Hearts In Darkness

If you were to try summing up Cinedigm’s release Meadowland in just one word, “unflinching” certainly is among the first that comes to mind. The feature film directorial debut of cinematographer Reed Morano, ASC, chronicles the painful journey of schoolteacher Sarah and uniformed police officer Phil (producer Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson) as they attempt to deal with life together in the aftermath of their child’s abduction.

The bulk of the film takes place a full year after the boy disappears, but rather than treat grief as a plot complication or secondary thread, Meadowland tackles it head-on, depicting the volatile and disparate emotional states of the couple, whose lives continue to unravel under the awful weight of not knowing their son’s fate.

In 2013, Morano’s admission to the American Society of Cinematographers made her one of only a handful of female members in the ASC, but given the quality of her output as director of photography, the honor is well earned.

After graduating from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Morano amassed a prodigious array of feature credits (many of which competed at Sundance) originated via both film and digital acquisition, including Autumn Blood, Kill Your Darlings, The Skeleton Twins and Frozen River—plus two more recent forays into original-for-cable series for HBO, the first season of Looking and Vinyl, produced by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter.

A 2011 Kodak Vision Award winner, Morano’s transition to director began with a reading of scenarist Chris Rossi’s screenplay for Meadowland. The film’s storyline evolved over the course of a lengthy collaboration between the pair.

“During that year-plus of developing the script, I didn’t just give him one batch of notes,” reports Morano. “When I had an idea, we’d talk on the phone and make some adjustments. This slowly paced development really let me get to know the characters inside and out, which was super-important for my role as director, as I feel in that role you must know these people as if they’re your very own creation.”

Wearing more than one hat also helped forge a stronger connection between filmmaker and material, as Morano acted as her own DP and camera operator. “I bring a different mindset to things when directing,” she acknowledges, “because in that role it becomes possible—really, it’s essential—to affect changes to major aspects of the story, changes that can create ripples through the film and affect how story gets told. When DP’ing a show, however, you can affect things visually and tonally, but you can’t really introduce much that allows such drastic results.

“Using my knowledge as a cinematographer, during preproduction I set myself up for success,” she elaborates. “I knew the performances were what needed to come first, so I set things up to allow myself to stage and shoot with relative freedom. I wasn’t going to get screwed by a location—and it was all location—that didn’t lend itself to a good exposure through a long stretch of shooting day.

“For example, I got our main apartment location as a first floor space on a corner, so that gave us access to windows all around that I could bring light through. We were such a small-budget show that I couldn’t afford a huge crew, so I had to know how to deploy the limited resources we did have to good effect. But that wasn’t anything new for me; I shot Kill Your Darlings [for director John Krokidas], which, for a period piece was pretty low-budget, on a very tight schedule, too.”

Morano elected to capture via the ARRI ALEXA XT Plus, as the camera’s weight made her frequent handheld shooting a more comfortable ordeal. “We only had a few shots on sticks,” she says, adding that Meadowland was the second feature to use ARRI Master Anamorphics after A Most Violent Year (shot by Bradford Young, ASC).

While she acknowledges the value of storyboards for major action and effects sequences, Morano prefers not to utilize them in most situations. “The only exception to that would be if I’ve taken a photograph myself of a particular angle,” she allows, “but I usually just rely on a shot list—in this case, I made it up with input from my other self, the director, along with my 1st AD. That was primarily for the schedule and knowing what kind of coverage I’d need to get, as opposed to being part of any creative process. I didn’t want to lock into an idea in my head that would then run the risk of making me blind to a spur-of-the-moment development that could turn out to be a better way of capturing the emotional content of the thing.”

Morano’s approach to coverage didn’t even usually involve consulting her shot list. “Instead, I’d be working with the actors on blocking the scene, then make observations based on that about what I needed to capture,” she notes. “Once it was lit, I could just put the camera on my shoulder and start shooting. It sounds cliché, but this truly was an organic process. It could be as simple as thinking, ‘Cover this with a wide lens, then a longer lens, and get it again with this piece of information,’ or ‘I’m doing this with a roving master, then jump in for close-ups.’ There are only a few scenes with as many as four people. Most of the time, it’s just one or two people, which lends itself to this intimate way of working.”

Morano’s strong preference for telling the story visually is on display throughout the film, which relies only minimally on dialogue and allows the audience to discover these characters through their actions and inactions. That approach put her in good stead for the scene where Sarah, unable to sleep, walks on a seemingly endless odyssey through Times Square. “We didn’t have any dialogue to shoot there, which was a relief, as you can’t really bring Olivia Wilde into Times Square and shoot anything without being overtaken by a mob,” says Morano.

As was her preference through much of the shoot, Morano followed the actress with a handheld ALEXA, capturing at an exposure index of 800 in the uncontrolled big city nightscape (only one nighttime wide shot of a convenience store required adjustment to 1280).

“We kept her in that hoodie, which I figured would buy me a little time before people recognized her,” says Morano. “It was only when they saw me with the camera that it started becoming a problem. There was no rehearsal, I just told her that I would follow along for as far as we could go, which wound up being two takes, one of nine minutes and the other, eleven, as we went from 41st up to 46th and Broadway. It was very tricky, with me doing a lot of batting at people with my left hand while holding the camera in my right. At a couple points, I was so into shooting it that I started thinking, ‘This shot is running really long, when is it going to end?’ before I realized ‘I’m the one who has to end it.’”

Morano’s favorite moments operating arise out of what she can contribute to a scene’s emotional tone as it plays out. “It’s like when actors enjoy doing an improv,” she relates. “There’s a great sense of exploration when you do something spontaneous with the camera, and that was often the case when Olivia and I were doing a scene together. There’s one kind of closeness of working quietly with actors together as a director, setting up parameters to support a vision, and a different kind of intimacy when you’re operating and capturing them as they bring that vision to life. It can be exhausting, but is a more complete experience for a filmmaker.”

In her directorial debut for Meadowland, a story of a couple coping with the loss of their child, Reed Morano, ASC, also acted as DP and camera operator, forging a stronger connection between filmmaker and material. Morano chose the ARRI ALEXA XT Plus, as the camera’s weight made her frequent handheld shooting more comfortable. Meadowland also was the second feature to use ARRI Master Anamorphics after A Most Violent Year.

Morano admits to disliking the manner in which group therapy sessions are usually covered in both film and TV. “I think it was Luke who asked when I was going to do one of those ‘dolly around to show all the faces in the room’ shots that you always see in this kind of environment,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘Nope! Not going to do that.’ One, because I don’t have a dolly, but more importantly, two, because I don’t want to feel trapped or obligated to do that kind of shot, because the point of the scene was about making the audience feel what Luke was feeling. And he put across exactly what everybody feels in a session like that, focusing on how fucking uncomfortable it is to be there. And that meant almost never leaving his face. So there’s a feeling of doubt and awkwardness that puts across how he feels that plays against convention, but works in a more engaging way.”

Morano’s strong preference for telling the story visually is on display throughout the film, which relies only minimally on dialogue and allows the audience to discover these characters through their actions and inactions.

She was so confident of this approach that, with the exception of a few cutaway close-ups that weren’t used, no other angles were even captured that day.

The film’s emphasis on facial close-ups of the beleaguered couple in other scenes emerged during Meadowland’s editorial phase. “Editor Madeleine Gavin taught me a lot on this film, but I think we discovered this aspect together,” notes Morano. “There’s a wonderful moment when John Leguizamo’s character tells Luke Wilson about his painful past and initially we cut it by evenly dividing things between the two. Then we tore it down and really saw the point of the thing: That Luke’s hearing this coming from John causes him to realize this is his future. It’s more important to see this register on Luke, because the audience has access to this in the same way and learns to take this information from his perspective.”

During the DI at Company 3, the look of Morano’s film evolved even further than her initial LUT choices. “I was pretty satisfied during the shoot,” she admits, “but it was a lot more desaturated and cyan. Colorist Andrew Geary put me on to trying a more straightforward color, and we made an amazing discovery. I had performed very strict color control on the film, giving costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier and production designer Kelly McGehee swatches of colors and letting them both know those were all I wanted to see. I didn’t think they could pull it off, but they did, which is really hard to do on a budget. Anyway, with Andrew’s color suggestion, those original swatch choices came through much stronger, which made this much more the picture I imagined making than how I originally captured it.”

With a break opening in her busy schedule, Morano hopes to resume her campaign to inform the public on the issue of motion interpolation, the so-called “soap opera effect,” which comes as the default setting on new televisions.

“I haven’t had enough time to beat down all the doors I need to,” she relates, “though we did get more than 11,000 signatures on the petition I started, which was a good start. We’re not saying motion interpolation is a bad thing, in and of itself, but we think that filmmakers should be allowed to show their true intentions for the image, which is something we’re being robbed of if interpolation is the setting on a TV right out of the box. The bottom line is that manufacturers shouldn’t have control of our art.”

See the Meadowland trailer at newvideo.com/cinedigm/Meadowland.