Director's Cut: Mark Romanek ('One Hour Photo')

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It's hard to argue that Mark Romanek was not one of the most important filmmakers of the 1990s, despite the fact that he technically only made one film during that decade. As a director of commercials and music videos (especially music videos), he helped shape the aesthetic of an entire generation, his for-hire gigs emerging as full-fledged works of art and immediately ascending into legend. His video for Fiona Apple's "Criminal" scandalized the entire country, while his take on Nine Inch Nail's "Closer" is inexplicably even more memorable than the song on which it's based.  And that's before we even get to the superlatives – Romanek's realization of Michael & Janet Jackson's "Scream" is still the most expensive music video ever made, and the video he made for Johnny Cash's "Hurt" is widely considered the best.

And yet, the grace note of Romanek's pre-millennial output was something entirely different: A feature film. "One Hour Photo" wasn't technically Romanek's first feature, though he refers to it as such (he made a feature called "Static" in 1985, but seems perfectly happy to keep mum on the subject). The story of a photo developer (Robin Williams as Sy the Photo Guy) who develops a pathological obsession with the most picture-perfect family who visit the mega-store in which he works, "One Hour Photo" is an update of "Peeping Tom" for the age of consumer photography, pitched at the precipice between analog and digital worlds.

In honor of the film's new Blu-Ray release (which hits stores today), I spoke to Romanek about the movie, and how it speaks to the current economy of images. We also talked about Neon Genesis Evangelion and raging self-doubt, because, ya know ... YOLO.

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DAVID EHRLICH: The job that Sy has in the film feels like a relic from another time, but the idea that images of ourselves have a life beyond us, and may not necessarily belong to us, seems more relevant now than it has been at any time in the past. 

MARK ROMANEK: Yeah, that certainly wasn’t my intention, I would have had to have been awfully prescient. I mean we knew that things were changing, there’s a line in the film about switching to digital, and Sy says “no, don’t do that, it will put me out of a job.” I mean we were aware of that, that the film was kind of a document of the end of an era. But there’s no way that it was prescient about how Twitter and all this stuff, Facebook, has played out.

[At this point, my train of thought completely derailed. For whatever reason, my whole interior life just cracked. I made some strange noises. Mark Romanek graciously allowed me some time to pull myself together].

I wonder if Sy, in his own demented way, was something of a hero, a quixotic crusader intent on reminding people of how powerful images can be?

Well, I mean he’s a classic outsider, he sees things more deeply and thinks about things more deeply than the average person, and this is what alienates him from everyone else. In a kind of Aspergers way, he’s immersed in what he’s doing, and finds solace and validation in being very very good at this one little thing, and overdramatizing the meaning and importance of it to feel better about himself because he’s so dislocated. And I had never seen a film that explored the meaning of vernacular photography and snapshot photography, even though it’s been a big feature of people’s lives since the 1920s. It was a very cinematic thing to talk about and express cinematically in a pop culture movie.

This wasn’t technically your first feature, but directors from a music video background are often lazily labeled as stylists, and nothing more. When you approached the look of this film, was that actively something that you were trying to fight against? Or were you not that self-conscious?

Yeah, I was aware that there was this kind of pejorative to describe music video directors, and that they were supposed to make these big flashy films or whatever. Music videos have one agenda, and the kind of films I loved growing up were not like that. I was a big fan of most European films and films of the 70s, and they weren’t particularly flashy, they were just... good. So I was aware of it, but I was just trying to do the best version of that particular story, and find a visual language that expressed the character’s psychology. So I wasn’t really worried about it too much.

"One Hour Photo" was shot on film, and “Never Let Me Go” [Romanek's follow-up feature] was also shot on film, and in a way, this is a very contrived reading, but if you liken Sy to a projectionist who’s frustrated with people not having any respect for what he does, it can read like a small rebellion against the death of film. How do you feel about the digital era now, and would you ever shoot a feature on digital?

I shoot a lot of commercials digitally, and I feel like it has it’s place. I have one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat, with this. I feel like it does suit some films and look really beautiful, while digital suits some other films... I don’t think digital is quite there yet in terms of being as beautiful as film, but it’s sort of just different, not better or worse. I don’t want to be a luddite, but I don’t want to just dismiss the beauty of film, either. It’s a case-by-case scenario, with certain scripts. The fact is that most audiences can’t tell the difference anymore, and if you shoot a film digitally it saves you a great deal of money, and that can add two or three or four days of shooting to your schedule, and that’s the most precious commodity of all. So each project is sort of a judgement call as to which makes the most sense. I’d like to shoot on film until it’s not possible anymore, because I simply feel like it’s more beautiful. Some people disagree.

This is sort of a strange occasion, being 11 years removed from the film and having the Blu-ray out ... as an artist, as someone who makes music videos that are more implicitly commodified and consumed at the time, as opposed to this feature film which has had a life for so long, Do you ever take stock of the work, and consider how it’s transformed along with the world around it? 

I’m not brave enough to do that. I find it too difficult, and just sort of painful. I know it’s a cliche, but I just see things I could have done differently, I just see a more youthful and less experienced version of myself, and it’s not real fun. There’s a nostalgia about the experience, and the people that I was with, and certain days on the set when Robin Williams made us laugh. But as far as the work itself, I just find it painful to look at. [Laughs]. I think the film has merits in some ways, especially as far as it’s a document of Robin’s performance, I think it’s a terrific performance and that’s sort of an unequivocally good thing about the film. But no, it’s not a fun experience for me to watch it again ... seeing errors in craft and weaknesses in my ability, banging my head agains the ceiling of my own talent. 

Is there one directorial impulse that haunts you most, one thing you did in this movie that you remember vowing never to do again? 

Well... I’d say not really, because I intend to make each film very different from the last, and I’ve only made the two so it’s hard to tell, so far. But each film has such a different kind of agenda or series of aesthetic problems that you’re really starting from scratch each time. “Never Let Me Go” is a bit more subtle, “One Hour Photo” is a bit more mannered, probably because it was made by a younger filmmaker. And the next one, I don’t know what it will be. I really don’t.

I wanted to ask you about the cultural references that locate the film in a certain context... the one that jumped out at me was the Neon Genesis Evangelion action figure, which I read somewhere that Robin Williams brought to your attention. There’s also “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and a certain “Simpsons” episode ... I’m curious as to what about these things made you want to put them in the movie?

They were just things that felt right and seemed to resonate off the themes of the film, or a moment in the film. I recalled the monologue in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” as being descriptive of Sy’s situation, and these things felt like they dovetailed with what we were exploring. I wasn’t a particularly big fan of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” or “The Simpsons,” although of course I enjoy them both. I didn’t know anything about “Ev... Eva, Evangelion,” I was just looking for a toy that when, maybe, when Sy was forced to keep it and he kept it on his bed stand it was visually the right thing to spur him to action. As Kubrick said, these things are often in the think of it, and not in the feel of it.

Well, it was a pleasure to talk to you, and a pleasure to have the excuse to go back and revisit “One Hour Photo.” So even if you can’t stomach a look back at it, I enjoyed the opportunity.

Well, I hope a lot of other people have the same experience.

"One Hour Photo" is now available on Blu-ray.