Fusion’s Woman of the Year, Reed Morano, Talks the Industry’s Gender Issue, Shooting While Pregnant, Her Proudest Works, and More
By Amanda Saiewitz and Ben Eisen, PR and Editorial Heads
In many ways, 2014 was a great year for female filmmakers. Audiences adored Gillian Robespierre’s hilarious and progressive Obvious Child, Jennifer Kent’s terrifyingly visceral The Babadook, and Ava Duvernay’s authentic and complex Selma. Beyond these few names, however, women were again hugely underrepresented in the industry. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only 7% of the 250 top grossing domestic films had a woman at the helm. That’s 7% for half the population.
Now in its thirteenth year, NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Fusion Film Festival strives to alter this shocking disparity by celebrating women in film, television, and new media, from student to icon. While Fusion rewards female directors and DPs in its festival competitions, it also promotes gender collaboration amongst crews (i.e. female director, male DP) and the rich work such balance creates. The upcoming festival, February 26-28, will feature events with TV legends Amy Sherman-Palladino and Janet Tamaro, American Psycho’s Mary Harron in conversation with Pet Sematary’s Mary Lambert, and distinguished cinematographer Reed Morano, Fusion’s “Woman of the Year.”
Among on-the-rise DPs, few are as impressive or as downright tenacious as Morano. Following her breakout work on Frozen River, she’s repeatedly proved her mettle, shooting indie success The Skeleton Twins, vital music doc Shut Up and Play the Hits,and HBO’s critically acclaimed series Looking. Morano’s a technical master, a gifted storyteller, and a leading exemplar of Fusion’s mission. To mark the occasion, we spoke with Morano about the industry’s gender problem, the realities of shooting while pregnant, and her proudest works.
Since you’ve been in the industry, how have you seen crew/roles for women change?
When I was an undergraduate in Film & TV at NYU/Tisch School of the Arts, many 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 and working as a key grip and I often found myself the only female out of the whole crew, except for producers. Now, I see lots of women in a broader variety of roles.
There’s definitely a larger conversation about this going on. Some women wish that there were more equal opportunities in terms of hiring of DPs on studio movies because now there’s more equal opportunity going on for directors in that world. I just happen to disagree because I wouldn’t want to be hired that way. I would rather be hired for my talent. I also don’t want to shoot just any studio movie. Ideally, I want the most quality scripts I can find. That’s not something that equal opportunity is going to get you.
What do you see for the future?
I see more and more female filmmakers. Look at Ava Duvernay’s Golden Globe nomination and her movie’s Oscar nom – 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 it wasn’t. I was recently at the ASC Open House in LA 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 women filmmakers – and it’s a sign that times and storytelling are changing, for the better.
How were you able to balance work and pregnancy? What was the greatest challenge?
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 shoot was probably a feature called Little Birds,which I shot when I was seven to eight months pregnant. It was a difficult challenge; we did 16-hour days because we only had 19 days to shoot the movie. It worked out because my being pregnant helped inspire the crew. 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 judgment 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.
What were some of your seminal filmmaking experiences while at NYU?
I learned a lot while I was ACing for this other DP named Frederick Menou. That was a valuable experience in terms of accumulating knowledge about cinematography because he would teach me about lighting as he did it. At NYU, I recognized I loved what I was doing and in order to be successful at it I had to take risks and put myself out there as a DP even if I didn’t always feel confident in my own skills as a beginner. Through doing and making my own mistakes as a DP for others, I learned. After graduating, it got a lot harder because I had to seek out the work in the real world while supporting myself in other ways. 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.
What do you look for in scripts that you have the opportunity to shoot?
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 always try to remember when I’m working…“Start thinking in images, without words.”
What films or experiences are you proudest of?
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.” I’ve never taken so many risks as a filmmaker and I’m so happy I did. Another project I’m very proud of is Kill Your Darlings because it was so ambitious, a huge challenge. We had nine movie stars, only 24 days of shooting, and were recreating the year 1943, on a limited budget, so it was a really tough shoot. But it was one of those shoots where everyone bonded because we loved the story so much, even though it was roller coaster ride of a shoot. I’m [also] so proud of Looking, the HBO series I did the first season of, because of what it meant to the gay community. It was really special to get to be a part of that.
What makes a successful collaborator?
Being a good listener. I joke around sometimes and say that the DP is like a shrink for the director, but there’s some truth in there. I strive to be completely there for my directors so they can totally trust me and rely on me. It’s my duty 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.
What advice would you give aspiring, particularly female, filmmakers?
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 women thinking, “What is a story that hasn’t been told before?” and using our unique minds to find new perspectives. Keep your focus. If you really want to do it, don’t let anything hold you back and you will.
(*See an alternate version of this article on Indiewire: http://www.indiewire.com/article/dp-reed-morano-on-making-it-as-a-cinematographer-regardless-of-the-female-thing-20150224)