How Johnny Cash became an MTV star. Director Mark Romanek says the legend's early film footage will be made public

By Liane Bonin
Updated August 14, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Mark Romanek: Tammie Arroyo / AFF/ Retna


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Not many MTV heavyweights qualify for Social Security, but that’s the power of the Johnny Cash. The Man in Black’s video for ”Hurt,” a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ searing anti-drug ballad, has been nominated for six Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year. talked to ”Hurt” director Mark Romanek (who’s also shot videos for Madonna, Janet Jackson, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as well as ”One Hour Photo”) about moving Bono to tears, spending time with the late June Carter Cash, and the amazing footage you haven’t seen…yet.

When did you realize that the ”Hurt” video was having such an emotional impact on people?
Well, when I showed it to some of my friends they were very moved by it. [American Recordings founder] Rick Rubin called me and said he screened it for Bono, who was moved to tears and spoke passionately about the effect it had on him. The next day, I received a very emotional email from Trent Reznor, who had a similar reaction. Based on this, Rick hand delivered the video to a programmer at [L.A. radio station] KROQ, who not only put the single into rotation immediately, but added the video to the station’s official website. This was the beginning of nearly daily updates from Rick about the impact this video was having on people. It’s still snowballing.

You offered to direct the ”Hurt” video for free. What was it about this song?
Well, I’d been pestering Rubin to let me work with Johnny for about seven or eight years. Frankly, I’m such a Johnny Cash fan that I would’ve directed a video of him singing ”Hava Nagila” for free. But when Rick played me an early mix of ”Hurt,” my reaction was so immediate and intense that I think I simply won him over with sheer zeal and begging.

What was it like meeting Johnny Cash for the first time?
I was very nervous to meet him. There’s no preparing for a moment like that. He seemed to be a very gentle soul, and quite an intellectual. I was struck by his sense of humor and the risqué, playful dynamic that he still had with June. It was very sweet to see. At the end of the shoot, John presented the entire crew with autographed albums, which was a really unusual and gracious gesture. My memories of that shoot will always be very warm.

Was it a conscious decision to deal with Cash’s mortality in the video?
I don’t think it’s accurate to say that I had an idea to make the video about mortality per se. My impression of Mr. Cash was that he was going to be around for a while and he would be making a lot more music. I think I had decided early on that I wanted to make a truthful, candid piece about the state of his life at that moment in time, with no sugar coating. This approach seemed most in keeping with the spirit of his music throughout his entire career.

Some people have described the video as a eulogy. How do you feel about that?
I’m upset that people would see it that way. If that’s the way it’s perceived, then I’ve done Mr. Cash a real disservice. I think it’s important to emphasize that the video doesn’t really give an entirely accurate picture of Johnny’s energy. It’s such a somber song that it creates the illusion that he’s frailer than he really is.

How did you convince June Carter to appear in the video?
As we were shooting the first set-up of John, June stood on the stairs and looked at her husband with such a complex expression of pride, love, sadness, and nervousness, that I asked her son, John Carter, if she might like to appear in the video. I wanted to capture that look on film. I think June was very flattered to be asked. It didn’t take a lot of convincing. I have to say honestly that she was a very charismatic and sexy woman. I was smitten with her immediately.

Going through the archival footage, did you find anything that you liked but couldn’t use?
There were many, many incredible bits that couldn’t be used, but I know that the Museum of Television and Radio is planning a comprehensive retrospective of all of this material. One thing that blew everyone away was Johnny’s first public performance of ”The Man in Black.” He’s singing it to an audience of rapt college students at the height of the Vietnam War. We watched it over and over. It’s an amazing piece of videotape, one of the best performances of a song I’ve ever seen.

Have you talked to Johnny since the MTV nominations?
I haven’t spoken to Mr. Cash directly since then. Rick speaks to him daily and keeps me updated. I know that he’s very pleased with the response to the video and the attention it’s helping to bring to the entire album, which is a classic piece of work.


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