- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

Mark Romanek came to a quick realization in the preparation of his latest film, "One Hour Photo."

"I realized while writing it that it wasn't a thriller," Mr. Romanek says. "It was a love story maybe an extremely creepy love story. Also a have-and-have-not story, in which those two worlds were going to clash."

The haves in this case are a suburban family of three: Will and Nina Yorkin, played by Michael Vartan and Connie Nielsen, and their 9-year-old son, Jake, played by Dylan Smith. The have-not is Robin Williams as Sy Parrish, a solitary, middle-aged clerk at the photo shop in a discount store called SavMart.

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Over the years, Sy has cultivated an attachment to the Yorkins that takes an ominous turn when his job is threatened and he discovers that the marriage of Will and Nina is not as secure as he imagined.

A native of Chicago, Mr. Romanek began making short amateur films at the age of 13. He attended a "progressive high school" that offered a four-year filmmaking program among its electives and then went on to graduate from Ithaca College with a major in film studies. He was a frequent prizewinner at Ithaca, becoming a finalist one year for a student Academy Award. His youthful attraction to filmmaking also coincided with a revitalization of the movie industry in the 1970s.

"The great thing about my high school," Mr. Romanek recalls during a phone call from New York, "is that the faculty was recruited from the Art Institute of Chicago. The instructors were all into non-narrative, experimental shorts. At school they'd show strange and interesting stuff by Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger and other abstract filmmakers.

"I was absorbing that influence along with this new golden age of American movies in the early 1970s: "The Godfather," "Jaws," "The Conversation," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Chinatown," "Taxi Driver." There seemed to be this great outpouring."

Now 42, rather senior for an emerging filmmaker, Mr. Romanek did engineer a feature debut at the age of 25, collaborating on a supernatural comedy-fantasy screenplay with his leading man, Keith Gordon, who later traded in acting for directing. The movie was titled "Static" and failed to generate adequate buzz.

"It had very limited runs," the director says. "I consider 'One Hour Photo' my first real movie, but there are people who liked 'Static.' It had a nice little run in London.

"Amanda Plummer was in the cast, and Bob Gunton was very funny in a supporting role. I think it's pretty much unavailable at the moment, which I don't mind. It's juvenilia, and it would not please me to see it revived because of the new film. Not that I want to make a big deal of it."

On the rebound from "Static," Mr. Romanek discovered a lucrative cinematic sidelight, the music video. "It was more or less at the beginning of that phenomenon," he recalls, "and I found I had a knack for it."

Shooting music videos for good pay and developing film scripts without realization began to seem a frustrating double life.

"I was unable to get anything from development to production," Mr. Romanek explains, "but having educated myself in the process, and sort of knowing what it takes to persuade a studio to greenlight a risky film, some kind of subconscious alchemy was brewing.

"I really felt an affinity for films of the early 1970s like 'The Conversation' and 'Taxi Driver' and Roman Polanski's 'The Tenant,' which to me is really underappreciated. Movies like 'The Passenger' and 'The Parallax View' had similar qualities.

"There was this paranoid-existential-lonely-man genre that I could never get out of my mind. The idea popped into my head about a clerk at a one-hour photo store being an interesting modern version of those lonely-man figures. It was a marketable premise. I thought it would give me the license to do a thoughtful, interesting movie."

The screenplay was completed in three weeks, and no obstacles seemed to stand in the way of its prompt realization. The script attracted a set of producers, Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler, who had been specializing in "edgy" independent features for a decade: "Poison," "Kids," "Safe," "Happiness," "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Boys Don't Cry," "Series 7."

They recently began a partnership with the transplanted television producer John Wells, prestigiously associated with both "E.R." and "The West Wing." To the surprise of Mr. Romanek, "I was shooting the movie 10 months after I thought of the idea. It was unbelievable."

• • •

The participation of Robin Williams was serendipitous rather than essential, according to the filmmaker.

"Before Robin even crossed our radar," he says, "we had producers who were committed to the script, and a studio, Fox Searchlight, that was determined to do it. The project was never cast-contingent, as they say in the business. There was a group commitment to get the best actor available to play Sy. It didn't have to be a star, and the budget didn't suddenly balloon when Robin came aboard."

Mr. Williams was alerted to the script by his manager, a friend of Mark Romanek's agent. No one needed to jump through hoops or resort to special pleading. "We learned that Robin was looking for new challenges," Mr. Romanek explains. "He wanted to work with some new directors. It was an unexpected opportunity for us, but it felt right."

Mr. Williams had played against crowd-pleasing form earlier this year in the wretched farce "Death to Smoochy" and the admirable crime thriller "Insomnia." Mr. Romanek reveals that both those movies were shot after his production.

"I was very meticulous with how I cut the movie," the director says. "It took me 13 months. Then we held it for a little while, because we didn't want to rush it into release and act as if it were crucial to be competing with anything else. 'One Hour Photo' was actually shot first, then 'Smoochy' and finally 'Insomnia.' I was a little anxious at one point about the time lag, but I now think it was a wise decision on the part of Fox Searchlight to remain patient. We've given the movie an opportunity to find its own space."

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