One of the most prolific and visionary music video directors of the 1990s and early 21st century, Mark Romanek was a writer and filmmaker whose unique and often disturbing visual style helped to pave the way for his subsequent work in feature films. After serving briefly under Brian De Palma, he broke into the burgeoning music video field in the late 1980s, quickly establishing himself through videos for artists ranging from Beck and Fiona Apple to Johnny Cash and Michael Jackson. Romanek's videos were lushly filmed, filled with intimate and often provocative images, and on occasion, controversial, as the perverse visions in his clip for Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" proved. The acclaim over his video work led to numerous commercial spots as well as one feature-length film, the chilly psycho-thriller "One Hour Photo" (2002). The film's moderate success lent to many other announced projects, none of which came to fruition; however, his status as one of the most talented filmmakers in the music video field remained untouched.
Born and raised in Chicago, IL on Sept. 18, 1959, Romanek's desire to become a filmmaker was launched in his early teens by a screening of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). He began making his own films on Super-8 while attending the progressive high school New Trier East, which gave him his first official training in film production and theory. Among his earliest teachers was Kevin Dole, a local experimental director who had crafted some of the first music videos in the early 1970s. After graduation, he attended Ithaca College, during which he actively pursued director Brian De Palma and eventually worked his way into a job as production assistant on the 1978 supernatural thriller, "The Fury."
After graduating from Ithaca's Roy H. Park School of Communications with a degree in cinema and photography, De Palma tapped Romanek to work as his second assistant director on the little-seen comedy "Home Movies" (1980). The project also introduced him to actor and future director Keith Gordon, with whom he would collaborate on his first official feature film, "Static" (1986). Co-written by Romanek and Gordon, the surreal feature starred Gordon as an eccentric who believes that he has invented a television set that shows glimpses of heaven. Though not a financial success, it did earn him a Grand Jury Prize nomination at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival, and helped to launch his career as a music video director after the British band The The, which had provided the soundtrack for "Static," asked him to direct a clip for their song "Sweet Bird of Truth."
Romanek's style - a blend of documentary-style camerawork and abstract, often painterly images shot through with heavy streaks of sexuality and fashion gloss - quickly endeared him to top music artists on both sides of the Atlantic. After helming two videos for cult music hero Robyn Hitchcock, he gained entry into the mainstream with videos for R&B girl group En Vogue, including the MTV Video Music Award-winning "Free Your Mind" (1993). Soon, other major performers were lining up to have Romanek shepherd their videos, including Keith Richards, k.d. lang, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, R.E.M., Fiona Apple, Lenny Kravitz and Macy Gray. Many of the finished shorts took top honors at the MTV Video Music Awards, including Madonna's "Rain," Beck's "Devil's Haircut," Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and Apple's "Criminal."
In 1996, he was awarded a Grammy for Best Short Form Video for the Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson duet "Scream," with a second Grammy coming two years later for Janet's "Got 'Til It's Gone." And in 1997, he became the first director to receive the music video network's Video Vanguard award for his contributions to the medium. Two of his videos - Madonna's "Bedtime Story" and Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" - were eventually made part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The latter was a particularly controversial choice, given the outcry it produced over its sexually suggestive images and depictions of macabre scientific practices.
While his video career was thriving, Romanek's attempts to launch a feature film project were met with frustration for almost a decade. In 2002, he found his sophomore movie in "One Hour Photo," an unsettling psycho-thriller about a lonely photo store clerk (Robin Williams) who becomes obsessed with a seemingly perfect family after developing their snapshots. The film was favorably received and performed moderately well at the box office, with Romanek himself receiving several awards for his work from the Deauville Film Festival. However, Romanek was forced to disclaim numerous rumors that the version released to theaters was significantly different from his original vision.
"One Hour Photo" did not prove to be the launching pad for the feature film phase of Romanek's directing career; though his name was attached to several high profile projects, including adaptations of Philip Gourevitch's novel A Cold Case (2002) and James Frey's controversial A Million Little Pieces (2005), neither film came to light with him in the director's chair. Romanek eventually returned to videos, where he directed perhaps his most accomplished and acclaimed short, the aforementioned "Hurt" for Johnny Cash. A deeply moving portrait of the artist in his final years - Cash would die shortly after its release - the video combined images of the ailing singer in the ruins of his museum, the House of Cash, with archival footage of his long and legendary career. The video eventually won a Video Music Award for its cinematography and earned Romanek his third Grammy.
Romanek continued to divide his time between videos and commercial spots for major companies like Apple Computer, Acura and ESPN while seeking his next feature film. In 2007, he was apparently signed to direct Benecio Del Toro in the much-anticipated remake of "The Wolf Man" (1941), but later dropped out of the project after completing a significant amount of pre-production work in early 2008. He was replaced by Lucasfilm alumni, Joe Johnston.