By Shannon Carlin
Before director Mark Romanek was helping Taylor Swift shake it off — and then perhaps, unwittingly helping fuel the hate, hate, hate, hate, hate of all those she’s singing about — he was making videos for the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie and more than one member of the Rolling Stones.
Swift said she’s wanted to work with Romanek for years because, in her opinion, he’s directed some of the most iconic videos in history. And it’s true, his resumé is an impressive one that includes Beck’s escape to New York in “Devil’s Haircut,” Jay Z’s black and white clip for “99 Problems, and Michael Jackson’s foray into space with “Scream,” still considered to be the most expensive video ever made by the Guinness Book of World Records. Though, Romanek has always refuted this claim.
Romanek has directed 43 videos, starting with the 1986 clip for The The’s “Sweet Bird of Truth.” But it didn’t take long before he was directing some of the biggest clips of the ’90s including Nine Inch Nail’s rather creepy, non-sequitur of an art film “Closer,” that featured beating hearts, miniature skeletons and a crucified capuchin monkey. Not to mention Trent Reznor being tied up in ways only 50 Shades of Grey fans will understand.
He’s been awarded with three GRAMMYs for Best Short Form Music Video — the most of any director — for Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and Johnny Cash’s heartbreaking cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
Not bad for a guy who got his start in 1985 directing a dramatic comedy called Static about a man who develops a machine that allows you to see photos of heaven, but when no one believes him he decides to hijack a bus of senior citizens in hopes to gain the world’s attention. Hilarity ensues, we imagine, though Romanek has said he considers his second film, the 2002 psychological thriller, One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams, to be his real debut. He’s since directed the 2010 film, Never Let Me Go, based on the 2005 dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield.
For a director known for his gritty style and vibrant, dirty color palette, Swift may not seem like an obvious choice. But he managed to bring some of his signature style to the very Swiftian clip off her upcoming album, 1989 (out Oct. 27) including simple, clean lines that would work well in a Gap commercial and quick cuts that make you want to watch it again and again, just to see what you may have missed.
But, how did Romanek really go from Trent Reznor and crucifixes to Taylor Swift and twerking?
1. En Vogue – “Free Your Mind”
With a limited color scheme, a synchronized dance routine and eager extras, this video may have been a pre-requisite for Swift’s latest. Fitting, since these women, like Taylor, feel very misunderstood by the general public. Instead of dancing it off, they’re suggesting you free your mind and stop succumbing to racial stereotypes. Something Earl Sweatshirt wishes Swift would do, as well.
2. Weezer – “El Scorcho”
Romanek makes great use of space in this video where Rivers Cuomo and the guys just sit around playing the Pinkerton track. The director does the same in “Shake It Off” turning a rather mundane warehouse into a dance studio. It’s not about the space, but how Romanek display what’s going on in there. Specifically, all the fun that’s being had. Whether it’s Taylor dancing like nobody’s watching or Cuomo rocking out under the glow of a disco ball, Romanek makes you want to be a part of the party.
3. Michael Jackson feat. Janet Jackson – “Scream”
Romanek makes good use of a different kind of space in this clip, which had the King of Pop wagging a certain finger at the tabloids from the depths of the great unknown. For Swift, Romanek stays with the same monochromatic look (adding just a touch of sparkle) and robotic dance moves to help her take those first few steps into the future. Swift however, does not get a chance to show off her moonwalk. Probably for the best.
4. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Can’t Stop”
This clip, along with Swift’s, could be described as a visual overload. There’s so much going on, so many quick cuts — over 200 in Swift’s and over 270 in the Chili Peppers’ — that bounce you between so many different stimulants that it’s hard to take it all in, especially in the first viewing. So you watch it again and you catch new things and then you watch it another time, and you notice a few more things you didn’t catch that last time. And you do this so many times that you lose count and Swift has the most watched video on YouTube. This clip, which features Anthony Kiedis trapped in a tent and cemented into a wall, was inspired by the “One Minute Sculptures” of Erwin Wurm. We assume Taylor’s latest was inspired by So You Think You Can Dance?
5. Madonna – “Bedtime Story”
Madonna seems to play a different character in every shot of this video. First she’s a pod-dwelling science experiment, then she’s a tongue-wagging flower child and by the end she’s Rapunzel giving birth to doves. Romanek tones things down a bit for Taylor’s character study, meaning, no mouths for eyes here. But he does have her playing a slew of characters that aren’t exactly “Taylor Swift” from the prima ballerina to the rhythmic gymnast to the breakdancer to the head cheerleader. But even as we see the Material Girl fall into a black hole, the most farfetched this has to be Taylor casting herself as someone who is constantly being persecuted.
6. The Wallflowers – “Sleepwalker”
In this clip, Jakob Dylan pokes fun at himself, playing with all the frontman stereotypes from the brooding artist to the egomaniac to the chick magnet. Swift also pokes fun at herself in “Shake It Off,” specifically her awards show dance moves. Both manage to get tangled up in fabric.
7. Fiona Apple – “Criminal”
On the surface, these videos have very little in common. Apple plays a scantily clad adolescent who wants to suffer for her sins, while the no-longer-22 Swift wants to blow off some steam by dancing. But at the time of their respective videos, these girls were on the verge of breaking out or, in Swift’s case, breaking free from the confines of country music. And Romanek’s there to catch it all on film. When describing her new single, Swift told fans, “I’ve learned a pretty tough lesson that people can say whatever they want about us at any time, and we cannot control that. The only thing we can control is our reaction to that.” Sure, it’s not “this world is bulls–t,” but it’s as close as we’re going to get to rebellion from America’s pop sweetheart.