Mark Lee Romanek (; born September 18, 1959) is an American filmmaker whose directing work includes feature films, television, music videos and commercials. Romanek is most known for having directed the films One Hour Photo (2002) and Never Let Me Go (2010). His most notable music videos include "Hurt" (Johnny Cash), "Closer" (Nine Inch Nails), "Can't Stop" (Red Hot Chili Peppers), "Rain" (Madonna), "Bedtime Story" (Madonna), "Scream" (Michael & Janet Jackson), "Criminal" (Fiona Apple), and "Shake It Off" (Taylor Swift). He also co-directed "Sandcastles" from Beyoncé's Lemonade album. Romanek's music videos have won 20 MTV Video Music Awards, including Best Direction for Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. He has also won three Grammy Awards for Best Short Form Music Video – more than any other director.
Romanek was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Shirlee and Marvin Romanek. He is Jewish. He credits seeing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of nine with inspiring him to become a film director. He experimented with Super 8 and 16mm film as a teenager while attending New Trier High School. There, he studied first with Kevin Dole, a local filmmaker who was already creating a form of music video on his own in the mid-1970s, and then with Peter Kingsbury, a filmmaker who had studied with experimentalists Owen Land, John Luther Schofill, and Stan Brakhage at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Both teachers exposed students to works by significant figures of the American avant-garde cinema, such as Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Paul Sharits.
Romanek subsequently attended Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, and graduated from its Roy H. Park School of Communications with a degree in cinema and photography. He served as second assistant director for Brian De Palma on Home Movies, an autobiographical film De Palma conceived as an exercise for his students at Sarah Lawrence College (having returned to his alma mater as an instructor of film production). On set, Romanek met Keith Gordon, playing De Palma's alter ego. Gordon remembers Romanek's entrance into film production:
I actually met a lot of people who became important in my life, but Mark being one of the people who was really huge. Mark wasn't even officially one of the students in the class. Mark was kind of like me – he was a film geek. He was from Chicago. And he had followed Brian around on the set of The Fury and gotten a job as a production assistant on that movie. And when he heard that Brian was doing this project, he basically contacted him and said, 'Listen, can I come to New York and basically be like one of the students, even though I'm not technically in the class?' And Brian said, 'Fine.' So Mark became the second assistant director on the film. And he and I just hit it off pretty quickly. We had a similar passion for Stanley Kubrick. He showed me his short films, which I thought were really good and showed a lot of visual flair.
Romanek released his first film, Static, in 1985. It was co-written with Gordon and starred Gordon as a man who claimed he had invented a television set capable of showing a live picture of Heaven. The film achieved something of a cult following in London and led to Romanek's first job at the helm of a music video for the British new wave group The The, who were featured on the soundtrack for Static in 1986. Romanek later disowned the film, saying that he finds it an "embarrassing bit of juvenilia".
After a few years writing screenplays, Romanek decided to focus on music videos and signed on with Satellite Films, a division of Propaganda Films. His subsequent work has come to be regarded as among the best of the medium. He has worked with many top-selling recording artists from different genres of popular music, and his videos have been given credit for making stars out of some. One of his notable videos was for the Nine Inch Nails song "Closer". Its critical acclaim was only matched by its controversy, with many accusing the video as being disturbing and demonic (a big reason why the video was so popular among fans). Romanek would again work with Nine Inch Nails for the song "The Perfect Drug".
Romanek directed the music videos for David Bowie's 1993 singles "Jump They Say" and "Black Tie White Noise".
Romanek was given his first Grammy Award for Best Short Form Video in 1996 for "Scream", a collaboration between the pop superstar siblings Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. The video, which cost $7 million to make, is cited as one of the most expensive ever made. Romanek won his second Grammy two years later, again with Janet Jackson, for her video "Got 'til It's Gone". In 2002, Romanek shot a video for Audioslave's "Cochise" in which the band performed in the midst of a prolonged pyrotechnic display of the intensity usually seen only during fireworks finales. The explosions were so loud during the night shoot in the San Fernando Valley that local police and fire departments received hundreds of calls from residents who feared that a terrorist attack was under way.
Romanek's 2002 music video for Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" has been hailed by many critics and fans alike as the most personal and moving music video ever made. The song expresses self-loathing and the futility of worldly accomplishments; this content took on a new poignancy when sung by Cash near the end of his life, quietly performing in his memorabilia-filled home, with shots of the flood-ravaged "House of Cash" museum and archival shots of a younger, cockier Cash edited in. The video was nominated for seven VMAs, winning one for cinematography, and also won Romanek his third Grammy.
Other Romanek videos that have received accolades and awards include the VMA winners "Free Your Mind" (En Vogue), "Are You Gonna Go My Way" (Lenny Kravitz), "Rain" (Madonna), "Devil's Haircut" (Beck), "99 Problems" (Jay-Z), and "Criminal" (Fiona Apple). Many others have also received nominations. In 1997, Romanek received the VMA Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for his contribution to the medium. Two of his music videos, "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails and "Bedtime Story" by Madonna, have been made part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
In an interview for IndieWire, when asked if he would direct another music video, Romanek said:
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.
Despite this, Romanek returned to music video directing with Jay-Z's performance art piece "Picasso Baby", which aired on HBO on August 2, 2013. The video was shot inside the Pace Gallery in New York and featured a group of personalities from the world of art, including Marina Abramović, whose 2010 performance art work "The Artist is Present" inspired the video. This marked Romanek's first music video in eight years, his last being Coldplay's video for "Speed of Sound" in 2005.
Romanek then directed "Filthy" by Justin Timberlake and "Rescue Me" by Thirty Seconds to Mars, which both premiered in 2018.
In 2022, Romanek directed a 180-degree virtual reality concert for Foo Fighters, featuring a song by the group never before played.
In 2002, Romanek wrote and directed his second feature film, One Hour Photo, about a department store photo processor played by Robin Williams who becomes obsessed with a family through their snapshots. The film proved to be only a moderate hit, but still established Romanek as a respected film director. Rumors spread that the studio, Fox Searchlight, had forced changes on Romanek that seriously altered the film from how he had intended it. He has dismissed this story, however, stating that there never was a "director's cut" of One Hour Photo and that the studio did not exercise any editorial control.
In 2008, after Romanek left as the director of The Wolfman due to creative differences, he accepted the offer to work on Never Let Me Go. Romanek was glad to get the opportunity to shoot the film, saying "From the moment I finished the novel, it became my dream to film it. [Kazuo] Ishiguro's conception is so daring, so eerie and beautiful. Alex Garland's adaptation is sensitive and precise. The cast is perfect, the crew superb." The film was released in 2010 to mostly positive reviews and was the 28th highest grossing film at the box office for that week.
Throughout the 2010s, Romanek circled numerous projects that never materialized under his direction, including a remake of The Boston Strangler, the Shining prequel The Overlook Hotel, the David Mamet-penned conspiracy thriller Blackbird, and a film about the Norco shootout, amongst others. "I wish I had made ten films by now," Romanek said in 2020, "It's not for lack of trying... I have a lot of movies that I worked on that didn't come together." Romanek has however directed several episodes for television, including the HBO series Vinyl and the Amazon Prime series Tales from the Loop, which he also executive produced.
In 2021, it was reported that Romanek would direct the horror film Mother Land which would have been his first feature film in over a decade. In December of the following year, Romanek revealed that he was no longer attached to it and that he had been replaced as director by Alexandre Aja.
Romanek's dream project was an adaptation of Philip Gourevitch's A Cold Case starring Tom Hanks as chief investigator Andy Rosenzweig. The film went into development hell due to scheduling conflicts and issues with life rights. In 2013, Romanek said he still hoped to make the film someday, "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."
Throughout his career in music and film, Romanek has been recognized for his photographing skills, taking pictures of numerous celebrities he has befriended over the years, which include Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, Robin Williams, Harmony Korine, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola and Jay-Z. Romanek has said that while the photographs are all of famous people, he still considers them personal.
In 2017, 30 of Romanek's photographs were unearthed for an exhibition at the French luxury retailer Colette for the series entitled, SNAPSHOTS.
In 2005, Romanek married R&B singer Brigette McWilliams. The couple have two daughters. On March 16, 2022, she filed a family marriage dissolution/divorce lawsuit against Romanek.
In 2012, Romanek participated in the Sight & Sound film polls. Held every ten years to select the greatest films of all time, contemporary directors were asked to select ten films of their choice. Romanek gave the following ten, in alphabetical order:
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