Oliver Hermanus is no stranger to the festival or awards circuit, but his latest film, “Living,” is a very different story from those he has directed in the past, which have dealt with issues in his native South Africa. “Living,” the tale of an English bureaucrat in 1950s London who decides to actually get something done instead of shuffling files, won accolades in Sundance, where it world premiered, and was released in the U.S. on Dec. 23 by Sony Pictures Classics.
“It was a really strange phone call,” Hermanus says of being asked to direct the film, which stars Bill Nighy. Knowing that it was a remake of an Akira Kurosawa film with Nighy made it “really scary,” but then he thought “why not?”
“It was written for Bill, it was a vision for Bill. I don’t even know if Bill realizes how perfect he was [for the role]. I think it’s obvious now, but then he really likes [writer Kazuo] Ishiguru, these people are really friendly, he likes the producers. I think in his mind he thinks ‘what’s the harm,’ but then we realize it really is perfect for Bill.”
Entering what he calls “Ishiguru land,” Hermanus says he knew he would be working with “a certain kind of man, not in terms of Ishiguru but in terms of character, a certain kind of Englishness.”
While Japan-born Ishiguru was fascinated with England after World War II as it was losing its grip on its empire, for Hermanus that bureaucratic milieu was also a familiar one. “I’m from South Africa. South Africa was a pretty controlled country for a long time. My racial background means my family was discriminated against in South Africa. I was born during Apartheid but by the time I was in high school, Apartheid was over, but I think I do have a certain understanding of systems because we were a system of degradation. My previous film [“Moffie”] was about the army in South Africa in the ’80s and that was also a very complicated system. I think I connected with ‘Living’ on the idea man vs. X and this is in a way, man vs. life.”
Hermanus says while he was shooting he had no idea of the kind of reception the film would receive. “You hope, but you never know. It’s a very scary existence as a filmmaker,” he says. “You read the screenplay and you go, ‘I see this as something,’ you imagine the actors in it, you imagine the feel of it, but this was a movie where I was really working it out constantly as I was going, particularly the post-production, injecting all the music into it. I had weird, strange musical interests, I was playing a lot of different things. And it was when I started doing that that I got a sense of what I was up to when I discovered our title sequence. My editor and I finessed that for weeks. It’s those moments of creation where you kind of see it come together. But it’s not always very clear.”
Hermanus is very much involved when it comes to choosing the music in his films and says he knew he wanted to use 1940s and ’50s American sound. It all came from the fact that the director likes to have a playlist when he starts working on films.
“I have a piece of music that I listen to a lot when I’m making a film and suddenly it will end up being in the film. And that is exactly what happened here again, where I said, ‘Let’s try the Vaughan Williams at the end’ and it stuck.”
Hemanus says, “What I actually like about filmmaking is that I do the thing that scares me the most … I’ve learned to lean into the fear.”