Reed Morano, ASC has made her first entry into the director's chair with Meadowland, which enjoyed its world premiere a few days ago at Tribeca 2015.
Not only is Reed Morano a world-renowned cinematographer whose work includes Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings and The Skeleton Twins, but she's leading the fight against motion interpolation in modern TV's. We caught up with Reed in NYC and talked about making the transition to directing, working with actors, DPing and directing simultaneously and, of course, her appreciation for No Film School.
Reed: You guys always write the best stuff, you're so supportive. I really appreciate it.
NFS: Oh yeah, no problem, we just like what you do. I thought your film was a really interesting exploration of catharsis through pain and a victim becoming the perpetrator. For me it just brought up this sentence that I think of sometimes which is: "Hurt people hurt people."
Reed: Yeah? Oh my God, I've never heard that before but that's brilliant.
NFS: Obviously, you're making the transition to director here. Did it feel natural? How did you know what kind of energy to give to the actors and how to reserve that energy for them?
Reed: I think I had a good training ground being able to work with a lot of actors as a DP and seeing how different actors work. As a DP, you don't really get to know what the director is saying to actors. There's only certain directors I've worked with that will yell stuff out in the middle of scenes and stuff. I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I got some good advice from other directors.
One of the best pieces of advice I got was that as long as you are a good communicator and a sensitive person and you treat people well, there's a good chance that you can direct because it's all about putting the actors in a place where they feel safe enough to go that far for you.
The other important piece of advice was that you can't talk to every actor the same way. It was very obvious, actually, that actors needed to be directed different ways. I really am perceptive about people and I took my cues straight off the actors. Olivia would love to psychoanalyze the character for hours. Luke didn't want extensive discussions about it. He was going to draw on things inside himself, that's the way he works.
The transition was not that difficult, I think, because I decided to shoot it as well. I was coming from my comfort zone, I was trying to find the emotion in the scene the same way that I do as a DP. I think as a DP I'm actually very in tune with looking through the viewfinder. There's been many times where I've shot things through the viewfinder -- on a film where I was just DPing -- where I was emotionally invested in the scene and I cried. I had a feeling it would be okay.
On day 1 of directing your first film, I think probably most people don't know if they can really direct if they've never directed before. That was me.
NFS: It's a safe place to be when you're looking through the viewfinder. You're just inside of it, inside the image. I'm a filmmaker myself and a DP and I released my first feature film last year which I directed and DP'd as well.
Reed: That's a unique thing to do, there's not many of us who do that.
NFS: I found that it was difficult to do both jobs because you're dividing your time. What was your experience with taking on both jobs at the same time?
Reed: I feel like I saved time in the actual shooting process because I was behind the camera and because of the way I decided to shoot it -- that vérité style. Because I was right there next to Olivia or Luke if I wanted to change something about the scene, everybody didn't have to break up. You could cut the camera but everybody just stay in place and I could just whisper to Luke and nobody even had to know we were restarting again. It was really efficient.
I didn't hang around for the lighting. I told them what to do and I would go bond with my actors.
Day one when I first started doing it I was still not sure of who these characters were, who they were going to be, also just because of that fear that you must've felt too where I was like, "I don't know if I can really direct." On day 1 of directing your first film, I think probably most people don't know if they can really direct if they've never directed before. That was me.
On day one I try to manage what's going on with lighting and what's going on with the AD and the blocking and I'm just talking to the actors about the characters. I was definitely overwhelmed the first few hours. I credit my 1st AD Joe Cicarella and my whole crew for being there for me because by the end of the day we all figured out a rhythm together.
Weirdly, I was taking more risks than I've ever taken as a DP and I think it's probably the best stuff I've ever done.
We would come in, rehearse, block the scene. I would talk to the actors for a few minutes about the character, if they would have any questions or if I had any questions. Then I would quickly give notes to my camera department to set up the camera for lighting. The difference was I didn't hang around for the lighting. I told them what to do and I would go bond with my actors. Then when I came back, if the lighting wasn't right, I would make quick tweaks.
I was just doing very simplistic, minimalistic lighting. Weirdly, I was taking more risks than I've ever taken as a DP and I think it's probably the best stuff I've ever done from a cinematography perspective. It's what I like the most because I wasn't over thinking it. When you're directing and DPing, it's almost easier to just say, "I'm going to put one light outside, let it light the scene, and they're going to fall off in the foreground and it's going to be okay because I'm in charge. It's okay if it's a little dark."
NFS: What do you think is the most important thing for you about the relationship between the actors and the camera?
Reed: I think they have to feel like there's an intimacy there. Olivia said I never asked her to open up to camera, or look [a direction], or do this for light -- I kind of threw out all that cinematography stuff out the window. I wanted to them to just be free to do what they wanted. I didn't really control their blocking too much, it was very broad.
I wanted to see what they would just do on their own because oftentimes, even as a DP, I've noticed that the actors will make it much more natural if you let them make it their own. Sometimes what you had in your mind is not what's best. I think by not giving them marks and letting them go where they need to go, the camera was allowing them to be free.
I've noticed that the actors will make it much more natural if you let them make it their own.
Additionally, I was reacting off of them. There wasn't a lot of planning involved in exactly what I was going to do with the operating because I didn't have to tell anyone, really. My crews are used to flying by the seat of their pants.
NFS: What are some of the first things you did with the script? Or some of the first liberties you took with it and did you have, philosophically, any rules? Anything you really want to stay away from?
Reed: The writer Chris Rossi is a brilliant writer and I love working with him. He is so open and collaborative. When I first got the script it was a little different. It was following a little bit more of a procedural path, there were more characters, it was more about the investigation.
His script inspired me to ask, "What's going on mentally with someone when this has happened to them? Are they on the edge of madness?" I always keep thinking of that Baudelaire quote: "I have felt the wind on the wing of madness." We've seen a lot of movies about the investigation and they have been done really well and I thought this would be more interesting for it to be a more visceral experience. I worked with Chris on that and we honed in on the characters, added more internal moments.
Thanks to Reed for sitting down with us. For those of you in NYC, try to catch a screening of Meadowland at Tribeca.