Even before Mark Romanek yelled “Action!” on “One Hour Photo,” his debut feature film, he was already a trailblazer behind the camera. The filmmaker had made a name for himself as a music video director, helming iconic spots for Lenny Kravitz (“Are You Gonna Go My Way“), Nine Inch Nails (“Closer“), Madonna (“Bedtime Stories“), Michael Jackson (“Scream“), Fiona Apple (“Criminal“), Johnny Cash (“Hurt“) and much, much more. His videos were bold and found Romanek able to easily switch genres musically and stylistically without batting an eye, delivering evocative spots that both defined the director and the artists he worked with. But when it came to his feature film, he largely kept the flashy stylization at bay.
“One Hour Photo,” starring Robin Williams playing a photo developer at a mega chain who develops an obsession with his favorite customers, is an exercise in control, with the thrills and dread coming as much through atmosphere and tone as action. It’s hard to believe it’s been over a decade since the movie first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, but “One Hour Photo” has been freshly revamped for Blu-ray, arriving in a beautiful looking new edition hitting store shelves today (you can check out the artwork below).
We got on the phone with Romanek last week to talk about making the movie, the industry in general, what happened with his gig on “Cinderella” and what might be next. We also talked briefly about “A Cold Case,” a thriller he was set to make with Tom Hanks playing Andy Rosenzweig, in the true story of an investigator who vowed to capture the culprit responsible for the death of his friend in 1970, and uncovered something so much more. It fell apart before it was able to shoot, but Romanek updates us on the status of the movie as well. Read on below.
If you could go back a decade to talk to yourself about filmmaking, what might you say?
Wow, that’s a very good question. It’s sort of irrelevant because you kind of have to work at the level that you are at in that moment. I don’t know that any of it would have landed, or if any of the advice would have found any purchase on that guy. I think that I’ve learned to relax, and trust in and hire very talented people, and trust in their abilities a little more. And only project when necessary to make sure everything is staying on-course and that you can use less energy, and less emotional energy, to get the same or a better result; when you’re younger you tend to be much more intense.
I think I would have worked on the script [for “One Hour Photo”] a little longer, frankly. I was so eager to make the film and the script that I had written got a good response I think I might have gone back and tweaked it a little more. Maybe I would have simplified the film. I think some people said “Oh, well the film isn’t really that stylistically brash for a ‘music video director,’” but I think I would have laid back even more on the style of the film.
The edit of the film took thirteen months, and I’m wondering what were the different versions you had during that time. Were they all wildly different or were they nuances?
No, they were nuances. I’ll tell you what I think happened, which is I made an edit of the film exactly as I wanted to see. Peter Rice — who ran the studio at the time, is a very nice guy and he’s been a tremendous supporter of mine and still is — I think he wanted the film to play more like a thriller, and he kind of shook my hand and said, “You know, ostensibly, you have final cut. At this studio, we’re not gonna change the film or turn it into something you don’t want it to be [or] demand that you make changes. We just can’t be that way at Fox Searchlight.” But what he did instead is he let me keep cutting and cutting and keep trying things.
…and I loved editing so much; it’s by far my favorite part of that process, that I just kept doing it until they sort of hit on an edit that they liked and they said, “Okay, you’re done.” In retrospect, and I have had this conversation with Peter since, there were some really interesting idiosyncratic scenes in the film that I wish were still [there] because I don’t think they would have hurt the box office or, if anything, Peter and I feel like they might have turned some of those 3 ½ star ratings into 4 star reviews. It might have made it a more interesting film, so I do have some regrets about some things that were removed from the film, but none of it was forced on me.
A couple of them were fantasy sequences, right?
There was a strange opening prologue about the “red-eye” effect in photographs, and there were a few other kinds of tangents that weren’t strictly necessary but were kinda cool.
You had sent an edit to Francis Ford Coppola for his opinion and David Fincher had read the script at one point. What was their input and how valuable was it?
I had some screenings for friends and filmmakers, but I will say that the Coppola note was the most impact note because he took a look at a rough cut and he said to me, “Is the film a thriller or is it a character study” and I said, “Well, that’s hard to answer.” I said, “Sort of a thriller, sort of a character study.” And he said to me, “There’s no such thing as sort of a thriller.” What he suggested was the film was a character study, but that it was in the guise of the genre of a thriller, and that he felt it would be helpful to set the film very clearly for the audience in the mode of a thriller so they felt comfortable with the type of film they were about to see. He said, “Then you could slip the character study in on them,” and I thought that was a brilliant note. What’s great about that is that it’s not subjective. It’s not, “Well I would have done this.” Or, “Why didn’t you do it this way?” It was more like, “Here’s a way to structure your film that will help the audience engage with it and take it or leave it.” Because the film was originally just linear, and what we did is we put that scene of Sy having already been arrested and being about to be interrogated [at the beginning]; then you understand that you’re watching a film where someone did something really bad and he was arrested for it, and he’s a little off. You realize the stakes of the film are such that it’s gonna reach that point, and then we went back to start the film from the beginning and that was entirely Coppola’s influence.
The budgets for music videos and commercials can be very high but the timeline for them is usually short and you’re done shooting and then you’re editing. Were you ready for the focus that a feature film required?
Yeah, I mean I stopped making videos and commercials for a few months before I started films just to reset my clock because so much narrative filmmaking is a sense of tempo and rhythm. I think if you come straight off of a commercial where shots can be frames long or something it [can] really screw you up. The good thing to having made all those commercials and videos was I had a sort of ease with the craft side and the technical side and the process. I can’t imagine what it’d be like for a first time filmmaker to have to manage the storytelling, and the actor’s needs, and the logistics of the production and then be learning technical things; I can’t imagine how it’s possible.
And I was working almost exclusively with people that I had a long relationship with like [cinematographer] Jeff Cronenweth and [costume designer] Arianne Phillips and [production designer] Tom Foden so we had a shorthand. It was kind of what I expected, but it is a marathon and it requires a lot of mental and emotional, physical stamina. At a certain point you kind of don’t think you’re gonna make it. It’s a long march and that’s a short film that was only 40-some days.
Just after “One Hour Photo” came out, you said you had a couple scripts you were working on; one of them was a psychological war movie and another you had described as a film about a man who’s defined by his job. Are you still working on those?
The second one is still in play, and I’m just trying to get that cast with the right person who has the slot at the right time. The first one I think is probably something that isn’t ever gonna happen. They’re both scripts I wrote. The first one is really experimental technically; it’s always just a little too crazy for people. I have these ideas that people go “Oh, that’s cool. I’d pay to see it but I’m not gonna give you $25 million.”
Why was it too crazy for people, do you think?
Well, I don’t want to give away the gimmick, but it kind of had an elegant gimmick which was nonetheless a gimmick and I’d never done that before which, of course, I found exciting. Everything else thinks it’s kind of nuts, so someday.
There was another film “A Cold Case,” which sounds amazing. Is that something that you’re still hoping to make?
That’s a film I’d love to make someday and I talk to Tom Hanks about it from time to time. The character in the film is a bit older and I think someday, in the next eight years or something, maybe it’ll be the right time to do, but it’s just sitting there. It’s a great script by Eric Roth; it’s based on this brilliant non-fiction book by Phillip DeRevich. It’s a beautiful project, but it came at a time when, to make a big-budget R-rated original drama, studios were just shifting to this other mode where they felt uncomfortable. They still aren’t really comfortable making films like that, so if it doesn’t have someone with tights, a mask, and a cape… I mean that’s one I do hope to resurrect.
Would you do a tights and a man in a cape type of movie if the right thing were to walk in front of you?
Yeah, I mean I would. I would never say no to that if there were something that I could hook myself into and get passionate about enough to make that life commitment to making it. I just heard that great talk that [Steven] Soderbergh gave at the San Francisco Film Festival. And he talks about the difference between cinema and movies, and I feel like I’ve engaged on making movies [big-budget movies] with studios, and I tried to infuse a quality of cinema into it in the way that Soderbergh defines it, and that’s made them uncomfortable, I guess. And, of course, those are the big movies that I like, that manage to do that. If I ever work with a studio or a producer that isn’t afraid to strike that balance, then I’d love to do that. I think Chris Nolan does that, Fincher does that, Spielberg does that.
With things like “The Wolfman” and “Cinderella,” do you have a guard up or do you just sort of wait and see where that process takes you?
I did have my guard up enough on “The Wolfman.” On “Cinderella,” they knew that I had this unpleasant, unproductive experience on ‘Wolfman’ and we all agreed to not let it go like that. It was very genial for quite a long time and the head of the studio changed and it’s not that it became ungenial, it’s just he had a different idea for the kind of film he wanted it to be after fifteen long months of development, which was unfortunate. He wanted to take it in a different direction and I tried to accommodate that as best as I could and ultimately just decided that they should maybe find another filmmaker that could fulfill that new vision of it. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t become aware of this shift in direction for so long because a lot of work I had put into it for naught, so that was very disappointing.
There’s filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Shane Carruth, who just went off on their own and quietly made their new movies outside the system. Have you thought about doing something like that?
The one we talked about earlier, the man defined by his job, that could be done that way, and we’re discussing doing it that way. You have to have a script that has that intimacy and smallness that lends itself to that kind of approach. It has to be just right. I kind of have one foot in the boat and one foot on the pier in the sense that I like big spectacle films and I like doing things that are on a grander canvas, but yet I also really love small, intimate films. “Never Let Me Go” is a pretty small, intimate film, but I love to work on a grander canvas; the nature of the business changed and it’s a little hard for me to find my place these days. And I don’t want to be a Luddite or a romantic, and only make films that are nostalgic for the ’70s. I’d like to make films that contemporary audiences will be excited by, it’s just the business is shifting so dramatically every week, I seem to be unable to find my momentum in it.
Would you say that there are more avenues to get films made circa-“One Hour Photo” than now?
Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of money out there, frankly. There’s only a few studios and they’re pretty much focused, 90% or more, on making big, comic-book type, broad appeal films. But there’s tons of independent money floating around because the digital world is shifting so much and the global market is shifting so much, that there’s ways to independently finance films. It’s just the areas of how it gets seen, how and where it gets seen and marketed, is a little problematic, but there seems to be money to make films out there. The trick is falling in love with something enough, and being excited enough by something, to want to make that year and a half or two year commitment and wake up every morning at 5 to go deal with a whole day full of problems to get it up on the screen. You really need passion.
So is that “man with a job” project, is that sort of what you’re focused on now and hoping to get made next?
It’s one of a couple. There’s an actor that’s very exciting, wants to do it, but he’s very busy so it’s a matter of trying to figure out when we can fit it into his schedule.
And I know you’ve taken a hiatus from doing music videos. Would you ever return to that world?
It’s a matter of: is there a great idea? Does the budget fit that idea? It’s not my priority, but I wouldn’t say no. There’s an artist we’re talking about doing something [with], but I don’t think I’ve made a video for [since] 2005, so it’s been quite a while [ed. it was “Speed Of Sound” for Coldplay]. It’s more lucrative and enjoyable to make interesting commercials to pay the bills in between these struggles to make films.
Why are commercials more appealing than the music videos?
It’s not as artistically appealing [but] I get to work [with] a high level of interesting scripts and clever concepts and I have a certain amount of freedom. You have nice budgets to make this 30 or 60 second thing, you’re not struggling to generate enough footage to make four minutes interesting, and you’re paid more frankly, to be honest. I feel very lucky that I have that other avenue to keep busy.
That’s interesting because I think from the outside; people always meld commercials and music videos together as one thing. It didn’t occur to me that a budget for a commercial may be greater than what you get for a music video.
Especially now. It’s routine for me to get a million dollar budget to make a thirty second film. And the largest music video budget these days is $150,000 and you have to try and generate enough interesting footage for four minutes. Plus, I’m kind of over it. I think I made about 100 music videos or more and that was a young man’s challenge. I’m still a rabid music fan and I have ideas for music videos once in a while, but it’s just not my focus. I have two children and a wife and a mortgage, if you want to be a filmmaker you need to be paying for your life someway. I can’t make a film every five years and send my kids to a nice school.
“One Hour Photo” is on DVD and Blu-ray now.