MEADOWLAND is the directorial debut of Reed Morano ASC, starring Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson as a couple left behind grappling with their son’s disappearance. Morano, whose cinematography credits include SKELETON TWINS, KILL YOUR DARLINGS and the upcoming HBO series VINYL, chose not to pass along DP duties to someone else while she helmed MEADOWLAND. Instead,
the Nebraska native elected to shoot, direct and operate handheld on the intense drama. In this interview, Morano talks to us about what motivated her choices in MEADOWLAND from its look to performances, and channeling her experiences into the voice of a director.
Now in select theaters and available on demand, the film was captured on ALEXA with ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses from ARRI Rental NY.
Tell us about MEADOWLAND.
This couple is on a road trip when their son disappears at a gas station off the highway. A year later, they still don’t have closure and don’t know where their son is -- whether he is alive or not. It’s a surreal contemplation on those that are left behind and that feeling after loss when you are living in a dream-like state teetering on the edge of madness. It is less about the procedural and the investigation, more about the internal and visceral journey of the characters. Although this film deals with the subject of grief, it's more about the parents acting out of character, ignoring the repercussions of their actions, almost an adventure of sorts where you don’t know what will happen next.
What was it about this script that made you want to direct it?
What I am constantly in search of as a cinematographer when I read scripts are moments that I haven't seen on film that are provocative and powerful enough to tell the story without words. There is a scene in the film where the mother remembers the day her son went missing. He had been eating animal crackers in the backseat of the car. This memory comes back to her one night when she wakes up suddenly. The camera follows her as she goes to the garage where her Volvo is parked. She goes into the backseat and frantically digs around in all the cracks and crevices of the car. Finally, she finds this old animal cracker and she just puts it into her mouth. When I read that I was amazed because it showed me the potential of the story. Also as a mom of two boys, I completely understood that. It was that moment that I realized this was something I could work with, that was visceral. There was very little dialogue in the script, but you could say something that would speak to everyone -- even to people who may not have children.
How did you want to translate the look and style of the film?
Originally, I planned to shoot on film. But it's a little different when you start the financing and planning. It's a miracle we even got the funding for it because it is such a dark, risky piece. My financiers said that there was just no way I was going to be able to shoot film. I am a film purist, but I love the ALEXA and if I can’t shoot on film then that’s the only other digital camera option for me.
I knew with the ALEXA I could make it have the look that I was after, which was to have the movie be as real as possible and be very naturalistically lit -- not drawing attention to the lighting nor the camera work. When I knew that I was going to be shooting with the ALEXA, I wanted to take the camera to the next level.
So you went with the Master Anamorphics?
The Master Anamorphics blew me away and created a very rich texture in combination with the ALEXA. These lenses are fast; in the past it's been hard to shoot anamorphic on tight budgets because the lenses I wanted to use weren’t as fast. It was never practical for the low budget indie films that I was making. The anamorphic look just screams cinema: the flares, the bokeh, the aberrations of the lenses and all of those unpredictable qualities. Also, not everyone uses them and that's what makes it so special when you see it. In my opinion, they make everything just feel bigger. "Gus" [Lyn Gustafson of ARRI Rental NY] told me about the Master Anamorphics and invited me to come and test them out. I was only going to have three focal lengths (35mm, 50mm, 75mm), because that was all they had at the time. But I've been in situations before where I’ve had limited focal lengths, so I wasn't worried.
I couldn't have been more pleased with the qualities of the Master Anamorphics. Usually I go for older glass with the ALEXA because I am trying to rough up the edges a little. I already use diffusion filters on the lens anyways, so I figured I could try new glass for the first time. These lenses are sharp and have beautiful anamorphic qualities, but they are just slightly less erratic and more controllable than your usual anamorphics. You can flare them when you want and they are gorgeous flares -- such as rainbow circles. There were also blue, oval flares and the bokeh was just beautiful. They had such distinct qualities, but it wasn't too much to a point where it could be distracting. They were just right.
Why did you shoot all handheld?
Anyone who knows me, knows that I favor handheld. I come from a documentary background and it's the freedom to be able to react to the moment that's most appealing to me. I especially love this in narrative situations because I can be responsive based on what's happening story-wise and lighting-wise. I like to "dance" with the actors and I become a character in the story with them via the camera. Any operator will say the same thing, but when you're handheld it's the least restricted way. If you move a few steps in one direction, then an amazing flare could happen or you catch the right look from an actor from a not so typical angle. You can emotionally enable the audience and bring them deeper into the story and perspective of the characters. I call it a "static handheld" or "organic camera." It's not a frenetic handheld, but you can feel the camera is alive. Both characters have put up a wall around themselves and I shot it in hopes I could make the audience feel as though they were in trapped behind that wall with them.
Looking back now, if financially you could have afforded film, would you have shot film instead?
If I could go back in time and shoot this project on film, I wouldn’t. For me DPing, directing and operating would have been overwhelming if I couldn’t know what I had gotten- it wouldn’t have been impossible but it would have added another layer of the unknown. It was nice to have the immediacy of the digital workflow and knowing I was getting exactly what I was getting while I was working all three of those jobs. It enabled me to worry less about the technical end because I could get away with a lot in digital in terms of the shooting style. Also being so comfortable with the ALEXA, I know how to light it naturalistically and quickly.
I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to perpetuate the myth that when a DP directs their first project that all they care about is the cinematography, and as a result the story and acting fail. I already knew in my heart that I was going to put cinematography second. What was great about shooting with the ALEXA and the Master Anamorphics was that I was going to get this gorgeous product with very minimal effort on my end, because I am used to working with the ALEXA and I know what works.
The ALEXA and these lenses can be so elegant-looking on their own if you light naturalistically and simplistically. If you’re very minimalist about it, the less obvious lighting you do, the better. There’s a way of shooting digital where you can make it look so beautiful that sometimes it can even blow film out of the water. It’s all about using a light touch. Having these lenses that are so unlike anything I have ever used before made the imagery stand out. They really are special.
How was it being your own cinematographer?
Ironically, it was the first time that I taken so many risks I wished I had taken in the past. It's funny because I was spending most of my time concentrating on this whole other aspect of the film – the performances and character arcs and maybe it's the idea of, less is more. When you have something good, just leave it alone and don't screw with it too much. Don't second-guess yourself.
I knew the time frame I had to shoot each scene and how long it would take me to shoot it as the director. I knew I could get away with more as a director, whereas when you're a DP you may have less flexibility and you don't know how many hours you're going to be shooting one scene for, or how they are going to use the material. I could take the risk because it was my movie.
There's a very powerful scene where we see Olivia Wilde's character cut herself with a razor blade. The depth of field becomes extremely shallow. As a viewer, you feel like you are in that fragile space with the character. How did you shoot that scene?
What was interesting about the scene is that it’s sort of a release of pain for the character. I ended up using the 75mm Master Anamorphic with a Proxar close-up filter and it created this shallow depth of field where things are coming in and out of focus like a lens baby, but even more elegant than that. It was a wonderful discovery to set this emotional, ethereal mood where you can’t help feeling what she is feeling.
The cutting scene is really unique in that it can make you feel uncomfortable and simultaneously you fully understand why she is doing it. I’ve showed this movie to a few people who had cut themselves in the past and they were so moved because they felt it was the first time they had seen cutting rendered so honestly and accurately as far as what’s really about and why they do it.
There's another emotionally raw night scene when the father, played by Luke Wilson, stops his car at a memorial by the roadside.
For that scene we lit Luke with the headlights and I put diffusion on them. He's backlit by the headlights the whole time. There were no additional units to illuminate him other than the headlights. I knew it would look great with the anamorphics. In the deep distance of that scene there was one little street light. It was too dark in the background, so I did have my electric team put a couple of units down the road that literally looked like other streetlights. It was hardly anything. The scene turned out so beautifully with such minimal effort.
Sometimes knowing when not to screw with stuff makes you a better cinematographer. I would say 90% of the scenes in the movie are lit with actual film lights, but sometimes less is more and I always tried to use less. That was one of the scenes where I went really crazy and said let’s just do it. That is something I would probably never do with film; it’s because I could see what I was getting, so I went for it with the ALEXA. That is such an empowering thing about shooting with this camera. You can take bigger risks because at the end of the day, you can see what’s there and you know you have it. Now that I’ve done that, I feel like I can do that more on film. It gives you this extra confidence to take chances and go against the grain.
Overall, how was your first experience directing a movie?
On my first day, it was so odd and daunting. I felt this enormous amount of pressure to do a good job for everyone. But I found there was nothing to worry about with the team I had, it was such a positive experience for me from the crew, the actors, the producers and everyone that helped make it all possible. Everyone was so supportive and it could not have gone better from the perspective of how well everyone worked as a team, especially given the short amount of time we had to shoot the film. A solid schedule is 24 days, and we only had 22. Despite that time frame, I still don’t feel like we missed or sacrificed anything, which is a really good feeling. Overall, the movie went way beyond my expectations and it’s because of the crew and cast that I had.