(C) Chris Rubey
Reed Morano is the accomplished cinematographer behind films like FROZEN RIVER (2008), SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS (2012), THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE (2012) and AND SO IT GOES (2014) for Rob Reiner, KILL YOUR DARLINGS (2013), THE SKELETON TWINS (2014) and five episodes of the Martin Scorsese/ Mick Jagger TV event Vinyl (2016). She also just made an incredible directing debut with the moving, haunting, unforgettable drama MEADOWLAND (2015), starring Olivia Wilde, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Moss and Giovanni Ribisi. She is, without a doubt, one of the most promising talents of her generation. I spoke to Reed about her early years, how she got into film, how FROZEN RIVER opened up a career in cinematography and the story behind MEADOWLAND.   

Growing up, what were some of your formative film experiences?
When I was younger, films were a big deal in our house, and we watched everything from SPLASH (1984) to MY LIFE AS A DOG (1985), which was a movie that I instantly gravitated towards because I had never seen anything like that before. E.T. (1982) was another film that stuck with me. It's profoundly emotional, and it captures a very specific moment in time. Somehow, even within the bizarre plot, the subject matter is relatable and the film makes you feel it, which is something I admire. I love adventure. It's also actually quite dark. Another film that profoundly affected me is THE SHINING (1980), which is just the most elegant, frightening film. 

Something that all those films share with your own film, MEADOWLAND, is that the most effective acting in the film comes from the facial expressions.
That's a huge compliment! What they all have in common is that they're not overdone and everything is under the surface. 

When did the idea of becoming a filmmaker first come about?
It was actually my dad's idea. When I was in third grade he was working overseas in Tokyo and he brought home a huge JVC camcorder which took VHS tapes. He gave it to me and said ''You’re going to document the family.'' At the time, I was into writing, and all day long I was sitting down in my glasses typing up short stories on my mom's Commodore 64. I wasn't really into bringing people into my creative endeavours. I liked writing on my computer because I was alone. Now, with this camera I had to be around other people and it was so annoying as I didn't like being around other people. I was kind of a big nerd. I had only one close friend at a given time. I took the video camera and started using it, and despite myself, I found that I couldn't put it down. I started recording all kinds of incredibly boring things like the grass growing and the animals in my back yard. Then I started making commercials and music videos using my family as my subjects. At high school I stopped writing and started doing photography. When it came time to apply to college, I was thinking of applying for a Journalism course but it was my dad that said ''Why don't you apply to NYU for film school?'' I didn't really think of it as a job people did. I thought being a writer was a job, and I assumed I would do that. But it got harder and harder for me to write and easier and easier for me to take pictures.

(C) Dikayl Rimmasch
When did it become clear that being a cinematographer was what you were interested in? From the very first shoot in film school that I worked on, I was intrigued by what the cinematographer was doing. At film school, the DP has the most control on set. I just saw the DP looking through the viewfinder and I thought ''Wow, that looks like the best job. Everyone that sees this movie is going to see everything through his eyes.''

How did you come to shoot FROZEN RIVER?
I had finished film school and I was looking everywhere for a feature to shoot. I'm pretty convinced I applied for FROZEN RIVER through Craigslist, but according to the producer Chip Hourihan, he didn't see any application from Craigslist and he called me for an interview because he had my reel from a prior interview. I probably wasn't even the director Courtney Hunt's second choice but I think she was impressed by my documentary background, and particularly a film that I had shot that was on the reel called OFF THE GRID: LIFE ON THE MESA (2007), directed by Jeremy and Randy Stulberg. It was about this group of people who live outside of Taos, New Mexico, and live off the grid. It's just incredibly moving, and you can't believe the place is real. Courtney wanted FROZEN RIVER to feel as real as possible.

Is it true that temperatures got to subzero on FROZEN RIVER?
Yes, it was freezing on that job. Of all the films I've done, it was the most difficult physically and mentally. Just in the will to keep going every day. We did a lot of things that would not have been possible had it been a union shoot. There were days where we got weather warnings to not go outside because we could die, and we still went out and shot all day. I am glad I did it though. It changed the course of my career. That's all it takes, one movie. I am still friends with a lot of people who worked on the movie and they all agree it was to this day the toughest shoot they've ever been on.

What was your brief on FROZEN RIVER? What did Courtney want you to capture?
She wanted it to be as if this was a documentary about these real people. We were helped by the talented actors like Melissa Leo and Misty Upham, who has since passed. The script that Courtney wrote was amazingly naturalistic. She has a knack for telling those kinds of stories. It was all a good recipe for something that felt kind of new at that time.

(C) Kirsten Johnson
Did the film have an immediate impact on your career?
It was actually more gradual. After the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, I started getting phone calls to shoot films in a similar naturalistic, handheld style. I started to get pigeonholed immediately. My heart was in doing handheld style photography but I wanted to also do more refined lighting. On FROZEN RIVER we were handicapped by time and money, so we weren't able to really light anything. It was just run and go, and try to find the best direction to shoot in. Before that movie I had shot a bunch of documentaries and also some reality TV and I realised I had an intuition as to what kind of shot was best to tell the story. Usually, in my experience, a director won't tell me where to go because they trust me enough to have a go myself.

Do you usually require an emotional connection to material to excite you about a project?
As a DP I'm always thinking ''What can I bring to this picture that's new to me or just new in general? Can I match the visuals to the emotion? Would I want to see this movie?''

Are you also interested in achieving things technically that you haven't done before?
I used to only want to do movies in my comfort zone and always hand-held, so I would avoid anything that was stylised. It wasn't that I couldn't do it, it was just that I wanted to do what I liked aesthetically. What I've learned in more recent years is that it's fun to be pushed by the director and the requirements of the story into a totally different style. Otherwise, I wouldn't learn anything new. I reverted to my comfort zone for MEADOWLAND, but for the new HBO series Vinyl, I did things I'd never done before, and I was also able to express myself so it took me to a new level in my own personal creative exploration.

When you shoot a historically based film like KILL YOUR DARLINGS, do you feel a pressure to have the film look like something akin to how people generally feel the period looked?
There were a lot of debates that the director John Krokidas and I had during making that movie. At first I felt that I had to shoot it the way people felt it would have looked like but now, after shooting a show like Vinyl, which is set in the 70s, I don't believe that everything has to be literal. When I was doing KILL YOUR DARLINGS I wanted it to be specific or at at least different from what things look like now. I had a very filmic look in mind, and we actually shot it on 35mm film, which was helpful because you have that unique texture. We did color-correcting in postproduction too to give it an old photograph kind of look. We went for a faded photograph kind of look for the flashback sequences, which I guess you could say was a bit of an obvious choice, but I think there are little nuances to the color that felt different from other period films of that time. I think the film is this special little thing. We were shooting a low-budget period piece that takes place in 1943, and we were shooting it in modern-day New York City, out towards New Jersey. The places were limited and the effects budget was small, so there were going to be all these lights that were either going to be in the background or in the foreground. It wasn't the type of budget where we could just turn off all the lights, or even get rid of them in postproduction. I felt like the color of that time period was not going to be sodium vapor, and more of a white color. In postproduction we took out all the sodium vapor and all the lights ended up this interesting greenish-blue. If you go back and look at the film you'll see that pretty much all the street lamps in the nighttime sequences are that color. We ended up solving a technical problem, but also creating a unique feel that I was very happy with.

(C) John Johnson
What kinds of different challenges did you face shooting the music film SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS?
When I heard about the project from my agent, she presented it as a film that was sort of a documentary but also a narrative. At that time it sounded very appealing. I signed on to that project with no script and no real idea of what it was going to be about. I couldn't believe that I had never heard of LCD Soundsystem or their music, so hearing their music for the first time was an amazing discovery. That was the moment where I realised I was such a mom, not knowing who they were! That project was all about being useful to the director and flying by the seat of my pants, which I love. I have no problem going to work and deciding what the best direction to shoot is on the day. Prep time is useful, but sometimes not so much. I like to make up a plan in advance, but that doesn't always happen. This film was about showing up, having a very basic plan, and just following the band. I loved having that freedom and I enjoyed working with Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern the most of all the directors I've worked with. I look forward to seeing them directing another feature.

Why did you love working with them so much?
I feel like we all know each other so well. I've also done some commercials with them. They're very trusting. They know how I see things, and they know I know what they like. They just let me go. When they want to see something different, the guys let me know. I like that kind of working, where you're allowed to show the director what you have before they step in and try to change it. The film was an organic experience and it was less about planning than ''You really got to be on your game because you're going to have to decide the most beautiful and compelling way to shoot something really quickly.''

How was working with Rob Reiner on THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE and AND SO IT GOES?
I still remember my agent asking me if I wanted to interview for a film starring Morgan Freeman and being directed by Rob Reiner. The generation I grew up with was STAND BY ME (1986), THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... (1989). His movies informed my whole childhood growing up. He's a legend to me. We had a half hour meeting, and ten minutes later I got a phone call telling me I got the job. One of the most amazing things about Rob is that he is the best at making decisions really fast and sticking to them. On the two movies I did with him, there was only one time where we changed a plan we were going with in the middle of a scene. I learned a lot from him. Initially the idea of working with him was very frightening and scary but Rob is a very warm and loving person and we got along great. He never discriminates over gender or age. He knew I was this young girl who grew up on his movies. He treated me like a peer. This was the point where I realised I could shoot a movie in a way that suited the story, and it wasn't always going to look like FROZEN RIVER. This was a Rob Reiner movie so it looked like a Rob Reiner movie, with hopefully a little bit of me sprinkled in.

(C) Paul Sarkis
Did you direct MEADOWLAND because you wanted to direct a movie or because it was a project that you felt you had to direct because you had a personal connection to it?
I wasn't feeling like I needed to direct a movie at that point. I was feeling comfortable in my DP zone. There had been four or five scripts that had come to me for directing. There was one that I courted for a long time, but the script never got to the point where I felt like I could do the right thing with it, even though I really loved it. When I got MEADOWLAND I thought ''OK, this is really scary and a huge challenge.'' Also, as a mom, it was a frightening story to tell. I felt drawn to it because I felt like I could do something with it. It was something that would punch people in the gut. I've seen movies where I was so affected that I never forgot them. I realised that if I was ever going to direct a film, the first time was going to be the only time I was ever going to get to do what I want. There'd no pressure on me yet because I had never really done anything.

Did you consider making MEADOWLAND as your first film a risky proposition?
I did have producers that I worked with who knew me very well and questioned why I was interested in making a film about such dark subject matter when I was such a funny person, and it was such a risk for a first film. That just made me want to do the film even more and prove them wrong. There were no delusions of grandeur on MEADOWLAND. What I got out of it was sort of what I expected, which was I got to show people that I could make a movie that could make them feel something truly intense. That was the main goal, above everything else. When Olivia Wilde signed on, she was taking a huge risk on me as a first time director. She saw me as taking a risk on her too because she had never done a drama this serious before, or gone to such depths. I believed she could do it from the first moment I met her. She was so determined and dedicated that I wanted people to see the film and think ''Wow, I've never seen Olivia like this before, and she's never been better.''

Were you worried about the potential lack of commercial success given the dark subject matter?
The movie was never destined to be a commercial success. It was more about it being a movie to make you feel something, and what was interesting about it was that a lot of the actors in it were doing things they had never done before. Everybody brought 300%. I was so lucky to get the actors that I got. The thing with the film was to do something risky. The other scripts that I had looked at were more commercial and were more like the films that most people would want to see. The big disadvantage with MEADOWLAND is that once you have read the synopsis, most people become afraid to see the film. You almost have to bury the plot when you promote the film. Once people have seen the film, they are so affected and glad they saw it.

What was the extent of your personal connection to the material?
When I initially signed on to the movie, the darkest thing that had happened to me was that my dad had passed away when I was eighteen. Working with the writer on the script we were both bringing our own demons to the material. I have two sons though, so I was able to see the forest through the trees. I totally got the devastation that the audience needed to feel. Then, while we were in the process of getting financing, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer at the base of my tongue. I'm in remission now but I was in chemotherapy and radiation for a good portion of the time we were trying to raise the money. I basically couldn't talk. I definitely think that experience informed the way I told the story. If that hadn't happened to me, it's certainly possible MEADOWLAND would have been a little different. There are definitely moments in the film with Sarah, Olivia's character, that are directly drawn from when I was going through my treatment. There were eight weeks where I wasn't communicating with the world, because I couldn't speak because of the pain. I only communicated through by writing on a dry erase board from time to time and I didn't eat or even drink water by mouth for 130 days. In the scene where Sarah is brushing her teeth in the bathroom, the water in the faucet washes off the toothpaste from the brush but she doesn't put more toothpaste on, she just keeps brushing. It's very subtle, and you can almost miss it. That moment means so much to me because it encapsulates a very specific feeling from my experience of going through cancer treatment and being in so much (physical) pain you don’t give a shit about anything anymore. That's what the movie is about. You get to a point where you are going through something that is so bigger than basic human function that you don't really perform basic human functions anymore.

I think the way that you portray grief in the film is very real and palpable.
That makes me so happy to hear that. It seems most of the people who gravitate towards MEADOWLAND are usually people who have been through something very difficult or people who are open to feeling emotion. Once MEADOWLAND came onto VOD and reached a bigger audience, I had quite a few people message me on Twitter to tell me vehemently how important the film was to them. One was a father who lost two sons, one to childhood cancer and one as a baby and he told me had never seen a film that embodied grief the way the film did and felt like his own life. I got a message from another father who had lost his son eighteen months before, and he thanked me so profusely for making the film. As a mother of two sons, I can't imagine losing them, even though I had to imagine it every day of working on this movie. I will never pretend to know what that feels like. It has to be worse than everything I've gone through put together. To have people who have been through these things say that the film felt like what they were going through was really validating. 

(C) Paul Sarkis
I thought the film had some really beautiful details like how odd people's behaviour becomes when they are grieving, about how a lot of the grieving process is about learning how to grieve, and about whether closure was necessarily a positive thing.
It was an emotional journey for me, and it was good for me after what I went through, because I spent days in the edit where I would be crying my eyes out. I had to know in the editing whether I felt it. Maybe I handicapped myself because my son played Olivia and Luke's son in the movie, and I was bound to get emotional shooting and editing the movie. But it seemed to work for me. Casting him came from other reasons, like putting myself close to Olivia, but also finding the right kid was very difficult. The bottom line was that it was a cathartic experience for me.

Olivia Wilde has not done anything like this before. How did you know she was the right fit?
Olivia was interested in the role, and right before meeting her, even I was unsure because even though I knew she was smart and had a good head on her shoulders, I had never seen her do anything like this. The one thing that I had seen her do that made me think she might be really interesting for this was Spike Jonze's HER (2013), where she played the crazy blind date. Olivia was my favourite thing about that movie. That made me realise that there was more to her than met the eye. If anything, Olivia has been handicapped by her astounding beauty. She has the chops to do way way more than she has done. I think what she did in MEADOWLAND is just scratching the surface of her potential. I feel lucky that she came to me and said ''I'm doing this role.'' I am glad I went with my gut. I can't imagine anyone else doing it now. People in general in Hollywood need to get past what people look like, myself included.

Luke Wilson is also especially good in the picture.
I am the biggest fan of Luke and he's totally underutilised. I think he did amazing work in the HBO show Enlightened (2011-13) and he went quite dark in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), but I always felt like Luke could do more. He just fell right into this part, and he just knew what to do. He was doing the right thing from the first moment. I think Luke is underrated, and I love the subtleties that he brings to a performance. In all the scenes where he is by himself, he just looks so lost- his body language spells defeat. That's what I felt like. Pissed off with the world, and about to explode underneath the surface, but trying to keep it together. He was able to capture all of that. When we shot the scene towards the end where he is at the FBI Office, I was shooting a wide shot and I was just in tears. It was all in his body language. It was the most heartbreaking thing, you know. That's Luke. He just knew how to stand, how to carry himself. That's so much about what an actor does. They step into a character's shoes, and they walk totally differently because the character walks differently.

Giovanni Ribisi gives a memorable performance. His character on one level is a mess, but on another level he has an angle on how to cope with grief and is the most 'together' of all the characters.
Yes, his character is so ironic. He's the one doing all the drugs but in that moment when he and Olivia's character are on the roof, he has just smoked DMT and is at his most lucid. He's seeing her for the first time. What he brought to the role was an unexpected level of understanding and empathy. 

The subject matter is very dark. Was the atmosphere during filming very serious or did people try to lighten up the mood between takes?
It was not a serious shoot at all. As a person I am cracking jokes 24/7. Some of these are actors don't normally do such dark stuff, so they were having fun too. Olivia is hilarious, as is Luke, who basically does comedy all the time. John Leguizamo, Giovanni Ribisi and Elizabeth Moss had a good time on set. You wouldn't have known we were making a serious movie! But when the cameras started rolling, we were on. Pretty much every scene in the movie was heavy and there were no scenes where there was really a break. There was always an atmosphere that was good for the actors. The actors were so great that it didn't need to be dark all the time.

Now you have directed a film, are you aiming to direct films and also continue as a cinematographer?
I think I'd like to keep doing both. People always want to place you into one category. Since directing MEADOWLAND I have shot six months of an entire season of Vinyl, but I have a few directing projects that are in various stages of pre-production. As a DP, I love that I get to go on these many adventures with all these beautiful, creative minds and expand my horizons. I love lighting, and I love composition. I love telling a story visually and on every project I am learning more. I don't want to stop doing that. Maybe I'll be a little more selective, and continue working for directors I really want to work with, though.

How was working with Scorsese on Vinyl?
It was really cool getting that opportunity to pay homage to everything that Scorsese had ever done, without getting in trouble. He actually hosted a screening of MEADOWLAND for Olivia and I at the MOMA. He told me ''I'm really embarassed. I had no idea you directed MEADOWLAND until the end credits. I thought you had just shot it and when I saw your name, I was like WOW! '' He really liked the movie, which was honestly better than any award I could receive. To be talking with my idol about my own movie, and to have him analysing aspects of it, was a moment I never thought would happen in my life and was just about the coolest thing ever.

What did you love about working with him the most?
He is so inspired all the time about stories and narrative. We would have a meeting about the tone of an episode before we shot it. I had the opportunity to sit there with ten other people, one of whom was Scorsese. I got to hear Terence Winter and him discuss the characters and the story. I'd be sitting there in the corner, eating sandwiches quietly, trying not to be noticed. Scorsese would discuss things with such energy and excitement. His perspective of the storytelling and the characters was so unique. He had so many anecdotes and stories, and anecdotes to back up the stories and so forth. It was the most infectious energy that I have ever experienced. When he gets talking, you can't help but be riveted. He's fired up. He's a spicy motherfucker. He never ceases to amaze me with his amount of knowledge he has about topics outside of filmmaking as well. He has about a gazillion stories he still has to tell, I think.

What was the brief with shooting Vinyl?
Rodrigo Prieto and Scorsese set up this look in the pilot that is totally crazy and out there. It's very specific and embodies all of Scorsese's visual language that has been there since MEAN STREETS (1973), but then the way the camera follows the story is very close to GOODFELLAS (1990) or THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). The cinematographers come in and are encouraged to tell the stories their way, and there are very few rules. The rule for me, based on Scorsese’s pilot is that whatever way you choose to tell it, it has to be motivated by emotion, even if the choice is larger than life. This show has handheld, Steadicam, dollies, and so on, but they are used in that Scorsese way where it all works. The challenge was to decide when emotionally a certain device is called for.

I spoke to Reed by telephone on 30th December 2015 and would like to thank her for her time. 

Vinyl is currently showing on HBO. MEADOWLAND is available on DVD and digitally.   

Reed's website. 

All photographs are the property of the copyright holders and cannot be reproduced without their permission.

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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