”It’s just ridiculously exciting,“ the acclaimed British novelist says of his first Oscar nomination for screenwriting

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The novels of Kazuo Ishiguro have, as the Nobel Prize committee asserted in 2017, “Uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” The beloved Japanese-born British writer, 68, has gained an international reputation for his coiled, emotional works such as “The Remains of the Day,” “Never Let Me Go” and “The Buried Giant,” among others.

Ishiguro has also written a few movie scripts, including for directors Guy Maddin and James Ivory. But his screenplay of 2022’s “Living,” an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952), set in 1950s London, marks Ishiguro’s purest expression of his talent in the film world. The Nobel committee’s “uncovered the abyss” quote could apply to this story of a reserved bureaucrat (played by an incandescent Bill Nighy) facing his own mortality.

On Tuesday, Ishiguro was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Nighy was also cited in the Best Actor category, his first career Oscar nomination.

TheWrap spoke to Ishiguro from his home base of London about writing, adapting, the Oscars and his deep affection for his competitors in the writing category.

You have won the Nobel Prize and a Booker Prize (in 1989 for “The Remains of the Day”) but how does being an Oscar nominee compare in terms of your excitement?

Well, obviously, it was great to get the Nobel Prize and the Booker, but that’s my day job. This, the Academy Award nomination, is something different. To get an Oscar nomination is – well, it’s just ridiculously exciting. It’s way beyond anything I ever hoped for. I do feel very much like an amateur compared to other screenwriters. 

I’ve always been a film freak, from when I was a kid. Movies have always been a passion for me. And my favorite films stay with me and become part of my emotional landscape. When my life is going in a certain way, I remember my favorite films. They seem to chime in with something. 

And people have always encouraged me to write more screenplays, but it’s more something I do for fun, kind of like a side project. But this project has come together so well. 

As a big movie lover, is there something special about being nominated for an adaptation of a Kurosawa film?

Yes. I leaned very heavily on the Kurosawa movie “Ikiru,” that I adapted into “Living.” In the Kurosawa movie, which is a masterpiece, the main character emotes a hell of a lot. It’s very non-Japanese in that way. It’s a very emotional performance, often he’s tearful and expressive. It’s great work by the actor Takashi Shimura, but we wanted that part to be interpreted very differently. And we talked to Bill (Nighy) about how one of the main departures we wanted from the Kurosawa film was how that central character would be portrayed. He immediately understood how the film could work with a subtler kind of acting.

Is that a type of acting that you’re a fan of in films?

Yeah, and there’s a great tradition of this type of acting, the more internalized acting, from people like Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. Bill does an English version of what those guys do, which I find particularly appealing. There was a Japanese actor named Chishū Ryū, who appeared in Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.” He was the Japanese master of that kind of acting: Very subtle, emotions always hidden. When that kind of acting works, it’s so powerful. It’s incredibly moving. But you need a remarkable actor to do it. 

Is it thrilling for you that Bill Nighy was nominated too? It’s a beautiful, light touch, unshowy performance.

Absolutely. I’m so delighted for Bill. It’s an incredible performance that he gives and I’m so delighted for him that it’s been recognized. Bill was involved from the beginning and I wrote the screenplay for him.

Also, the film’s two nominations will encourage more audiences to seek out the movie.

Yes, well, I think the Best Actor nomination does encourage audiences to go and see a movie. I understand that most normal human beings will go to see the Best Actor nominee. Personally, I will also sometimes see a movie because of a screenplay nomination (chuckling), but I don’t expect everyone to behave like me.

And I have to say that, although Bill and I have ended up with the Oscar nominations, a huge amount of the credit has to go to our director, Oliver Hermanus. He put the whole thing together. And there’s a slight lack of logic in awards season, as different departments get nominated for different things. And I understand all that, but I still feel badly that Oliver didn’t get nominated, and in fact, he wasn’t really considered to be in the running during the awards season.

Nighy’s performance here in “Living” has shades of Anthony Hopkins’s work in “The Remains of the Day,” the 1993 film version of your book. That screenplay was written by Merchant-Ivory’s Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

I think she had already won two Oscars at that point. 

That’s true. And that movie was nominated for eight Oscars, though it didn’t win any. Were you part of that whole Oscar race back then?

No, I was less involved in that. Merchant-Ivory were at the peak of their careers at that point. They were on an incredible run because they had just made “Howards End,” which had won some Oscars. There was simply no need for the author of the book to be involved in “Remains of the Day,” and I was much less well-known than they were.

My wife and I had a child under the age of one at the time, so I wasn’t about to go out on the road too much. But I became great friends with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. In fact, the last time I was in New York City, just last month, I saw Jim a couple of times. 

Oh really? He’s in his 90s now, right?

He is 94 now and still going strong. He’s actually the oldest Academy Award winner. He won for the screenplay of “Call Me By Your Name,” when he was 89. And he’s just finishing a new film called “A Cooler Climate.” It’s footage that he shot in Afghanistan nearly 70 years ago, which he’s edited together and made a new film out of. I haven’t seen it yet. 

So I was part of the Merchant-Ivory circle, but this is first time I’ve been up this close to an awards campaign. It’s been quite fascinating to observe it.

Can I ask you about the other nominated films in your category. It’s a very diverse group: “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Glass Onion,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” and Women Talking.”

I haven’t seen “All Quiet” yet, but I will. I’ve seen the other three and I’m truly honored to be with them. They are very different and I like them all terrifically. I met Sarah Polley in New York in November at an event at the Museum of the Moving Image. She’s extraordinary and “Women Talking” is a very interesting film, very different from ours, but very good.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Glass Onion,” as I did “Knives Out.” My wife and I are big Agatha Christie fans anyway, and we love that clever type of storytelling. And I really admire the construction of it, in terms of the plot. “Top Gun: Maverick,” well, what can I say, it’s just terrific. It’s just a wonderful experience at the movies, and that’s what we go to the movies for. 

I’m surprised that Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s screenplay for “She Said” didn’t get nominated. But, I mean, that’s the thing. There are a lot of other good movies that didn’t get nominated this year.

But the five that did get nominated represent such a wide range, from remakes to sequels to book adaptations. That’s exciting, all in one category.

They are all so different. This is the wonderful thing about cinema. People’s idea of what is excellent is much more varied than in the world of books, where I come from. There is a certain idea of what good literature is and it can be difficult to broaden it.

Whereas here, the Oscars are the top awards in cinema, and you can just look at this category to see how different these films are. What they’re trying to do, the ideas that motivate them, the role they are playing in people’s lives. That’s one of the strengths of cinema. It’s a very broad church. 

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