Reed Morano on ‘Meadowland,’ Working with Olivia Wilde and Motherhood Discrimination

MeadowlandWhen cinematographer Reed Morano was invited to join the prestigious American Society of Cinematography (ASC) in 2013, she became their youngest-ever member. The revered director of photography premiered her directorial debut, "Meadowland," earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film centers on a couple, played by Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson, who spin out of control after the disappearance of their only child. Morano describes the gritty drama, which she also DP’d, as "a visceral contemplation of two people who are on the edge of madness."

Morano spoke with Women and Hollywood about her collaboration with the film’s star and producer Olivia Wilde, her next project with Ellen Page, the reasons behind the low number of female cinematographers and the discrimination she faced as a pregnant woman in Hollywood. 

"Meadowland" arrived in theaters last week and is now available on VOD.

W&H: You attended film school at NYU. Were there other female DPs in your class?

RM: There were, but I didn’t really know them well at the time. Rachel Morrison (“Dope”) was in my class, and we got to know each other. What’s funny is that Rachel and I became really close after college.

W&H: You were in film school as an undergrad?

RM: I was in film school as an undergrad with a focus on directing. Once I started working on shoots, I realized, “Oh, I really like this cinematography thing. At that level, the cinematographer is kind of the person who is the most in control of everything; they are the one looking through the viewfinder. In a weird way, they kind of know the most technically. The first director who ever allowed me to shoot a film for him was a male. He was a gay male. My first feature also came from him. I worked for a lot of dudes at NYU.

Not to name names, but there was a guy I was friends with in film school. He would always hire the really big DPs, who in film school, were the older guys. I was always the first AC [assistant camera]. Now what’s funny is he made his first feature last year and wanted me to shoot it. I was like, “It’s funny how now I’m good enough, but I wasn’t good enough before.” 

W&H: How did you know "Meadowland" was going to be your directing debut?

RM: I didn’t know when or if it was going to come together until Olivia Wilde got attached. Then I was like, “OK, it’s probably going to end up happening.” I’d had other people before this ask me to direct movies and I sort of got latched on to a project, but they were all meandering. I didn’t want to direct just because someone was giving me the opportunity to direct. I know from DPing and watching many first-time directors [that the process] is really difficult and you make yourself really vulnerable. You have to be willing to take that risk if you want to do it well, and do you really want to risk yourself for that movie?

Eventually, when I got the “Meadowland” script, I saw something in it that made me think I could make something special out of it, something that could work with my style. Emotionally, I connected to it. I thought, “If I feel this way just imagining it, maybe we can make that happen on screen and make people feel something when they watch it.”

W&H: You also shot this movie. How did you separate yourself from being the director and cinematographer?

RM: I think I morphed into this other person, this other role, where both jobs went totally hand in hand in almost an old-fashioned kind of way. It was kind of like back in your film-school roots where you just pick up the camera and shoot what you want to shoot. I decided that I would not let the visuals overtake the story, the narrative or the performances. That was really important to me. That was a promise I made to myself.

I partly decided to do both jobs so I could prove that I could, because I felt like I could and I would be happier. It would be a better creative experience for me If I could control that aspect. I can’t turn off that side of my brain, the DP part. That’s something I feel I really know how to do. I thought maybe I could do it with my eyes closed then spend my time thinking about the actors, the arc, and if I was feeling [what was happening]. I put my camera on my shoulder and just followed them. Because I was in control of the cinematography I could decide how to do it that would completely cater to what I wanted for the actors, which was complete freedom.

W&H: Are you looking for your next directing script?

RM: I actually have one. We’re going to try to shoot it in April. It’s a movie called “Lioness” with Ellen Page.

W&H: You have financing?

RM: Not yet. We’re working on that right now. I think it’s going to be way easier to finance than “Meadowland” because A) I’m not a first-time director anymore and B) it’s not as dark as a film. It’s a film that has more of a range to it. It’s not just “Let’s talk about this sad thing.”

I think it’s going to be a cool movie. There’s a lot of action and shock value. There’s some gory stuff in it, but at the same time, I think it is possible it will reach certain emotional depths. I will still bring that aspect of “Meadowland” to it, where there are heavy moments. 

W&H: Did they come to you and say they wanted you to direct it?

RM: The producer James Dahl had seen “Meadowland,” and I guess he really loved it. WME, who is sort of representing the film because of Ellen, sent me the script and said, “Would you want to read this? We think this might be a really good next film for you.” WME had interest because they had worked with me on “Meadowland.” They brought me “Lioness,” and I thought it could be really good. Also because Ellen is attached, and I’m such a huge fan of hers. So I read the script and was like, “This is a great story.” These moments from Leslie Martz’s life were great, but we needed to connect more to the main character and get more in depth with the other characters. I tried to dig up more in cinematic way [and put in some] elements a movie needs.

W&H: How was it working with the actors? Was that part of it a challenge?

RM: It was more the anticipation of it that was the challenge. In anticipation of it and not having done it before, I thought I was going to screw it up, that I wouldn’t be able to speak to actors in their special language. I really respect actors so much, just from being a DP and seeing what they go through. I always think, “I do not envy you. That is so difficult.” I just really wanted to do it right, not just to get the best out of them, but out of respect for them. Here I was, blessed with this amazing cast. I know they’re super seasoned. As a DP, I totally know what I’m doing, and I know how to relate to actors on that level in terms of making them feel comfortable enough to do their scene. But the question was what do they want you to say to get them to a certain place and when do you say it.

W&H: So Olivia was also a producer on this? That didn’t conflict with anything?

RM: No, it didn’t, because she’s really easy to work with. I just can’t say enough good things about Olivia. She was the best partner to ever have.

W&H: She seems smart.

RM: She’s super-smart. She supported the crap out of me. Anything I needed, she made it happen. When it was time to put her producer hat on, she put her producer hat on and tried not to think like an actor. She always wanted to put what was best for the movie first. She really didn’t give me a hard time about anything. We’re very in sync. I think because she was a producer, it helped us get more. She really fought for things we needed.

W&H: How would you describe the movie? 

RM: I would say it’s a visceral contemplation of two people who are on the edge of madness. I don’t like to talk about what actually happens to them, because I think it’s such a small part. It is important, but I think a lot of people can identify with this movie even though it’s about such a specific thing. It’s just about when you feel like you’re losing control of yourself and maybe you don’t even care — and maybe you don’t even see it. I think it’s almost more about that.

W&H: Let’s talk about being a cinematographer in the ASC. Four percent — 14 members of 360 — are women.

RM: Is that how many there are? Wow.

W&H: I’m sure you know all 13 other ones.

RM: Yes. Yeah.

W&H: And a woman cinematographer has never been nominated for an Oscar.

RM: That’s the craziest thing ever. I thought Ellen Kuras should have been nominated for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

W&H: What do you think it is? There are not-so prestigious movies where the guys get nominated anyway.

RM: I don’t know what it is. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen soon. I think the awareness right now about female directors is the same thing for female DPs. It’s starting to become a real thing that people are paying attention to.

W&H: Do you know of any women who have shot some of the big movies this year?

RM: On that note, no. I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

W&H: You’re an amazing role model.

RM: I think for young DPs. There are a lot of super-talented female DPs coming up, and they’ve told me I am [a role model to them]. I think they’re like, “If you can do it, I can do it too.” I think the most important thing is to keep doing it so that people know it’s possible.

W&H: How do you get your guild to think about why it has so few female members?

RM: It’s definitely thinking about it. It’s happening. Since they let me in in 2013, I know there’s been at least three other women that have come in since then, which is pretty good. The ASC is a very prestigious organization for a reason. Not just any man can get in. It’s a really rigorous process for anyone no matter their gender.

W&H: How do you get into the union?

RM: It depends on what you want to go in as. I got in because I got booked on a union feature. If you’re going in for other things, you have to take a test for technical knowledge. Ellen Kuras was at that union meeting, and she said she thought part of the reason why there’s less women DPs was because back in the day when moviemaking began, the cameras were a mystery to so many people. It’s almost like you were a scientist if you were a cinematographer. Cinematographers used lab coats — they were like doctors, in a way.

W&H: Women can shrink back from the technical stuff.

RM: What’s really cool is this year I went to the ASC awards, then the open house the following day to go represent the ASC. About 15 young women came up to me. It was packed with women. They told me they were either aspiring DPS or cinematographers. I was like, “Oh my god, so many young women now.”

W&H: Do you think it’s because cameras have gotten smaller and easier, or women are like, “Fuck it. I’m doing it”?

RM: I think it’s a misconception — I don’t think a camera needs to be small for a woman to do it. I think now women, as they see more women doing it, they feel empowered to do it. I don’t think it has anything to do with the size of a camera. I carried a 55-pound 35mm camera when I was eight months pregnant. 

And then [there’s] knowing the fine line between being really confident and coming across as a bitch. That’s an unfortunate side effect for women. If you are too confident or too demanding or whatever, you automatically look like a person who is an asshole. Meanwhile, when guys do it, they get away with it all the time. That I do think is true.

W&H: Talk about the cycle from premiering “Meadowland” at Tribeca up until now — distribution. How did you navigate that?

RM: That was all really new to me. Obviously, I’ve never done this side of it. I had really great producers who were helping and facilitating all that stuff. We ended up with Cinedigm, which is an amazing company. They are so filmmaker-driven. They trust the filmmaker. They trust the artist’s vision. When they decide to take on your film, they really believe in you. I won’t say to what extent, but they let me collaborate with them on the way the film was presented in a huge way. I feel like what’s been put out there has truly been my vision, and I couldn’t be more happy than I was with them. They took a big chance. I felt like I knew the way the movie had to be sold to set it up for success.

W&H: And what is that?

RM: To play up what’s unique about the film. The edgier side of it. It’s not just a movie about grief. It’s like an adventure that this person goes on as they’re going off the edge. To play up that aspect — the unpredictability of the story. A lot of people have told me they think the story is going to go in one direction, then they don’t know what’s going to happen next because strange things keep happening. I think people want to see movies where they can’t predict what’s going to happen next.

Yeah, this is dark subject matter and it’s certainly not an easy movie to watch, but I think it’s a movie that makes people think and feel. It can be an interesting ride because you don’t know what the characters are about to do. We had to play up those aspects of the film. They were totally on board with that and supportive.

I feel grateful for any exposure we get for it. My goal for the movie was to feel like we did the best we could do. We took a really difficult subject and made a movie people would want to see and maybe see again. Someone told me at a screening that it was their second time seeing it and they couldn’t wait for it to come on VOD to watch it again. I was like, “This is cool.” Because this is a hard movie. I think it’s a really full experience. It can be cathartic. It can be hard. Just not making something wishy-washy, but going out there and taking a big risk and making something that makes a statement for better or worse. Also, taking actors who haven’t had this opportunity to do something like this before and giving them the chance to show off what they can totally do.

W&H: Give some advice for women who want to be DPs and give some advice to women who want to be directors. 

RM: For DPs, I would say, I started out shooting everything until I got into the genres I liked. You can’t will it to come to you. You have to persevere so much. You have to want it so much. You have to shoot everything. You have to seek out every project. And eventually you will find it.

I think it took me seven years before I got the script for “Frozen River.” That’s the movie I had been looking for my whole career. When I read that, I knew I had to shoot that movie — that it’d be a game-changer. It was one of those scripts where I read it and I was like, “This movie could get into Sundance.”

W&H: That movie was the first one you got significant attention for?

RM: Yeah. It’s how I got an agent. More people started calling me to shoot.

W&H: Was it when the movie came out, or when it started getting awards attention?

RM: After we won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, a lot of agents had meetings with me. A lot of the big agencies invited me for meetings. I was pregnant at that time. Probably about five months pregnant. I was showing and not trying to hide it. I went into these meetings and I didn’t think of the pregnancy thing at all. All I thought in my head was, “I’m a DP. I’m going to be a filmmaker forever.” It didn’t even occur to me it was a bad idea to go to these meetings pregnant.

I went to the meetings and didn’t realize until recently [what had actually happened]. They were like, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And I said “Shooting bigger movies,” obviously. Which ended up being true. But I think all they could see was that I had a pregnant belly and I was a woman, and when women get pregnant they stay home and become moms and don’t work anymore. Maybe they just don’t understand how someone can be a working mom — can have two kids and work, which is what I do.

What’s so great is, the following year, when the movie got to the Indie Spirit Awards, I met a woman there named Mira Yong. I didn’t know she was an agent at the time. I got an email from her a week later and it was like, “Hey. I don’t remember if you remember me. We met at the party. I’m wondering if you want to meet me for a cup of coffee.” Then I looked at her email signature and saw it was The Gersh Agency. I gasped.

As a DP, I knew what my ticket was — I needed to get an agent. I had been burned by all those agents the year before. They all expressed interest, then dropped off the face of the earth when they met me in person and saw I was going to have a baby. I met with Mira. I went into the room with her, and she didn’t ask me what my five-year plan was. She didn’t test me at all. I sat down with her, and she was really fucking noble. She was matter of fact. She said, “Here’s the deal. I know that if I put you in the room, nine times out of ten, you’re going to get the job. So, do you want to work together?” So I said, “Yeah, let’s do this."