Reed Morano on Successfully Pitching for and Directing the Intense Dystopian Drama, The Handmaid’s Tale
Reed Morano was told she wouldn’t get to pitch on The Handmaid’s Tale: “Don’t get too excited about it.” Someone showed her the pilot just so she had an idea of what Hulu was up to, but there was already a “very big male director” they were out to, as Morano discussed at an IFP Q&A earlier this year. When Morano heard that her long time collaborator and friend Elisabeth Moss was attached as the lead of the show, she reached out — not taking no for an answer. “A week and a half later, I got a call: ‘The producers of The Handmaid’s Tale want you to pitch. But in a few days.’” For 72 hours, Morano holed up and produced an extensive 72-page pitch deck. And she got the job — and then an Emmy nomination.
And that, dear fellow filmmakers, is what we call “slaying.” I’d be an idiot not to bug Morano about an interview. I wanted to know all the gory details of the pitch, her first three episodes as a director and EP and how she maintained her vision through each step of the process. I had admired her work for years, particularly as a DP on Kill Your Darlings and her directing debut Meadowland. What’s remarkable about The Handmaid’s Tale, is its ability to make its audience feel something — and then even further, contemplate. How does the show continually feel brutally emotional while never dipping into manipulation? Morano and I unpacked exactly how she crafted the massive pitch book and what was in it. She couldn’t send to to me for obvious reasons. (Don’t think I didn’t ask.) She also walked me through certain scenes and how the camera was used as a conduit for emotions and focused heavily on specific character POVs.
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t an easy world to live in, even for an hour on your couch. I was also curious about the challenges of directing the material and working with her actors. But Morano knew what she was getting herself into from jump. She listened to a particular song on repeat for three days while building out the pitch. For anyone who wants to work on a show as intense and beautiful as this one, I challenge you to listen to this song (Hildur Gutnadottir’s “Without Sinking”) once, let alone for three days straight. I’d give an Emmy just to that.
Filmmaker: This 72-page pitch deck — can you tell me logistically what you put in there and how you accomplished making that in three days?
Morano: Basically, I started with visuals and quotes from the book. When you’re pitching something the source material is not always from an amazing literary source of work. In this case, it was. One of the things that’s so great about Margaret [Atwood, the author of the novel] is that she has all these lines that are so quotable and so profound. They weren’t lines that were in the [pilot], but lines that were in the book that I felt exemplified a feeling in the script. So I pulled some quotes from the book and put them into some imagery.
Filmmaker: Do you remember any quotes in particular?
Morano: I used, “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” Another one I used was, “If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.”
Filmmaker: These are so applicable to daily life — our actual situation, right now. Especially the maze one.
Morano: And I used: “I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.”
And: “You can mean more than one. You can mean thousands. I’m not in any immediate danger, I’ll say to you. I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.” That’s in reference to, like, who am I telling this story to? I’m telling it to you. It could be one person, it could be thousands of people, but you can’t hear me anyway so it doesn’t matter, really. And then, another good one I used was: “I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on there is what You meant. I have enough daily bread, so I won’t waste time on that. It isn’t the main problem. The problem is getting it down without choking on it.” These are some really good ones.
So, all I needed was a few quotes from the book, and I took imagery from photography and stills from movies — very impressionistic stuff. I also found a lot of images that, color-wise, felt like they were in our world. I felt very strongly about the graphic nature of the color in the whole show. I put in a lot of images that were from photography where certain colors were more prominent that others, not just the color red, but where other colors were strong. I wrote pages on character, story, what the world is, what the people are like. I put in pages on the look of the show, examples of what would it would be in Gilead versus her flashback world and how the colors would be portrayed and how the flashbacks would differ from the present day, the framing and composition. I gave an example of what I would do in a certain scene — described how I’d shoot the ceremony scene. I basically went into how we were going to keep the camera close to her all the time to get into to her head with a wide lens.
Filmmaker: So the style we’ve been experiencing now with each episode was developed that early on in the pitch deck?
Morano: I mean, pretty much exactly what I pitched in the mood book is exactly what I did.
Filmmaker: I follow you on Instagram and know you have kids. You have these beautiful photos of them. I’m sure you connected to this story because you are a mother. Did that influence the way you developed the show, and was it something you communicated to Hulu during the pitch — essentially, “Hey, I’m coming at this from an emotional point of view.”
Morano: I mean, a little bit, you know. For me, being in that scenario where my children have been taken from me — I cannot really imagine what that would feel like. When I try to imagine it, I imagine this feeling of suffocation. If there’s some way I can convey what that suffocation is through visuals, then that’s what I would do.
Filmmaker: This is your first TV show. More and more filmmakers I know are trying to go into TV and wind up saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” Tell me how you felt jumping into TV. What were the things you didn’t know, and what were the things you learned along the way?
Morano: I’m different from a lot of directors because I’ve had all this experience working on different TV shows as a DP. I kind of knew what I was getting into. I knew that a director had less control. I knew who makes the choices. I know as a director, it is tricky. For people who don’t know, when you go into TV, it’s the reverse of features. In features, the director is king, and the writer has to, once the feature gets going, deliver whatever the director wants. In TV, it’s the literal opposite. That part is extremely disconcerting and upsetting, but you have to go in knowing that. I knew it already because I’d DP’d a multitude of HBO shows. I didn’t believe that that meant I would have no control, because I’m the sort of person who would do the very best to protect my vision, no matter what it is, from a commercial to a TV show, a feature. In the case of [The Handmaid’s Tale], I had an executive producer credit on my first three episodes, so I knew at least I’d be able to wedge my way into everything even if protocol was that I wasn’t in it. I made it pretty clear from the beginning that I wanted to be really involved because I was so passionate about the subject matter and so particular.
Filmmaker: I think the main thing that has affected me the most watching this show is the fact that — this sounds weird to say — I feel things. You’ve said before that the aesthetic is dictated by the emotion. Can you tell me specifically what that means to you and what the process was? A specific example of a scene you structured in that way?
Morano: I think that there’s a way that emotion dictates a scene. I think about emotionally where Offred is at, at any given moment, and then I imagine it from her perspective. I also think about what her mental state is in that moment. Is she the one in the scene who is in control, or is she wielding any kind of power in this scene? Or is she the one in the scene who is being submissive? There are a lot of thoughts that can go into it, and there’s no real right or wrong. [It’s], what would I do in that moment? So that’s why it’s hard to have a formula for this show, because it’s really about personal, mental and psychological intuition.
In the scene in episode one when [Offred] first meets Serena Joy and The Commander — where we see her in Serena Joy’s sitting room and it’s raining — I have a very static, symmetrical wide shot master which makes the room very enclosing, which is the theme of Gilead, all these prison-like compositions. And then I have a handheld close-up on Offred — but also, and this is one of the first scenes I thought about, I chose to shoot Serena Joy and the Commander handheld as well in their coverage. This is the first time all three of them are meeting, and they’re all a little bit off their game. The difference is that the shots that are on Offred start closer and stay closer throughout, whereas at the end, once Serena Joy is put in a super awkward position, the camera gets very close on her. That’s how I blended the way I cover Offred into other characters, because it’s her memory, her flashback, but also a moment where everybody was unsure and thrown off a bit.
And then, another example would be the scene in episode three when Aunt Lydia comes to question Offred with Burke. That scene also has a prison-like wide master, but I also did a handheld shot where I was operating on Offred where we were really close to her face and the coverage on the others stayed farther away until Aunt Lydia enters her frame. So pretty much the entire scene we are with Offred, we’re not with the others. We’re looking at them from her distance. That’s basically what it is.
Filmmaker: What you’re saying is impactful, and it’s something filmmakers forget about — the POV and its relation to power dynamics. It’s not just how a character is feeling, but what they’re seeing and how they’re interpreting it emotionally. Throughout this whole process, what was the most difficult thing to shoot emotionally? I think of directing Alexis Bledel when she finds out they’ve removing her lady parts. Were there any scenes that were, particularly, a mountain to climb?
Morano: That scene [with Bledel] is a weird moment because it’s a sad scene and I didn’t want to end episode three on any other note than a high note. I wanted to foreshadow the fact that maybe these women are going to take back what’s happening to them. Maybe there’s going to be some kind of a rebellion. So instead of playing it as written, which is like, “She’s devastated, blah, blah, blah,” I decided to go through all the emotions with her. Basically, I was holding the camera, operating because it was such an intimate moment, and after Ann Dowd left the frame, I had the camera on [Alexis Bledel] and was talking her through it. She was basically going through all of the [emotional] realizations of what just happened to her, the acknowledgement, feeling physically sick. I was telling her, you want to throw up, so she starts gagging as if she’s sick, and then she’s upset because I tell her that she’s never going to feel again because of what’s happened to her, on top of everything else. And then I told her, “Don’t you want to kill her? That fucking bitch, how could she do this to you, don’t you hate her?” It was getting her going through all these stages. She wanted someone to push her.