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Image Maker

 

One Hour Photo brings video legend Mark Romanek '81 feature-film fame

by Ellen Potter


Striking a balance: the director at work on location for One Hour Photo

Having worked with the likes of Madonna and Janet Jackson, award-winning video director Mark Romanek '81 recognizes a diva when he sees one. So when the Muse visited him in a Borders bookstore two years ago, he tipped his hat to her, sat down at the store's café, and began writing the script for One Hour Photo. A mere 10 months later, he had secured financial backing from Fox Searchlight, cast Robin Williams in the lead, and had begun shooting his debut feature film, a tale of a lonely department-store photo clerk who harbors a dangerous obsession with a picture-perfect family.

"I've always felt those big discount department stores were kind of surreal and visually striking and would make an interesting setting for a contemporary American movie," says the writer-director. "And then I asked myself who would be the most interesting employee at a place like that." Thus the creepy, disenfranchised antihero, Sy Parrish, was conceived, tapping into the "lonely-man" genre of movies that Romanek loved as a teenager -- like Taxi Driver, The Tenant, and The Conversation.

The film, which opened last August, has received much critical acclaim, not the least for Romanek's meticulous direction. The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Romanek's precision is breathtaking," and the New York Daily News said, "Romanek's achievement is to tailor the look of the movie tightly to its theme." Indeed, Romanek uses color and light to create a mood and heighten tension: Sy Parrish's home is washed in unnervingly gangrenous light; the big store looks, by turns, like a Crayola-colored riot of teddy bears and laundry detergent or a sinister white-walled sanitarium.

Romanek describes the process of directing as striking a balance between maintaining control and allowing for creative elbow room. "When you're on the set, the crew members really want to feel like they are dealing with a guy who knows what he wants. At the same time, if you are too rigid you might miss great creative opportunities. . . . It's like having a vision with margins."

The choice to cast Robin Williams, Hollywood's whirling dervish, as an introverted loner may seem odd at first, but Romanek saw Williams's energy as an advantage: "The engine that drives the movie is repression, and the audience knows that eventually Sy's repression is going to blow. Most people have seen the volcanic explosion of comic energy that Robin Williams is capable of, so his repression of that energy creates an enormous amount of tension. If I had used an indie actor, say, the audience might only suspect that he's suppressing a hiccup."

The biggest challenge in casting Williams as Sy, says Romanek, was how to turn one of the most famous faces in the world into a bland, forgettable Everyman. To that end, Romanek dramatically altered Williams's appearance. "I made him stay out of the sun, because his character works under fluorescent lights, so he's very pale. We dyed his hair blond and shaved his hairline back, leaving this pathetic tuft of hair on the front of his forehead. Robin exercises religiously, but we had him stop, and he started putting on weight. In the end, I think people will forget they are watching Robin altogether."

Although Romanek's big-screen career is on the rise, he is best known for his masterful music videos of rock glitterati. He has directed videos for Madonna (Bedtime Story and Rain), REM (Strange Currencies), Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson (Scream), Nine Inch Nails (Perfect Drug), Lenny Kravitz (If You Can't Say No and Are You Gonna Go My Way?), David Bowie (Jump They Say and Black Tie White Noise), En Vogue (Free Your Mind), and Beck (Devil's Haircut).

He started directing music videos in the early '80s, before MTV had hit its stride. "Back then it was just a way for me to earn some money. I liked music, and there was this sense that MTV was starting to be something cool, so I thought I'd give it a try. "Since then his videos have received more than a dozen MTV awards, two Grammy Awards, three Clio Awards, and three Billboard Music Awards. In 1997 he was given MTV's Video Vanguard Award for his lifetime achievement in the field, and Arena Editions has published a frame-by-frame retrospective of his videos, titled Mark Romanek: Music Video Stills (1999).

Crisp and visually breathtaking, Romanek's videos capture the musicians' raw energy circumscribed within Romanek's fastidious vision -- like watching a sugar-primed wild child set loose in a highly stylized rumpus room. He pulls his inspiration from a vast reference library of books on photography, painting, and graphic design. "I'll be listening to the track [of the musician whose video he is going to direct] and flipping through books, and for some reason a Francis Bacon painting will make the hair stand up on the back of my head -- that's when I know it's the right image."

Romanek's videos are often pivotal in changing a performer's image, a fact that Romanek, in his soft-spoken, self-effacing manner, is quick to minimize: "These performers are very busy -- they're rehearsing or putting their tour band together or haggling over album covers -- and they just don't have the time to conceptualize a new image. So I'll come to them and say, 'I think you should be purple and upside down or you should be a geisha girl.' It's as simple as that."

Ambitious even as a cinema and photography major at Ithaca College, Romanek won the Student Academy Award for one of his films and interned with Brian DePalma. He cites Gustav "Skip" Landen, now professor emeritus, as being very influential both "as a human being and in the degree to which he really cared about the school and the students." In fact, in 1982 Romanek's parents, Marvin and Shirlee, endowed the Kristan Landen Film Scholarship, named in honor of Skip and Norma Landen's son Kristan, with a $15,000 stock gift to the College, in appreciation of Skip's influence on their son. (Their daughter, Lynn Ellen Romanek-Holstein '85, also attended Ithaca College, graduating with a planned studies degree).

Romanek is currently working on two more movie scripts, and this past fall he directed a music video for Audioslave (a "supergroup" with band members from Rage Against the Machine and lead singer Chris Cornell from Soundgarden). "I always thought it would be really cool to do a music video in which the band would be under a barrage of fireworks -- and actually have the band lit up by the fireworks, rather than doing movie lighting. You'd have to do eight takes with five cameras, and there would be this incredible, climactic fireworks display . . ." His voice quickens with excitement as he talks about it, and one can almost see the Muse smiling affectionately over his shoulder.

Photo courtesy of Mark Romanek

   
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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 28 April, 2003