper. That scene in the café where we first meet Tom Burke was chosen because I felt I could put this man in black in a room that was very white and have a very washed-out window and have a lonely man in a hat walk by outside.

Bill, it takes a while before we are introduced to you on screen. How did you get into this character?

BN: Oliver and I met every Sunday for a few weeks, prior to shooting, and we went through the whole script very minutely. He wrote me a very long and detailed backstory, which is something I don’t personally do with my roles but it did help me a great deal. The script was beautiful and there was an atmosphere that persuaded me into a certain style of behavior. Beyond that, I don’t really know… I was there, at that time. It’s weird when you watch ancient footage and then you realize you were there. I would have been one of those kids playing in those dreadful shorts on the playground. But I have a sense of the atmosphere of that time and I know those kinds of figures and I know the class system. My father was a reserved person. I’m not playing my dad, but I know what it’s like to not really express anything at all of any great magnitude. From an acting point of view, it was fun, playing that degree of restraint. It’s kind of funny if you’re doing it, because you have to express quite big ideas without very much. It was right after the war and most people were suffering from trauma, including my family and the whole country. And there are parallels that have been made between the complex system of manners in Japan and the complex system of manners in England. But I am fascinated by it, and there is heroism in it. But when it gets to the extreme of having to apologize for dying, that’s nuts.

One of the moments that really resonated with me was when you took on the new hat.

BN: Now you’re talking! If anyone here has ever worn a bowler hat, it’s tough. They are the weirdest things; how they ever caught on, search me. It was a great moment when I was reading in the script that the hat got stolen, I was like, “yes!” and I got the soft hat and it made all the difference. It’s hard to relax under a bowler hat. It’s built like a crash helmet. If a house brick fell from a very high height, you’d be fine. But the clothes do make a difference for anyone, not just actors—the way you move, the way you think about yourself.

How did you work with your costume designer?

OH: Our costume designer is an artist, a very famous artist, Sandy Powell. One of the great joys of making this film was getting to work with Sandy. I was so curious to see what she does, and what Sandy does is she has about 75,000 people working for her. There were parts of her office I would go to, and they were like, that’s Sandy’s fitting room, cutting room, dressing room… 90% of her office is costumes. And it’s because she knows what she needs and she’s incredibly intuitive. The mandate from me to Sandy surrounding the production design is that we wanted to have this very controlled palette of black and white, and Sandy was like, fine as long as I can have some blue in there for the men that’ll be okay. For the office sequence, we bought a black set, black walls, and folded in the darkest charcoal gray suits. And then all the other men were in three shades of blue, and the darkest blue is on the character of Peter. And then the only accent color is Aimee [Lou Wood], who wears white. I was very nervous about giving her this really controlled palette, but I could sense for her it was really exciting. The idea is that Bill’s suit is so dark. And she found the perfect suit for Bill, which was a real suit. She was like, actually I found the perfect suit and you’re going to love it because it’s all dark colors but with the thinnest white striping to separate it from the black set. And I think he wore it every day.

BN: It was my one costume and I wore it every day. I always like having one costume. No more decisions.

Bill, can you talk about the scene where you sing?

BN: Singing is not something I’m entirely confident about and that was the one thing on the schedule that I was worried about. There’s always, on every film, certain days you don’t look forward to. But on this film, it felt different. I didn’t just have to just sing the song, I also had to indicate that he was opening up. It’s like at funerals… you’re fine at funerals until they ask you to sing. You get through the second line of Hey Jude and you fall apart. There’s something about the act of singing that does unlock you in a way. I have a friend who is a professional singer and I asked him about it, how do you do that when a song is sad and powerful? And he said, it’s really hard. You have to fight it back. In reality, I was in a room with a lot of people while singing that song. So you’re kind of singing for the crew, since that’s the audience. It was very moving and I tried to get out of my own way. I wanted to do it with as much humility as possible.