Photo Finish

After the strangely compelling One Hour Photo, Mark Romanek is developing anew in commercials and music videos.

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View spots directed by Mark Romanek.
Few music video directors have acquired the art-film reputation that Mark Romanek enjoys. For more than a decade, he's been responsible for some of MTV's most dazzling and iconic moments, for the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Madonna and Michael and Janet Jackson, to name a select few. He continues to make fresh moves, notably for the late Johnny Cash on the highly acclaimed clip for "Hurt," and, most recently, Jay-Z in the controversial "99 Problems." If that isn't enough, Romanek also recently directed his debut big-bucks feature, One Hour Photo, which unsettlingly recasts comedic volcano Robin Williams as a quietly menacing lunatic stalker.

Since coming off the film, Romanek has dialed up his presence in the commercials arena, but unlike many clips crossover guys, he decidedly turns the volume down when it comes to spots.

"I prefer commercials that whisper more than scream," says the 44-year-old Anonymous Content director, who learned the film ropes at Chicago's New Trier High School and then at New York's Ithaca College. "The formula that I came up with for a lot of videos was creating an unexpected, immersive world, and putting the artist into that world. That doesn't apply in any way to the kind of TV spots I like. In the midst of all the screaming, hard sell and bad television, I always like the commercials that are quiet, amusing humanist little moments -- advertising with a terrific concept that's not all about the look of it. I think [Anonymous executive producer] Lisa Margulis helped to clarify that for people in the industry and I've started getting those kinds of boards. I also think agencies were more comfortable offering me that type of thing after they'd seen my film, which showed a broader range of my interests than the videos."

Saturn "Door Music"
In the past few months, Romanek has been whispering his way through noteworthy projects like Saturn's "Door Music," out of Goodby Silverstein, and Wieden & Kennedy/N.Y.'s continuing "Without Sports" campaign, including the 2004 anthem "Makeshift." Set to an infectious percussive track, the gritty montage of kids improvising outdoor sports no doubt capitalizes on Romanek's skill at weaving compelling imagery with sound, but it also achieves nostalgic sentiment without slipping into schmaltz. Romanek let loose a large cast of kids in various locations in Nashville, shooting them run-and-gun style on handheld Super 16 with natural light.

"The trick was finding this kind of middle ground where it looked casually naive, but not pretentiously so," he says. "We were being makeshift with the filmmaking the same way the kids were being makeshift with their sports environments."

ESPN "Makeshift"
"Makeshift," and even his recent music video endeavors, also unexpectedly reveal that Romanek possesses as much a documentary sensitivity as a painterly one. Last year on Johnny Cash's "Hurt," because of the country crooner's deteriorating health, Romanek had to abandon his usual method of meticulously staging a preconceived concept. Instead he flew out to Nashville to shoot Cash at his home with the late cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier. "We picked a few spots around his house and then went over to the Cash Museum, which was in a state of disarray and disrepair," recalls Romanek. "It looked really sad, but I realized, if that's the truth then that's what I'll film. Cash had been extremely candid in all his songs, so that emboldened me to take the same approach with this video."

At the museum, Romanek also stumbled upon a cache of archival film, some of which he folded into the piece during a monthlong edit with longtime collaborator Robert Duffy. The result was a moving, contemplative filmic swan song for Cash that not only got unexpected rotation on the music channels, but also earned several nominations at last year's MTV Video Music Awards.

Recently, Romanek turned his lens on Jay-Z, in a gritty black and white video featuring rather shocking scenes of the revered MC getting gunned down. Upcoming work includes a campaign for American Express Blue, and a feature, tentatively titled A Cold Case, starring Tom Hanks. Romanek's creative processes may diverge when it comes to different forms, but ultimately they remain tethered to a singular goal. "Years ago, in an interview, Stanley Kubrick made a comment that always stuck with me," he says. "He was talking about ways to improve the film business, all of which might result in getting films made that are more daring and more sincere. I thought, What a fantastic description of what makes something good. Is this daring and is this sincere? If it is, the cards are stacked in your favor that something of value might come out of your work."

(This article appears in the May 2004 issue of Creativity.)

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