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Spring 2017 Director's Profile: Reed Morano
Reed Morano
"How Do You See Me?"

As a director, Reed Morano made a major initial splash in indie filmmaking and then commercials—both in poignant vehicles starring Olivia Wilde, starting with Meadowland (2015) which earned nominations for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, Best Directorial Debut at Camerimage, and Best Cinematography (Morano also lensed the picture) at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Wilde portrays a mother who along with her husband (portrayed by Luke Wilson) grapples with the loss of a child, triggering the couple’s downward spiral. The authenticity of the film, tackling a story that’s a nightmare for any parent, resonated with viewers on a profound emotional level.

Fast forward to 2016 and Morano struck another responsive chord with audiences—and this time the ad community at large—via "How Do You See Me? for CoorDown, Italy’s national organization for people with Down syndrome. Saatchi & Saatchi NY creatives saw the empathetic and emotional gravitas of Meadowland, prompting the agency to gravitate to Morano for this public service short. Produced by Pulse Films—Morano’s roost for commercials and branded content—to mark World Down Syndrome Day (3/21/16), the piece features a girl with Down syndrome named AnnaRose Rubright narrating the life she wants to have. And in this life, she’s played by actress Wilde. This metaphor is aimed to ignite a conversation around how those living with Down syndrome see themselves and how they are often times disadvantaged when people pre-judge them based on their condition. People with Down syndrome are still too often victims of discrimination, and even more than what is said about them, the way other people look at them is a common indicator of this type of prejudice.

Such insightful, stirring work is a hallmark of Morano’s filmography which has since grown to include television. While she’s helmed single episodes of Showtime’s Billions and AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, Morano is now making her biggest TV impact on The Handmaid’s Tale, having directed and served as an EP on the first three episodes of the ongoing drama which streams on Hulu starting next month. Based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly part of the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a twisted religious fundamentalism that treats women as property of the state. As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commander’s household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world. In this terrifying society where one wrong word could end her life, Offred navigates between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas, and her fellow Handmaids—where anyone could be a spy for Gilead—all with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her.

Learning curve
Morano’s directorial ascent is explained in part by the way in which she broke into the helming ranks to begin with. While studying film at NYU, her original intent was to write and direct but she diverted her focus to cinematography. "I saw a DP at work and thought it was a fascinating job. You get to work with the director, interpret his or her vision into visuals. You learn the emotion of visuals. Every new job would push me creatively in a different direction—directions I wouldn’t have gone in if I had concentrated on directing. I didn’t give up directing. I just gravitated towards cinematography, figuring that could be what I’d end up doing professionally or maybe it would lead to directing."

As a cinematographer, she gained a valuable learning experience—but hers was no steppingstone approach. She excelled as a DP, evidenced by her earning a coveted ASC designation in 2013. Among her notable lensing credits were the lauded documentary Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa (winner of the Michael Moore Best Documentary Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival), and Frozen River, a narrative film which won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Best Film distinction at the Gotham Awards, and a pair of Film Independent Spirit Awards. Frozen River was key in putting Morano on the industry map, spawning offers to shoot varied projects, including features for Rob Reiner (The Magic of Belle Isle, And So It Goes) and Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), season one of HBO’s Vinyl for EPs Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, and the pilot for HBO’s Divorce directed by Jesse Peretz. Morano also lensed several commercials directed by the likes of Mark Romanek, Phil Morrison, Casey Storm, and the team of Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern.

Among those she collaborated with as a DP was producer Matt Tauber who witnessed her efforts to help a fledgling project through writing and development. "I remember him telling me that I should strongly consider directing," said Morano.

But Tauber offered more than a suggestion. He subsequently sent Morano several projects to consider as a director. None of them appealed to her until she ran across Meadowland. Morano was impressed with a particular scene that evoked emotion in a manner she hadn’t seen before. She came on board and made her directorial mark, now continuing to aspire to express emotions and convey stories in new ways, much like that scene in Meadowland which originally moved her.

Morano was similarly motivated to pursue The Handmaid’s Tale. "The source material was so compelling," shared Morano. "I put together the most extensive treatment/pitch I ever made. I did a lot of writing, deployed a lot of images. I ended up getting the job. Then what turned out to be a great experience and education began. I learned to work with a larger group of people who all brought different taste and thoughts to the table." 

Ultimately the major lesson learned, affirmed Morano, "was listening to others, working with them, getting them to support your vision and what you think is right—all this makes you a better collaborator and storyteller."

This experience of collaborating and gaining support for a directorial vision, continued Morano, could prove beneficial to her commercialmaking endeavors which entail dealing with many smart collaborators on the creative, production, VFX and post sides. 

Speaking of the ad biz, Morano recently wrapped via Pulse a commercial project shot in Portugal for NatGeo and agency 72andSunny. Though she wasn’t at liberty to discuss details of the piece, Morano said it entailed a notable person’s inspiring true story.

As for what’s next, Morano is about to embark on a feature which she described as a drama with some elements of dark comedy. Titled I Think We’re Alone Now, the movie stars Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage.