A Hole in the Heart
Ever since her work on 2008’s Sundance award-winner Frozen River, cinematographer Reed Morano has been a prominent voice in American independent film, with credits including Little Birds, Kill Your Darlings and The Skeleton Twins. Her method of creating what she calls “elegant naturalism” has made her Rob Reiner’s go-to director of photography on his recent films (The Magic of Belle Isle, And So it Goes), and has graced television screens via HBO’s Looking last year and its upcoming rock-and-roll series, Vinyl. Aside from her work in film, Morano is also an articulate commentator on film, and has given numerous interviews and written articles about issues close to her heart, from the differences between film and digital to television manufacturers’ maddening practice of pre-setting equipment in a way that comprises creators’ work.
On her latest film, Meadowland, Morano serves not only as director of photography but director, and the result is a film of razor sharp visual and thematic focus. Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson play Sarah and Phil, a married couple whose lives are shattered by the apparent kidnapping of their child, who vanishes into thin air during a routine gas station stop. As months and then years pass with only the tiniest clues as to their child’s fate, Sarah and Phil deal with the disappearance in very different ways; in Sarah’s case, her mourning largely manifests itself in self-destructive behavior that Morano’s camera captures with subtlety and compassion. Indeed, Meadowland represents one of the purest marriages of performance and visuals of recent years, as Morano creates an intimacy between her camera and her actors that allows Wilde, Wilson and a supporting cast that includes Giovanni Ribisi, John Leguizamo and Juno Temple to emotionally expose themselves with depth and bravery. I spoke with Morano about taking on two jobs at once, giving her actors what they need and learning how to become a better cinematographer by almost forgetting about cinematography completely.
Let’s start with the origins of the project. How did Meadowland come to you? Were you actively seeking out something to direct? I was shooting a feature in Austria, and it was kind of a crazy shoot. The producer, Matt Tauber, and I ended up rewriting the script together in prep, and he said to me, “I really think you should think about directing.” I thought, “Yeah, I don’t know.” I knew I wanted to at some point, because directing is what I initially went to film school for, but I guess I always thought, “Well, I’m going to do [cinematography] for now, and then when I know more, maybe I’ll direct something.” But I figured if it was the right project I would just know that I wanted to do it. When Matt sent me Meadowland, it was actually very different than the script we ended up shooting, but the bones of the script were there. There were a couple of moments in there that really got me, that were really unique and cinematic.
And at what point in the process do you start thinking about your visual approach? Are you formulating that on first reading of the script, or does it take a while? Usually, when I read a script as a d.p., I’m thinking about visuals right off the bat, because that’s my role. It was different for Meadowland because when I read it, I knew they were sending it to me to consider as a director. Usually when I read a script as a d.p., I can kind of tell from the first few pages what the visual style should be. I can pick up certain clues in the writing. That being said, I don’t like scripts that have shots written in them, as I’m sure actors are turned off by scripts that have, “And then, his eye twitches.” When I read Meadowland, I was just trying to consider if this story was a story worth telling; I wasn’t consciously thinking about the visuals. There was never a conscious “ah-ha” moment, when I thought, “Oh, it needs to be shot this way.” As I read it, and then read it again, I just tried to think about where I wanted to focus the story, though within a few weeks of getting the script I made a lookbook. And in the lookbook, I decided on what I like to call elegant naturalism. I pulled a lot of stills from other movies that had the right vibe tonally: Shame and Rust and Bone, and a couple from Half Nelson.
Did you ever consider using another cinematographer instead of shooting it yourself? I did. All my best friends are d.p.s, so I thought I could see what would happen with the combo of me and someone else who’s visual, what we could possibly come up with together. I was really into that idea. And it turned out that a lot of the d.p.s that I was close with who are in my age group or kind of at my level, they all wanted to shoot the movie. It was going to be “a thing” if I chose one of them over the other. So I thought, what if I just try to go for the gold and get Ellen Kuras or Sean Bobbitt or somebody? And, of course, I did attempt to get them, but I have a movie that’s super-low budget, and I’ve never proven myself as a director, so why would they want to do it?
But even if they did, I’m so particular about visuals that, in my gut, I was thinking, “You should just do this. It’s going to be easier. It’s going to be less stressful for you, in the long run, Reed, if you shoot this movie.” Because I know myself — I would be sitting at the monitor with a lighting test going on knowing I could do it with less lights and half the time, and it would probably look more like what I wanted. Also, [the producers] were trying to give me 19 days to shoot the movie, so I figured, if I shoot it myself, I could eat the d.p. fee and we could put that toward an extra day and a half of shooting. So that was sort of the deciding factor, in the end.
Tell me a little about the casting. Olivia Wilde isn’t the first person one might think of to play this kind of everywoman, but she’s very good in the part. Yeah, initially I was thinking of all the usual suspects — someone like Amy Adams, for example — total wish-list type of things. At one point, Diane Lane’s people wanted it for her, and even though she’s in a slightly different age range than what we originally planned for the main character, we were going to rethink that and see if we could rewrite around it. But then, I think, she got kind of cold feet about it because it was so dark. And during this whole process, I kept getting phone calls from Olivia Wilde’s agent, James Farrell. I guess he read the script, and then Olivia read the script and was like, “Just get me a meeting. Get me a meeting.” And finally, after him calling me the third time, I said I would meet. I wasn’t sure if she was right for it, but I figured, “I’m going to meet her because I know she’s smart, and let’s just see what she has to say about the script.” And then I met with her for three hours and she was so smart and so intuitive about the role, but it was still hard to see past her. She’s extraordinarily beautiful — almost distracting. Now that I know her, I don’t see her that way, but she’s one of
should just do this. It’s going to be easier. It’s going to be less stressful for you, in the long run, Reed, if you shoot this movie.” Because I know myself — I would be sitting at the monitor with a lighting test going on knowing I could do it with less lights and half the time, and it would probably look more like what I wanted. Also, [the producers] were trying to give me 19 days to shoot the movie, so I figured, if I shoot it myself, I could eat the d.p. fee and we could put that toward an extra day and a half of shooting. So that was sort of the deciding factor, in the end.
Tell me a little about the casting. Olivia Wilde isn’t the first person one might think of to play this kind of everywoman, but she’s very good in the part. Yeah, initially I was thinking of all the usual suspects — someone like Amy Adams, for example — total wish-list type of things. At one point, Diane Lane’s people wanted it for her, and even though she’s in a slightly different age range than what we originally planned for the main character, we were going to rethink that and see if we could rewrite around it. But then, I think, she got kind of cold feet about it because it was so dark. And during this whole process, I kept getting phone calls from Olivia Wilde’s agent, James Farrell. I guess he read the script, and then Olivia read the script and was like, “Just get me a meeting. Get me a meeting.” And finally, after him calling me the third time, I said I would meet. I wasn’t sure if she was right for it, but I figured, “I’m going to meet her because I know she’s smart, and let’s just see what she has to say about the script.” And then I met with her for three hours and she was so smart and so intuitive about the role, but it was still hard to see past her. She’s extraordinarily beautiful — almost distracting. Now that I know her, I don’t see her that way, but she’s one of “those people.” I really saw Sarah as a character of an everywoman. How am I going to make Olivia Wilde look like everywoman?
Long story short, she offered to read for me, so I went to her house and we did it. And she took adjustments in interesting ways that I didn’t expect. She was just so hungry, and she believed in it so much. It just seemed like the right thing to do. She loved the project so much that she eventually became a producer on it. She was the best partner because she gave everything to it and always supported my vision. We were always on the same page about everything, and she dove headfirst into the role. And as luck would have it, she actually ended up getting pregnant while we were still trying to get the movie made. She thought I was going to recast her role, and I said, “No, I’m going to wait for you. This is good for the movie, that you’ll be a mom now.”
What kinds of conversations did you have with her and the other actors? I’m wondering how you created an environment that would enable them to be as emotionally naked as they needed to be. I trusted them, and they always knew I was trusting them. I quickly picked up on how each actor wanted to communicate about their individual role and about the story, and I would just communicate with them the way they wanted. So if an actor wanted to talk about the character a lot and dig really deep, then I would. And I could tell right away that certain actors didn’t want to talk a lot about it. Like, Luke doesn’t want to get too deep into it. He wants short and sweet, basically key words that are then going to trigger something in him. Then Olivia and I would analyze Sarah until the cows come home, and that was fun, too. I would definitely discuss the scenes with everybody, but I wouldn’t talk too much about it or tell them what I thought they should do. I never wanted to taint their initial instincts about the scenes, because sometimes you’ve imagined something in your mind — I’ve seen it happen to other directors — and when it’s played out differently you reject it, even if it might be better. I would only make adjustments as I felt were needed after I let them feel it out and do a few takes. I think that level of trust, allowing them to feel it out, really sets them up to do their best work. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re not giving the actors any feedback, because I know actors, and they want feedback. They want ideas. But I think you’ve got to see what happens first.
Based on what you were saying earlier, I assume you kept your lighting package to a minimum. How big was it? Not big at all. I think our biggest lights were 4K HMIs, and we only had them for one week when we were shooting the school location. My goal was to be as minimalist as possible. Like, I’m going to light it and I’m going to make sure it looks good, but I’m going to do it simple. I’m not going to get caught in a vortex where I’m putting up a bunch of lights and it’s just more lights and more stylized. Our biggest tungsten units were 2Ks. I think because I was shooting for myself, I was able to take risks that I’ve never taken as a d.p. for another director. In all the daylight scenes, I would always keep the lights outside the room, like something was pushing in through the window. And I wouldn’t use fill or try to polish it up because I didn’t want the movie to feel polished; I wanted it to feel real. Even in some of the night scenes, I had units outside the room coming through the window, and maybe only a small tungsten unit bouncing off the floor to create a continuance of the light through the window. And if I wanted to get a scene at magic hour, available light, I knew I could do it because I was the director and I was in control of that other aspect, that other unknown, that d.p.s don’t know. You don’t know how long the directors are going to take with a certain scene because you’re not in their head, you know?
I think by prioritizing the story and making the lighting as minimalistic as I could, I actually found the best images I had done up to that point; they felt untouched, and I think they felt right for the narrative. Of course now, I look back and think, “Oh, I could’ve done this, I could’ve done that,” but there’s nothing I really regret. And we had virtually no crew. I remember on day one, I had this really bright key grip and this gaffer who was a best boy who kind of moved up. They each had one guy working under them, and as I was walking past my key grip, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him teaching his guy how to open up a C-stand. And I thought, “Okay, this does not bode well for us.” [Laughs] But it ended up really working out because we just kept it simple and elegant. Also, I prepped a lot of the light. I decided what I was going to do lighting-wise and prepped a lot. I didn’t plan a lot of shots, but I planned where I would light from and I stuck with that, in most cases.
Did you have any guiding principles in terms of camera movement? I felt like you were often doing this thing where the camera was dancing with the actors in the space. Was that handheld, or on dolly track or Steadicam, or a combination of the three? It was 95 percent handheld, and the camera movement was determined almost entirely by what the actors would do. I mean, I had some plans that I knew. For example, for the scene in Times Square, I always had the plan that I would follow [Olivia] through Times Square. We didn’t have permission to shoot that, so I was just going to shoot it for as long as it could go without people noticing it was Olivia Wilde. I always knew I wanted to put her in the city, and I always knew I wanted the city to be yellow and I wanted her hood to be up. And I figured, if she had that hoodie we could probably get pretty far in Times Square without people noticing us, even though I’m following right behind her with a camera. We did two takes for that shot and each take was 11 minutes long and went for around eight blocks.
In most scenes, I knew what kind of coverage I was going to get, but I had no specific plan. The plan was, let’s just go into it with the camera on my shoulder and try to be reactive, to act as another character. And I would only react with the camera to however the actors motivated me emotionally. I didn’t make a conscious choice like, “I’m going to shoot this scene. We go here because the shot’s pretty.” I went there because Olivia turned a certain way, so maybe we go there. I just wanted it to be very free flowing, and that’s how I did the lighting as well. It was tricky because you don’t want to light the location broadly, but you want the actors to be able to do whatever they want. So that’s kind of the balance I was trying to find there.
Did that factor into your decision to shoot in a widescreen aspect ratio? Well, I knew I wanted to shoot anamorphic. Originally I wanted to shoot this on film, and when that became an impossibility, I decided, okay, well I’m going to just get some really great anamorphic lenses. ARRI had just come out with the master anamorphics, and I didn’t really know much about them. I tested them before we shot, but I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and that was a learning curve on day one. For someone who’s never shot anamorphic before, they’re great to ease you into it because they don’t have all the anamorphic qualities. They’re more upright and easier to work with because they don’t warp the image at the wider end of the focal length.
Was there a downside? The hard part for me was that I really like to get in there and get physically close to the actors with the camera. With anamorphic lenses, and these in particular, you have to stay about 3.75 feet, minimum, away from the actors to keep them in focus. I found myself shooting wide shots on a 50mm and tight shots on a 75mm because I needed to get closer, and I couldn’t get closer. I started using close-up filters on top of anamorphic, in order to get super tight stuff. And that was driving my focus puller crazy, but it resulted in a really cool look when you combined those two things. But, yeah, it was challenging because there were only two focal lengths I could really use that worked. But I loved them.
What kind of camera did you use? I shot on the ALEXA. At that time, that was the camera that felt the most filmic to me. I had a lot of experience with it, and I didn’t really like any other digital camera at that point. Since then, I’ve been shooting a show on the Sony F55, and I actually kind of love it. But at that time, the ALEXA was a no-brainer because it never steered me wrong. I knew how it would react to the film emulation LUTs that I was planning to use to make it look very filmic. And you know, it was good in the end, because even though I really did want to shoot film, there was a level of ease with shooting digital that was helpful when I was doing two jobs. If I needed to check playback in a desperate situation, I knew I had it, you know?
Was there anything significant done in post at all to manipulate the image? Not really. We colored with Company 3 with Andrew Geary and basically just added a little bit of digital grain. We put the film through a custom film emulation LUT. There are a couple of little tricks that we did in there, to give it a more filmic look on top of that, but I’m not going to say what they were. [Laughs] I don’t even really know how to explain it, actually. The only real difference from what we shot was that the palette we used on set was very desaturated, and by the time I had edited the whole film and got to the point of the final color correction, I was a lot more open-minded about really popping the colors more.
The use of color in the movie is very precise. I was super-specific with the production designer and the costume designer. I gave them color swatches and said, “These are all the colors that I want to see in the movie.” And they were amazing — they followed it to a T. My costume designer dyed that yellow sweatshirt about six times to get it the exact shade. I was really particular; the yellow I wanted was the yellow from the plane in The English Patient. The same thing with the car — I wanted it to be this teal blue that no one could find. Someone I dated a long time ago had that exact color car, and I wanted to see the yellow sweatshirt against that color car. So my props department got the car, but it was black and then they had it painted that exact color. So all the colors that were in the movie were put there on purpose, and when it came time to finally color correct it, I thought, “Why am I desaturating these colors? We worked so hard to get them the exact color I wanted.” And so, I just popped them out and made the most of them. My feeling was, “I’m not shooting on film, I’m going to control every color.” What I found works best on digital is color control. If you control all the colors in the frame, you can put in the colors that fall more into a film color space rather than a digital color space.
Finally, could you talk a bit more about both the pleasures and challenges of working as the director and cinematographer on the same movie? What are the pros and cons of that approach? The only real challenge in doing both jobs was finding time to go pee. [Laughs] But I was so happy to be there and have people come and make this movie with me that I didn’t mind that I never had a spare moment. I gave everything to the directing aspect because I really put the cinematography on the back burner. I couldn’t think about the lighting all the time, and I didn’t really care. I thought about it in prep, but once I was on set with the actors, if the plan had to change, I would just go with it, for better or for worse. And luckily, it pretty much always worked out because I didn’t try to do anything I didn’t think would work. There was only one scene during the movie where I walked away that day thinking I was not truly happy with what I had done visually, but the performances were what I had wanted, so I didn’t even really care. I got over it pretty quickly because I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t matter how amazing and beautiful the cinematography is, if the acting and the story aren’t there, then no one gives a shit. So that was always in the back of my head, the idea that the story and what the actors are doing and the honesty that’s being portrayed is the only thing that matters. If it happens to look good, too, well then, that’s great. And somebody might say, “Oh, well then, why wouldn’t you just have another d.p. shoot it, so you don’t have to worry about it and you know it’s going to look good?” I just felt like it would save me a headache if I did it myself, because I know exactly what I want and know how to do it simply. We had very few days. We shot it in 22 days. And I just knew that if I was lighting it, I could cut off the lighting at any moment because the only person I’m screwing is myself, you know? So I never let it get away from me. In fact, we only had two days where we went into overtime, and that was I think two hours for overtime each day, and that’s unheard of on an indie film.
The most unexpected thing was how much freedom I actually felt in doing both jobs, knowing that I was doing exactly what was in my heart for the way I wanted it to look. And again, we saved time because there were no discussions back and forth between the d.p. and the director about what the shot would be or where the camera would go. All of that would add up to saving an hour a day, and I wouldn’t talk about it with anyone — I would just tell the crew what to do and it was done and that was it. So I think what was great about the director and d.p. being the same person is that I always had my own back. The way that it worked was the a.d. would block the scene, and then the actors inevitably would have some questions right after. So I would quickly talk with them and then I would talk really quickly to the gaffer and the key grip and say, “Okay, we’re going to throw the 4K outside the window and put this in front of it and put it at this angle.” And I would tell the camera department, “Put on the 40 mil lens and just point it in this direction. I’ll be back.” And I would go and talk to the actors some more, if they wanted to talk, or if it was all good, then I would stay on set and continue lighting. And then, if I went to go talk to the actors, I’d come back and I would only tweak for something like 10 minutes. I would give myself a time limit, and somehow it worked out. I knew that my job there was not about lighting; my job there was about telling the story, and yet I was really happy with how the lighting turned out. It made me think that maybe I’ve been approaching cinematography all wrong; maybe I’ve been overthinking it because it was my one job on set, and maybe not overthinking the lighting allows it to be better.
I was always asking, how could I allow the actors as much freedom as possible, but still have moody, dimensional lighting? And basically the answer is, don’t light everything — not everything has to be perfect. Don’t bring in eye lights; embrace the shadows. My main concern about doing both jobs is that I never wanted the actors to feel like they were getting shortchanged. And so, before deciding, I made sure with Olivia that it was cool with her, and she was — she was just worried about me. Ultimately the actors said that the scenario made it really intimate and special; it probably created the best environment for them because I was so close to them — we could literally whisper to each other, and we never had to break up the scenes. If the actor wanted to keep going, I would just know we would keep going. And you got really cool moments that way.