“Photos say I was young once, I was happy and someone
cared enough about me to take my picture,” says Sy Parrish (Robin
Williams) in writer-director Mark Romanek’s debut film, One Hour
Photo. Romanek does for photo processing guys what Alfred Hitchcock
did for hotel clerks in Psycho. You will not forget Sy, the
bland but seemingly harmless guy who sits behind the photo drop-off
counter of a sterile Sav Mart, spending his days peering into the
lives of his customers through their photographs.
The director, who made his mark as a music video director
working with Lenny Kravitz, Nine Inch Nails, Janet Jackson, Beck
and Madonna, has an eye for images. And in One Hour Photo,
he’s concerned with the surface of things. After all, that’s what
photographs superficially capture. Just how creepy and harmless
is Sy? Is he a villain or someone to pity? Romanek lets you make
up your own mind. Here, he discusses his debut film, putting the
comedic Williams in a deeply dramatic role and his own obsessions.
Paula Schwartz (MM): One Hour Photo is about
a seemingly harmless, middle-aged clerk (Robin Williams) who works
at a photo lab and becomes obsessed with a family whose photographs
he’s been developing for years. The theme is obsession. So what’s
Mark Romanek (MR): I’m obsessed with photography,
which I think is one of the reasons the movie came about. And I’m
obsessed with movies. As a teenager in the ’70s, I fell in love
with those movies that got later labeled the kind of lonely man
films-“the cinema of loneliness.” I got obsessed with Polanski and
Kubrick and Altman and Cassavates and Coppola.
MM: Is this movie an homage to those directors?
MR: I hope not. I hope it isn’t actually, because
I wanted to take that idea and bring it into the 21st century and
make that type of movie in a contemporary mode. But a first movie
maybe is always going to belie your loves and obsessions. Unless
you’re Orson Welles, but that’s a unique case.
MM: Robin Williams does for photo development
clerks what Anthony Perkins did for hotel clerks in Psycho.
He is someone who stays with you. The next time you hand over your
film to be processed, you won’t look at the guy behind the counter
the same way. How intentional was that?
MR: It sounds a little pretentious, but we
were kind of aiming for an iconic character that might really stick
with people, just like Sy the photo guy is someone that’s so familiar
to us. One of the reasons that might be true is that I could have
made the movie in a more naturalistic way, but I don’t think it
would have stuck with you in the way that you’re describing. By
stylizing it, it resembles some sort of dream or a fable, and I
think that way there’s sort of a latent content to the story that
sticks with you. The manifest content, the superficial content (meaning
just the narrative), is what you experience as you’re watching the
film. But what you take away is sort of the resonating stuff, and
that was very intentional.
MM: Your movie was the first of the trilogy
of dark characters Robin Williams has played recently.
MR: Yeah. When I met him to discuss us working
together, I should say Death to Smoochy and Insomnia did not exist on anyone’s radar-I just took a long time cutting
the movie. I spent like a year editing the film and then suddenly
they finished their films rather quickly, and we were in this situation
where we had to sort of jockey for position. We had confidence that
the film was interesting, so we said, “You know, let’s just hold
onto it and let it have its own space,” ’cause we couldn’t rush
it before those films.
MM: It was Williams’ idea to do your film,
wasn’t it? For a first-time moviemaker, that must be like hitting
MR: Yeah. What happened was my agent and his
manager are friends. My agent sent it to his manager. His manager
read it and said, “You know, as weird as this may sound, Robin really
may go for this. Is it okay to send it to him?” And we went, ‘Sure!’
And I guess they sent him my music videos as well, and like a week
later they called back and said “He really loved it and he wants
to meet Mark.” I think what Robin told me later was that he wanted
to make sure that I knew what I wanted-that I was going to able
to be candid with him, that I wasn’t going to be star-struck and
I could speak plainly to him about how I see the film. And when
I was able to do that, right at that first meeting, he said, “I’d
like to do your film” and I was like, “Excuse me?” I did a real
doubletake, because you’re not used to a big star being so direct.
Usually they say, “Well, it was nice meeting you.” And then they
go back and you have to wait. You have to go through that whole
Hollywood rigmarole. There wasn’t any of that on this film. That
was indicative of the way the whole process went.
For some reason this movie wanted to be made. And
all the obstacles that you normally encounter seemed just not even
to be there for this film. I was shooting the film 10 months after
I got the idea. I was on the set, shooting it!
MM: Robin Williams has this constant manic
comic energy. How hard was it to rein that in?
MR: I didn’t have to ever rein him in during
the performance, during the shooting of the film in terms of the
lines and doing the movie. I did have to sometimes rein him in between
takes because when I said cut, he would need to expend all of his
comic energy and get that out of his system so that he could go
back and do another take and be very focused and small. So between
takes, he would just go nuts. But it was joyful because the crew
would laugh. It was just great for morale; everybody’s laughing.
And he did his best work when he was literally, sometimes 10 seconds
previously, being psycho crazy funnyman, because he was able to
do the scenes in a much more Zen way, without really over-thinking
it. He would just do it.
MM: He’d go in an out of character that
MR: Yeah. It was astonishing to watch. As a
matter of fact, they send you the EPK, they really captured that
one day on the set where he’s just being hysterically funny, just
like you see him on Letterman or something, and then I would say,
‘Robin, we have to get going,’ and he would say, “Okay boss,” and
I would say, ‘Roll the sound. Roll camera and action.’ And then
he would just be Sy-like at the drop of a hat. And then I’d say,
‘Cut’ and he’d go nuts again. And he needed to do that. And you
know what, he was so good in the film, I didn’t care what he did.
Whatever works. If he wanted to squawk like a chicken and that was
going to help his performance, then I would let him squawk like
a chicken cause he was so good in the film.
MM: You read Elvis Mitchell’s review in
the Times, which was generally a good review, but he had
one criticism. He said, “Mr. Romanek has completely conceived only
one role in this movie,” and that “unfortunately the film turns
everyone but the central character into a cutout.” How do you answer
MR: First of all, I thought Elvis’ review was
the most thoughtful and perceptive I’ve read, even though it was
a little bit critical of some aspects. And hey, it’s a first movie,
it’s not Citizen Kane. I’m not pretending that I made a flawless
diamond. It is perhaps flawed in several ways, but every decision
that I made was from Sy’s character’s point of view, so the design
of the film was all character work: The wardrobe is character work.
The way the film is composed and lit and color schemed is all how
Sy either sees the world, or would be experiencing the world around
him. For him, all he knows about this family is what he sees in
the snapshots and his kind of cordial banter when they come in occasionally
to drop of their film. So I never wanted to overly dimensionalize
those people, because I didn’t think it was that pertinent. What was pertinent was that he imagined them to be perfect, like
Greek gods and goddesses. So that when he finds out that they have
feet of clay, it’s a real fall. If I had fully dimensionalized the
characters, as Elvis suggests, I don’t know if that fall would have
been as compelling, so it was a choice. Elvis just felt it was the
MM: Did you want the audience to feel sympathetic
toward Sy? He doesn’t come off as a villain.
MR: I wanted the audience to be unsure and
definitely be disturbed by his behavior, but I think [actors and
directors have] to approach all the characters from a place of understanding.
You hear a lot of actors say that, obviously. There’s no way to
do it otherwise. If you don’t, you just end up with a cartoon, or
something, and I always thought of him as a kind of a creepy saint,
really, which is my phrase for him. He ends up really being this
sort of avenging angel. I also don’t see the film so much as a thriller
as I do kind of a love story, but it’s just a very misplaced, inappropriate
manifestation of someone’s love. I think he fell in love with this
family. He fell in love with the idea of this family, so, yeah,
it’s definitely sympathetic to Sy.
MM: Do you feel that being a music video
director has been a burden in the way you’re perceived as a feature
MR: No. I wouldn’t have gotten to make this
film with as much freedom as I had-and I probably wouldn’t have
gotten Robin Williams to be in the film-without the music videos.
I’ve learned an immense amount about working with crews and stars,
and I’ve learned my craft. I feel very comfortable about the technical
side of the filmmaking process. What I have a little chip on my
shoulder about is that people lump all music video directors together.
Most music videos aren’t good. And when they hear
the phrase “music video,” it’s become a pejorative to mean flashy
and superficial. The truth is that the very best practitioners of
that medium were some of the most exciting short filmmakers in the
entire world. People like Spike Jonze and Dave Fincher and Michel
Gondry and Jonathan Glazer and Roman Coppola. These are guys that
are great filmmakers and now they’re are making great movies; sometimes
they’re considered to have this flashy style just because they once
made some music videos.
Movies should be aggressive stylistically. They should
be exciting. They should be visual. I mean, Scorsese does it. Orson
Welles did it. Kubrick did it. If those guys had started out making
music videos, some critics would have derided it as flash, or music
video superficiality, when it’s just that style and content needs
to interplay. When they resonate off each other, it’s exciting filmmaking.