Q & A with Mark Romanek
Interview conducted by Meghan Swope ’11
Mark Romanek ’81 earned his degree in cinema and photography from the Roy H. Park School of Communications. He is director of the film Never Let Me Go, released in 2010. His previous film credits include One Hour Photo (2002), starring Robin Williams, and a vast portfolio of music videos for celebrities such as Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Fiona Apple, Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails, and many more. He spoke to ICView last November from London.
Meghan Swope: How did you discover your passion for filmmaking?
Mark Romanek: My father is a photography buff, and he bought me a camera when I was nine years old, a Kodak Instamatic. I think he saw that I had a knack for photography. He bought me a better camera when I was 12 years old and built me a darkroom, and I learned how to print photographs and develop film. My father also took me to see [Stanley] Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was nine years old. I saw it again when I was 12, and I was really struck by that film; it really overwhelmed me. One day it occurred to me that maybe if I borrowed my uncle’s Super 8 camera I could make a story movie rather than just a home movie. When I was about 15 years old, I knew that I would be a film director.
MS: What is it about a book or story or piece of music that inspires you to make a film about it?
Romanek: That’s a real intuitive thing. You kind of either connect with it on some sort of emotional or intellectual level — or both — or you don’t. I look for things that seem sincere and seem in some way daring or original. If you can get that combination, it seems to me that it stands a chance of being something good. You run into a lot of stuff that’s sort of insincerely expressed or is extremely novel, but to get something that feels like a real personal expression handled in a new way, that’s exciting to me.
MS: What, in particular, did you see in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go that made you want to turn his story into a film?
Romanek: I was very moved by the book. It brought me to tears, and yet I found it intellectually stimulating as well and very mysterious. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, which is usually a sign that something has real merit. Because of that, I reread the book, and it was the second reading that made me feel like this could be a really interesting film. I was a little daunted by the prospect of it because it’s so odd and delicate and emotional. I didn’t know if I could transpose those feelings I had about the book into a movie story, but when I read Alex Garland’s screenplay, I thought he had so successfully adapted it that it gave me reason to hope that we could pull off the film.
MS: Some of the most creative outcomes happen as a result of “happy accidents” or even what initially may be perceived as a mistake. Can you identify some unexpected things that occurred while you were making a film that had fortunate consequences?
Romanek: You can increase the likelihood of those things happening if you put the right people together with the right energy, the right intention, and the right set of aesthetic guidelines; that way you can be more open to recognizing those opportunities. A lot of people will say about a director, “Oh, he has got a great vision,” but I don’t like the word “vision.” I find it a pretentious word. You sort of need to have this clear idea of the film, which I suppose you could describe as a vision, but it has to be very flexible and very — it has to have margins, big margins on either side of it, so you can be open to other people’s contributions and accidents. You have to know when something that seems like it’s going wrong is actually the universe nudging you to look at it in a different way.
MS: Never Let Me Go generated some Oscar buzz. How do you feel about that?
Romanek: Well, it’s great! I’m very happy for the film to be well received. What is more gratifying is when I go to festivals and screenings and I have personal interactions with people who are so deeply moved by Ishiguro’s story and have been moved by the film, which is of course the reason you make it. It’s more gratifying to know that Kazuo is very happy with the film and that he feels like his trust in us wasn’t misplaced. That’s what I take a lot more satisfaction in than the awards. But awards are terrific, and I hope it motivates more people to see the film.
MS: What would you say are the most important components that drive/describe your creative process?
Romanek: I sort of am a reactive person in the sense that I like to react to a book, react to someone else’s idea, react to an actor trying something; that gives me ideas. I can’t create something in a vacuum; I like to respond. I also like to identify the problems in something and then come up with a series of solutions. I think of [the creative process] as problem solving in a way, aesthetic problem solving or artistic problem solving. I’m challenged by identifying what could go wrong, or how this has been done before, and how not to do it that way this time without being novel just for its own sake. I’m also turned on by the way form and content can be symbiotic and resonate off each other. [Directing a film] is a very collaborative thing, and I feel more like an orchestra conductor than a composer in the sense that I’m not necessarily playing the instruments, I’m not lighting the set, I’m not acting the scene, and I’m not choosing the wardrobe, but I’m trying to make those contributions coherent and harmonious.
MS: In a 2006 interview once posted on markromanek.com, you quoted Stanley Kubrick as saying the following: “Sometimes the truth of a thing is not so much in the think of it as in the feel of it.” What rings true to you about this statement, and how does it affect your directorial choices?
Romanek: People think of [Kubrick] as having been such a cerebral perfectionist, but everyone who has worked with him will tell you that he was actually very logical in the way he approached the technical side of the craft, and maybe the logistics of production. But when it came to actual creation, he recognized how metaphysical and intangible and intuitive it needed to be. I mean, ultimately, all you’re trying to do, whether you’re Stanley Kubrick or John Cassavetes or J.J. Abrams, or whoever you are, you’re trying to move people and engage them emotionally. If you want to engage them intellectually, you make a polemic, or a documentary, or a dissertation, or some sort of instructional piece. What we look for from art is for it to be engaging emotionally so that it widens our perspective of our sense of ourselves as living beings in the world. You have to block out all the noise and opinions and suggestions and arguments and distractions and just get in touch with the simple, intuitive gut feeling about things. And, you know, it’s almost always right. Sometimes you can’t articulate why you’re doing what you’re doing, but you know that it’s the thing you need to do.
MS: What advice do you have for budding cinematographers and filmmakers?
Romanek: You have to be making your films about something besides films. It’s got to be about the human condition or it’s not really about much at all. And you’ve got to stay in touch with your own personal inner voice that’s telling you the right thing to do, because you’re going to get a lot of opinions and a lot of perspectives and a lot of noise. Go with your gut feeling and manage to find it; be able to quiet your mind in order to stay in touch with that. And be prepared for the level of determination that it’s going to take to achieve what you want to achieve because it’s a very difficult job. If you get a chance to direct, that’s hard enough, but getting the chance is even harder. I’d also say, aim really high with your work, because the world is filled with mediocre things. The world is filled with things that are a bit more timid than they need to be. You have to astonish people to get their attention. So, I’d say, be daring, but make sure what you’re saying is a sincere expression and that you’re not trying to say something because you think it’s what people want to hear. You have to be saying what you believe, but don’t be afraid to push it to the edge of originality and daring and boldness.
Read our 2003 interview with Romanek.