Why the Living filmmakers had the younger generation in mind

Reimagining Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru (or To Live) has occupied Nobel Prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go) for more than two decades . and it was during a dinner with future Living producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen that the idea was born.

Born in Japan and based in Britain since adolescence, Ishiguro notes that the Kurosawa films he watched growing up shaped the acclaimed novels he later wrote. “I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a new version of ‘Ikiru’ and somehow marry it to the English and the English gentleman, almost as a metaphor, a study in the human condition,” says the author. “We all have a bit of an English gentleman in us. It’s a certain attitude you have when you have to face the emotions and difficult things in life.”

Ikiru is a contemporary film (influenced by the Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich) that follows World War II. It follows Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a terminally ill bureaucrat, and his final efforts to make something meaningful out of his life. “Living” deviates in more ways than one, borrowing as a stylistic and conceptual historical piece set in London, in which Bill Nighy plays the cancer-stricken character Mr. Williams – a casting suggestion Ishiguro made from the start.

Writing the character for Nighy “made things easier in some ways and harder in other ways,” Ishiguro tells The Envelope. “Every time I imagined a dialogue scene or a gesture, I imagined how Bill would do it. Even the name Williams, which I chose, is a version of Bill’s first name.”

A key theme that emerged in the scripting process, developed with South African director Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”) over months of video calls during the pandemic, was hope. “The original was written at a time when Japan didn’t know what lay ahead. Cities were devastated by a cataclysmic war, and I think Kurosawa was pessimistic about Japan turning things around,” says Ishiguro. “Oliver and I have the benefit of hindsight that our film could be a bit more upbeat about its legacy where the younger generation would see that and put that in a good place.”

The youthful role was filled by the characters Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood) and Peter (Alex Sharp), in which a love story blossoms. “We knew Margaret and Peter were the next generation,” adds Hermanus. “And with Peter, he wanted to take the lessons that the Williams character has to offer and give them new energy.”

In one scene, a man in a suit peeks out his bowler hat in greeting "Life."

Bill Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a man of few words and subtle emotions.

(Jamie D. Ramsay / Number 9 Movies / Sony Pictures Classics)

Visually, Hermanus took inspiration from the moody, monochromatic palette of ‘Ikiru’ and followed a parallel two-tone tapestry, but in colour. The walls of the sets, particularly the London County Hall office where Mr. Williams works, were a jet black, while the men wore dark navy and charcoal tones. The only hints of color and lightness that saw through came from Margaret and the white papers strewn across their desks.

The design was conscious, honest and direct. The composition draws you in, commenting on the characters’ deepening story and emotions with moments that are slightly off-center when Mr. Williams confesses to Margaret that he has cancer, causing his inner monologue to swell subliminally. Others enriched the historical play with characters playing against iconic London architecture.

And then there’s Nighy, who says more at a glance than some ensemble casts say in entire films. There’s a poignant scene where Williams sits on a couch, having just received his diagnosis, waiting for his son to come home. Williams wants to share the news, but his son and daughter-in-law can’t handle it. Hermanus added to the vulnerability of the conversation by framing the back of William’s head. “One conceptual influence for me, in terms of Bill’s character, was [American realist painter] Edward Hopper. His work is a single frame, but it tells a story of isolation and loneliness. And a real feeling of being in a big city but very hidden and invisible,” says the director.

Living, which launches this week, also plays larger moments with low-key character commentary that deviates from the original image, such as the climax scene with Mr. Williams on the swing set. “I wanted his facial expression to be small, a really minimal sense of satisfaction,” says Hermanus. “It’s the only way it moves away from sentimentality and into a realm where it’s actually emotional.”

Living shines in those subtle, emotional moments of self-reflection where death affirms life and mortality is questioned. “So I thought the connection of this material could be an inspiration for viewers,” says Ishiguro. “It could become a kind of celebration of life where there’s still a chance to make something wonderful and great out of every humiliating, suffocating hand that life bestows on you.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-12-20/living-writer-kazuo-ishiguro-director-oliver-hermanus Why the Living filmmakers had the younger generation in mind

Sarah Ridley

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