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Never Let Go of Your Dreams: Director Mark Romanek '81 Reflects on His Career

Written by Meghan Swope

Mark Romanek '81 on the set of Never Let Me Go. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

How did the director of last year’s critically acclaimed Never Let Me Go discover his passion for filmmaking? It probably started with the Kodak Instamatic his photography-buff father bought him when he was nine, or perhaps it was the darkroom his dad built him when he was 12. But one thing’s for certain: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he saw twice as a boy, was hugely influential. “I was really struck by that film; it really overwhelmed me,” says Mark Romanek ’81. “One day it oc­curred to me that maybe if I borrowed my uncle’s Super 8 camera I could make a story movie rather than just a home movie. When I was about 15 years old, I knew that I would be a film director.”

Romanek’s conviction helped him catch the eye of his mentor at Ithaca College, Skip Landen, when Romanek first toured the campus as a prospective student. The (now deceased) cinema professor tended to focus his discus­sion toward parents, emphasizing how career-focused the education would be, Romanek recalls. “Landen said with a certain amount of dismissiveness, ‘Every once in a while we get some kid who thinks he’s going to be the next Spielberg,’ and I said, ‘Well, that would be me, Skip.’ And I think from that moment on he real­ized that I wasn’t one of the kids that was just hoping to get a job in a craft industry.”

After honing his skills in the production studios at Ithaca College and on the set of Brian De Palma’s Home Movies while an un­dergrad, Romanek cowrote and directed Static, a finalist for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival, just four years after graduating. Perhaps New York Times film critic Janet Maslin was onto something when she commented on the film’s “rock-video style,” as Romanek’s career soon veered into the world of MTV. Originally intended to be “a tangent and training ground,” Romanek’s music video career with such artists as Madonna, Michael and Janet Jackson, David Bowie, R.E.M., and Jay-Z (see below) earned him three Grammys, numerous VMAs, and MTV’s Video Vanguard Award. “Music videos were kind of being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “I always saw it as a very elite kind of graduate school, a way to get paid to make artistic short films, learn the craft, learn how to work with crews, and take some time to develop a personal life that might result in having something worth saying as a feature filmmaker.”

He found something worth saying with 2002’s One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams, and with last year’s Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel about love, loss, and the finite nature of time. The book “brought me to tears,” says Romanek, “and yet I found it intellectually stimulating as well, and very mysterious. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” The movie, starring Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Carey Mulligan, made Time’s list of the top 10 films of 2010 (and was named best overlooked film by the Phoenix Film Critics Society).

What advice does Romanek have for film students to­day? “Aim really high with your work, because the world is filled with mediocre things. You have to astonish people to get their attention. So I’d say be daring, but make sure what you’re saying is a sincere expression and that you’re not trying to say something because you think it’s what people want to hear,” he says. He also advises aspiring filmmakers to be prepared for the level of determination that it’s going to take to achieve what they want to achieve be­cause it’s a very difficult job. “If you get a chance to direct, it’s hard enough, but get­ting the chance is even harder.”

For those of us who’ve seen his work, we’re grateful Romanek got that chance.



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