This week filmmaker Mark Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's dystopian novel Never Let Me Go opened its U.S. release on four screens. Though he's directed three full-length feature films since 1985 (Static, One Hour Photo, and now Never Let Me Go), Romanek's best known for his music videos.
Back in the medium's golden age, many young directors used music videos as laboratories — blank slates or movies free from the constraints of narrative. But few directors, then or now, could turn a music video into visual poetry better than director Mark Romanek.
He was of the class of directors that included Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Anton Corbijn — and he captured some of the 1990's biggest acts in the lens of his camera.
There was Lenny Kravitz's bombastic "Are You Gonna Go My Way," Nine Inch Nail's proto-erotica "Closer," Johnny Cash in the Flemish painting come to life on "Hurt," and most famously, Michael and Janet Jackson's space odyssey "Scream." (You can watch all these videos and more classics — by Bowie, Beck, Madonna, Jay-Z, Fiona Apple — at markromanek.com)
Nevertheless, Romanek retired from music video production in 2005 to focus on full time film making.
"All in all," Romanek says, "it was a fun and memorable period of my life, and I'm very grateful about my good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. But I'm eager to look forward now and to make more feature films now."
But we wanted to talk to him about his most memorable music videos.
1. Johnny Cash "Hurt"
"This was the most memorable for a lot of reasons. I'd been a huge fan of his since childhood, so it was thrilling just to meet him, especially right there in his own home. There was an extremely positive energy around this one. It was made very quickly and intuitively. It was a matter of gently ushering it in, staying out of the way of something way bigger than oneself. When we wrapped, Johnny personally handed out autographed copies of the vinyl LP to the entire crew. An amazing man."
2. Michael & Janet Jackson "Scream"
"If 'memorable' is the criteria, then this one has to go next. It's definitely not one of my favorite videos, but the production was full of weird, crazy moments. I mainly recall times between takes just chatting with Michael about tons of eclectic subjects. His appearance was strange, but in those instances, he just seemed like a regular guy from Indiana. I'd love to state again for the record that Guinness got it wrong and it's not the most expensive video ever made. There are two other videos of the era — both produced at Propaganda Films, incidentally [a hugely successful music video production company that Romanek worked with] — that cost millions more."
3. Nine Inch Nails "Closer"
"This one just came out well. I had always wanted to make a film on a hand-cranked vintage camera in the mode of filmmakers of the silent era. The marriage of that degraded, "found object" look and Trent's contemporary aural textures made for an interesting symbiosis. I bristle a bit at it sometimes being labeled 'a Joel Peter Witkin rip off.' For one, the nods to Witkin are few. (The piece was a deliberate compendium of dozens of 19th and 20th Century art and photography references.) Also, Witkin's own work is full of recontexualized work by other artists."
4. Beck "Devil's Haircut"
"This one wasn't particularly memorable as a filmmaking experience, although shooting on the streets of New York is always exciting. I mention it here just because ... I'm proud of the structure of the piece, how it's made to seem like a song about a paranoid, and then in the end, in a twist, it's revealed he really is being followed after all. The freeze frames and optical zoom-ins were inspired by the final shot of Truffaut's 400 Blows, a film which Beck and I really love. I had those effects done the old skool way, on an old optical printer. They weren't done digitally. It was also shot on Kodak film stock from the 70s which had long passed its expiry date."
"The experience of making all of the videos I made (was) 'memorable' — meeting and working with legends like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Madonna, Keith Richards, etc. The Janet Jackson 'Got 'Til it's Gone' video was the most joyful one to shoot. No Doubt's 'Hellagood' video was particularly fun, because we were tooling around Los Angeles Harbor on jet-skis. I made a Mick Jagger video that was a big flop, but it's one of the better videos I've made, I think."