The director Mark Romanek helped reinvent the music video in the 1990s, his pieces for the likes of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut” becoming edgy exercises in style and story. Now he could be on the path to reinvention again—sort of.
In the fall, Romanek helmed “Picasso Baby,” the Jay-Z pop-up exercise that brought together the disparate likes of Judd Apatow and Marina Abramovic as Hova hummingly held court. Romanek also directed a similarly real-time video for U2’s “Invisible,” a black-and-white piece both playing with and reveling in Bono’s icon status that Romanek shot as a staged-live concert at a Santa Monica airport hangar a few months ago. (An excerpt was shown during the Super Bowl commercial for (Red) Sunday.)
“I’m bored by the idea of having a concept and then executing it; it seems so paint-by-numbers,” Romanek said when asked why he's forsaken the conventional music-video structure for something more spontaneous. “I find it more exciting to create something semi-predictable and see what happens.”
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At 54, Romanek has been demonstrating a little semi-predictability of his own. Three decades into his professional life, the filmmaker is an instructive study in how, in this age of multiple mediums, directorial careers don’t have to follow a familiar path—or an expected one.
After making one modestly budgeted feature in 1985, "Static,” Romanek became a commercial and video guru, working on (and winning awards for) numerous such short-form pieces throughout the 1990s. It was a cultural influence arguably as great as that of any feature director, and one that, because of its pace and efficiency, allowed for a diverse set of collaborations.
Romanek seemed to leave that behind in 2002, when he directed the Robin Williams dramatic thriller “One Hour Photo” and began immersing himself in film. (Before this recent crop, his last video was for Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound” in 2005.)
But after a year’s worth of turbulence on the benighted Universal genre picture “The Wolfman” in the late aughts, he left the project, disagreeing with executives over the tone and content. He set about working on “Never Let Me Go,” the Carey Mulligan-starring adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel about Petri-dish humans. Though the movie garnered serious accolades and was a favorite of this writer (and many others), it was a box-office disappointment when it came out in 2010.
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Still, Romanek went back to the grindstone, signing on in 2011 for Disney’s Cinderella reboot. But he and studio executives clashed on their respective visions, and a year ago he left the film. So he’s returned for a couple of new videos.
It is, however, just a temporary return. “I think of myself as a feature director—it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. But if I’m excited about a video I’ll do that,” he said, as he sat in a Santa Monica edit room last week tweaking the "Invisible" video, which will hit on an as-yet unspecified date to promote U2’s spring album.
Indeed, even after the “Cinderella” kerfuffle, Romanek is looking to get back in the feature game with something that is indeed darker—a movie about infamous Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo and the law-enforcement pursuit of him, with Warner Bros and Casey Affleck. Though Romanek describes what might be called the more Shakespearean aspects of the story and notes how different it will be from the serial killers that populate network primetime, he does call it “ a little more commercial” than some of his other film work.
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Of course it’s sometimes these seemingly non-commercial pieces that become the most popular—see under the “Closer” video and its animal and religious imagery that stirred the pot.
And of course it’s possible that a hyphenate career of music videos and movies can converge--especially for someone whose work in the short-form space has always earned accolades. (The U2 “Invisible” spot, for instance, has that element in spades, starting with the very idea of black-and-white amid the color splashes of the Super Bowl.)
Romanek, with a thoughtful but no-nonsense demeanor (and who with a thick beard and articulate manner suggests a more filmic Andrew Weil) says he’s tried to roll with his career’s strange turns—particularly those that followed “Never Let Me Go,” which was billed as an awards contender and had the potential to redefine a career.
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“I’m disappointed, yes, but not surprised that the movie didn’t do better," he said. “I mean, it’s an odd movie,” (He sighs and calls it “a long conversation” about its commercial struggles, then offers some explanations. “In retrospect keeping the ‘secret’ out of the marketing was a mistake,” he said. “It should have been ‘clones in love.’”)
He also has pointed words for why it didn’t pan out with Cinderella. “People said it was too dark, and that’s not true,” he said. “It was too dark for Alan Horn,” offering a ‘that’s a totally different thing’ inflection.
Though the music video is seen as a more marginal form now that MTV has all but given up on it, Romanek maintains a surprising amount of optimism for the form. He says if he tried another one there are a few people he’d really like to work with, including Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.
And he notes that the “centralized” effect that the cable network’s video-centric days had weren’t great for the form, and that the current democracy of the Web made for a far more creative period. “You have YouTube videos from all over that get 100 million views. That’s a really good thing,” he said.