Reed Morano’s Hat Trick

On location for her directorial debut, Meadowland (2015), a tearsmeared portrait of grieving parents whose son has gone missing, Reed Morano found herself at odds with the director of photography. While such impasses are common enough, what made it unique is that Morano was the film’s director and its DP.

“Was what I wanted as the cinematographer the best choice for the story or the best angle for the camera?” she asked her director self. The prolific DP, whose camera work includes Frozen River (2008) and Kill Your Darlings (2013), figured that if it was the former, then the solution was finding a location that served both story and its visual texture. Filmmaking isn’t a contest, it’s a collaboration, says Morano by phone from Dublin the night before commencing her third directorial feature, the spy thriller The Rhythm Section, starring Blake Lively and Jude Law.

Whether she wears two hats, as on Meadowland and her sophomore feature I Think We’re Alone Now (2018), or only one, as on the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) and The Rhythm Section, it’s not so different. “Sometimes the director wins,” she says with a verbal shrug. “Sometimes the DP wins.”

As a cinematographer, Morano learned a lot that eased her transition to director, principally how to make the set a safe environment for actors, which involves flexibility. “When you work as a cinematographer, the actors look to you for reassurance. When you’re lighting them, they can never think you’re making an adjustment because of the way they look. If they are nervous, it impacts their performance, which impacts the story.”

For Morano, both cinematography and directing are emotionally intuitive. You have to know when to change the shot. “You’re wrangling the technology and an actor’s emotional instincts. So if you can say to the actor, ‘You don’t have to stay planted on that mark, go where you need to go,’ you don’t just get the shot, you serve the story.”

Though relatively new to the directorial ranks, Morano won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for The Handmaid’s Tale. She was the first female to do so since Mimi Leder won for ER in 1995. That was the year Morano, now 40, anxiously awaited college acceptance letters.

Like Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shyamalan, she had a father who thrust a movie camera into her hands when she was at a tender age, deputizing his 7 year old to chronicle family events. “I wasn’t outgoing, and the last thing I wanted was to get into someone’s face,” she recalls.

By the time she attended NYU’s undergraduate school of film and television, she found herself as a production assistant on her first shoot watching the DP. “As I saw him taking light readings, it was so intriguing. I wanted to be him because it seemed to me that he, not the director, was asking the audience to see the world through his eyes.”

At the time it didn’t occur to her that the DP was there to enable the director’s vision. While she sees it that way now, she’s grateful she came to directing after mastering the camera—film and digital—on more than 40 projects. “Being a cinematographer taught me a lot. I got to expedite the visions of many directors and learned how to navigate many styles and worlds.”

The visual sensibility that Morano learned as a DP is suffused in her DNA as a director. William Eggleston, whose images of unvarnished Americana popularized color art photography, became an important pictorial reference in Morano’s pre-director credits, such as the vérité documentary, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa (2007), and the indie feature Frozen River (2008), the story of two underemployed women who smuggle immigrants into the U.S. across the Canadian border.

The former film established her signature style: contrasting epic physical landscapes with extreme close-ups on the landscapes of faces, and exhibiting her facility with the handheld camera to capture those faces. Morano’s close-ups aren’t of the objective, fly-on-wall ilk; they are more empathic, as if they were taken from the perspective of a priest listening to a confessor.

The latter was distinguished by its limited palette—mostly ice-cube grey with pops of glacier blue, conveying monotony via monochrome. “Color correction is one of my things,” explains Morano, whose sense of hue is both painterly and emotional.

Although Morano had established her directing credentials on Meadowland, Morano had to convince the producers of The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she directed the first three episodes, that she was up to the task of establishing the series’ tonal template. So she diligently prepared a 72-page pitch deck, pairing evocative imagery to paragraphs from the novel.

She visualized the entire pilot, from how she would differentiate the flashbacks to the democratic United States with the present-day repressive regime of Gilead. Recognizing the novel as “a POV story where the viewer is trapped in the head of Offred [the enslaved gestational carrier played by Elisabeth Moss],” Morano wrestled with the challenges of how to tell a first-person POV story without completely relying on voiceover and how to take viewers to a dystopia that didn’t feel like a period movie.

Soon after she came aboard, every department— from production design and costumes to sound and cinematography—had Morano’s lookbook, a scaled-down version of the pitch deck, to create what she calls a unified vision.

With Morano working with DP Colin Watkinson, the flashbacks were shot handheld, cinema vérité style, in order to drop viewers in the moment. In Gilead, a static camera and formal compositions melded Old Masterly framing with Kubrickian symmetry.

Offred’s voiceovers occur as the camera edges toward her, but with a lens different from the Canon K-35s used for most of the Gilead shots. For Offred’s voiceovers they used a 28mm Zeiss 2.1, subliminally cueing the audience that it is entering Offred’s head.

There were intimate moments in the script, Morano knew, when she would want to get the camera on her shoulder and operate herself. Watkinson was amenable.

Besides Kubrick, Morano’s filmmaking inspirations range from Paul Thomas Anderson and Darren Aronofsky to Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola. In her work there are traces of them especially in the long silences and surprising sounds, the deep shadows and clarifying light and, most especially, in her handheld camerawork.

Having established herself as a director, Morano is easing away from television and toward feature films, in which there’s more autonomy. On TV, she says, a director is in the odd position where the producers say, “You are driving this car, but there will be people in the back seat telling you what to do. But when you have your own, you don’t want to carry out someone else’s vision.”

Now that Morano is in the position to choose the projects she wants—she courted the producers of The Rhythm Section with a 132-page pitch deck—she is angling for projects that will give her new challenges. In this story of a woman who reclaims her own life by becoming an assassin, Morano aims not to create a superheroine but a relatable person in a context where violence isn’t glorified. “The emphasis is on emotion and character,” she says.

In other words, she doesn’t want to get into anyone’s face. She wants to get under their skin.



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