09/14/2010 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Never Let Me Go: Ishiguro, Mulligan Speak About The Movie

In "Never Let Me Go"—an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed 2005 novel that opens tomorrow in theaters—teenage clones scour a bleak English countryside for the humans who might have spawned them, called 'possibles.' Never finding them, the "poor creatures," as they're later called, will donate their vital organs to a society that forsakes them. Then they will die.

Faithful as it is, the movie will remind readers that much of Ishiguro's story concerns his characters' preteenage years. Cast in the three leading roles are big-name actors—Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley headline respectively as the adolescent clones, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth—but it is their younger versions who predominate the story.

Director Mark Romanek's daunting task was to pluck three incipient possibles from real life; to look past a flair for performance and a passing resemblance, which so often suffice in cinematic flashback. In the cases of Mulligan and Knightley, and to a lesser extent Garfield, he succeeded remarkably on that front. In rehearsals, the older actors would substitute for their younger-studies, and when the flashback scenes were filmed, they stayed on set. And so what could have fatally bisected the film ends up playing to its advantage.

"It's really told in memories and flashback, and often just one thought triggers off the next" Ishiguro said after a screening last night at the Crosby Street Hotel, presented by the New York Public Library's Young Lions. "That kind of sequence is very difficult to do in cinema without looking very pretentious," he said.

"Ish," as he's called by intimates, credited screenwriter Alex Garland, a longtime friend and novelist in his own right, with producing a "free, abstract structure which is more or less linear, and which still retains that texture of someone looking back and thinking." Where the film divagates—in its narrative arc, yes, but also in electronic bracelets that keep the cloned children at bay, and in a choice shot of Ruth's extracted intestine—it also flourishes.

For the most part, though, "Never Let Me Go" hews closely to its inspiration. The twist in the story is not the spooky science fiction, which Ishiguro said is "almost like a premise, a given." Instead, it's the eminently human way in which the characters react to their cruel fate.

"It's something we never really addressed," Mulligan said of the science. "We never wanted the audience to meet these kids and think they were anything but human."

And yet it is because they are clones that Ishiguro was able to write the novel. In the nineties, he wrote two early drafts, one centering on a group of teenagers who discovered nuclear materials. Neither clicked, and Ishiguro was left without a plot-moving device.

For Ishiguro the "last piece of the jigsaw" was Dolly the sheep. Emboldened by a new generation of British novelists who embraced science fiction, like Garland and David Mitchell, Ishiguro seized on the cloning phenomenon and completed his novel.

The possibles—and in many ways, the possibilities—remain elusive to them, but the clones discover in each other a freedom and humanity that is real. Their existence is stunted, but full.

"I think it echoes what all of our lives are like," said Ishiguro. "We all lead small lives in a way."

Never Let Me Go at the Crosby Street Hotel