Reed Morano won an Emmy on Sunday, for directing the pilot for drama series The Handmaid’s Tale. In doing so, she became the first woman in 22 years to win in that category, since Mimi Leder picked one up in 1995 for ER. For Morano, a cinematographer working for nearly two decades and known for projects like Frozen River, The Skeleton Twins, Looking and more, the win felt a like a long time coming. But it also signaled the start of a new era in her career as a director.
With experience directing one feature, Meadowland, under her belt, as well as a few episodes of other shows, Morano’s work in The Handmaid’s Tale is among her most ambitious. You can see her meticulous eye while watching the show, for which she handled the first three episodes; Morano brings to life Offred’s sardonic internal narrative from the book, and terrifies you with the unsettling, close-to-home depiction of Gilead.
Here Jezebel talks with Morano about her career, her work on the acclaimed feminist series, and the problems with the conversation around “female directors.” Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: It’s only been a few days after your Emmy win, how are you feeling?
REED MORANO: I feel great, it’s amazing. It feels almost like a weird haze of I can’t believe that just happened.
You’ve been in the industry several years, but when did you first decide you wanted to work in film and television?
Basically when I was deciding to go to college. I was applying to colleges and was going to apply to Boston University for journalism and my dad suggested film school. I was really into photography in high school and I wrote a lot when I was younger, writing religiously from the time I was in kindergarten to when I was in high school. Also, when I was in third grade my dad had brought back a video camera for me, an old video camera that was one of the first that you could fade in and fade out on. He sort of assigned me the job of being the family documentarian and I had been filming my family since I was in third grade. So when I applied to school my dad was like, it seems like you should go to film school. That was the first time I was like oh, that can be a job—that sounds a lot better, actually!
What would you say are the kinds of stories you’re drawn to across your career?
It’s definitely evolved over time. I started out doing cinematography, even though I went to school for directing, because it just felt [like] that was the way I could get on as many sets as possible. At that time, dramas were most interesting to me because I wanted the opportunity to create sort of moodier lighting. But I also realized I wanted to make serious films, I wanted to make films that moved people. The very first film that I got as a cinematographer that was right up my alley was Frozen River. I became obvious to me that was the stuff I like to do.
When I moved into directing in 2014 and when I shot [my movie] Meadowland, I was doing a similar kind of thing, the dark drama. I’ve now found myself wanting to do things that are still a little heightened, stuff that’s not just straight comedy. Even if [the material] is funny, the subject matter would also have elements that are deeply profound. I guess I like doing projects that create a range of emotions.
Handmaid’s Tale had a very specific, intimate aesthetic and feel. How would you say your work as a cinematographer affects your work as a director?
It affects it a lot in so many different ways. There are just things that I know from experience that a lot of directors don’t know because they don’t work on as many sets. Many directors are exceptions to the rule who haven’t had that experience, but a lot of directors who have not worked on a volume of movies before they started directing have a different on set demeanor and it may be harder for them to come up to a quick solution to a problem. One of the main skill sets of being a director is being able to come up with alternatives or solve problems really fast. If someone has an issue with something, for example an actor, someone has to be able to know how to find a solution for that in the quickest way.
Along with that comes having a great bedside manner. One of the side effects of being a great cinematographer is that one of the main parts of your job is to make the actor feel as comfortable as possible and completely unselfconscious so that they can do their best work. DPs have great bedside manner because they’re used to being actors’ allies.
Then on an obvious note, the things I brought from being a cinematographer are knowing where to put the camera, knowing five different ways to block a scene, knowing how to compose a frame. It’s having an eye in general. You’d be surprised, there are plenty of directors who completely rely on their cinematographers to bring that special thing to it. It helps knowing exactly what you want because every minute on set costs money, the quicker you can communicate the better the results.
You mentioned having great bedside manner and obviously The Handmaid’s Tale is a very violent show, the majority of it being violence towards women. What is your approach to directing scenes of violence, of rape, with sensitivity?
First I usually talk to the actors individually about the scenes and answer any questions we have and ask them what they want from it. I think every director is different in how they approach that, but I find you get the best performance out of an actor if you don’t dictate to them. Rather than saying I need you to do xyz, you open it up to them: what would you be willing to do here? As far as The Handmaid’s Tale goes, some of those scenes were very specific because the blocking was based on the book. We would leave a bunch a time before or do rehearsal where you get to have all the actors in the room and say, okay what are all the different ways we can do this, how does this feel, let’s try this.
Most actors like the space where they can find what it is together. They want to have a director with an opinion, otherwise it feels unsafe, so it’s a very fine line. You want to give them all the freedom in the world—but I also know what I want. You’re the person protecting them, so if someone says I’m not comfortable doing this, the response is not to be: I’m sorry, you have to do that. Because you’re going to lose that person completely.
Going into directing The Handmaid’s Tale’s first episodes, you were really setting the tone for the entire show. How did you begin to build your idea for the show from the original novel?
I had to pitch the whole vision it in order to get the job. For me, because I was an unproven person in that particular task, having not directed a pilot before even though I directed a feature, I had to put more out there than even someone with more experience would have. I bet an extremely established television pilot director probably came in and didn’t have to do half the work I had to do. But I wanted to do it, because it came right out of me. Sometimes when you read material you think: I can see this completely in my brain. It doesn’t mean I see every frame, I just have a general feeling about it. In my pitch I wrote, this is how Gilead would look, this is how the flashbacks would be shot, this is what the tone of the score would be. All these things were actually ideas I came up with before I got the job, I already had laid the whole entire bible for what the show would be. I made it as a leap of faith to put my best foot forward because I knew I was not a shoe-in for it.
You’ve spoken before about how in the discussion of “female directors” people focus too much on gender rather than individual talent, or directors become lumped together just through gender. In what ways do you think the discussion about female directors in film is failing creators?
I just think people are focusing on the wrong things. Even now people will be quicker to say, oh I’ve got a script for you, it’s a great, strong, female story. And I’m like, excuse me, you don’t only have to send me your female stories. You can send me any story that’s good, I want to see whatever’s good. As luck would have it, all the projects I’ve done have been about women and I didn’t do them because they were about women, I did them because they were great stories.
I do think it’s a little short-sighted to only hire a woman for a Marvel movie if its Wonder Woman. Or I can only hire women for a superhero movie or whatever. I think it’s a little bit presumptuous. It’s like saying when you’re little, girls can only play with dolls and boys can only play with trucks. Also why do people call women “female directors,” whereas you wouldn’t call Darren Aronofsky, “male director Darren Aronofsky.”
I think its just a little condescending for me. What I always try to fight for as a female cinematographer, and I’m saying it myself because I have to put the qualifier there because men don’t deal with this, is that I was trying to make myself as genderless as possible because I don’t want people to think I can’t shoot an action movie. I’m a DP, I can shoot anything you want me to.
You’ve been in the industry for several years. Do you feel like people are widening their nets in terms of who they’re hiring?
I think they are now. I’ve always had good luck with this and I don’t know if it’s luck or it’s just confidence that you have when you come into a room to pitch whether you’re a cinematographer or a director. That’s really what it’s about. At the end of the day, if you get the right woman into a room and she’s pitching you on directing something, if she’s confident in her vision and knows how to work film and knows the answers to all the questions and is inspiring, she’s going to get hired. If women are getting in those rooms and not getting hired maybe they need to take a look at what their pitching process is.
There are simply people who are not willing to hire a woman, but if you were welcomed into the interview process with welcome arms, then it might not be entirely based on gender. Because at the end of the day, the person should technically be hiring the best person for the job, they shouldn’t be hiring solely based on gender. Now if you’ve made a mandate for your show that you definitely want to find a female director, then that’s one thing and you can cast your net there. But if you haven’t made that mandate and you’re just casting from everyone, yeah, you might lose the job to a man—but it might not be because of your gender, it might be because you did not have the best pitch. That’s another thing people forget too—it’s not like we’re entitled to the job as women, we’re entitled to get a chance at the job. If we don’t get the job, yeah, sometimes it might be unjustified. But I really, firmly believe even the greatest doubters of what a woman can do can be turned if there is a pitch thrown in front of them that’s impossible to ignore.
So you don’t think a lot of Hollywood is biased towards hiring male directors?
I think what I’m saying is, now Hollywood is casting a wider net. It’s not permeated everywhere, for example I don’t know if big-budget action movies are really doing that. I personally, myself, am in pre-production on a huge big-budget action movie right now. It has a female lead but it also has two other male leads.
I don’t think it’s entirely there yet in Hollywood, what I mean is I think there are more opportunities and I say that loosely. There could be more, there could always be more. There are still interviews I haven’t gotten yet. But I also think we can’t be victims. Instead of sitting there and whining about not getting the job, make yourself impossible to refuse. Make yourself the very best. Because there’s not room for every single person. If you have the best ideas and you have the greatest pitch make sure you go in with confidence. If you go in there and you’re a mouse about it and timid and nervous, that doesn’t give people faith that you can run a set of 200 people and A-list actors. It’s remembering that you still have to show whatever you have to offer that nobody else can give.
So what are you working on now?
The project I’m prepping right now is called The Rhythm Section and it is starring Blake Lively and being produced by Barbara Broccoli. It’s about, without getting into too much detail, a woman who has gone through a very difficult tragedy in her life prior to the start of the film, and we find her at rock bottom. She basically, in the course of trying to reclaim her life, she gets thrust into extraordinary circumstances and has to do a full transformation to reclaim her life. What I love about it is it’s in a believable way. Because for so many years, whenever a woman is portrayed in any kind of an action film, they’re wearing sexy clothes, it’s very cartoony, they’re doing stuff that doesn’t look like humans can really do. It never feels real and raw and gritty, and so this movie is what would happen if you put a real woman in those scenarios.
Update, Sept 23: In an email to Jezebel Morano added:
It’s important to note, that in reference to getting into rooms and not getting the job, I can only speak solely about my personal journey. I was frustrated. I was the person who complained why aren’t these people hiring me? Just because I don’t have a penis? Because that’s bullshit. Then I remembered something my dad [told] me when I was about to go to college. He said “Reed, no one is ever gonna GIVE you the power. You have to TAKE the power.”
When I was reminded of what he said, I had a revelation. I decided to stop whining (yep, i’m talking about myself) and I began to realize that just because being a woman was probably the thing holding me back, it didn’t mean [I] had to accept it. I decided to change my attitude and stop playing the victim. I vowed to make myself and my pitch impossible to refuse. Every time. The fact is, in Hollywood, women do have to work MUCH harder to get to the same place. Many women still get held back because of what those who are hiring us project onto us. They project on to us that we are not as capable as a man. But that has nothing to do with our talent or abilities. That’s in their minds. That’s really fucking sad it’s still a thing. So until everyone who’s hiring us figures out that they’re keeping themselves from possibly finding a whole treasure trove of original new voices, I’m just going to keep working harder. A side effect of working harder is also that it makes us BETTER. And I want to be better. So maybe that’s not a bad thing.