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’Handmaid’s Tale’ Director Reed Morano Had To Mimic Martin Scorsese on ‘Vinyl,’ and Other TV Challenges

Nominated for Emmys as both a DP and as a director, Morano explains the crucial step TV needs to take to reach the greatness of movies.

The Handmaid's Tale  -- "Offred" -- Episode 101 -- Offred, one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife. Behind the scenes with Margaret Atwood and Reed Morano, shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Margaret Atwood and director Reed Morano on the set of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

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Reed Morano was an accomplished cinematographer and indie director, but getting the opportunity to come aboard “The Handmaid’s Tale” as an executive producer and director of the first three episodes was both a big break and new experience. With “Meadowland” – Morano’s feature directorial debut – she pushed the boundaries in what is a dark, atmospheric, and personal film. Initially, she wasn’t clear to what degree she could push the boundaries in establishing the visual language of the new Hulu series.

“They obviously had faith in me if they hired me, but they were like, ‘Make sure that it has scope and we know when we’re in a flashback,'” said Morano. “You basically have a lot of people standing over you… I imagine it’s similar to what it would be like to direct a studio feature, with the studio looking over you shoulder all the time saying, ‘You have to fulfill certain requirements.'”

Morano said, nine time out of 10, she was able to follow her gut. That made her bolder with each of the three episodes she directed.

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Offred" -- Episode 101 -- Offred, one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife. Behind the scenes with Moira (Samira Wiley) and Reed Morano, shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Reed Morano directing “The Handmaid’s Tale”

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“I knew I was coming in from the ground up on the show, so I knew I didn’t have to follow some other model, because there wasn’t one yet,” said Morano. “What was cool was [the producers] did empower [me]. They didn’t say, ‘Go crazy,’ but at the same time when I did crazy edits of scenes, or put music they weren’t expecting, or covered [a scene in an] unorthodox way for a TV show, nobody said anything. There were no red flags when people were watching dailies.”

Morano has been a cinematographer on TV shows that had an already-established look and language, so she enjoyed the freedom of “The Handmaid’s Tale” experience. She also knew there was an added responsibility to set a template for other directors to follow.

She has a great deal of sympathy of how difficult it can be to come on after the pilot. When she first interviewed to be the DP on HBO’s “Vinyl” she hadn’t seen the pilot, which was being shot by Martin Scorsese and his great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. She went with her gut, but found it “scary” to talk about where she’d take the show after two of her idols exited.

“I remember when we went to watch the pilot for the first time,” said Morano. “At the end of the pilot, my jaw was on the floor and tears were coming out of my eyes. It was combination of, ‘Holy shit, I’m so excited to make this show’ and then, ‘Holy shit, I don’t know if I can make this show.'”

"Vinyl"

“Vinyl”

HBO

Scorsese and Prieto had 35 days; Morano would have 10 to 12 per episode. The concept of mirroring the filming style and look of the pilot was intimidating.

“What’s the hardest thing about making a show like ‘Viynl’ or ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is they are expecting movie-level cinematic quality in every way – from the performances to the visuals and the shots – especially on a show where you are doing Scorsese style,” said Morano. “Those shots are not simple. There’s a lot of wild shots, there’s cranes, crazy dolly moves. Being a cinematographer on a show like that, but also being a director, you are making art, but you are making it on a clock and you have to get all these things and make them leap off the page 3,000 times better than they are in writing, and you have to do it in 12 hours or less.”

Morano, who is currently editing her second feature “I Think We’re Alone Now” – a post-apocalyptic movie starring Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage targeted for a Sundance 2018 premiere – said that time is the biggest difference in terms of directing a movie and TV, but not for the reason you might imagine.

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Night" -- Episode 110 -- Serena Joy confronts Offred and the Commander. Offred struggles with a complicated, life-changing revelation. The Handmaids face a brutal decision. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

The Handmaid’s Tale

George Kraychyk/Hulu

“In TV, you are much more likely to see the episode closer to the script as written – in terms of the order of the scenes – than you would in a movie, and here’s why: you don’t have as many days to edit,” said Morano. “You have 10 to 12 weeks or more to edit a feature, and you have four days to edit TV. That’s a huge difference. There may be ways to make a way better arrangement of scenes that you can’t even explore, because you have so little time to edit. You [can find] a much more emotionally powerful [arrangement] and take it to a higher level and you don’t get that opportunity in TV.”

Morano says that increasingly she has learned that it’s the arrangement of scenes that she’s most likely to give a project her “weird Reed-ness.” She also believes that TV is making huge progress, but can still get better – principally by embracing having one director carry a show through the arc of an entire season.

Pointing to the first season of “True Detective,” Morano says the show greatly benefitted from having director Cary Fukunaga’s stamp on every episode. While it can be a logistical problem, she thinks it’s worth it for more networks to embrace the one-director model.

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Late" Episode 103 -- Offred visits JanineÕs baby with Serena Joy and remembers the early days of the revolution before Gilead. Ofglen faces a difficult challenge. Behind the scenes with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Reed Morano, shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Director Reed Morano goes handheld

Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

“There is something to be said for one vision, and following one vision through,” said Morano. “I do think it’s something TV will catch up to at some point and realize, ‘Wow, we’re in the Golden Age of Television right now, we’ve taken television to another level, but now let’s take it to an even higher level where it is one vision throughout a whole season.'”

Morano is nominated for two Emmys this year: Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for the pilot episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Outstanding Cinematography for a Half-Hour Series (Single-Camera) for HBO’s “Divorce.”

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