Influence and Experience / Reed Morano, ASC

Episode #116

Influence and Experience / Reed Morano, ASC


SPONSORED BY: ASC Master Class

The cinematographer-director discusses her inspirations and how she incorporates life experiences and observed art into her creative process.


After first making a name as a prolific and distinctive cinematographer with such films as Little Birds, For Ellen and Kill Your Darlings, Reed Morano, ASC proved herself to also be a gifted director with the features Meadowland, I Think We’re Alone Now and The Rhythm Section, as well as the pilot for the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale (for which she won an Outstanding Directing Emmy in 2017).



Morano was recently invited to take part in the “Filmcraft” series at New York City‘s Metrograph Cinema (running April 7-9) where she’ll screen Meadowland and I Think We’re Alone Now, which she both directed and photographed, as well as Little Birds, which she photographed for director Elgin James, along with some of the films that inspired her work.



Ahead of this event, Morano sat down with AC for a personal look at the nature of artistic inspiration and the influence of personal experience on the creative process.


Tickets to the Metrograph “Filmcraft” series are available for purchase here.




TRANSCRIPT


Iain Marcks: Some of the most basic questions you can ask a filmmaker, or any artist really are, “why did you make this film?” or “what films inspire you?” And you know, depending on the venue, they sometimes elicit a groan from the audience or they'll be shut down by the filmmaker. In Wim Wenders’s book “The Logic of Images,” the first chapter is called “Why do you make films?” and he calls it “a bloody stupid question.” But you know, some people like talking about their work. It's one of those things that bring you closer as an audience member to not just the filmmaker, but the art itself. And at the same time, you know, the artist creates a stronger bond between themselves and the audience by going deeper into the work. And I was wondering, how do you feel about these kinds of questions? How do you like to answer them?


Reed Morano, ASC: It’s interesting. It’s like sometimes I know what the audience is. And it’s really easy to go into having a conversation about those kinds of things. For example, the other day, I just did a thing at Cine Gear [New York]. And I go, “What am I going to talk about? What I'm going to talk about?” and you know, I picked this sort of, I realized there was loads to talk about, and sometimes when you have so much in your head, it’s overwhelming. I did a couple of scenes from I Think We’re Alone Now, and I realized what I was talking about could be really interesting to that crowd of people who were really hungry for technical knowledge and just emotional inspiration for imagery. So it ended up kind of flowing really easily. So I’m happy to answer even the most basic questions. In fact, now that I’m saying it aloud, I realize I’m happy to answer those questions, because if anyone’s even remotely interested in what I think or have to say about what I made, that’s already cool. And I’ll be able to speak to it, maybe not eloquently, maybe I’ll have to sort of figure it out. I mean, there’s certain things that can’t be answered about why you did certain things. You can’t maybe necessarily answer why you did them. And then also, like, I think a lot of filmmakers — maybe the filmmakers who get frustrated by questions like that are the ones who really do work from the gut, and a lot of the decision making, like for me, it’s based on emotional responses in the moment. But that’s not to say there wasn’t tons of planning involved before you make a film, and then it evolves into something different after the film was made. And you've been through the journey.


Directing and shooting her feature I Think We’re Alone Now, Morano shares a lighter moment with actor Peter Dinklage.

Iain Marcks: I can imagine, shooting from the gut is part of the process and finding an emotional connection between, like the story you want to tell and the images that you want to create to tell the story. But then, where do those images come from? It's interesting that you're doing this series with Metrograph, because it gives us an insight a little bit into your creative process in a way that allows the rest of us, you know, to relate to it, because we also have an experience with these films. But at the same time, too, you know, you do invite comparison, when you put two films next to each other. Are you ever concerned that you know, you don't want someone thinking about your references or your inspirations while they're watching your film? How do you deal with that?


Reed Morano: I mean, there's a few things I want to respond to there. But I'll go back to this. But I have, I think, when I was solely focusing on cinematography, and in a story, it became necessary to have references in a major way to make that communication between yourself and the director more clear, because, you know, not always, the directors didn't always have the technical vocabulary, even if you intended for something to not look like one reference, but it was gonna be sort of a mishmash of references, and whatever you make it with them. You know, it always helped in order to just even just initially to understand if you had a vision for the story, it would help me to pull images from other things to think about, like, “Oh, yeah, this is going in the right direction.” It's not quite it. But it also just helps the director understand if they're, if you guys are on the same page. But I don't normally like to invite comparison, because the things that I love the imagery that I love, I love it, because it is what it is. And certain things have clearly inspired me. But I also, as a director, have noticed, I have this mortal fear. And this goes for whenever I'm working with another cinematographer, or I'm shooting myself, I have this fear of watching a thing that may be comparable, because I don't want to get that in my head. And I don't want to do something that isn't original. And it's impossible to not do something that's not original. But, like... just to answer your last question. And we can come back to that concept. Because I think that's actually an interesting psychological issue to have as a filmmaker, because we get our knowledge from what we consume. And for most people, we don't really go out and purposefully copy another work. It's all about that inspiration, that creative spark, and hopefully that births a new visual language or idea or just something else that maybe could live on its own.



In terms of coming up with the inspiration for the movies that we're talking about here is I'd probably more consciously had inspiration for Little Birds than I did for Meadowland, or I Think We're Alone Now, because I didn't need to try to convey what I wanted to a DP on the other two, because I was the DP on the other two, and I was the director. So it was all going on in my head, my own, of course, I communicate with my crew, you know, with my gaffer, and my key grip Jason Velez and Tommy Kerwick, and also my production designer and my costume designer, everybody kind of works in tandem. But when this came up to do this discussion, or this sort of series about like, well, what were the films that inspired these films, their relationship probably won't be very obviously direct, other than maybe in some cases composition or lighting very loosely, very, very loosely, or maybe camera movement. They all three address something different. And I guess I felt a little on the spot to try to find something that inspired I Think We're Alone Now or inspired Meadowland, because those actually were — actually probably Meadowland was mostly inspired by music. But there's no doubt that I felt Paris, Texas, there's something about that off-the-cuff, kind of embracing the lighting that's there and not trying to correct it or letting things be sort of ugly when they're ugly or weird when they're weird — that idea, I think, was just ingrained in my brain from growing up loving that film. And I realized that it is completely different. People probably won't look at Meadowland and say, Oh, that reminds me of Paris, Texas. But I think maybe the method to which I was working, maybe I felt for the first time I could just say, “fuck it,” you know, and do what I wanted. Because now this was the very first time I could be my own cinematographer, and take all the risks I wanted to. So it's in my head, you know, the reasoning.



Iain Marcks: As you were talking, it occurred to me perhaps that the way that we talk about films and images is similar to the way use the term “film language.” And it's a lot like the way we use words in that, you know, we're constantly referring back to all the things that we've read, when we're speaking to another person, it's just there in our brain. And it occurred to me that perhaps, you know, rather than having to strike a balance, like you said, and not think about a film that you love, and have seen many times and has meant something to you, it's become a part of your lexicon. It's just there, and you don't have to think about it to necessarily be inspired by it.


Reed Morano: Yeah. It's like I know it's there. All the things that I've seen that I've admired are in my subconscious and even there are times where I think we all do things that we're not 100 percent sure if like, “Are we biting off of something right now?” Like, this seems like such a genius idea, but I feel like have I seen it somewhere? That happens. And I think it's oftentimes I think, in cinematography, when you're asked to pay homage to shots or pay homage to looks and like, it's okay. Oftentimes, I think a lot of cinematographers also want to more likely create their own signature that they're known for. But when I was focusing solely on cinematography, I just wanted to do in each case what was going to tell that story the best, and if I felt like it meant drawing on other works that we had seen nine times out of 10, it was still photography, then yeah, that was the thing to do, or, and there's always directors who want to, they want to do that shot from that film, sometimes I would want to do that shot from like, this would be a great place to dolly and zoom out or have super deep focus or split diopter or whatever. But for me, it's always been trying to find the thing that suits that story, the best and what was hardest as a cinematographer for me was trying to break away from the style I love the most, which became I think, a little bit of a signature for me, which was sort of like something from Frozen River, where I was doing very naturalistic, spontaneous kind of handheld only motivated by the motion emotion of the actors. So that was hard to break out of for many years for me as a DP and what actually I think broke me out of it, because I continued to DP afterwards, was finally directing something. I became like, “it's okay to do something that isn't my go-to aesthetic, that isn't the first thing that I think is the prettiest you know,” it's should be what's right for the — because I went in DP Vinyl for [Martin] Scorsese and Rodrigo Prieto [ASC, AMC] after, after doing Meadowland, and my agents were like “oh, you have to keep directing,” and I was like, “what hell no, Rodrigo calls, I take that call.” And especially if he's with Marty, I'm doing that show. Because there is so much I have yet to learn as a cinematographer, even if I just directed something, you know, like, [Vinyl] was like the biggest, most exciting opportunity for me because that pushed me out of my comfort zone as a DP, and it gave me permission to emulate Scorsese's style that he has, you know, that has evolved over the years and become signature of him and Rodrigo and like be able to do all those kinds of crazy camera moves that that were not my, you know, instinct. But also, we melded it with what I love to do, which was handheld even though the lighting was maybe motivated by, you know, the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and also early Scorsese films, you know. But anyway, I'm going off into tangent because of just giving an example of like, how my thought process changed after I took on the responsibility of telling a whole story myself.



Iain Marcks: It's interesting, like, as a filmmaker, when you find these, these new ways of working have kind of been there all along, because you know, you if you're familiar with Marty's work, and you're familiar with Rodrigo’s work, in a sense, you know, you already have that lexicon, whether you access it deliberately or not. And it's kind of interesting, like, for me when I make music videos and short films, you know, to go back and watch them later on. And I see that, oh, I've definitely stolen a shot from another movie that you know, that I've seen, like 1000 times like The Warriors. There's a few shots from The Warriors that I just I cannot not steal. And it's just become a part of me, even though I know it came from somewhere else. And I can point to it and say, “Yes, I took that from another film.” And there was something you said earlier too, about wanting to avoid watching certain types of films while you're preparing a project and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that feeling.


Reed Morano: I think I first consciously noticed it before I went to direct The Handmaid's Tale, which Colin Watkinson [ASC] was the cinematographer on. And that began our collaboration, which has been amazing, but I was afraid to watch the original just as a director, not even from necessarily — I think it had to do with cinematography, because to me, they are so intertwined in the way that I work anyway — maybe they don't feel intertwined to some other directors — but it's so hand-in-hand, and I was afraid to watch the movie that was made of The Handmaid's Tale back in like I think it was like the 80s because I was embarking on this journey to direct my first pilot, and I've been in a situation before and it's like, you kind of want want to see what they did. But also I was afraid to just see it. And then because The Handmaid's Tale was so specific, visually, I didn't want to emulate any of it unconsciously. And I didn't want to get something in my head. I just wanted to emulate, you know, Margaret Atwood’s book. But I did see an image.



And this is speaking specifically to cinematography. But I did see an image that was, you know, I had seen images on the internet that were pulled from that film. And I knew exactly the color palette, I knew that the Commander's wives were wearing royal blue, and the Handmaids were wearing more of a cherry, apple red. And I just couldn't get that image out of my head. And it was okay, because I knew we were shooting and digital. And I didn't think those colors unless we had been shooting film, I might have been tempted to shoot those exact shades of blue and red. But we weren't shooting film, and we were shooting digital and they were definitely not going to happen. But I also felt like I had to choose a different color palette because it just felt like this needed this idea needed to evolve in some way. But it also I chose the color palette not just to be different from the original but actually to what would render at the time what I felt with Colin and also with our costume designer, what would render the most filmic look the most easily based on our format. So you know, I found an image that was like it's probably somewhere on my computer still, and I'm sure that the costume designers still has it somewhere. And I found this image that was basically various gradations of like teal, and background and then a red that was basically, for lack of a better description, the red of what we ended up using for the Handmaids. And it was just a random picture that was probably very doctored and photoshopped to be those two colors. There's so much great influence that can come from consuming all the work of the people who came before us and paved the way and then I want to respect that. But also there's a need, I think in every artist, and I'm sure that you feel the same way when you're doing your things, it's like you want to be able to do something that you feel is completely purely coming from you and from nowhere else but that's probably impossible.


Iain Marcks: There's this essay that T.S. Eliot wrote, which I think is more directed towards art critics than artists. It's called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” And he says that no poet or artist of any art has their complete meaning alone. Their significance, their appreciation is the appreciation of their relation to the dead poets and artists, and you cannot value them alone, you must set them among the dead. And I was gonna ask what your take was on that. But it sounds like you kind of agree with that.


Reed Morano: I think if you agree with it, you're actually possibly liberating yourself. There's no secret that we have so much more exposure, when people were making films back in the ’70s, and the ’80s, and the ’60s. It's like, they could see other filmmakers, and they could read all the books they want to read, they could see the other films and theater and whatnot. But I mean, even now, it's like the amount of things that are almost jammed down your throat by just the nature of, if you're on your phone, and you and you open up any kind of social media, you're going to see something that you weren't even looking for it most of the time, and it all goes into your brain. And the only sad part about that is a lot of it is probably not the stuff you would love to be consumed. It’s not of the elevated level of what Eliot is probably referring to here about — something about that quote makes me feel okay, like, “alright, maybe I should stop being afraid to watch.” I guess it's also much more about for me, right at the moment, it's almost much more for me about watching things that are being made at the same time as I'm making things. You know, for example, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Incredible. I was blown away by the film, just its originality was really mind-blowing for me. And I thought, wow, in a sea of recycled ideas, this feels wholly special and original. And I found it incredibly inspiring. But it's not inspiring in a way where I'm like, I'm gonna go out and make a movie about a regular mom that ends up being the hero and multiverse. No, I can't do anything like that. But I just think it makes you think when you see work like that, it's great because it makes you think outside the box, but it made me think anything's possible. Even giant bagels and hotdog fingers and things. What it actually really did make me think was I thought, wow, these filmmakers are crazy, I love it. But also, I thought, who gave them that money to make that? And how did they convince them with that script, and I gotta find that person to make my next. But I guess like, I would say what I always am drawn to watching films that I grew up on, that inspired me for comfort food for me. I want to go back and watch the films that I saw a younger age like The Shining, like Paris, Texas, and I am more fearful of watching the latest movies because there's a part of me the inner voice inside me that saying like, you don't want to feel like you have to live up to that. Which is crazy, because what I do watch are these, you know, the legends, the icons, and it's like, well, I don't presume by the way, by pairing The Shining with, I Think We're Alone Now, there's zero presumption there that I made anything that is even remotely in a class, even distantly, to The Shining because it's a totally different story. I'm a totally different person. Kubrick is like my beacon you know, as he is for so many people for inspiration. And a lot of it is visual, but it's his tension as well. And it was Meadowland. It's not like I would ever presume to be making something groundbreaking anywhere in the vicinity of what Robby Müeller did in Paris, Texas. So it's more than that. I love those things. I love those films and they're, they're my teachers. Maybe I took a couple of the things that the teachers taught me, maybe I tried, maybe I didn't even consciously know. I was using those lessons somehow in a very, completely convoluted other way. It's almost safer because there's also something about this that doesn’t feel trendy to me because it's another time, and it was not trendy then, and I don't want to be doing what is the trendy thing, I want to be doing whatever it is the next thing that no one knows what it is yet. And that's the struggle.


Iain Marcks: You mentioned something about Everything Everywhere All at Once and how you said it felt so unique and so new. And it thinks outside the box, right? But, you know, there needs to be a box to think outside of. A film like that, maybe wouldn't have had the cultural impact that it did have if it weren't for all of these other multiverse kinds of movies out there, right? Like the big Marvel movies or the concept of like, a multiverse like looms really large, you know, over popular cinema. Yeah, what The Daniels did is they took the concept, you know, they captured the zeitgeist.


Reed Morano: And made it new.


Iain Marcks: So in a sense, though, I mean, like, it's still part of an order. And to kind of bring it back around to your work, just by pairing I Think We're Alone Now and The Shining, talking about the two in relation to one another, even because you thought about them together, they naturally are a part of the same order. And Eliot, he sums it up by saying the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.


Reed Morano: I think it was interesting. I mean, of course, I wanted to do Meadowland, and I Think We're Alone Now, because those were the latest features that I had shot, but I also happen to direct them. But what I noticed was weird was there was no direct movies that I could associate with those films, like ones that I remember saying to my crew, “we're doing it like this,” you know? And that was only because I think I didn't have a DP there. Whereas, when I did The Rhythm Section with Sean Bobbitt [BSC], we watched many films together. And that was a whole different thing. Now, there's not like one film that stands out, or it’s like that was the inspiration for that film. No, but we watched films and so I could probably pick a few that might fall into that category. But then with Little Birds, which has a special place in my heart, I loved shooting that movie, I was able to shoot it on two-perf, and it was just an incredible experience, everything and everyone on it, all around. It was just amazing. I was like, pregnant while I was shooting it, it was one of the few films that I was pregnant shooting, but I was the most pregnant shooting that one and really pushed things. And I had such an amazing relationship with not just my crew, but also with Elgin James, the director, and I don't even know that we consciously — I know what our conscious inspiration was that we discussed over and over, and that was the works of William Eggleston. That was the inspiration for the look, truthfully. The point is that when I looked at Little Birds, I feel that Fish Tank, even though the light might be different, the one is this kind of different, you know, British sort of look of light and then Southern California for the other one, and it's totally different.


Iain Marcks: I definitely see the Eggleston inspiration, like it's very strong.


Reed Morano: I guess what I'm thinking in the case of these three films, the things that that I feel relate to them are things that I wish were probably just happening subconsciously, in my mind, Even if you say consciously, I'm not going to make this look like X, Y. and Z, this is wholly original, it's okay that it's not you — your meaning is made up of the meaning of so many other things, and so was theirs.


Iain Marcks: And it's interesting talking about Kubrick, there's this great book called Stanley Kubrick Directs, it was written by this English film critic Alexander Walker. And in it Kubrick goes on record talking about Max Ophuls’s “extravagant camera moves, which seemed to go on forever and these labyrinthine sets.” This is like 10 years before The Shining. He talks about Pudovkin and Eisenstein and Chaplin and Stanislavski, but it's also filtered through his personal experience, right? Like only Stanley Kubrick could have blended them together in the way that he did. And something you said about shooting Little Birds makes me want to know like, how much does your personal experience influence the way you make a film, like we can be influenced by the same things, right? Someone can hand me the script for Little Birds and say, think about William Eggleston and Fish Tank. And basically, we can be handed the same script and the same set of references and work with the same director. But we're going to come out with two different films. And so ultimately, it's not just what your references and what inspires you, you know, and the material in the story you're telling, it's you as the individual talent, right? Are you able to pinpoint in really any of the work that you do, but perhaps like specifically with Meadowland, I Think We're Alone Now and Little Birds, like the kind of influence that your personal experience has had on the making of, of these films?


Reed Morano: Yeah, there were things that I think people thought were influential on Meadowland that I didn't even hadn't even seen before. With Meadowland for example, a lot of people said that it was very reminded them of Don’t Look Now, the Nicolas Roeg film. And I think that's partially because the subject matter, but also there was, you know, the color thing, which— watched it after the fact and I hadn't remembered ever seeing that. And it's a great, amazing film. It's literally about the same concept. But also, it has a color motif of like this symbolism of that thing that's missing, you know, and, and there's an opposite thing going on in Meadowland. But what I realized is that in terms of like how the look even ends up evolving in a film, it does have so much to do with what I emotionally want to do in the moment, regardless of following the aesthetics of another film.


I can't break away from certain things that I feel that I need to do in the moment. And I know that that comes from my personal experience. And like when I did Meadowland, and what's interesting about that film is, again, the look and the emotional journey of the movie, which is always I think the goal of great cinematography is to try to make those two things one in the same. The shots should never stick out. They should always be furthering the story emotionally, I think, in the best way possible that feels organic to the story. What happened with Meadowland and the reason why I decided to direct that film and take my first shot at directing which I was afraid to do after watching so many directors that I cared about become so vulnerable. And I was like, I've kind of like, you know, being the DP because I don't have to be responsible for everything. And then it sort of crossed over into maybe I want to be responsible and maybe have an effect on everything more. That was Meadowland. When I embarked on that story, I didn't know, and I still don't know, thank God, anything about what it could possibly feel like to be in the position of those characters. And so that was my biggest fear going in was, besides the fact of directing a film for the first time and deciding to shoot it as well, it was people who have been through what these characters have been through, am I going to do right by them like, and also who am I to presume I can capture what that must feel like. And to me, it was very scary, but I don't think I would have been able to get that close had I not been through what I had been through prior which is that, you know, I had had cancer that same year and the year before. So I went through a very weird period in my life that took me into a place off set and into my head and made me think about things that I never thought about before. And the closest thing prior to that that I would have had to relate in order, you know, to those characters in Meadowland would be like my father passing away when I was 18. This may be going too far, but that totally informed how I chose to work with the actors in terms of the staging and moving the camera and also just the scenes that we did and the little things we added and changed in the script that sort of enhanced what Chris Rossi had already written.


There's a scene in Meadowland where Sarah, you know, Olivia Wilde's character, is in the bathroom one morning and you know her son's gone missing basically, and you pick up a year later and they're in this purgatory where the son's still missing. So they can't even grieve the loss of a child because they don't know if the child is even lost forever. So they're in like the worst kind of a purgatory I think, and could have hope but you don't even want to have hope. So you have to grieve, but you can't grieve because what if you're wrong and like, so much of the decision making about what the character did came out of? Actually, what did I do when I was at my least functional and least human state when I went through my treatment, which looks like — I kind of became a little bit inhuman for a while, and there's a scene where she goes to brush her teeth and the toothpaste, when she puts the brush under the stream of water the toothpaste comes off and she doesn't she just look down and she just keeps brushing and no toothpaste and it's a very little thing, but it's about character, and relating to the fact that like, if you were in that situation, you just wouldn't give a fuck anymore about anything, you know? And I didn't brush my teeth for three months, partially because I didn't give a fuck, but because also I couldn't put anything in my mouth because I was in like, extreme pain. But that part of it was sort of like, not even caring enough about your appearance to keep up appearances in the real world when you're out of it. I sort of put all these things that had happened to me onto that character. And so yeah, I guess that's a really long-winded way of saying, that as a cinematographer shooting the film, it's like, I found that the emotion that was happening in the film led me out of a very dark place, but also into the dark place. I had been motivated by a lot of the emotional choices I made even from a visual perspective.


Iain Marcks: Thank you for sharing that very personal chapter of your life. Personal experience, I think, is the most important influence anything can be like on your work, right? Like, that's what makes it uniquely yours. Yeah. I have one more question for you, a kind of a follow up to your comment on Meadowland, which is a film about a couple whose only child goes missing, as you were saying they don't know whether he's alive or, or dead. And you were a parent when you made that film. You have two children.


Reed Morano: Oh, yeah, that's a whole thing there.


Iain Marcks: I have two kids now myself. I have a six year old and a 15 month old, and it's totally changed the way I see filmmaking and the kinds of films that I want to make.


Reed Morano: Yeah. Well, it's interesting. I can't believe I didn't really bring that part up before. The reason why I think I gravitated towards the script for Meadowland in the first place was there was a scene in the original draft where Sarah is— she remembers something suddenly in the middle of the night, and she gets up and goes to the car, and she's rummaging in the back and tearing apart the back of the car. And then she finds in the cracks of the seat, an animal cracker from the last day she was with her son. At the time, my sons were five and three. And my ultimate nightmare, worse than anything I had just gone through healthwise, was like, if something ever happened to one of my kids, I couldn't survive that. And the film, I didn't want it to end that way. So when I read that scene, that was the scene that sold me on the entire “I think I can do this” because of how I felt about my kids. And I always want to do something that I know I can emotionally grasp. I feel like I can make people understand how that feels on screen. I never really say I definitely can, I always — everything is always a mystery to me. And of course, like people say, “If you're not afraid, then you shouldn't do it.” But there was something weird about going to, you know, a situation that no one wants you to go through and then wanting to make yourself live creatively in a situation that was even worse than that was epically worse than that was not even remotely comparable.


And even when it came time to make the film, I was trying to cast all these kids to play the role of Jessie the son, and I kept getting the cereal commercial kids who were all cute as hell, but it didn't feel real. And interestingly, I was watching a bunch of auditions one day, and my oldest son, Casey, was watching over my shoulder. He said, “Mom, can I try to do that?” And I had this weird feeling. I knew his dad was going to be not in favor of it. I didn't want to say no to him. But also, I wouldn't put my son in that situation. But also, I was desperate because it had been months of trying to cast this kid and hadn't found anyone that I felt was right. And we let him audition, just like everyone else, just a full audition. And it was the most naturalistic, and it was super scary. And it was incredibly insane, I think to put your own kid in a movie about a kid who goes missing. I wondered, as a filmmaker, as a cinematographer, as a director, was that going to handicap my ability to make the movie emotional for everyone else? Because no matter what, I was going to be completely emotionally affected by the fact that this is my child. And if he went missing, I could never live through that. So I thought this might handicap me. This might make the movie bad. And my casting director was like, “don't do it. It's a terrible decision. It's not going to go right,” you know, and I just felt like [Casey] was right. And I felt like I was just trying to erase that he was my son and just judge it based on being a director and it made it incredibly difficult to make the movie because it was so emotionally intertwined, but it also really bonded me with Olivia, who, when we first cast her was not a mother. And then she got pregnant during our period of trying to find financing. And we had to delay the movie, she thought I was gonna move on from her. And I was like, “no, are you kidding me, this is the best case scenario, because now you're gonna really understand,” because, as Olivia liked to joke, she was relating how Sarah felt about the son Jesse to how she felt about her dog Paco. And I was like, “I know, people and their dogs are really close. But this is different, I promise you, it's just something about it's different.” And when she had her son, she was like, “Oh, my God, I totally get this now.” So she was going through that with a new baby. And I feel like it really helped her understand, I was gonna put my emotional self on the line, by allowing my son to play her son. So we were in it together. And bringing that personal experience, it made it so that I'd be shooting scenes with her, handheld, and there were times where I would just reach out and put my hand on her hand or her knee or whatever. And she wanted that. During certain moments, no one else would know when that's happening in the film. But it was very interesting, emotionally. It is an emotional, other level that I think people go to when they have children, where it cracks open some other depths of understanding just as a storyteller and as a human. Because you do start to relate not just to the child, but now you're relating to the parent.


And in the case of Little Birds, I felt, I think I was really, in love with those characters. But I was relating, I felt so much emotion for Leslie Mann’s character, the mother, and I felt really connected to her struggle. And it was this weird thing that maybe prior to having kids that would have related a lot more to Juno Temple’s character, and not the mother character. But if you can feel some kind of connection and emotional connection or empathy for a character, I feel like when you film them when you're capturing that story, for me anyway, I felt like it wasn't black and white anymore, everything was a gray area, and that affected how I shot them. And that affected the performances that we got. I think maybe my instincts with the camera were— because it was more about giving time to this person's side of the story that maybe wasn't the main character. You know, as a camera person as a camera operator. I've always sort of felt a connection even to the characters that I didn't relate to, because I was always trying to see all sides of it.


But I do think becoming a parent, it makes you look at things in a way and entirely look at it before, and that runs through everything I think in the sense of like even The Handmaid's Tale shooting Yvonne Strahovski’s character, Mrs. Waterford, it's very possible had we not gotten her or if they had had a different director, she would have existed in a more black and white way as the bad person who's threatening Offred, and she's in the scene where they're having the ceremony and Offred is ostensibly being raped by Commander Waterford. And her head is resting in the lap of Mrs. Waterford. That whole scene could have just been about empathy for Offred and what an awful situation she's in. But I couldn't help but feel empathy for, I have to be honest, all three of them in a way. Like, it was mainly for [Offred] and Mrs. Waterford. And that's why we focus at the end of the scene on Mrs. Waterford. I wanted to not make it easy for the audience. But the truth is just the simple thing of becoming a parent in a way almost involves you to look at every situation from all the angles — the ability to have children the ability to have that thing where your child doesn't understand you or to not be able to have children. Knowing what it feels like to have children I couldn't help but have my heart break for Serena Joy. And I think actually if you watch that scene, you can almost tell to some extent that I have empathy for her as well as as Offred. Everything that you do when you're creating a piece of art, whatever your medium is, you're bringing your own life experience to it. So if you have a feeling, you know what something feels like to have that informs how your work is birthed and what it looks like and how it feels and where you put the focus emotionally as a person who's either photographing or directing it. So yeah, I think the kids have taught me everything you know, about emotion. And that's really— at the end of the day, in most films — I would say pretty much all films — if you can find the best way to convey the emotion that is in the scene, and if there's something in life that has brought you to that emotion, you're going to draw on that all the time.


Iain Marcks: Thank you, Reed, so much for taking the time to talk to us about your work and your inspirations and your experience.


Reed Morano: Yeah, my pleasure.

American Cinematographer interviews cinematographers, directors and other filmmakers to take you behind the scenes on major studio movies, independent films and popular television series.

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