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DP Reed Morano on Making it as a Cinematographer Regardless of the ‘Female Thing’

DP Reed Morano on Making it as a Cinematographer Regardless of the 'Female Thing'

Now in its 13th year, NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Fusion Film Festival celebrates women in film, television and new media. The upcoming festival, which runs from February 26-28, will feature events with TV legends Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”) and Janet Tamaro (“Rizzoli and Isles”), “American Psycho” director Mary Harron in conversation with Mary Lambert (“Pet Sematary”) and cinematographer Reed Morano, Fusion’s “Woman of the Year.”

Among on-the-rise DPs, few are as impressive or as downright tenacious as Reed Moran, the youngest member to ever be admitted to the prestigious ASC. Following her breakout work on the award-winning “Frozen River,” she’s repeatedly proved her mettle, shooting indies such as “The Skeleton Twins” and “Kill Your Darlings” as well as HBO’s critically acclaimed series “Looking.” Leading up to this year’s Fusion Film Festival, Morano shared the following:

The times are changing.

When I was an undergraduate in Film & TV at NYU/Tisch School of the Arts most of the projects I shot had male directors, and only a few had female directors.  It was generally a little more male-oriented than it is now. After graduating, I was shooting as well as working as a key grip and I often found myself the only female out of the whole crew, except for producers and the occasional AC. Now, I see lots of women in a broader variety of roles.
There’s definitely a larger conversation about this going on. Some have been discussing wanting to see more equal opportunities in terms of hiring of female DPs on studio movies because they see that now there’s more equal opportunity going on for directors in that world. I just wouldn’t want to be hired that way. I would rather be hired solely for my talent, not just to fill a quota. I also don’t want to shoot just any studio movie just to say I’m shooting studio movies –  for me, quality of the material comes first and if eventually that leads to a really great studio project, then that’s a bonus.

The future looks bright.

I see more and more female filmmakers. Look at Ava Duvernay’s Golden Globe nomination and “Selma”‘s Oscar nomination – that’s a huge deal and a big step in the right direction. You can’t expect everything to happen all at once when it’s been such a male-dominated world for so long. It’s 2015 and still no female has ever been nominated for Best Cinematography. It’s shocking, but I have to believe that’s because not enough females had been shooting up until recent years. I do think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” shot by Ellen Kuras, should have been nominated and it still pisses me off that she wasn’t. On a positive note, I was recently at the ASC Open House in L.A. and I was approached by at least 15 up-and-coming female cinematographers. That, to me, is exactly what we need – to saturate the industry as strong filmmakers, not “female filmmakers” – and it’s a sign that times and storytelling are changing, for the better.

Balancing work and pregnancy isn’t easy. But it can be done. 

It was a really good time in my career for me to be pregnant. I was shooting features, but they were low-budget indie features. The hardest shoots were during my second pregnancy – a 35mm feature called “For Ellen” which we shot when I was four months pregnant in Massena, NY in the dead of winter.  The other was another 35mm feature called “Little Birds,” which I shot when I was seven to eight months pregnant out in the desert – the Salton Sea in California. Both were challenging in those weather extremes at different stages of pregnancy. On “Little Birds,” we regularly did 16-hour days because we only had 19 days to shoot the movie. My pregnancy may have actually been a benefit to that shoot – in tough conditions, the crew said it inspired them to see me with my giant belly, carrying the Panavision GII 35mm camera. The reason I was able to do these jobs at that time, was because of the support of the crew and when you love what you do, the adrenaline keeps you going. 

With that job, I noticed an interesting thing in that the only person who worried about me shooting while pregnant was another woman. She was like, “Well, I’m a little worried, maybe we should get you an operator.” I get that she was trying to be helpful, but she was the only person who was thinking I couldn’t do it. It’s interesting that sometimes the judgement can come from within our own gender. But it was refreshing having the men on the project not question my ability to perform my job.

Get experience and persevere.

I learned a lot while I was ACing and gripping for other DPs as I was coming up.  At NYU, I recognized I loved what I was doing and in order to be successful as a DP, I had to take risks and put myself out there, even if I didn’t always feel confident in my own skills as a beginner. Constantly shooting for others is where I gradually learned what worked and what didn’t work. After graduating, it got a lot tougher because I had to seek out the work in the real world while supporting myself in other jobs. All I wanted to do was shoot but first I was a waitress, a temp secretary, a teacher and an expediter in a restaurant. I realized very quickly that the only people who succeed in this line of work are the people who persevere, even when it gets tough to pay your rent and find what you’re looking for creatively.

Finding the right projects

One of the main things I’m immediately turned off by is too much dialogue and a story that has no faith in the intelligence of its audience by being overly expository. Less is nearly always more in storytelling. There’s a William S. Burroughs quote I’ve always try to remember when I’m working…”Start thinking in images, without words.”

Proudest moments

Right now, the movie I’m most proud of is “Meadowland” because I not only DP’d and directed it, but because it feels the most like “me” of everything I’ve ever done. I’ve never taken so many risks as a filmmaker and I’m so happy I did. Among the other projects I’m very proud of is “Kill Your Darlings” because it was so ambitious; a huge challenge. We had to re-create the year 1943, on a limited budget and it was a really ambitious, challenging shoot. But it was one of those experiences where everyone bonded because we all loved the story so much, even though it was roller coaster ride of a shoot. I feel so lucky I was able to shoot the first season of “Looking,” the HBO series, because of what it meant to the gay community. It was really important to me that I was a part of that.

Most important traits in a good DP

I joke around sometimes and say that the DP is like a shrink for the director, but there’s some truth in there. I want my directors to feel that they can completely rely on me once the shoot begins and that I’m in their brain – almost an extension of their brain. It’s my duty is to make everybody feel secure, from producers to directors to actors. Especially the actors – if I don’t make the actors feel as comfortable as possible in front of the camera, it’s possible they’re not going to be able to give their best performance. As a DP, I’ve found that my most invaluable skills besides lighting and using my eye are problem solving, diplomacy and being a great communicator.

Don’t get hung up on ‘the female thing.’

I would say don’t get hung up on the female thing. The art is not about that. I’m tired of hearing, “It’s so hard being a female filmmaker. Look at the percentages.” Honestly, if anything, I had an edge as a female because it set me apart from everyone else. What I would rather see happen would be more females thinking about “What is a story that hasn’t been told before or how can I tell this familiar story in a new way?” Finding new perspectives is what’s exciting to me.  Keep your focus. If you really want to do it, don’t let anything hold you back and you will.

READ MORE: 8 More Female Cinematographers You Should Know About

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