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Heroines of Cinema: Reed Morano, The Next Big Thing in American Cinematography

Heroines of Cinema: Reed Morano, The Next Big Thing in American Cinematography

Thirty-six-year-old Reed Morano is fast becoming one of independent cinema’s most exciting cinematographers. First gaining notice for shooting 2008’s “Frozen River”, she is coming to the end of her biggest year yet. In January, “Kill your Darlings” premiered at Sundance, swiftly followed by a hallowed nomination to the American Society of Cinematographers (one of only eleven female members). Films shot since include the forthcoming “War Story” with Catherine Keener and Ben Kingsley, offbeat drama “The Skeleton Twins” with Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Luke Wilson and Rob Reiner’s “And So It Goes” with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. Meanwhile, she has just wrapped the entire debut season of HBO’s new gay-themed series “Looking”.

Cinematography has been a traditional minefield for women, as I wrote about last year. Among many damning statistics, no woman has ever been nominated for an Academy Award, while only 2% of last year’s 250 highest-grossing films were shot by female Directors of Photography (DPs). But Reed Morano’s rapid career ascendency has belied these harsh odds. 

This may be helped by the fact that she has consistently worked on the independent feature film scene, with a good balance of male and female filmmakers (a pattern that Morano says was not intentional, but merely the kind of director and project that she gravitates towards). But when we spoke, what most struck me was her absolute commitment to finding quality stories that chime with her own sensibilities – and then making damn well sure she gets hired for them. From “Frozen River” onwards, Morano has been ambitious and committed to hunting down and getting attached to the productions that truly fire her imagination. Below she gives an insight into that process, as well as what it’s like working for HBO, what we can expect from “Looking”, and her general approach to cinematography.

She believes in putting the story first
There are many legendary DPs that I admire, some of whom have a very strong signature, but I’m not sure I want to be the DP where you see my work and say oh, Reed shot that. I hope to be able to adapt to every movie and disappear into it (of course with a little piece of me in there). If the story is successful, you’ve done your job.

This was the case on the Oscar-nominated “Frozen River”
I’m so happy I did that movie. I loved that script. It just kind of sucks when the biggest thing you’re known for is probably your least favorite work as a DP. But I think people responded so well to “Frozen River” because of how real it felt. And I think that is in part due to how it was shot.

The film’s success did not guarantee further work
When “Frozen River” started to get really big, I was four months pregnant. So when these agents and directors wanted to meet me, I was coming in pregnant and people didn’t really take me seriously. They thought “this woman is not going to shoot another movie again. She’s going to become a mom and that’s what happens”. But that was not the case.

She became prepared to stick her neck out in interviews
I had to be persistent in the way I went about it. I would do tons of research and prepare these epic PDFs with tons of imagery, whatever I thought the look of the movie should be. It’s a little bit vulnerable putting yourself out there like that, before having ever spoken to the director, assuming you know what they’re going to respond to. But once they realize you’re on the same page and it’s what they’re looking for, it’s a lot easier to get the job.

Her career has taught her to manage time effectively
I’m able to have so many things set up before we even block a scene – I’m hyper-sensitive to people who are waiting around. It’s not as easy as it looks to be that fast and still give careful thought to the story, the continuity, the emotion behind the scene and how all those things affect the lighting. To choose the right way to visualize that in the moment, and to be flexible. You have to be open to throwing the whole plan out of the window because there are so many variables you don’t know when you’re in an office in pre-production, shot-listing a scene.

It’s a very tricky job we have as DPs, where you are expected to make something that really is an emotional art, but also needs to be technically spot on. You’re often given a very small window of time to achieve it. People sometimes expect it to be even quicker and forget that there’s a schedule for a reason. If it’s been done properly, every department has been allotted their time. It’s something I always try to remember myself when I’m tapping my feet, waiting on someone else.

She is quite at home with camera crews’ unique sense of humour
I came up as a grip, which is where you find the worst of that. It really turns you into a dude. I know plenty of women in the crew who aren’t into dirty jokes or being inappropriate among the crew, and they do just fine. For better or worse, I’m just like one of the guys. They can say whatever they want, it doesn’t bother me and chances are I’ve heard it all before.

This may be a result of her upbringing
I have a lot of brothers and male cousins. I grew up in an informal, jokey environment. That’s the reason I do this job – if I wanted to go to work and be serious, I’d work for a hedge fund. A lot of DPs treat their crew as lesser individuals. but these are the people lifting me up and making me look good. They’re my peers. Am I going to joke around with them? I don’t think you have to be a dirt bag, but it doesn’t hurt to loosen up a little.

Ultimately, it’s not the crew who set the tone
As a DP you can somewhat set the tone of the set – at least as far as your crew is concerned. But I will only dictate whatever the director is comfortable with. If the director wanted a very serious, conservative or quiet environment on set, I would absolutely always reflect that.

This was not the case on HBO’s “Looking”
There was a lot of sexual talk in the script. But the crew got it. We’re shooting two dudes having sex, and everyone’s just going with it, there’s zero judgement. They don’t feel like they need to set themselves apart from it or anything because we’re all a family on set.

HBO gave her total creative freedom
They were really great to work for. They try to hire the right people and give them as much freedom as they can. The way we colored the pilot was way more extreme than what we ended up with for the series. But they didn’t tell me to change the look – I chose to change it. What makes them so good is that they hire artists they trust and let them do what they want. They definitely have their opinions, but they don’t micro-manage. They’re so supportive.

She shot every single episode of the series
The look was so important to HBO. They wanted a very precise feeling and I discovered what the formula would be back on the pilot. So their attitude was like “you have to shoot it, you have to come back for the series”. I think they felt worried to put it in someone else’s hands just because there were so many specifics to it and it’s really part of the story of the show.

The color was inspired in part by British cinema
Andrew [Haigh, the show-runner and director of SXSW hit “Weekend”] wanted naturalistic lighting, hand-held, as many one shots as he could. We never had a steadicam and we don’t even carry a dolly on the truck at all.  Every single walk and talk – that’s me handheld, walking backwards with the camera.

The thing I kept coming back to was the color. Many TV shows occupy the same color space. What “Weekend” reminded me of, like a lot of work from the UK, was how it kind of had a cool, muted tone to it. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, so I came up with my own version.

Shooting the entire series kept her on her toes
There started to become a point when I was just so busy and they were prepping new episodes. I was on set shooting and looking at photos of new locations on my phone. It was a little insane but it all worked out, especially having such a strong crew supporting me.

The tone of the show is somewhere between comedy and drama
I’d call that genre “real life” (rather than dramedy). There are sad moments, funny moments and fucked up moments. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly like a gay “Girls”. It certainly has its own personality and mission. But there are similarities. Anyone could relate to it – straight or gay, male or female. The problems that the characters encounter could be attributed to any relationship – except for some very specific things. If you watch the show, you’ll find out. I think it’s really honest.

The series is a great source of pride
It’s definitely going to alienate some people. When they posted our trailer on Facebook it got a million comments. There were a lot of people who were very angry about the fact that they had to see two men kissing. It was really upsetting to me. I actually can’t believe that an ignorance to that level still exists, although it makes me even more proud to be a part of the show.

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