VULTURE.COM – Taylor Swift fans were bowled over this week when the singer debuted the music video for her new, previously unannounced single “Shake It Off,” but fans of the format were doubly surprised by who directed it: Mark Romanek, the helmer of some of the most iconic music videos ever made, including Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and the Nine Inch Nails clip “Closer.” These days, Romanek is more focused on feature films (his big-screen work includes One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go, and he’s currently circling The Overlook Hotel, a prequel to The Shining set up at Warner Bros.), but “Shake It Off” is the latest in a music-video resurgence for the director: After eight years away the medium, he directed last year’s Jay Z clip “Picasso Baby” and the music video for U2′s big Super Bowl single “Invisible.” Clearly, Romanek’s busier than ever right now, but he still made time via email to answer some of Vulture’s questions about the genesis of “Shake It Off,” his collaboration with Swift, and what he makes of the reaction to the video.
You shot “Shake It Off” over three days in June, yet no one knew a thing about it until its official release this week. How does something like that happen, and is that harder and harder to do these days when even a random extra in one scene might snap something on his iPhone?
Yes. Two months was a long time with no leaks. You know, I’ve made over two dozen spots for Apple. They take their secrecy very, very seriously, too, so my producer and I have become pretty practiced at keeping things secure. A series of measures are put into place. Badges and wristbands. Aggressive nondisclosure agreements must be signed. Scary legal announcements regularly made to cast and crew. Cell phones confiscated at the door. We selected a pretty remote sound stage and even placed boom boxes all around the perimeter blasting heavy-metal music, in case you could faintly hear the song during shooting. And then, after all those measures are taken, you kneel and pray.
What was the kernel of a concept that this video sprung from? Was there some sort of idea or visual image or intent that everything else grew out of?
Yes. In all the videos I’ve done over the years, I’d say pretty much all of them were my own concept. But this basic idea was all Taylor’s. We met and she told me that she wanted to make a sort of paean to the awkward ones, the “uncool” kids that are actually cooler than the “cool” kids. She said she wanted to shoot all these styles of dance and then be the individualist dork in the midst of these established genres. And that she somehow wanted her fans involved. I loved that idea, so over the following week or so, we narrowed down our choices for styles of dance. I think she imagined it in more natural settings and I suggested giving it a starker, more minimalist look. And I suggested the idea of incorporating her fans as a climax, for the ending as a kind of surprise.
You’ve directed clips for some of the biggest acts in pop music, but how does “Shake It Off” feel different than other videos in your oeuvre?
Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever done such a purely pop video as this. I guess “Scream” was pop, but I think of Michael [Jackson] as sort of his own genre. No Doubt’s “Hella Good” is pretty pop. I kind of pride myself on being able to tailor a bespoke style for just about any artist or genre — whatever’s called for, really. In this case, the assignment was to create a purely fun, upbeat pop video. I’d never really done that, so it was a new challenge. You know, I used to be the “Prince of Darkness” and now I have two adorable daughters, so I guess I’ve softened up a lot. I want to make things that they might like, too. It didn’t hurt that they’re huge fans of Taylor’s, so now I’m Super Dad.