Mark Romanek is one of the most innovative music-video directors to have ever filmed a guitar: His crushing video for Johnny Cash's "Hurt" is one of the most heartbreaking things we've ever seen. But as Romanek returns to the big screen for the first time since 2002's One Hour Photo, with his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, the filmmaker tells us that music videos were never the aim, "just a long tangent." We spoke to Romanek about his clashes with Universal over the Wolfman, his defunct adaptation of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and — news you can use! — how to take the perfect iPhone photograph.
Most people know your music videos (such as for Beck's "Devil's Haircut" and Nine Inch Nails's "Closer") and your films, but you're a still photographer too. Your iPhone photoblog is pretty amazing.
You know, I used to trade photos with Spike [Jonze]. We had this kind of visual dialogue where he would send me a picture and I’d send a picture back and he’d send me a picture and I’d send a picture back and he doesn’t do it anymore, I don’t know why. But it's funny, I just got a new iPhone and the first two things I bought were two camera apps.
Which ones do you use?
I use OldCamera and Hipstamatic. I’m amazed at how good these [photos] look, 'cause it’s a fucking phone. OldCamera is my favorite, but if you get OldCamera, you gotta go into the settings. Those are key: I like the mode to be Kallitype, and I select the vignetting, and square mode. With Hipstamatic, I use the John S. lens and this film stock Kodot. The thing about OldCamera and Hipstamatic is, you can take a picture of a fucking toilet and it comes out like it is something.
How did the look of Never Let Me Go come together?
I just had an immediate intuitive feel of what it should look and feel like when I was reading the books. For some reason, I thought it should be this very specific, rigorous, kind of narrow-colored palette. Kazuo downplays his Japaneseness in his work, but I was struck by this interesting hybrid of the Japanese sensibility and the very British sensibility. I did a lot of reading into Japanese aesthetics. I felt like we were shooting innately British things, but if we shoot the movie with a Japanese sensibility that might start to create an analog to Ishiguro’s writing style. That had to do with the classical styles of wabi-sabi and mono no aware, since the film is about time, and the passage of time, and the preciousness of time.
Wabi-sabi is just sort of when things have a patina of wear and the passage of time is evident. It’s a cracked cup instead of an uncracked cup. Mono no aware is a concept, not so much of an aesthetic concept, as much as it is an idea, of the impermanence of things. Sometimes it’s described as the ah-ness of things. Ah ... Things that evoke the transitory nature of life. Sometimes if something was too clean, too new, I’d say, "It’s great, but you got to wabi-sabi it?"
In addition to Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan, you also work with a lot of kids in the film.
I think with kids, it’s the classic "youth is wasted on the young." I honestly think you could tell kids up to a certain age, you know, you are going to die someday, and it goes in one ear and out the other; it’s totally abstract to them. I love that line in Greenberg, where a guy says, "Yeah, youth is wasted on the young." And Greenberg says, "I’d go farther, life is wasted on people." That’s a brilliant line. That’s kind of Ishiguro. You can sum up Ishiguro’s body of work in that line: Life is wasted on people. And in his books, people finally figure out how to utilize their lives, only at the end of their lives.
After you backed out of the big-budget Wolfman, did it feel good to do something more serene?
Wolfman kind of started off as just a troubled film, 'cause of the strike, and other factors created exponentially difficult situations. There was probably six months between them, but it was a good antidote. I mean, obviously that was an experiment in, "Can I engage in one of these films?" It kind of went south there and I couldn’t really do the film that I wanted to do, and it seemed the better thing for everyone for me to bow out, which was unfortunate. This is really what I should be doing and the kind of films I should be doing.
You and Jonze both had fights with studios. Do you commiserate together?
I was also friends with Fincher, and I know Chris Weitz a little, who was making Golden Compass Really smart, talented people can kind of get ground up by the system of making those ginormous films. I mean, I wouldn’t mind making a really big, fun film, but it was a little premature for me. I didn’t really have the leverage. I mean, it's not like I was Chris Nolan and making Batman and it was like, "Okay, give me $150 million dollars and I’ll see you at the premiere " I mean, if someone’s really talented and it seems like a good idea for the movie, just let them go do it! Directors want it to be just as successful as you do!
It's been a while since your last film, partly because some other ones fell through, right?
I had a string of really bad luck. I was going to make a film with Tom Hanks and then that fell apart because of life rights. Then I was going to make A Million Little Pieces, the James Frey book. Each of those were like a year and a half, for naught. Then there was Wolfman. But in that time I got married, I had two children, I wrote a couple screenplays. I did a lot of really fun TV commercials — I did all the Apple iPod commercials: the silhouette commercials, that's me. Dude, I was trying to make about five different movies, it was just strange fortune.
You've left music videos behind?
I don’t regret anything, but sometimes I think that I stayed in [music videos] too long, 'cause it was just so fun. And you get to work with people that you really idolized. It was kind of a big fish in a little pond thing. I probably did it about four or five years longer than I should have, I wish I had made a movie or two more. But if Tom Waits called, I’d be there in about 30 seconds.
I would work with Björk, I would work with Radiohead, I would work with Tom Waits, Belle & Sebastian, Fleet Foxes .. I feel like on an iPad or something, video looks kinda decent, you don’t have to watch it on TV. Maybe they’ll come around again. Sometimes, people get so trapped by, "Well, we can make the budget bigger if we do product placement." But I guess Lady Gaga just made that "Alejandro" video with Steven Klein which looked like an old-school, nineties, big-budget thing. So, who knows? But I always wanted to do movies. The videos were kind of a long tangent.