Nebraska-born cinematographer and director Reed Morano is the first woman in history to win an Emmy and a Directors Guild of America Award for her role directing the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale — Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of the same name. Yet she is surprisingly cautious, if not a little cynical, about her venture into what she long saw as the “cheap version of a movie.”
“I just love the idea of making a movie, seeing it on the big screen, how you feel when you watch movies — with the greatest movies you feel changed afterward, you feel like you almost become one of the characters… if it’s a great movie it will affect you forever and you'll always remember it.”
Morano is speaking to me over Zoom from her apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives with her two young boys (Morano has separated from their father, director Matthew Walker, although he remains one of her “closest collaborators” in work). She landed back in the city just yesterday, following a stint in London where she’s been working on her latest TV project — the 10-episode adaptation of Naomi Alderman's award-winning novel, The Power, for which she’s directing several episodes.
Picking up her laptop, Morano gives me a quick glimpse of her chic backdrop. Behind her, an oversized velvet sofa stands opposite a large painting propped up against egg-shell blue walls. She’s framed by a ginormous, floor-to-ceiling window, which explains the halo-like glow in which she is currently ensconced.
Thanks to Morano’s relentless schedule, our interview has been rearranged several times over the past few weeks but she’s finally managed to squeeze me in on a Sunday afternoon, between morning calls and time with her kids.
If she’s as exhausted as her schedule would suggest, you wouldn’t guess. With her doll-like face framed by a jet black fringe and a heavy, gold-chain necklace, she wears a black and white chequered jumper with cropped sleeves that reveal her tattooed arms.
Setting aside her general reticence towards directing for TV, Morano says she had specific reservations about working on The Power because of its obvious overtones with A Handmaid’s Tale. (Naomi Alderman was Atwood’s literary protege and the dystopic, matriarchal world she paints bears clear testament to that).
“I can’t be a one-trick pony. This isn’t all I want to do,” she says.
But in the end, it was too compelling a story to turn down.
“In the way that Margaret Atwood was really pushing the boundaries at that time [with A Handmaid’s Tale]… predicting the future and in many ways telling the story of the present, the same thing is true of Naomi’s book.
“What I love about The Power is that while you expect this world to be a sort of utopia, because women run it… it's really this amazing study on how power is the same no matter who wields it. And that's the interesting thing.”
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the French philosopher, Voltaire, famously noted.
Morano owes her love of film in large part to her dad, Casey, who one day handed her a film camera when she was 14 and tasked her with becoming the family documentarian. But as an intensely shy child at the time, she had little interest in filmmaking, preferring to spend her spare time writing stories.
“I didn't have any interest in picking up the camera,” she explains, “I knew that having a camera forced you to capture somebody in their personal space, and that seemed to require you to breach other people's boundaries in a weird way.
“It’s a complicated role, being behind the camera. Even now I remain sensitive to that when I’m just using my iPhone to film a friend or even a stranger in the street. I still think ‘Oh, God, is that going to offend them?’”
But then something clicked and soon she was spending hours lying in the grass filming ‘who knows what’ before eventually turning the camera onto her younger-brother-turned-muse
“I would film him doing commercials for various products around the house,” she laughs. “I have this great commercial of him getting out of the shower wrapped in a towel with a bottle of some 80s shampoo saying something like ‘Dermax, for softer hair’. You can hear me behind the camera saying ‘action’ and ‘cut’.
It was Morano’s dad too who later persuaded her to apply to NYU film-school, where she became fascinated by cinematography. She recollects returning from one of her very first film shoots there awed by the role of the DP (director of photography) and with the idea that the audience ultimately sees the film through their eyes.
“I came away from that shoot knowing I wanted to be the person behind the camera.”
That same weekend, in what Morano describes as some ‘strange cosmic thing’, her dad had a heart attack and passed away. “Up until that point, I had been so confused about what I wanted to do with my life. Then after that shoot I knew with absolute certainty that this is where I should go and what I should do. It felt as though he had set that in motion and then moved on.”
But it wasn’t until 2008, some seven years after graduating from NYU, that she had her first real break as a cinematographer, on an American crime drama film called Frozen River, about two working-class women who smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States. The success of the film, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and get nominated for numerous other awards, was a surprise to all involved, Morano remembers. “I was still DP-ing on reality TV shows to make my pay-cheque at the time — including one home improvement show called ‘Don’t Sweat it’ where we were literally filming paint dry.”
Darkness, loss and grief have run through her work ever since — A Handmaid’s Tale and The Power proving fitting continuations of this theme.
“I think sometimes as filmmakers, or even actors… you're trying to face your greatest fears through your art. Maybe there's some kind of weird sort of subconscious need to do that…” she says.
As a mother of two, Morano may well have been confronting her worst nightmare — every parent’s, for that matter — working on her feature-film directorial debut, Meadowland (2015). While on a road trip, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Owen Wilson) make a quick pit stop at a gas station, where their young son is snatched.
“There's no way I could ever begin to imagine what those parents went through. That’s the challenge of being a filmmaker — you have to try to put yourself in someone else's place and have empathy, empathy that doesn't condescend. I probably just drew then on whatever of my own personal experiences I felt were close enough to that — like getting to a point where I was so sick I didn't know if I would ever get to do things with my kids anymore.”
A few months before she had been due to start shooting Meadowland, Morano was diagnosed with Stage II Squamous Cell Carcinoma (a common form of skin cancer). She was bed-bound for months as she underwent intensive radiation and chemotherapy. Just two months after going into remission, they started filming — no mean feat given this was the first film on which Morano was both director and DP.
The decision to take on both roles was one many sought to dissuade her from at the time, but one she’s repeated multiple times since. It allows her to maintain what she sees as a crucial proximity to the actors she’s working with, and in the case of Meadowland specifically, to create a space in which she could hold the very intense vulnerability demanded of Olivia Wilde’s performance.
“There is just some kind of bond between the camera and the actor,” she explains.
“And because of that decision, I opened up a very special relationship between Olivia's character and the camera because I was there with her. I was sending her off on a journey that was extremely painful — she was herself a new mum at the time — and this way she wouldn't feel like she was on that journey alone because I was close to her. Off-camera I was often holding her hand or touching her or just letting her know I was there.”
To prepare herself to enter the world of whatever she’s filming next, Reed always starts with music. “Making a playlist that is representative of either the world that movie is creating or a tonal feeling, songs that maybe the character would listen to,” she explains.
Her style too will then often be reflected in the sartorial choices of the characters she’s working with, further reinforcing her total immersion into their world.
“Blake Lively’s character in Rhythm Section and Elle Fanning’s character in I Think We’re Alone Now both wore clothes I would definitely wear,” she reflects.
“When I’m on set I tend to dress androgynously and practically, with a slight edge of femininity,” she elaborates. A trusty pair of vintage Levi jeans are a staple, naturally. “I used to wear a lot of cargo pants, but now I’ve found old Levi jeans that just really fit and aren’t too trendy. They’re just standard great jeans.”
And what about when she’s not on set and in action mode?
When it comes to dressing up, Reed smiles, to go ‘out-out’, “I’ll opt for a Mara Hoffman skirt a plain shirt or t-shirt.”
Our time is coming to an end as Morano’s two children are due to arrive back at the apartment any moment. But before we leave what feels to me like our virtual dinner-date I ask what advice she tends to offer the young cinematographers she tells me she’s currently carving out time to mentor.
“When I started out, I was very focused and driven, but I wasn’t in a rush,” she says. “I didn't ever think ‘oh, I'm not at the level I should be right now’. I was always enjoying the level I was at.
“And what I've noticed with a lot of people in this generation is that they think they need to already be at their final destination. I still don't know what my final destination is. But I just enjoy every step of the journey, because even when things are hard, and the job is rough, and maybe things aren't going exactly the way I want them to be, I still pinch myself. I'm like, I still can't believe I can even have this job to complain about, you know? I'm so lucky.”
I bid Morano goodbye, buoyed by her words and vowing to myself to head straight to the cinema to be awed by the magic of the big screen.