People spend decades — entire careers, even — seeking to perfect a single skill in Hollywood, climbing the industry's creative ladder as they painstakingly improve their craft.
Reed Morano, at the age of 41, is now moving on to scale her third major creative summit.
The Omaha-native began her career as a cinematographer, gaining acclaim for shooting shows like HBO's Looking, movies such as the Bill Hader-Kristen Wiig dark comedy The Skeleton Twins, and Beyoncé's instantly iconic long-form music video, Lemonade. Then she moved on to directing (while still serving as DP), starting with 2013's Meadowland, which starred Olivia Wilde, and then the first three episodes of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, for which she won an Emmy.
This weekend sees the expansion of her new feature, I Think We're Alone Now, which stars Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning as the only two people left in the United States after some sort of cataclysmic viral event. Morano is also writing her first feature screenplay, as she told SYFY WIRE in this new edition of the career-spanning SYFY WIRE Survey.
What is the first script you ever wrote?
Reed Morano: I haven't written a featured script of any kind. I have re-written like all the movies I've shot, I've basically done passes on the script, and I'm in the process right now of writing the first treatment for my own original feature, which is going to go into production, and I guess you could say it's in a sci-fi zone. I did write scripts in college, like when I was film school, but I don't really count that.
That counts. What were they about?
I had a short film that I did in college that was about — actually, now that I think about it, it's very twisted. It was a story about this sister, and obviously in a short film, you need to have a simple plot and a quick twist. It opens up on this girl who's sitting in a bathroom and she appears to be thinking. We're in a tighter shot on her, and she's leaning down and you don't see below what she's doing, we just see that she's sitting on the edge of the bathtub. And we start to go flashback and see all these scenarios of her being tormented by another kid, who's her younger sister. There's a bit of dark comedy in it.
At the end, it’s revealed that she's holding her sister's head underwater in the tub. Then she decides at the very last second to let her sister come out of the water. That's really f**ked up. I haven't thought about that.
Then years later, you went and directed The Handmaid’s Tale.
Yeah, I know. I guess there's a little bit of foreshadowing in there. It was funny. Both my younger sisters were in it.
So it was very authentic. I hope they weren’t worried.
No. It was just another one of Reed's movies. They were like, whatever.
So you made a lot of movies back then?
In high school, we had a video camera, and my dad bestowed to me the job of being the family documentarian. That very quickly turned into me making commercials with my siblings. I was the oldest of five and I was putting them in my different productions, and that was a pretty regular occurrence in our family. Mostly a lot of music videos, soap opera-type material. All over the map.
So you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
I wanted to be a writer actually. I wasn't really thinking about making movies, although movies were a very big deal in my family, and movies probably had the most profound effect on me. I was also a very avid reader and I wrote books. I was shy, and I kinda kept to myself, and I think that sometimes a person who wants to be a storyteller, they default to a thing that they can do on their own. Being a writer is sort of a great thing you can do on your own and discover by yourself with a low-risk factor.
At a certain point when I got to high school, I wasn't writing as much anymore. I had written lots of books, long stories. When I got to high school I couldn't really write anymore. I think it was a combination of the fact that I was less alone — I had more friends, I was less focused on stuff by myself — and I got into photography. So then when I started to apply to colleges, I applied to [Boston University] for journalism first, and then my dad was like why don't you apply to NYU for film school, because you love to tell stories and you love to take pictures? So it feels like a great combination.
I was like, oh that would be cool, that sounds like a lot more fun. Because journalism sounds like a real job, but also it sounded cool to me. And I wanted to do that and I was already writing for the school newspaper and all these things. I just thought that was a very exotic, exciting job, but then the film school thing came up and not many parents obviously pushed their kid to go to film school. And my dad also is the same person who gave me the camera. He clearly had a long-term plan, and I thought, let me give it a shot, and I submitted a portfolio of my writing and my photographs and I got into NYU. I went there for undergrad.
So your dad knew all along what you’d do.
I guess so. Unfortunately, he passed away in my freshman year of college, literally the weekend that I figured out I wanted to pursue cinematography as a start. So he never got to hear that. It was interesting that was the first time I had some kind of certainty or clarity about what I really wanted to do.
He did a good job obviously putting you in the right direction.
He did. He really did. I think he would be very pleased with himself
Do you have an artistic hero?
Mostly when I was younger, I was looking up to writers. I did look up to some photographers. I think when I got to college it started to open up my eyes and I became an even more avid movie watcher, and I became obsessed with certain styles of filmmaking. I think the first thing I got really excited about was the Coen Brothers. Before that, I was a fan of all kinds of movies. Then I saw Raising Arizona, and I was super into it, and then I started to get into this weird sense of humor type of filmmaking.
As I pursued cinematography, there were only a few female cinematographers at that time. There was basically five people you could talk about, if that, and obviously Ellen Kuras was sort of an icon, an idol. She still is for me. Except now, we're peers and we're friends, which is the coolest thing ever. It's so funny because I remember the first time my agent introduced me to her, I was so star struck. She had no idea who I was. Now I can call her up and we can go hang out for the weekend. It's the most amazing thing to be able to work with your idols or talk to your idols.
And then also from a photography standpoint, there is one person whose work really inspired lots of photographers, but Todd Hido is the inspiration for a lot of filmmakers. He's a great photographer and he's a good friend of mine as well. He lives in San Francisco, so I was able to meet him when I went over and was a DP on the HBO show called Looking.
Any unlikely inspirations?
I don't know if I would say there are any unlikely artistic inspirations, but for me probably one of my biggest inspirations as a filmmaker is music. I know that's the same for many filmmakers, so it's not so original, but I would say music helps me form the tension in a scene more than anything else. I would say maybe the biggest artistic inspiration for me, maybe not in the last 10 years, but I would say seven years was Jóhann Jóhannsson. He passed away recently and that was a super depressing thing for me. His music is majorly present in all my work in terms of using it as temp to get me to a place.
What’s the hardest scene you ever shot?
I would say definitely one of them was the Salvaging in The Handmaid's Tale, because it was day two of shooting at all ever in the entire history of the show. We had 250 background actors, all dressed in Handmaid’s costumes; it was the first time the Handmaid costumes came out, and the Salvaging, it's in the book, but now you're visualizing what this is.
How did the Handmaids walk? Are they in formation? The AD department had a hell of a task ahead of them. There was so much ground to cover in that whole Salvaging sequence, and we only had two days to shoot it, and we began it on the second day of shooting our show. It was a little nuts. I would say that was challenging, but we got through it and we had fun.
It must have been weird to see that many handmaids right away.
Yeah, because no one had really seen the handmaid costumes, we just sort of made them up.
One scene I loved in I Think We're Alone Now is when Peter Dinklage is in the dark desert and then sees the city in the distance.
That's my favorite moment in the whole movie. I have a lot of moments I'm really attached to, but that moment gets me emotionally. I think it's so weird too, because normally in any other film that would be the moment of extreme joy. That's what that character has been searching for in a typical movie, and in this movie it's horrifying to him. It's so sad.
How’d you do it?
We just did the old fashioned bracketing exposure. That was a run and gun shoot. That section of the shoot, we went to Palm Springs and we had five people on our crew, no equipment except for the camera, we didn't have any lights there because we weren't even really supposed to be shooting.
I knew it would be just like everything else, it would be at dusk in the movie, because it couldn't be pitch black, because I didn't have a way to ensure I could see the city view at night in a way that's gratifying on film. You want it to be just dark enough so the city lights are on, but you don't want it to be so dark that you can't see everything around you, because he's essentially in the middle of the desert so there are no other lights around him, except for the headlights on a car.
It worked out really nicely. I had a piece of whiteboard that I had someone hold, and he basically walks out of the car, and the headlights are bouncing back onto him, and it's blue all around. Very natural.
What has been your best day on set?
On I Think We’re Alone Now, I don't know if I would say it was my best day on set, but I would say it was certainly one of the most exciting days. We only had a limited amount of days we could shoot in the library, therefore only a limited amount of dusks we could shoot, and shooting at dusk in the library was a very big requirement because the window room looks out over the Hudson River and we didn’t have the budget on this type of a movie to go put a moon over that river and make it all lit up.
The way that I thought I could make the movie look the most beautiful and get the most mileage out of the location — and the only reason to have that location — is to see out that window. It made sense to me that they would hang out up there when it was still a little bit light. They don't really have lights, they eat dinner at dusk and go downstairs and go to bed, or she'd go back to her house.
We only had a few dusks, so my AD was like, I know you're not going to like this, but you're going to have to shoot these two scenes back to back, we have to shoot them simultaneously. We only have one night to shoot them. It was the projection scene and the firework scene.
We had the fireworks be practical. They were on a barge outside, and I didn't want to do visual effects of fireworks, I wanted real fireworks, which made it a lot more complicated, but also it was cheaper and looked better. Once it started to get just dark enough, we started shooting the same stuff over and over until we can't shoot anymore because it's too dark. That scene was shot over the course of a dusk into night, at the same time as that projection scene where Grace is projecting a movie.
They were both taking place on the same floor in the library, so we'd run from one room to the other, and while the fireworks people were setting up a new load of fireworks, we'd run into the projection room and shoot a bit of that scene and then run back. The thing is, both of those scenes become super emotional, and I remember crying when we were doing the projection scene because there was this beautiful moment where they were both looking at the movie.
It was one of those great moments on a set where the whole team pulls off the impossible and it looks incredible and you're just like, what a crazy job we have. It's a beautiful experience. It was crazy making it, but it was still a really fun time.
On a really somber show or movie, how do you have a really great or fun day on set? Do things just weigh on you?
I think in any somber scenario in filmmaking, nine times out of 10, those are the most fun sets because you're doing things so dark that everybody naturally has to pull themselves out of it between takes. There's a lot of jokes to be made on a Handmaid's Tale set, especially if you're making The Handmaid's Tale for the first time. The first three episodes it was like you were all figuring out what this world was, and there's no shortage of being able to make fun of it. We had a real blast.
That’s a relief to hear!
And all those actors are very funny. They're not really method, at least they weren't on this, so Lizzy has the uncanny ability that she needs a few minutes with her headphones on before she goes into a scene, and then she comes out and we're just cracking jokes.
What’s the worst day you’ve ever had on set?
Oh man, I don't know. It would probably be not on any of these sets. On the one that I've directed, I don't think that would have ever been my worst day on set. I've had really bad days on set as a cinematographer, because you're not in control of the vibe on set. The worst days I've ever had on set, the vibe was set by someone in power above me, and not a good vibe, and that's not the way I like to work, and I think that's in many ways why I moved into directing, because then the set is what I want it to be, which is a fun time.
Was there a moment that made you take that leap?
Just that someone gave it to me, and I had been handed a bunch of scripts prior to that, and that one felt like I could do this. I wasn't really trying to direct at that point. I was content being a DP, and I always planned to direct at some point, if the right thing came along, but I wasn't in any rush, or desperate to direct, or trying to get a movie made. Unlike most directors, I was pushing it off, and people were asking me to do it, because they saw how I was as a DP and I think they thought I would be a good leader or a good storyteller, and I just saw how wonderful directors make themselves. I was in no rush to go get off my day job to go possibly embarrass myself, you know.
It’s a risk, when you’re so successful in one field, to transition to something else.
It is. And especially if you're doing well and you like what you do. What I did find I was getting frustrated with directing, there are many directors I worked with that I love and respect and I think are geniuses, but then there are other directors that I worked with that I'm just like, how the hell did a person get a movie financed? They have zero narrative sense. You just work with the gamut and then it does come to a point where you're frustrated that you put in all this blood, sweat, and tears but the outcome of the movie kind of has nothing to do with you. At the end of the day, it's in someone else's hands. You could shoot the most beautiful movie on earth, but the movie could go nowhere.
That was heartbreaking to me, because I really felt like the way I felt about all the movies I DPed was as if they were my own. It felt like it was a very natural progression to eventually start being like, all right now I'm going to be in control of the edit and the sound of the music, because I think I can do something here.
What’s the best piece of creative advice you’ve ever received?
I think the best creative tip I ever received was to never be satisfied when you think about a movie. There have been many great pieces of advice I've received over the years, but it’s don't be satisfied. Once you've cut something together, it's good to take it apart... Something I think about when I'm in the edit is whether this scene is everything it could be, or am I just clunking it down the way that it was written in the script?
It's just something I think about. I would say it's something I learned myself; sometimes you are editing movies so fast you go through it and you're like, "OK, that scene works, just leave it there," and then you realize, if you go through it enough times, you're like, "You know what, this scene is simply performing the function of telling us some kind of exposition." You’ve got to think, "How can I make every moment of the movie be exciting?" I just think you have to always think as a filmmaker in order to challenge yourself, you can't just accept what's written on the page, you always have to think, "How can I elevate this thing?" That actually is something we said to each other on Handmaid's Tale.