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Reed Morano, ASC, discusses directing and shooting Meadowland, which follows a couple struggling to cope with the loss of a child.

Unit photography by Paul Sarkis. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Cinedigm.

In the independent film Meadowland, a married couple, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson), struggle to cope with the disappearance of their young son. Sarah, a schoolteacher, clings to a frayed thread of hope that their son is still alive, while Phil, a policeman, is trying to accept the increasingly likely possibility that they will never see him again.

Filmed on location in the vérité tradition in and around New York City, Meadowland marks the directorial debut of Reed Morano, ASC, who also shot the picture. AC recently connected with her to discuss the project.

American Cinematographer: Have you been interested in directing for awhile?

Reed Morano, ASC: I’d only directed short films in film school [at New York University]. As a student, I initially intended to focus on directing, but from the first shoots I worked on, I gravitated toward cinematography. I think I knew in the back of my mind that I needed more life experience to direct. Being a cinematographer happens to be great training because you learn how to tell a story visually. I think cinematographers who direct get a bad rap because people assume they can’t separate themselves from the visuals, but the jobs actually go hand-in-hand if you look at the visuals on an emotional level.

What made you decide Meadowland was the right project on which to take that leap?

Morano: I always knew I would direct if the right story came along. I don’t know if I had accumulated all the life experiences I needed to direct Meadowland, but I suppose some relatively heavy stuff had happened to me. I lost my father when I was 18; I gave birth to two sons; and while we were in prep for this film, I was diagnosed with cancer. I’m in remission now, but I went to this super dark place, and I think that helped me make this kind of film. I’m not a dark person by nature, but I always thought that if I made a movie, I wanted to make something that would punch people in the gut. One scene that hooked me in Chris Rossi's script was the one where Sarah wakes up in the middle of the night, runs to her car, and finds her son’s animal cracker from the year before. When I read those words, I broke down, partly because I’m a mom, but also because I think that as a cinematographer, I’m always looking for moments that can explain everything someone is feeling with absolutely no dialogue. That’s one of those moments.

Did you seek out the advice of other directors before shooting?

Morano: One of my director friends told me, ‘You have to make a decision right away. It doesn’t have to be the right decision; it just has to be a decision.’ As a cinematographer, I’ve seen directors screw up a whole day because they can’t do that. Cinematographers are accustomed to making a million decisions on the fly in a limited amount of time every day, and the problem with some new directors is that they may not have the set experience the crew has. That can make it hard for them to problem-solve continuously and calmly.

Did you look at films directed by other cinematographers to get some kind of perspective?

Morano: Not consciously, but I did look at others' work. I decided my approach would be to focus completely on the story and the acting, and not overthink the cinematography. I would give less weight to the visuals because I wanted them to enhance the story, not draw attention to themselves. I decided to make all my decisions in prep and just go with it. This story begged for a naturalistic approach, anyway, so the look didn’t require a ton of obsessing.

Did you always plan to shoot it yourself?

Morano: I was always on the fence, wondering if I could shoot it myself, but then, of course, there was a side of me that yearned to work with another cinematographer. Most of my good friends are cinematographers, and how awesome would it be to work with someone you really admire? Unfortunately, we were only able to get 19 days of shooting. I’ve made movies on schedules like that before, and while I know I can do it, I didn’t want to do it on my movie, so I started looking for ways to cut the budget. Part of that was decreasing the cinematographer’s fee. There’s no cinematographer who would take the fee I took to shoot this film, but that got us 22 shooting days.

One of the great benefits of the director-cinematographer relationship is having a collaborator who can provide an alternative perspective and sometimes a better idea. How did you cope with that vacuum?

Morano: To be honest, I didn’t ask for a lot of second opinions about shots. I operated the handheld shots, but we had another operator on set, Frank Larson, and my digital-imaging technician, Charlie Anderson, is also a cinematographer. Charlie is someone I turn to if I ever need a second opinion about lighting, angles, or any of the other stuff you typically discuss as cinematographer and DIT. I prepared a lot in advance with my gaffer, Michael Prisco. We knew what lights we were going to use in every scene, and on the day, we did what we planned. I had a little less freedom in the sense that I couldn’t play around as much as the cinematographer because I was doing other things as the director. I would block with the actors, then talk to the camera department about where to put the camera, then the gaffer and the key would go through with me what they were doing, and then I’d go back to the actors. I promised myself only 10 minutes of tweaking, max. Sometimes it was slower, and sometimes it was quicker. It evened out in the end.

You said you operated the handheld shots, and it looks like almost the entire picture was shot handheld.

Morano: We didn’t have a dolly or a Steadicam, and that was okay with me because I knew the only way this film could work is if viewers believe this is real, that they're totally with these characters. Going handheld is, in my opinion, the best way to achieve that. As a cinematographer, I feel closer to the characters when I go handheld, and it’s easier to move the camera spontaneously. You truly are another character when you’re operating; one of the things I love to do as a cinematographer is physically and emotionally participate in the scene. My focus puller on Meadowland was Kevin Akers. I’ve been working with him for 10 movies and all my commercials and TV shows, and he is used to me not saying precisely what I’m going to do. I want to avoid giving the actors any parameters so they can just go with whatever their gut tells them, and then I can go with whatever my gut tells me. That's when the magic comes. If you plan too much, you risk missing out on the moment.

Is there a trade-off for that freedom?

Morano: Part of working side-by-side with someone for so many years is that he or she can read you like a book. Kevin always knows when I'm going in for a close-up. If an actor stands up, I’m going to stand up with her, and he’ll typically anticipate that. There are directors who want things to be perfect — maybe they're a bit obsessive-compulsive — but when I go in for coverage, I care about the emotion first and the shot second. No matter how good the cinematography is, it doesn’t mean anything if the story and the acting are not working, and on Meadowland I committed more to the story and the actors than the cinematography. And yes, I think you can have both! The irony is, I feel this is my best work as a cinematographer.

In what way?

Morano: I feel I did so many things I’ve always wanted to do: I took more risks. I didn’t overthink things. If I wanted no fill, no one on set was going to disagree. You need the right people around you, supporting you, to accomplish that, and I had that dedication from everyone on my set. Even while I was shooting and looking through the Alexa eyepiece, I knew Charlie was always watching on a big screen nearby. He would tell me if something was too dark, if there was a filter reflection, or if we missed the focus.

In what ways did being a cinematographer make you a better director?

Morano: The director creates a vibe on set that allows everyone to do her best work. The cinematographer has to do that, too, because we’re running the ship alongside the director and the AD. You end up with a better film if you make everyone feel safe. The cinematographer is also there to create a secure place for the actors; an actor who is free of worry is going to deliver the best performance, and that will impact the movie more than the cinematography will, or even the script. Also, as a cinematographer, I've worked with many different types of directors, and by being around them, I think I've developed an intuition about which shot tells the story best.

Was there any part of your experience as a cinematographer that didn’t translate to directing?

Morano: Cinematographers can develop this kind of tunnel vision, where your only concern is what’s being shot and how that tells the story. That's a generalization, of course, but I've been there. I always thought we had the busiest job on set, but the director has to be concerned with everything. You’re on set morning, noon and night, and every single decision goes through you. You can't leave the set!

Tell us about your decision to shoot with the Alexa.

Morano: I used an Alexa Plus, shooting 2K ProRes, and Arri Master Anamorphics. I originally hoped to shoot on film, but we weren’t even getting enough days to complete the film, so that wasn’t even an option with our financier. I thought it was shameful, but I wanted to get the movie made, and I knew I could make it look good on the Alexa. I wanted to shoot anamorphic, but I didn’t want to get boxed into a corner with the crazy anamorphic-lens characteristics. The Master Anamorphics have lot of anamorphic qualities but don’t distort and don’t flare uncontrollably.

I shot wide open, and not just because my lighting package was very small. I had four grip-and-electric guys, two of whom had never worked on a feature before, and my biggest light was a 4K. But I also wanted to be wide open for aesthetic reasons in some scenes, like the ones showing Sarah out in public. In those instances, I wanted the world to feel like a foreign place, and I used the shallow depth of field to isolate her from everyone else.

How did you approach the DI at Company 3?

Morano: The LUT we used on set was filmic, with a coolness to it, a bit like Fuji stock. I desaturated the color in the dailies, and then, in the DI, [colorist] Andrew Geary and I brought the color back in. I didn’t want the colors to be too punchy or to feel too digital, so I attempted to restrict the color space. In fact, I’d already done some of that in-camera. In prep, I gave [production designer] Kelly McGehee and [costume designer] Mirren Gordon-Crozier about 50 swatches of color that I wanted to see on set, so when we brought the colors back in post, they were already the correct shade.

Your next directing project was recently announced. Do you plan to continue working as a cinematographer?

Morano: Directing Meadowland was probably the most fulfilling experience I’ve ever had on any set, but I’m not saying I won’t pursue cinematography anymore. I still want to shoot for others because I love it, and I want to keep learning. I can’t learn if I’m always the captain of my own ship.

A trailer for the film can be viewed here.



Digital Capture

Arri Alexa Plus

Arri Master Anamorphics

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