Reed Morano: “This is a good time to be a female filmmaker.”

By  · Published on October 20th, 2015

Photo Credit: Paul Sarkis

“She could be the President of the United States,” said filmmaker Reed Morano in reference to Olivia Wilde, during our Skype conversation over the weekend. Long-time, accomplished cinematographer’s directorial debut Meadowland is her first artistic collaboration with the film’s lead Wilde (who is also a producer on the film), and from the looks of it, it thankfully won’t be the last the two will get to work together.

Chatty and articulate, full of energy and positivism (about the small but noticeable changes in the film industry in terms of gender equality), Morano spoke affectionately about Meadowland –a heart wrenching cinematic depiction of grief starring Wilde and Luke Wilson as a married couple who lose their young son in the beginning of the film. With the addition of this eloquent, moving film to her ever-growing list of accomplishments, the Sundance regular cinematographer has an attractive and impressive resume already. She is also a rarity in the industry, having proved herself in a field of filmmaking principally occupied by males, with her DP work on several acclaimed titles, including Frozen River, For Ellen, Skeleton Twins and Kill Your Darlings.

A member of the American Society of Cinematographers–an accolade she refers to as a “great honor”– Morano is one of the 14 females only that belong the exclusive organization; a small group that also includes the likes of Sharon Calahan (Finding Nemo), Ellen Kuras (Eternal Shunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Mandy Walker (Red Riding Hood). (The number of males, for comparison, is over 300.) Making her directorial debut with a female-led film ‐ which she also DP’ed ‐ puts her even in a smaller pool of talent among her peers.

But Reed Morano is eagerly waiting for the day that the “female” qualifier in front of job titles can be dropped, even though she acknowledges the necessity of calling it out for the time being. Though she can sense the change in the air and believes we will see the needle move significantly in our lifetime.

Below is edited from our chat, during which we delved into her exquisite Meadowland, her work process both as a DP and first-time director, as well as her views on and hopes from the industry as a whole.

Tomris Laffly: What compelled you make your directorial debut with this particular story, about a grieving couple?

Reed Morano: As a cinematographer, I was always attracted to stories that have the potential to be told with as few words as possible. When I read Meadowland, I could see the potential for a very internal, quiet story that could be powerful and emotional but also disturbing and dark. There is the one scene where Sarah finds the cookie in the back seat of the car. When I read that, it just destroyed me.

It seems Sarah (Wilde) and Phil (Wilson) are stuck in an unknown, in-between place. It’s one thing if they knew for sure their child was dead but they don’t. So there’s a very grim, nightmarish quality to the film.

I love that observation. I was trying to make it feel like that period of time; from the moment something happens in your life that turns your world upside down until you eventually accept this is your life now. My father passed away when I was 18 and at that time in my life, it was the most difficult thing I had been through. Until several years later, I felt like I was walking around in a weird dream state. I always would tell people I feel like I’m living in a twilight zone. I was trying to bring my knowledge to this story and create an environment that felt like a fever dream.

Were you thinking of other material with similar themes, and were there films/stories that you just wanted stay away from? I thought of Without a Trace, and then more recently Rabbit Hole.

I was trying to stay away from Rabbit Hole in particular because I wanted to do something different, trying to get into deeper levels of their psyche. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were trapped inside that wall with the characters. A lot of people who have seen it tell me it reminded them of The Vanishing, the 1988 Dutch film. A movie that was very inspiring to me, especially during the post process of editing the film, was “Requiem for a Dream”.

It goes back to the fever-dream/nightmarish vision.

Yes. I really love that movie but I also hate watching it.

Walk me through how you make your decisions in finding the visual language of your films.

In terms of cinematography, my first impressions are always based right off of the script. Some scripts have clues written in. When I read Skeleton Twins the first time, the first thing that popped into my head was: Punch Drunk Love. It’s a very weird, quirky, kind of dark but also funny. A lot of the times, the look of the film is informed by what the director brings to the table; most directors have in mind a visual style they want. What I enjoy doing is coming to that first meeting having already guessed what that is. I feel like I can almost try to psychically connect with them about what they might want to do. And of course bringing myself to it. I want to add my own spices to the soup, to speak.

In Meadowland, you’re wearing both hats as a director and a cinematographer.

That was everything I hoped it would be. It was a seamless connection between the acting and the camera. I never felt like what I was doing on the cinematography side was distracting me from the story. And I think it’s because of the style of the film. This film is not a stylized piece; it’s not focused on the visuals. It’s not a movie like “Sexy Beast”, which by the way I love, where the camera is super specific and it’s doing crazy things. I think the reason why the cinematography went hand in hand with me telling the story was because the camera was my tool in which to tell stories, almost like a documentarian. I would just set up, I prepared very specifically in advance, I went on to set wanting to have total freedom of where I could put the camera and not stick to a shot list and just go where, once I block it with the actors, be like, now I’m going to do this.

How did you get people on board with this project? Even though you’re a very sought after cinematographer, it’s your directorial debut. And Chris Rossi’s first writing credit. Also, it’s a very female-driven point of view as Olivia Wilde’s character was more front and center in the story.

That’s a great question. What is interesting is, in the original script, you didn’t get to know the husband at all. I just felt like we needed to get to know him too in order to tell a well-rounded story. Two people could lose the same thing and they could come out so completely different from the experience. But still there’s no denying it. It’s Sarah’s story. So it is difficult coming in, especially as a first time director, first time screenwriter, and first-time ‘female’ director. Let’s just qualify that because unfortunately it has to be qualified.

It does. You almost don’t want to qualify it, but then there are all the stats staring at you.

Yeah, I have to. I really hate having to put “female” in front of any title, because it puts us in some kind of weird category for handicapped people or something.

“Play in your sandbox” kind of thing.

[The qualification] has to be made because the reason why the movie was difficult to get off the ground, the fact of the matter was, because I was female, because the main character was female. Even having Olivia Wilde, who is an international star, and me was a handicap, let’s be honest. We did finally find our financier, which is this Canadian company called Bron. They came on and took over the project in terms of how things get made and I was so grateful that they could see the value in the film and not say: “Hey, this is a dark, disturbing subject matter that may not be very commercial.” They were not scared by [female lead, first-time female director].

And to Olivia’s credit as a producer, she proved to be extremely helpful. She’s a very smart woman. She could actually be the president of the United States. She’s a politician. I say that in a very complimentary way. She is able to see all sides, and then speak intelligently and find a solution in a very diplomatic way. She was just a great person to have by my side to help push things through. She was really instrumental in getting Bron to come on board.

Olivia Wilde in ‘Meadowland’

Sounds like that was a tremendous partnership between you and Olivia Wilde. Hopefully, some other things will come out of this.

Yeah, actually we talk about it all the time. There were a couple of interviews that were likening us to “Scorsese and Leo” and we were like “yeah, that’s totally what we have in mind.”

I love that.

I just think Olivia has all the potential in the world. People are saying Meadowland is her best performance she’s ever done and I feel like we’re barely scratching the surface of what she can do. We are avidly seeking out our next project together. We are both reading things and trying to find our next thing we’re going to do when she has her next hiatus from “Vinyl”, the HBO show. I think her talent is just out of this world. She’s just never been given the opportunity. Maybe it’s because people just saw her as: “she’s so beautiful so she should just be the arm candy, she can’t possibly be a real actress.” But actually she’s a mind-blowing, amazingly talented actress. Everyone should see past the stereotypes that they’re making about people.

Being one of the few female members of the ASC, why do you think both cinematography and directing are such exclusive boys club crafts?

I think the ASC is actually a true reflection of the real numbers. If you think about the actual numbers, there are 350, roughly, ASC members. So out of the 350, there are 14 women. And that’s probably a better ratio than there are male to female cinematographers just in the world. The thing is the ASC is just letting in the people they think belong in this club. The reason I ended up getting recognized is because I started doing a lot of lighting demos and they realized I was a good teacher. They also realized I also had this body of work and then they took a look at it. You can also see the numbers in the union as well. The union is not gender-biased either. I think training programs can help, either from the ASC or Local 600, in bringing out more women and training more women just to make the numbers better. But the ASC is with the times. More diversity is coming. The real problem actually lies, and on this we’ll reference directors as well, with the studios in my opinion. If you think about Colin Trevorrow, who did Safety Not Guaranteed

And Jurassic World

All these guys who make one film and then their very next movie is a hundred million-dollar feature. That’s super cool of the studios to believe that this young filmmaker, but why is it that they only give the men that opportunity? When Frozen River won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2008, I got asked by a lot of big time agencies in LA. And as soon as they met me in person, I just never heard from them again. It took me years to really realize why that was: I was five months pregnant at the time. I remember the questions: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And I said, “Well, shooting bigger, better movies I hope.” And I just never heard from them again. The following year when Frozen River was nominated for 7 Independent Spirit Awards and 2 Academy Awards, producer Heather Rae introduced me to a woman there. I didn’t know who she was at the time but I received an email a week later from her. She [is now] my agent, Mira Yong. She was no-nonsense. She didn’t ask me where I saw myself in five years. I just admire her for being the person to take a chance on me.

When you think about it, nobody would ask a male cinematographer ‐ who had just become a father ‐ that, and wonder whether that’s going to stand in the way of his craft.

Most of the people I know in the film business here in New York, the moms and the dads, just take different turns working. So everybody’s a working parent and nobody bats an eyelash at it. We’re not stuck in the 50s.

With the pay gap between male and female stars being under the spotlight after the Sony hack, and an official federal investigation going on about the hiring practices and biases in Hollywood, do you think we will see some true change in our lifetime?

I do. I’ve already seen it in my short lifetime. When I first went to the ASC open house, I was in college. I was the only woman. I didn’t see any of the female ASC DPs. I was too intimidated to ask a single question. I met Conrad Hall and I couldn’t even ask him a technical question. I just stood on the sidelines and watched the guys ask questions because I felt like I would say something stupid. I just went to the ASC open house this past year for the first time since and it was chock full of women. I’d say at least fifteen young girls came up to me saying that they were either cinematographers or aspiring cinematographers or directors. So I think the needle is moving. I see on the TV series I’m shooting right now, HBO “Vinyl”, I was the lead DP and I’m female and I had two episodes that were directed by women. It was really, really cool to have two episodes that were directed and DP’ed and produced and first AD’ed all by women. I see so many female directors coming out now with movies and on lists for things and doing bigger and bigger films. I think it is going to change in our lifetime and I feel really optimistic about it. I don’t want to whine about it. It’s good to draw attention to it, but this is a good time to be a female filmmaker. I think right now, people are opening their eyes to what we have to offer.

Meadowland is currently in select theaters and will be in additional cities and On Demand Friday, October 23rd.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.