The Gut Punch of Grief

Accomplished DP Reed Morano talks her directorial debut, Meadowland

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One of the most talked-about films this year at Tribeca was Meadowland. Cinephiles have been awaiting DP Reed Morano’s directorial debut for quite some time now. She’s delivered impressive visuals on Kill Your Darlings, The Skeleton Twins and Frozen River and her first feature is no exception.

In Meadowland, Olivia Wilde stars as Sarah, a woman whose son has been missing for over a year. Her husband Phil (Luke Wilson) is grieving in his own way, going to support groups and trying to lead a normal existence as a cop. Sarah, though, is heading into darker waters, retreating from her job as a teacher and becoming fascinated with heavy metal and masochistic tendencies. As Sarah loses grip on her sanity, she also travels closer to the meaning of loss and how to cope with it. The supporting cast is also stellar, featuring Giovanni Ribisi as Phil’s brother Tim, Elizabeth Moss, Juno Temple, John Leguizamo and Scott Mescudi.

Wilde delivers her most vulnerable performance yet and although Morano isn’t in front of the camera, her bravery is obvious as well. Paste had a chance to chat with the director at the Smyth Hotel during the festival the day after the film’s premiere.

Morano was more than open about why she chose to explore grief in her first venture and her own roots with loss. Most everyone has heard about her shooting films while pregnant, a feat that deserves a serious round of applause, but she has also battled cancer. Morano is inspiring in her journey, describing how her experiences helped her find the truth in the film, as her own DP and finally telling her own story.

Paste: Why did you choose this story for your first film?
Reed Morano: It’s funny. I have a producer friend of mine, he read the script and he was like, “Reed, this is a really bad choice for a first film” because the risk is so high with it. It’s the type of film where it’s either going to fail big or be big. It’s a tough subject matter. It’s not as commercial. I really like watching comedy, but in the stories I tell I really like shooting emotional stuff. I really react to the layers underneath, not just the surface emotion that we see in a lot of film. Grief has not often been portrayed with the depth that it deserves. I’m not claiming that I could do that but I thought, Wow, it would be an interesting challenge to see how far we could go and feel a little bit, for a few moments, feel that gut punch that the characters are feeling. I thought, If you’re going to do it, go big or go home. If you fail, at least you tried. For me, rather than make vanilla, I’d rather make a crazy flavor that no one else has tried before.

Paste: Telling this story properly, letting the audiences’ vulnerabilities be that of the characters’, requires you as a filmmaker to be vulnerable. Did you have something in your past you had to access?
Morano: My dad passed away when I was 18 and he was my best friend. He’s the person who actually suggested I go to film school and he gave me my first video camera. In the meetings with Luke, when he first walks into that meeting and it’s like the Twilight Zone, that was some ad lib stuff I told Skipp [Sudduth] to say. I always remember after my dad passed away, the world didn’t feel normal. I did use a little bit of that. Then recently, in December of 2013, I was diagnosed with cancer, with Stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma. I always had a pretty good prognosis and I’m just naturally a pretty optimistic person, which you probably wouldn’t guess from this movie.

Paste: I guessed from the fact that you DPed multiple films while pregnant!
Morano: I like to work a lot! But yeah, that whole experience with the cancer was the darkest experience I think I ever had after my dad passing away because of the physical pain. The physical pain resulted in the emotional pain or maybe just thinking too much about things, not being around people, not being able to work. I couldn’t do anything on my own and I had a feeding tube. My husband had to put all the food in it. I had six to eight weeks when I wasn’t speaking because of the mouth pain. When you don’t talk for over a month it’s liberating in many ways to not have to talk about it. For me, the way I dealt with it, I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to focus on How do I get through the next five minutes without pain? Going through that experience didn’t make me understand what Phil and Sarah are going through but gave me a different perspective to come at the project with. When Sarah is in the bathroom and she’s brushing her teeth and the toothpaste falls off in the water and she doesn’t bother putting on new toothpaste, that happened to me when I was going through radiation. I never put makeup on. I wore the same pajamas. I looked inhuman. That’s how I feel like Sarah feels. What she’s going through is probably a trillion times worse than what I went through on a mental level.

Paste: Because the film exists in this place of pain, how do you as a storyteller propel the film forward?
Morano: I think what it is, if you hang in there, there are moments of humor that are sprinkled throughout. After my dad passed away, I saw how different people in my family were dealing with the grief. That fascinated me and that’s why I wanted to do this. Humor still exists even though we’ve just lost this person that’s everything to us. I was in the bathroom with my mom the morning after my dad passed away. I had gotten a tattoo the past summer [that] I had hidden from both of my parents. My dad already told me, “I hate tattoos.” I was devastated but for some reason in that moment I was like, What can I do? I have this relief, I can show her the tattoo! I was like, “Take a look at this” and it made her laugh. She was like, “Dad would be so mad at you right now!”

Paste: That reminds me of the moment on the roof when Sarah’s brother in law, Tim, sees her cuts. At the same time, you see her liberated and happy. Tell me about that roof scene.
Morano: The script went through a lot of modifications, but the roof scene came in when I wanted to flesh out the Tim character a little bit more and make him another person that could potentially bond with Sarah or be more aware of what’s really happening to her. I think my approach to the whole film was like, See what [the actors] do first. Olivia and I always talked about that scene broadly as being a happy moment. What’s interesting is that I didn’t tell that to Giovanni. He took what Olivia and I wanted to do and added another layer to it. It’s simultaneously happy and devastating. She’s so happy and feeling a release and he’s realizing how fucked up she is.

Paste: It gives his character more depth because it might be a wake-up call for him. You shoot the whole film handheld. Why did you choose to do that?
Morano: The way I work is very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, even as a DP.

Paste: You don’t shot list?
Morano: I definitely shot listed this movie, but it was broad. I like documenting in a véríte way and the choice to DP and operate it, it gave me the freedom to discover my story really with the actors. We shot the movie in 22 days, so I knew the magic had to happen in that moment. For me operating the camera handheld, there’s more of an emotion to it and it becomes almost more like a character in the scene. I really hate shaky handheld. I’m very judgmental of my own and I always try to be as still as possible. Also, when Olivia was doing something, I could react to what [she was] doing in the moment. Everything was much more organic that way.

Paste: It feels like you really made this movie with your friends. You worked with Juno Temple previously. Did having that family around for your first feature help you get through?
Morano: Oh yeah. I mean, Juno was so pumped. I texted her, “Will you be in my movie?” and she was like, “Send me the script!” She read it and was like, “I would bloody love to be in your beautiful movie!” It’s just one scene! She’s so awesome. Even with the crew, it was all crew I’ve worked with for years.

Paste: Looking back after your making your first movie, how have you changed or what did you learn?
Morano: I think I learned I really like telling the story myself. Although I still love DP-ing and interpreting other directors’ ideas, I think I do want to make another film. It was such a cathartic experience and having that relationship, that next level, with the actors is so special to me. Also, the editing process was fucking amazing. I think what I’ve learned is that I want more.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.