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A Refuge For Religious, Right-Wing Lawmakers
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Jeff Sharlet, has spent the past few years reporting on the
secretive Christian fundamentalist group known as the Family, or the
Fellowship, and how it's promoted anti-gay, anti-abortion and pro-free-
market policies in the U.S., as well as in other countries.
Powerful politicians and world leaders are affiliated with the group. In
fact, some politicians live or have lived at a residence near the
Capitol known as the C Street House, which Sharlet has reported is run
by a Family affiliate known as the C Street Foundation.
Last year, the secrecy of the C Street House was broken when it was
reported that one of its residents, Senator John Ensign, was having an
affair with his campaign aide's wife.
Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint and Congressmen Zach Wamp, Bart
Stupak and Heath Shuler were also living at the C Street House. Stupak
and Ensign have since moved out.
Jeff Sharlet's new book is called "C Street," and it's about how the
Family and other fundamentalist groups are influencing American
politics, policy and the military, raising questions about the
separation of church and state. Sharlet is a contributing editor for
Jeff Sharlet, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Well, let's look at one of the
C Streeters in the news, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He's been
very active in supporting Tea Partiers. He was described by the
Associated Press as having done as much as anybody else to incite the
Tea Party uprising and bitter infighting that has riled GOP primaries
He supported Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, and she won in the
Republican primary, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.
He's given these candidates financial support, as well.
So let's look at Christine O'Donnell. Now, she's example of a candidate
the Republican Party did not endorse. The Delaware state Republican
Party chair called her a fraud who couldn't get elected dogcatcher, but
now he's in the position of having to support her.
What was Jim DeMint's help or contribution to her campaign?
Mr. JEFF SHARLET (Author, "C Street"): What Jim DeMint is doing for all
these candidates, and what makes him such an interesting figure, is
representing this convergence of a kind of populist fundamentalism with
the elite fundamentalism represented by figures like DeMint, the folks
who are not outsiders, like O'Donnell, but insiders. They're in
Washington, and granting a kind of legitimacy.
Even as certain factions within the Republican Party struggle against
it, DeMint's coming out on top in race after race. And that's one of
those moments that you look at, when populist and elite fundamentalism
converge like that, then it becomes a more politically and culturally
potent force, a transformative moment.
GROSS: One of the things I find interesting about his helping to empower
the Tea Party is that the Tea Party seems to be based on more of
economic disenchantment with the bailout, with federal spending, as
opposed to, you know, Christian values.
It emphasizes federal bailouts and its opposition to that more than it
emphasizes its, you know, any opposition to homosexuality, for example.
So do you see him as bridging a more kind of Libertarian streak within
the Tea Party to a more fundamentalist streak within politics?
Mr. SHARLET: You know, I don't see Senator DeMint as bridging that gap
as being sort of a gatekeeper. As this establishment figure, he's saying
to the Tea Party Movement, that does contain a lot of sort of
traditional Libertarians who don't to get into â don't see themselves
religiously motivated, and he says: You want to get in through the halls
of power, you're going through me. I'm the man who can take you there.
I'm your Moses. And I see this movement â he's been explicit about this
- as a great awakening, as a religious movement.
And there are enough people in the Tea Party Movement who share that
view, and he can shape it.
He wrote a book last year called "Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's
Slide into Socialism," in which he creates a sort of paradox of
Libertarian authoritarianism, you know, on the one hand this sort of
radical laissez-faire economics, combined with an authoritarianism that
he roots in his religion, although it doesn't look like a Christianity
most of us are familiar with.
It's more about power and where is the source of government. And for
him, the only legitimate source of government is God. And so he sees
that actually as informing the shape of the Tea Party, that the Tea
Party, by rebelling against big government, is carrying out God's
mandate to turn over the economy, turn over governance to him, God, and
his chosen ones, Senator DeMint.
GROSS: How do you think that DeMint's championing of some Tea Party
candidates is affecting his status within the Republican Party because a
lot of the candidates were often, the Tea Party candidates were in some
instances, including Christine O'Donnell, going against the candidate
endorsed by the party.
Mr. SHARLET: You know, the person who is being most helped by DeMint's
endorsements is Jim DeMint. You know, everybody knows that endorsements
ultimately don't matter that much in politics. But there's another level
in which Jim DeMint is emerging as a guy who knows how to pick winners,
a guy who, you know, knows which way the wind is blowing.
And the Republican Party is increasingly going to have to say either
we're going to take a stand and fight against this, or we are going to
follow Jim DeMint, Jim DeMint is a leader. And he's certainly emerged as
One faction, you know, you hear the inevitable chatter that maybe he'll
run for president. I think that's unlikely, and I don't think he'd get
there. His role is much more that of a kingmaker. And he has now staked
out a faction, and he's done that work of bridging these two traditional
- traditionally at odds factions of the Republican Party, which is a
sort of economic libertarianism and the religious conservatism.
And in that way, he is an exemplar of the Family's theology of the C
Street approach to politics, which is to see those two things as not at
odds - that kind of laissez-faire economics and religious conservatism
and authority â not at odds but as one in the same, as each an
expression of the other.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Sharlet. His new
book, "C Street," is about how Christian fundamentalists have tried to
reshape American politics and the military. It's the follow-up to his
bestseller "The Family" about the evangelical Christian group that
includes powerful senators and congressmen.
So Tuesday of this week, Republicans prevented a vote in the Senate on
overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And in thinking about that story, I
was reminded of a quote in your book "C Street" because you have a whole
chapter on fundamentalists and the military. And you quote Colonel Bob
Young, who was a commander at Kandahar Air Base. His battalion was
responsible for logistics support for combat operations through Southern
And he said to you: There's a sense in which the military is now the
only safe place to be. In the military, homosexuality is illegal. I
don't want to get into all the particulars of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but
you can't act on homosexual feelings. And adultery is illegal. Arguably,
the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold
Christian values. It's the easiest place in America to be a Christian.
I'm wondering if you heard that sentiment expressed by others, that
because of things like Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which make it against
regulations to openly discuss or express your homosexuality, that the
military is the last safe institution for a Christian.
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, I heard that very commonly. I mean, first, I should
say the vast majority of military personnel understand their oath to the
Constitution and understand why they're there and their duty.
But there is a very significant movement within it that sees the
military as a Christian institution. They see themselves as Christian
warriors. They see themselves as responsible for protecting and
defending America's tradition as a Christian nation and representing
And for a lot of them personally, it just meshed well with their
personal beliefs because they didn't have to engage in these kinds of
culture war issues, and the military has decided for them, and that
decision comes down on terms that are very comfortable for religious
GROSS: Do you think the group of people who believe that are large
enough to have influenced the continuation, for now, of Don't Ask, Don't
Mr. SHARLET: Absolutely. There's an organization called Officers for
Christian Fellowship, 15,000 members - and they're officers, obviously -
includes many top-ranking generals and former generals and admirals.
They define their mission as reclaiming territory for the Christ in the
military, not allowing the opposition, all of which is spearheaded by
Satan, to stand in the way. And that's from their mission statement of
what they're doing.
They even refer to military personnel who may be Christian but not
saved, not evangelical, as unwittingly doing the work of the enemy, of
spiritual terrorists they even refer to people who share their religious
And we're talking about folks like General Bob Caslen, a senior
commander, General Robert Van Antwerp, another senior commander. So when
you have that level of command committed to the idea that the military
exists to embody their understanding of Christian values, it's not
surprising that they can exert a force or a political influence that
even a lot of the officers with a clear understanding of their duty find
hard to resist.
GROSS: In your chapter in the book "C Street" about fundamentalists in
the military, you describe a powerful movement within the military of
people who think of themselves as spiritual warriors, who are trying to
displace the military's once staunchly secular code with religious
And the secular code you refer to is Order 1B, which forbids
proselytizing of any religion or faith or practice.
Mr. SHARLET: That's actually an order for Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a
more recent order. The real secular order to which I'm referring is the
First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which has the Establishment
Clause that says government can't establish religion.
And it has a Free Exercise Clause, which says you have a freedom to
exercise your religious beliefs or not exercise your religious beliefs.
And these, a lot of these officers, these leadership are in violation,
clear violation of both, and then there's other officers, the military's
gone so far astray, other officers aren't even â they've lost sight of
the First Amendment.
I spoke to General John Regni, a three star in the Air Force, and I
tried to talk to him about his understanding of this. I thought it was a
softball question. He wasn't familiar with the Establishment Clause. I
read to him the First Amendment. He consulted with two of his advisers,
a colonel and a retired colonel, said they weren't quite familiar with
those constitutional things and ultimately decided to pass on the
GROSS: Give us another example of how you think the military - that
certain fundamentalists within the military are trying to displace the
military's secular code with religious authority.
Mr. SHARLET: You know, it happens in this sort of â you know, no one â
there's no conspiracy here. There's no, you know, we're going to take
over the military. It's an idea of cultural transformation.
And while there's other issues - but you see in this sort of this
personal level, I interviewed so many Iraq veterans who would tell
stories of coming back from Iraq, getting off the plane and being
forced, you know, to stand at attention while a senior officer told them
that they had been fighting for Christ. And that's not what they had
been there for. Or others, who would describe situations where they had
lost a fellow soldier, who they knew not to be a Christian, and yet his
sacrifice being put in Christian terms.
And while this all may seem symbolic, it's hard to express how troubling
that was to those folks to say that they had gone there thinking they
were doing one thing and had their mission repurposed and repurposed in
the very terms that the people they were fighting, you know, the very
terms that al-Qaida uses to describe America, to say that America is
fighting a crusade.
Well, it's hard to convince people that you're not fighting a crusade
when you have someone like General Bruce Pfister describing the war in
Iraq and Afghanistan as a spiritual war of the greatest magnitude.
GROSS: There was a scandal in 2005 about proselytizing within the Air
Force Academy. Would you review what happened there for us?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, that's really a story that revolves around a man
named Mikey Weinstein, who is head of an organization called Military
Religious Freedom Foundation. And Weinstein was a graduate of the Air
Force Academy himself, and he sent two sons there, and they happened to
And they had encountered really a lot of anti-Semitism. And, you know,
these were young Academy guys. They weren't guys to sort of give in
quickly. But it was pervasive.
And so they started looking into this and started talking to other
people, discovering that a lot of other cadets had had experiences not
with anti-Semitism but with faculty, promoting their Christian ideas
from the head of the classroom.
General Johnny Weida, who was a senior commander there, developing a
Christian code for cadets to shout back, special privileges for
Christian cadets, so extensive that one of the whistleblowers, Captain
Melinda Morton, who was a chaplain there at the time, described an
environment where your religious beliefs had become instrumental to
determining your future career in the military.
That was especially disturbing to her because she was counseling a lot
of young women cadets who would come in there and had learned that their
place as women was not to become fighter pilots but to be in a position
where they could stay closer to home, they could raise a family.
And that was, you know, very upsetting to her on all sorts of levels,
but not just as a person who believes in women's rights but also as an
officer in recognizing you're skewing the talent pool. You're taking
women who are the best fighter pilots and moving them aside so that men,
who are presumably designated by God for this kind of combat, can be
moved up the ladder.
GROSS: Now, the group that you referred to, the MRFF, the Military
Religious Freedom Foundation, more recently wrote a letter with Veterans
for Common Sense to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying that the
military's practice of substituting religion for professional mental
health care for post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention
has become increasingly frequent. What do you know about that?
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, that's been sort of one of the sort of the saddest
cases is this replacement of good mental health counseling and frankly
good chaplain spiritual advising for those who want it and need it with
a kind of a proselytizing agenda.
One of the things I looked at that the Military Religious Freedom
Foundation had found was a PowerPoint presentation given to about 1,000
airmen at an air base in the United Kingdom based on the "Purpose Driven
Life," Pastor Rick Warren's big evangelical bestseller.
But this was called the "Purpose Driven Airmen," and this was to give
you everything you needed to deal with your depression issues. It was
described as a suicide prevention work. It was created by a chaplain
named Christian Biscotti, a graduate of Pat Robertson's university.
And it says: Here, there are three levels of purpose that you can choose
from in your life. And on top is God-given, and then down the scale is
man-given, which is described as philanthropy, and that's described by
Karl Marx. You don't want that. And at the bottom of the heap, there's
self-given purpose, and that's championed by Darwin, and you don't want
to have anything to do with that.
So unless you have a God-given purpose, unless you are an airman who
sees yourself as doing your duty for God, you're going to be exposed to
this kind of crippling depression, a spiritual war, you know, being
launched on you by dark forces and all this kind of stuff, and it could
lead to suicide is the thinking.
Well, that was presented to 1,000 airmen. It was then shared with more
airmen. And, you know, as I started to talk to soldiers, sailors,
Marines, airmen, to find out if they had experienced similar ideas, what
was astonishing to me was that this was not a case (technical
difficulties) somebody who didn't understand the rules. This was someone
who was kind of following protocol.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. His new book, "C Street," is a follow-
up to his bestseller "The Family." We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. He spent the past few years
investigating the secretive fundamentalist group The Family and the
American congressmen and senators affiliated with it. His new book "C
Street" is a follow-up. One chapter is devoted to evangelicals in the
You trace part of the evangelical power within the military to the mid-
1980s, when the process of accrediting military chaplains changed. How
did the process change?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, there was a great withdrawal of chaplains from the
old mainline Protestant denominations: the Episcopalians and the
Methodists and the traditional Presbyterians who were leaving in a large
That was a legacy of the Vietnam War, and there was a shortage of
chaplains. And so the military, through no attempt to create this
fundamentalist movement, started really radically broadening first the
accrediting agencies it recognized chaplains from, so Bible colleges
where instead of learning about all different faiths and how to minister
to groups of all different faiths, you learn that there's a right way of
Christianity, my kind of Christianity, and a wrong way, everything else.
Suddenly, those people started infusing the military. And at the same
time they lifted regulations that said okay, you've got 10 percent
Presbyterians, you should have roughly 10 percent Presbyterian
chaplains. That doesn't mean you get a Presbyterian chaplain but you
know they're out there.
That's all gone. And now we've reached a point where according to one
chaplain, who is herself a history of the chaplaincy, about 80 percent
of the chaplains describe themselves as conservative or evangelical. And
when I looked, at least more than 60 percent, about two-thirds, are
affiliated with denominations that you would describe that way.
GROSS: Looking at the past few years in terms of how you think some
evangelicals have abused the First Amendment in the military, do you
think that things have improved since then?
Mr. SHARLET: It's really hard to know. You know, I spoke to a three star
general who wants to remain anonymous, and that's a sign of the times
when a three star general who is critical of what he sees as a pervasive
fundamentalist culture in the military, who is standing for traditional
â he's afraid that it'll hurt his career.
I spoke to him before and after the election. Before the election, he
said, well, if we have a change of administration, you know, things can
start changing up. And other senior commanders said, look, this is going
to take years for us to get back on track, but we can do it.
And he was confident then. I spoke to him after the election and well
into sort of the Obama administration, in which he'd seen no action on
GROSS: So you've been following the influence of fundamentalism on
politics and in the military for several years now. Are you going to
keep on that story?
Mr. SHARLET: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHARLET: I think I have done my time with fundamentalism. And, you
know, I got into this because I just love the varieties of religious
experience in American life, and there's so much fascinating things, and
there's so many, even within fundamentalism, there's so many movements
that are beautiful and kind of wonderful.
And having spent all these years looking at these sort of, some dark
places, I'm very interested now in working on a new book that's going to
be looking at things that I believe are more hopeful, the way religion
intersects with art and music and so on.
That's all there, and that's always been a presence. And I've been
shaped by my research on fundamentalism in that regard, too. And, you
know, it's almost because the politics drove this, there wasn't time to
write about all the creativity that's even within the fundamentalist
tradition, maybe especially within the fundamentalist tradition.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SHARLET: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet's new book is called "C Street." You can read an
excerpt of it, find links to other FRESH AIR interviews with Sharlet and
find a profile of Senator Jim DeMint on our website freshsair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Mark Romanek Tackles 'Never Let Me Go'
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
Film director Mark Romanek got his start making music videos with such
artists as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jay Z, Nine Inch Nails and Johnny
Cash. He won three Grammys for his videos. Romanek also wrote and
directed the feature film "One Hour Photo," a psychological drama
starring Robin Williams as a lonely photo technician in a large discount
Romanek's new film, "Never Let Me Go," stars Carey Mulligan, Keira
Knightley and Andrew Garfield. It's based on a book by Kazuo Ishiguro,
who wrote "The Remains of the Day." It tells the story of three young
people raised at a secluded English boarding school, where we learn
their lives are conscribed by a dark secret, one that involves science
fiction-like advances in modern medicine.
Romanek spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. In this scene from
"Never Let Me Go," a teacher at the school, played by Sally Hawkins, has
decided to tell her students the truth about the school and the lives
they can expect to lead.
(Soundbite of movie, "Never Let Me Go")
Ms. SALLY HAWKINS (Actor): (as Miss Lucy) The problem is, youâve been
told and not told. That's what I've seen while I've been here. Youâve
been told but none of you really understand, so I've decided I'll tell
it to you in a way that you will understand.
Do you know what happens to children when they grow up? No, you don't.
Because nobody knows. They might grow up to become actors, move to
America or they might work in supermarkets or teach in schools. They
might become sportsmen or bus conductors or racing car drivers. They
might do almost anything. But with you, we do know. None of you will go
to America. None of you will work in supermarkets. None of you will do
anything except live the life that has already been set out for you.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Mark Romanek, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MARK ROMANEK (Director, "Never Let Me Go"): Thank you very much.
DAVIES: That's, of course, from your film "Never Let Me Go." Sally
Hawkins, one of the teachers at this school, Hailsham, telling the kids
the truth about the lives that they will lead. And she - in the film she
goes ahead and reveals their fates. How much do you want to tell
audiences about what's actually in store for these kids, what theyâve
been prepared for?
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, the book is a beloved book and itâs been read by
millions of people, so, you know, there's going to be a lot of people
that come to the movie and they're going to have all the knowledge and
the secrets and the mysteries will already have been revealed to them.
Those people still seem to still get emotionally wrapped up in the film,
and if anything, having some of that knowledge, you know, renders some
of the early scenes filled with even more pathos for them.
You know, it's always nice if people can come in with no preconceptions
whatsoever and then itâs sort of like reading the book for the first
time and you get, youâre surprised by things and youâre - you know,
twists are shocking and fun.
DAVIES: Now the film is set in England in the '70s, '80s and '90s but
not the '70s, '80s and '90s that we know. It's a world in which there
have been major medical breakthroughs and it's, in fact, some of those
medical breakthroughs which have given these kids and this secluded
boarding school its special role in society. But while itâs all based
upon high-tech medical miracles, the school itself is anything but
modern. I mean, it's almost ramshackle.
Tell us about the contrast between that sort of modern medicine and the
atmosphere that these kids live and grow up in.
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, Kazuo's idea was that if there had been breakthroughs
in genetic engineering and biotechnology some time after the Second
World War in the same way that there were breakthroughs in nuclear
science and nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, these genetic breakthroughs
would've become part of the fabric of our society, just the way we sort
of take nuclear energy an nuclear weapons for granted now, that they're
a part of our society. Because he posited this alternate history, it is
a period piece. It's just a period where in England where history has
taken this tangent that he came up with. And so I thought it was an
opportunity to create this sort of retro-science fiction, futurist
There wasnât any real place for the usual tropes that you find in a
science fiction film like gadgets or futuristic buildings. It was sort
of beside the point. And if anything, because the film is essentially
about the preciousness of time and how little time we all have, making
the film actually feel old and for everything to have the effect of time
and the wear and tear of time and the use by humans and all that stuff,
felt like the right textural kind of context for the story.
But I also want to say that itâs not at heart a science fiction film.
The film is a love story. It's a tragic love story, very, very sad and
very beautiful love story. The point is, if people go expecting to see a
science fiction film I think theyâll be disappointed.
DAVIES: Right. It's really people acting out very human needs and
emotions in a world that is circumscribed by a scientific transformation
in a way.
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, Kazuo was looking for a way to concertina, as he put
it, the human lifespan to down to 25 or 30 years, so that all of these
pressing questions about our mortality and how little time we have would
be kind of heightened and compressed and depicted by these young people.
The device that he used to do that he said came fairly late or very late
in his process. It didnât almost matter to him what he came up with that
would allow him to create that scenario of young people whose lives
would be compressed by - down to 25 or 30 years.
DAVIES: The young people in this film, both as kids and as adolescents
have been sheltered and they lack experience with the outside world.
Talk a little bit about how you create these characters or direct these
character so that - to convey that ignorance of the outside world, that
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, the first thing you do is cast really gifted people
and smart people. And we had that with all of the actors, including the
young children that play the younger versions of Carey, Keira and Andrew
Garfield's characters. You know, a lot of it was in the rehearsal. We
spent a lot of time just talking around the script and around the
characters and the themes and what they meant to everyone.
The film is unusual in that the whole first 20 minutes or so, the film
is played by these 12-year olds. And that's unusual in a film. Usually
there's a scene or two and then you kind of hand it off to the older
actors, but this was different. So we - a lot of the concentration in
the rehearsal was how to help these young people and have them start to
blur a little bit with the behavior of the older actors. I was very
rigorous about trying to cast young people that really strongly
resembled their older counterparts because I feel that it usually
doesnât work very well in films.
I had the older actors play the younger actors scenes so that they would
have these sort of sense memories of those moments. And I had the
younger actors observe the older actors playing the scene so that it was
kind of a sneaky way to get them to see what a more experienced actor
Mr. ROMANEK: We went to the location and I just let them play. I let
them play Frisbee and hide and seek and I wanted them to be familiar
with the layout of the school, so that it felt familiar to them and the
older actors would have memories of actually having spent time there.
The rehearsal is a really interesting, fun creative part of the process.
It's one of the rare times when there isn't some horrendous time
pressure and you can just sort of experiment and explore.
The actors were very professional and very dedicated. They go off and
they do their homework, they work on every scene, they learn their lines
and then when they came in to film, there was very little that needed to
be said. It was my job at that point to try to create an environment
where they could relax and stay out of their way and hopefully just sort
of film it beautifully and not miss anything.
DAVIES: There are science fiction films where you have characters who
are caught in some dilemma where they can't realize their lives because
of some strictures that have been placed on them - they're cyborgs or
they're in love with a cyborg - and they often run. I mean, they defy
the restrictions that science has put upon them and try and go live in
the society or they shoot their way into the real world.
These characters have a very special role that's been defined for them
and it seems like if they wanted to flee they could and they donât. What
holds them to their task?
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, you know, Kazuo speaks very eloquently about this
topic. He said that he never set out to write the story of the brave
slaves who rebel against their oppressors. It's not a story that he was
interested. He feels there's other good versions of that story. He's
more fascinated by the ways in which we tend not to escape our fates.
He's written book after book about it and I think we all feel like this
is, perhaps, a more authentic depiction of the human predicament.
DAVIES: So the lives of people who accept their lot sort of more
interesting in this case than the few who rebel.
Mr. ROMANEK: Yeah, I think he feels - Kazuo feels it's a matter of
perspective, that we're all - we all have a rather small perspective. We
live in a bit of a bubble of our lives and if we could have a wider
perspective, there may be instances where we would fight and rebel and
kick against our situation in life but we tend not to. We stay in the
marriage that doesnât work. We stay in the job that doesnât work. I
think this is what interests Kazuo about people.
It's also a - itâs a sort of an American conception that one has to
fight against the oppressor. In Japan, it's considered, I think, heroic
to fulfill oneâs duty to society. In England there's a class system
that's still quite pervasive that sort of frowns upon people attempting
to rise above their place in life. It's a very American thing to think
that everyone always has to run and escape and fight.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Mark Romanek. His new film is "Never Let Me
Go." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, our guest is film director Mark
Romanek. His new film is called "Never Let Me Go."
I wanted to talk about "One Hour Photo," the feature film you directed
in 2002, I think, right - wrote and directed, right?
Mr. ROMANEK: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: And it's the story of this kind of lonely, emotionally-starved
man who develops film at the one-hour photo desk of a big discount store
and kind of develops an obsessive interest in a young family whose
picture he has developed for many years. This is an original screenplay.
You wrote this. Where did the idea of this character come from, this
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, I, you know, I've been always fascinated by those
giant, over-lit, overly stocked American discount department stores.
They just always seemed like visually really striking places. And I said
- there was a guy that worked at the local one-hour photo place where I
lived in West Hollywood and the guy was kind of a strange character. He
sort of was - always seemed like he was on stage. He was trying too
hard. He was always trying to be overly charming and overly familiar
with his customers.
And it just started to suggest a strange story to me, where if you were
to be developing the photos of people who's lives are more - maybe
richer than his or filled with more joy than his or families and
vacations, and when I thought of that this kind of three acts of a movie
kind of flooded into my mind and I thought it might make for an
DAVIES: Well the character, Sy Parrish, is played in your film by Robin
Williams, and I thought we'd listen to a clip. It's a voiceover where Sy
Parrish's character is just talking about his work and about pictures.
(Soundbite of movie, "One Hour Photo")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (as Sy Parrish) I'm sure my customers never
think about it, but these snapshots are their little stands against the
flow of time - the shutters clicked, the flash goes off and they've
stopped time, just for the blink of an eye. And if these pictures have
anything important to say to future generations, it's this: I was here.
I existed. I was young, I was happy and someone cared enough about me in
this world to take my picture.
DAVIES: And that's from the film "One Hour Photo," directed by our guest
You know, I love that clip because it captures what a lot of the film
brings, which is this - this sense of mystery and kind of a quiet
desperation of this character Sy Parrish. As we said, he's played by
Robin Williams, and it occurred to me that if I were casting a role and
I wanted somebody who would be, as this character was, pretty
nondescript, pretty intensely private, Robin Williams would not be my
first choice. I mean, he's this, you know, comic with all this energy
and this enormously expressive face. How did he get into this role?
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, you know, itâs one of those counterintuitive choices,
I guess, where it doesnât make sense on paper but it makes sense in the
more important ways, maybe. You know, I'd heard through the grapevine
that he was looking to do some dramatic work and he wanted to maybe do
some more, some independent cinema, and I just thought it was an
You know, and when I met him, I said, you know, the only thing I will
ask of you is if youâre willing to kind of physically transform yourself
so that we can create a situation where people could perhaps forget that
it's the movie star Robin Williams. And, of course, as an actor, he was
excited by that notion. I think that thing youâre talking about, that
sort of - we all know that there's this sort of volcano of energy, comic
energy, and when thatâs suppressed in this film, because we, in the back
of our minds, we know that that potential is there, it sort of infused a
lot of these very small scenes with a lot of tension. So it ended up
working out. I thought he was really, really brilliant in the film.
DAVIES: Right. And you feel badly for him from the beginning. I mean,
he's clearly a lonely man and emotionally starved and desperately wants
to connect with this family and he sort of becomes a stalker, in a way.
And I suppose it can be seen as sort of creepy, although, you know, I
saw it years ago and saw it again as we prepared for this conversation
and it didnât feel that way to me. And I read that you sort of see this
film as a love story of sorts. Explain what you mean.
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, I guess I like those films where youâre not sure how
youâre supposed to feel about the character. You donât know where they
stand morally or ethically and youâre not sure where you stand in
relation to them. And your relationship to the character is kind of, you
know, flip-flops as the film goes on. I mean, I just find that engaging.
And I didnât want you to be sure about how you felt about him. He's
clearly doing illegal and inappropriate and super creepy things and yet,
you still have a lot of sympathy for him. Youâre not so sure that he's
really doing any great harm and youâre not sure where itâs all going to
go. And, you know, I hope that that creates a certain kind of engagement
with the film thatâs not passive, where you really have to pay attention
and decide how you feel about things.
I guess I just like films like that sometimes. You know, sometimes it's
great to have, okay, hereâs the good guy, here's the bad guy. But I
also, I like those kind of gray areas in certain kinds of films, too, so
that's what we were exploring. I mean, I think he fell in love with this
family. It represented everything that he never had in his life and
dreamed of. And then, you know, whether he's going to do them harm or
not is what creates the suspense in the film.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Mark Romanek. His new film is "Never Let Me
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, we're speaking with film director
Mark Romanek. He's directed the new film "Never Let Me Go."
You had quite a career directing music videos. Three Grammys, right?
Mr. ROMANEK: Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. And I thought we'd talk about one of them which got a lot
of attention, the video of Johnny Cash singing "Hurt." First of all,
just tell us a little bit about this song.
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, it's a song written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch
Nails, who's about as far away from Johnny Cash as a world of music as
you can imagine. But Johnny worked with record producer and record
company executive Rick Rubin over the last decade of his career. And I
think Rick expanded the range of what kind of music Johnny could make.
He also, you know, kind of stripped a lot away and exposed the kind of
the raw natural gift of Johnny Cash in his work. And I think it was
Rick's idea that Johnny cover this song and it turned out to be an
extremely inspired idea because the song is his version of the song and
it's a cool song to begin with, is unbelievably chilling and moving.
DAVIES: Well, let's listen to some of it. This is Johnny Cash singing,
"Hurt," the song by Trent Reznor.
(Soundbite of song, "Hurt")
Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Musician): (Singing) I hurt myself today, to see if I
still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real. The needle
tears a hole, the old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away, but I
remember everything. What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I
know goes away in the end.
DAVIES: Now, tell us a little bit about the circumstances of shooting
this video. It looks like a lot of it is in an old house with a lot of
Johnny Cash memorabilia.
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, Johnny, you know, was ailing towards the end of his
life and he didnât feel well enough to travel to Los Angeles. Rick Rubin
said, just get on a plane, fly to Nashville and shoot something because
if you donât shoot something this week you'll never have another chance.
Because he was going to go - Johnny goes off to his ranch in Jamaica
every winter for his health. So we just got on a plane with my producer,
a cinematographer and didnât know what we were going to do.
And we met Johnny in his house and we didnât have any budget so we just
shot in his house, we just - that's Johnny's house. And then Rick called
me and he said, you should go check out the House of Cash Museum in
Hendersonville. And I went there and it was, you know, it had been
closed for something like 12 years and it was all covered in dust and
the displays were all broken and falling apart and really sad.
DAVIES: This was a museum that his mother had put together, right, the
House of Cash Museum, right?
Mr. ROMANEK: I donât actually know the origin of it.
Mr. ROMANEK: You know, it's shocking that it was closed because it was
really fascinating. There were all sorts of amazing things in there. But
what happened was I, you know, Johnny was in poor health and so I said
to myself, well, we either try to prettify it and try to hide that or we
just show the way he is. And I was inspired, I guess, by the candor of
Johnny Cash's whole career and the way that he handled himself.
I just decided, I just - it doesnât feel right to do Johnny Cash and try
to fake something or cheat something. So I said if he's not in good
health, then that's what we're going to show. And if the museum is in a
state of disrepair, then that's what we're going to show. And then those
two ideas started to kind of harmonize with each other, resonate with
And then when we were touring around the House of Cash Museum, the women
said, oh, and hereâs Johnny's archive. And she opened this door and
there was this vault, just filled floor to ceiling with tapes and film
canisters and we went, wow, what is this stuff?
So we took some of that stuff back to L.A. and without even really
knowing a lot of what it was. And then when we caught some of that stuff
of Johnny as a young, vibrant man up against Johnny coming towards the -
what we didnât know, but it was coming towards the end of his life, we
really got chills up and down our spine. And that's when we realized
that there was a chance to so something much more powerful and
emotionally strong than you usually see in your average music video. It
became rapidly apparent that we were making a short film about a great,
great man and mortality and it all fell together in this very kind of
DAVIES: The song itself is, I guess, itâs about a junkie, right, kind of
reflecting on a broken life and harm he's caused and regrets that he
has. And Johnny Cash at this point is elderly, his, you know, his face
is wrinkled, his voice is shaky. But as you were with him, did it seem
he felt burdened with regrets about his life or was it simply him at an
older stage of his career?
Mr. ROMANEK: No. We talked about it and he connected very deeply with
the message of the song. I mean, he felt he had caused a lot of wreckage
from his own drug and alcohol use, that he had lost a lot of beloved
friends because of drugs and alcohol. And, you know, I think that
infused his performance with a lot of sadness and regret that was not
There's a scene in the video where - it was the last take we were going
to do and he was sitting at this table that was laid out like a feast.
And I said, you know, John, this is probably going to be the last take
we're going to do, so if you want to do something crazy or, you know,
bold, go ahead. You know, if you want to sweep everything off the table
or if you want to throw something, like let's do something strong here.
And he thought for a second. He said, just roll the cameras. We rolled
the cameras and he picked up this glass of wine and he just dumped it
out on the table. It was his way of expressing his contempt for the
thing that had caused so much pain in his life and in other people's
lives and it was an amazing moment that we were lucky enough to capture
DAVIES: Did he see the final product? Did you talk to him about it?
Mr. ROMANEK: I didnât talk to him after that. I know that Rick spoke to
him and his family. They were very, very moved by the video and they
were very shocked by its candor. And there was some discussion about
whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. And I was told that it was
John who said, no, it's really good. Let's put this out. It's okay. Itâs
the truth. And, you know, there's Johnny Cash for you.
DAVIES: Youâve directed a lot of music videos and it seems so different
from a feature film, I mean, so many quick cuts, and it's often more
about mood and tone than story. Do you think there are ways that your
experience as directing music video made you a better film director?
Mr. ROMANEK: Well, I became very comfortable with the craft, you know,
of the technical side of it, which can be kind of cumbersome. And that's
one of the best things about it was it became like this elite film
school where I actually got paid to make these kind of short films.
And I deliberately tried very many different kinds of aesthetics and
different equipment and all sorts of stuff just so I could learn the
craft. So then when it came time to making a film, I wasnât worried
about that stuff so much. It became almost second nature and I could
focus my attention on the far more important things when youâre making a
feature film, which is, you know, modulating the telling of the story
and helping your actors to do their best work. Those are the things that
matter when youâre making a film.
I would hate to be like a first-time film director where I had to do all
that and then, you know, worry about all the technical stuff and that
being new to me as well. I mean, you know, you said it yourself, the
rhythms of a music video are much more accelerated and itâs all about
energy and it's a different assignment than adapting a Kazuo Ishiguro
DAVIES: Well, Mark Romanek, thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. ROMANEK: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Mark Romanek spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Romanek directed the new film "Never Let Me Go."
We have an excerpt of the novel, "Never Let Me Go," clips from the film,
as well as links to music videos directed by Romanek on our website,
I'm Terry Gross.
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