'I Think We're Alone Now': Reed Morano on Learning to Direct From Being a DP
Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning are an odd couple in the post-apocalypse in Reed Morano's 'I Think We're Alone Now.'
Reed Morano has an eye for the end of the world. The cinematographer-turned-director brought the dystopian Gilead of The Handmaid's Tale to life with dramatic imagery that had a uniquely naturalistic feel. The compositions oscillated between striking, painterly, and cinema verite-style; the dark, muted palette was punctuated by shocks of red. This is true to the Morano form: multi-hyphenate, dynamic, refusing to settle into one category.
Now, Morano brings a different end of the world to life. Her post-apocalyptic drama I Think We're Alone Now, which she both directed and shot, features a similar muted palette. But rather than fill the frame with the disturbing symmetry, wide shots, and lonely streaks of light in of The Handmaid's Tale, here, Morano goes for underlit asymmetry, often shrouding her character's faces in so much darkness—and with so much empty space—that they appear in silhouette, like the specters of the human race that they are.
In fact, Del (Peter Dinklage) believes he is the last man on Earth until Grace (Elle Fanning) comes crashing into the abandoned town, which was once home to some 1,600 people until all but Del perished from an unspecified plague. In the deafening silence since the near-extinction event, Del has spent his time perfecting a routine in which he cleans up residents' houses, buries their mummified bodies, and retrieves their borrowed books, which he then returns to the local library. Grace's arrival is a rude awakening for a man who seemed at peace with life as a hermit—the teenager's impulsive behavior and constant question-asking grate on him, not to mention upend his personal universe. But the motley pair soon grow fond of each other, learning to cooperate despite their marked differences.
No Film School sat down with Morano to discuss what she learned from other directors while coming up as a cinematographer, how she built out the mis-en-scene of a post-apocalyptic world, advice for aspiring director-DPs, and more.
No Film School: One of the big things that really resonated with me in this film was your use of subtlety. There wasn't much dialogue, but when it was there, it was very intentional and natural. Did you pare down the script at all? And how did you work with the actors to enhance this naturalism?
Reed Morano: The original draft of the script had a lot more dialogue in it. We all loved the vibe of it; it was very comedic. Right away, I picked up on the deeper, profound messages in the script. And so one of the things Peter [Dinklage] and Elle [Fanning] and I thought about was how to keep this feeling natural. We wanted to make it feel like the dialogue, whenever we use it, feels like it's coming out of a very natural place, and it's not just there to get a laugh. So we were just a little bit picky and choosy about what dialogue we would keep in.
Morano: Also, we didn't want anyone to ever forget we were in an apocalypse, so we kept it a little bit more quiet and a little bit more grounded in realism as opposed to what [the script] originally dictated. Often times, I would let the actors ad lib or just improvise a little bit. I'd put them in situations that weren't necessarily scripted and then have them just act with each other. They're so funny together that that also yielded some of those really naturalistic moments. We were able to leave some of those in.
NFS: What were some of the first ideas you had for the film's aesthetic?
Morano: I knew that it was going to be a very personal, intimate story, so it was really important to me to shoot it anamorphic. We're very close in the person's world, but also, at the same time, you could come at it very wide and epic and kind of show how small he is in the world.
I think it's important to maximize if you don't have a massive budget for tons of visual effects, crazy stunts, and things like that. So finding lenses that are going to create a painterly effect and maximize what we have is the first start of creating something very elegant. We chose Lomos.
I also knew it was going to be a lot of subjective shots and some freeze frames and stuff like that, but it's a quiet movie.
"It always feels a little more scenic if you are restricting the color spectrum. If you just let any color haphazardly go in the frame, then it runs the risk of feeling more careless, and more generic."
NFS: I noticed that the color palette was pretty muted. What was your thought process behind that?
Morano: I think there is an aesthetic that works really well as very bright and saturated. But for a movie like this, I felt it needed a little bit more of a softness; being too colorful would be a little too cartoony.
It always feels a little more scenic if you are restricting the color spectrum. And I think a lot of things that people are used to using right now are in a very digital color space. I was just trying to limit the color spectrum a little bit.
I do a thing with my department head where I give them a palette of colors and I say, "Let's only put these colors in the movie predominately." So that is another way to have color control over the image. I come from cinematography, so I know that the colors in the frame can affect how people perceive the image. So if you just let any color haphazardly go in the frame, then it runs the risk of feeling more careless, more generic, and not as graphic in nature.
NFS: Could you talk a little bit about the way that you thought about the set design for building out this post-apocalyptic world?
Morano: I worked with Kelly McGee. We didn't have a lot of money on this movie. I only bring that up because it looks incredible, what Kelly and her crew did, and they had to go about it in a very creative way in order to achieve that.
When we were scouting for locations, Kelly and I had to really be clear with our location department about what style of homes we were looking for. We were looking for texture and clutter and a lived-in feel, and we didn't have the money to create such a thing. I needed to do my own research and find the towns that might have these kinds of houses that would have the right kind of light coming in, and already were type of house I would want to shoot in—not a very manufactured, kind of Pottery Barn look. We had to tell the homeowners when we went to scout their houses, "Do not clean up for us. The more real and messy and cluttered your house is, the more we are going to want to use it." A lot of those houses in the movie are houses that were more or less like that [to begin with].
NFS: This is the second time you directed and shot your own film. What were some things that you learned from shooting Meadowland that you changed during the process of shooting I Think We're Alone Now?
Morano: It was a similarly small film, but I just made sure I had enough crew. I did not have a lot of crew the last time [on Meadowland]. I knew the first time around I was going to need a strong crew, and I did have a strong crew, but I just needed more people around to back me up.
This time, I also did more prep and pre-production—you know, do a lot of your lighting and things like that before you get on set. I have to be available to the actors and the department heads and producers.
Morano: I would say probably the most important thing I learned was going through editing the first time. There are a lot of things you learn after you direct your first movie: "I have to make sure I get more of that in it the next time," you know? I did try to get extra scenes that were not scripted to fill in the blanks because I knew scenes might get rearranged or reordered. The movie that you see is almost never the movie that was exactly written as the script.
"By the time I took on both [directing and cinematography], one of them was a job I knew how to do essentially with my eyes closed."
NFS: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to direct and DP their film?
Morano: I can only speak from my experience, but I can say with confidence that the reason I think that it works for me is that I spent about 15-20 years DPing before I directed. It is not like I am just going into my first movie doing both. I was DP for many great film directors. By the time I took on both [directing and cinematography], one of them was a job I knew how to do essentially with my eyes closed.
I know how I want to shoot things, so shooting for myself is easier, in a sense. And because I have so much experience with cinematography and carrying a camera, I don't need to think about shooting. What you are supposed to do as a director is prioritize the story and the characters and the art and figuring out how it all plays out and how you can make it visually compelling. So I am not saying it is impossible, but a good way to go in doing both jobs is to get very well trained in cinematography.
What is great about coming up in cinematography is you get a front seat to watch other directors work. You see what to do, what not to do. You don't learn everything—in fact, most directors, when they are giving directions, you never hear it—but you get to have an experience making a lot of different kinds of movies. I think that is actually what helped me the most is being able to do these two jobs. Going into, it I never would have started out just shooting and directing my own films because I think it is overwhelming to have to bear the responsibilities of both things.
NFS: Was there anything you learned specifically from working with other directors that gave you a headstart when it came to directing your own films?
Morano: Some directors don't have a bedside manner. Other directors have a great bedside manner. I learned right off the bat that I have no interest in being a director who is a tyrant. I have to say we have all worked for those kind of directors. I also knew from being a DP for so long that I would never treat my crew that way. Filmmaking is about respect, and that is the most valuable thing you can learn is that to respect that everyone on set is there for you. And yes, maybe they are there for a paycheck as well, but at the end of the day, they are there to do a really good job for you. So you should appreciate people. The more you appreciate them and they know it, the harder they will work and the better of a movie you will have in the end.
I have worked for some really great people, like Elton James and John Grafitis and Victoria Mahoney, and their energy and enthusiasm and the way they take control is what makes them great directors. It inspired me and gave me hope.
I have a really funny piece of advice from John Grafitis. He said that as a director, you are going to get asked questions all the time, all day long. The whole job is answering questions. He said you don't have to have the right answer, but you have to give an answer, and you have to give it right away. That is a very good piece of advice. That's that's another reason why I was very well prepared [from working as a] DP: as the DP, you are also constantly getting asked questions by your crew about what you want next. You can't waffle. There is no time for that on set. It is an interesting job because you have to be creative, but you also have to be creative instantly. You can't sit there and take the time to think about it.
And same thing as a director. Once you are on set, you have to know how to fix every problem pretty much instantaneously. You can't show that you don't know, because then you lose people—you lose your actors, you lose your crew. They don't trust you. The most important thing you can do for your crew is to give them a reason to have faith in you.