The Power of a Camera and the Rarest Thing in Filmmaking

By  · Published on July 5th, 2013

Sy is a photo technician at a SavMart development center who has a fierce, almost reverent passion for what cameras can do. They can provide a window into someone else’s life. They can preserve everything we hold dear in two dimensions. They can capture a person.

Played in One Hour Photo as a quiet force of nature by Robin Williams, Sy worships photography almost as fervently as he does the blissful life of the textbook suburban family that he plans on getting closer to.

With a filmmaker as visually florid as Mark Romanek, you’d expect a more bombastic debut, but the acclaimed director approached his first feature with a simple, colorful elegance that suited its precise protagonist. Sy the photo guy would approve.

A little over a decade later, the film is now available on Blu-ray – giving us a new opportunity to hold it up to the light box and try to find some sympathy for the devil on the other side of the camera. I spoke with Romanek to discuss that power, his education under Brian De Palma, and the rarest thing that happens when making a movie.

With both One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go people really responded to the performances. What’s the collaboration process like for you and an actor?

I’ve only made the two films, but so far I’ve found that almost no two actors work the same way. So you have to try to get a sense of how they work and try to facilitate that as best you can. Each time is different, too. I also find the trick to getting great performances is hiring great actors. I don’t mean to be glib, but it’s really true.

You just have to get people that are terrific. In the rehearsal process we all just make sure we’re making the same movie tonally and with the same intentions. A gifted and hardworking actor will just deliver way more than you could have possibly imagined. I’ve never really had a situation where someone was giving a performance that was so inept that it required great amounts of direction from me, really. It was always more of giving choices to something that was already astonishingly good.

How would you describe the working relationship between you and Robin Williams?

It was very, very easy. I had a lunch with him to talk about doing the movie. You are a little star struck initially, but I find that most really famous people are very good at putting people at ease. It’s too inefficient for them if they can’t. People are just kind of too in awe or something and you can’t really get anything done. So he put me at my ease very quickly. He seemed to understand the tone of the movie and the intention behind it.

Because the film is about photography I used a lot of photography in the rehearsal process. Rather than talking about it, I would show a picture that would give a feeling. That seemed to work for him. Now, I might have shown that to another actor and I would have gotten a blank look. That’s what I’m saying. Some actors respond to that method, and if that doesn’t work you try another method.

One interesting thing was that he really does have an addiction to making people laugh. He needs to be funny and he needs to make people laugh, I think. And so, in the first few days of shooting, in between takes he would be very, very funny. And I used to think he wasn’t taking it seriously. But then I would say, “Robin, we’ve got to get going. We’ve got to shoot.” I would always have to be kind of the party pooper that would stop him on one of his riffs. Then he would shrink down and lose all of that comedic energy and be Sy the photo guy and would be great.

So I very quickly stopped being disconcerted by this and just enjoyed it because it was funny and it made shooting the film more fun. Then when I started seeing the dailies, I realized something interesting, which is that…because he gets kind of high from making people laugh. And, very often the first few takes, even if they were still very serious scenes, would still have this residual kind of buzz about them that he had from being so funny just moments earlier. And it really infected the performance in a great way. It gave it a very strange quality that I don’t think we could have gotten any other way.

Plus, when you are on set making a movie if something fun happens you try to really bask in it because of all the complications going on.

People don’t realize how hard it is making movies, how much stress is involved and the time pressure, and the money pressure, and things start going wrong. And so, to just spend half your day laughing is a real gift.

What are days on set when you feel fully satisfied as a director?

Well, those rare days when everything just seems to go well and the universe is conspiring to help you rather than throw stumbling blocks in your way. I find it’s the most simple that works. In Never Let Me Go we were shooting these scenes on a beach, Holkham Beach in Norfolk, and it’s a preserved area. I think they only allow something like 25 people at a time on film crews. We couldn’t bring any generators or lights.

It was about a two-and-a-half mile hike through the forest to get to the beach. And there was no way to get vehicles through. So all of us had to grab a piece of equipment and then hike through a beautiful forest and then shoot these scenes on a beautiful beach, handheld, no lights, with three of the best young actors in the world. The light was beautiful. It wasn’t sunny. It was like beautiful overcast light. There was a nice wind blowing the beach grass. It was just a moment where everything was going beautifully. The scene was beautifully written. The actors were killing it. The light was beautiful. There wasn’t a bunch of technical crap in our way, in their way.

But that happens very rarely. Most filmmakers would be…I don’t know, someone like Michael Bay or someone, they might really get off on the complexity or the technical logistics and the scale of it, and that’s not a shot at Michael Bay. It’s fine if that’s what you enjoy. Some people like to work on a big canvas. But if you ask most filmmakers they will tell you the more simple you can make it with fewer people the more potential there is for real joy in the process.

What were some of those perfect moments on One Hour Photo?

Everything went pretty smoothly on it. I had a lot of those days. Like I say, Robin, aside from being funny, he’s a really good person. He would always be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave, knew every line, never flubbed a line. So he just set the tone for everyone else to be very professional and happy that we were there. I’ve been pretty lucky on the two films that I’ve made. They were mostly pretty pleasant experiences.

Looking at the movie now I find a lot more empathy for Sy, and a part of that comes from the fact that he has this incredible respect for the power of a camera. When did you first discover the power a camera can have?

When I was about 12 years old my dad was a real photo buff and he had a lot of nice cameras. He liked taking pictures. He was pretty good at taking pictures. I guess his uncle, when he was a kid, built him a darkroom. My dad gave me a camera when I was like nine years old, like a little Kodak Instamatic. They took me to Disneyland. My dad taught me a lot about composition and stuff. When the pictures came back he was kind of amazed that they were kind of unusually good for a nine year old.

So then when I was 12 he said, “I’m going to go buy a new camera. Do you want to come with me?” I said, “Okay.” We went to this very, really impressive three-story professional camera shop in Chicago. It seemed to me, when I was 12, it took forever. He took like 45 minutes trying to decide between, “Should I get the Canon F-1 or the Canon FTb?” The Canon F-1 was like the best camera they made and the FTb was sort of one level down. I was getting really bored and really antsy. I was like, “Dad, come on. I want to go.” He said, “Okay, you know what? I’ll take the F-1 for me and I’ll take the FTb for the young man.” And the whole thing was staged. And he was actually taking extra-long to get me really bored to set me up, because he planned all along he was going to buy a new camera for himself and a new camera for me.

And then he built me a darkroom like his uncle did for him.

So my dad was super instrumental in supporting my interest in photography. By building me a darkroom, you know, you really work how photography works. You learn about the film, and the emulsion, and the photochemical process. You learn it from the inside out. So I have him to thank. I have all those memories about really getting hooked on making images.

I used to work a lot in a darkroom during high school. I always thought it was a great time.

Yeah. It’s a little bit isolating. That’s probably one of the reasons I became a filmmaker. I’m not exactly a people person, but even for me I found being alone in a darkroom all day was a little bit too isolating. So I wanted to kind of have a slightly more communal, collaborative experience of making images. I actually thought it was a little dangerous for my personality to be locked up in a room all day, but I enjoyed it, to listen to the radio and just be in there for hours.

Do you remember the first time you had to collaborate with a large crew of people on a set?

Well, I remember when I was a kid I got a job as a PA on a movie that was being shot in Chicago that Brian De Palma directed. It was a film called The Fury with Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes. That was my first time on a movie set. I have to say, I really felt like I had traveled to this very magical place that most people didn’t get access to. I got really hooked on the whole world. It’s a whole little family tribe that movies around and makes this thing together.

It was an amazing film to watch because there were all these visual effects and special effects and car chases. It was quite a first experience. And De Palma was very nice to me. I got a job and the producer said, “Well, I don’t know. Just hang out and help out.” He was very unspecific about what I was supposed to do. So I said, “I’m not going to hang out around the craft service guy. I’m going to hang around Brian De Palma.” I kinda worked my way into being his personal PA bringing him coffee and moving his chair around and stuff. He would answer questions and let me stay by the monitor. It was an incredible first experience. I’ve been lucky that way in a lot of ways.

Do you still get that sense of awe when making a commercial or film?

I worry that I’ve done it long enough that some of that magic wears off, and I don’t like that feeling. You do what you can to try to reconnect with that feeling. You don’t want it to ever start to feel like a job. I think when I’m making movies I don’t feel that way. Sometimes when I make commercials I worry that I’ve taken this thing that used to feel so magical to me and I’ve turned into kind of a little bit more of a job, because you are sort of providing a service and there’s a client that you are needing to satisfy. But when I’m working on my own films I feel that every day, but it’s often compromised, that feeling, by terror, and stress and nervousness because you come into work every morning with butterflies in your stomach because you are not really sure how it’s going to go and everyone is looking at you to figure it out.

Generally speaking, if that were a yes or no question, I would say yes. I still feel it and that’s why I still do it. I feel that way a lot in the editing, I would say. Editing really still has that quality of magic more than on the set because it’s this thing of taking Shot A and Shot B that could have been shot weeks apart, and you cut them together with a certain piece of music and it makes this sort of new reality and this new moment. That’s like a magic trick that gives me chills sometimes.

One Hour Photo is now on Blu-Ray.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.