Healing Paths: Reed Morano’s ‘Meadowland’ focuses on how parents cope with a child’s disappearance

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Reed Morano is best known as the director of photography on Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008). She is one of only a dozen or so female members of the American Society of Cinematographers, and in 2011 won the Kodak Vision Award for outstanding achievement in cinematography. Among her many TV and film credits are collaborations with Rob Reiner (The Magic of Belle Isle) and So Yong Kim (For Ellen). Her first movie as a director, Meadowland, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, the same month she celebrated her 38th birthday. A drama set in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, the movie was picked up for distribution by Cinedigm and will be in theatres on Oct. 16, followed by a VOD release on Oct. 23.

Meadowland is about Sarah (Olivia Wilde), a middle-school teacher, and her husband Phil (Luke Wilson), a New York City police officer, whose son Jessie has been kidnapped. When the film opens, it is a year on, and while Phil’s colleagues are investigating, no solid evidence of Jessie’s fate has emerged. Phil appears to be coping with his grief, especially because he attends a church group that consists of other parents whose children are missing or dead. Sarah, on the other hand, becomes obsessed with a student who steals books from the school library (Ty Simpkins). Phil’s unemployed brother, Tim (Giovanni Ribisi), lives with the couple; he is as unhinged as Sarah by Jessie’s disappearance.

In a telephone interview following a Tribeca press screening, Morano spoke about her debut film, which also attracted actors like Elisabeth Moss, John Leguizamo and Juno Temple for supporting roles. “I liked the idea of making a movie about grief,” she says. “I wanted to get in deep with the characters. When I watch movies about grief, I don’t feel that way. You usually see two people either fighting or crying, but it takes more than that for me to connect to a character’s grief.” Morano drew upon memories of her own while directing Meadowland. Her father died suddenly, shortly before she graduated from high school. “In the case of Phil and Sarah,” she says, “they are in a dream or in a nightmare. They’re lost. Grief is about losing yourself.”

Morano did extensive rewrites on the original script by Chris Rossi. “When I first got it, it was a procedural, and there was more about the investigation,” the director says. “Chris’ script covered more ground and I did not feel like I got to know the characters that well.” Morano also added the touch of magic realism at the end of the movie. Asked about the setting in the Meadowlands, Morano replies: “The short answer is that originally the movie began and ended at the edge of the swamp in the Meadowlands, but I changed that. In the film, Sarah does travel through the Meadowlands every day to get to and from work.”

During a church group meeting, Phil recounts his dream of his son in tall grass, another reference to meadows. “When we shot the scene with Jessie in the car at the beginning of the movie—he’s played by my son, Casey Walker—I asked him to imagine what he did with Uncle Tim the last time they were together,” Morano says. “He replied: ‘I was in Ithaca with Uncle Tim, and we were running around in the field of grass and climbing mountains and watching shows about volcanoes.’” Casey had not read the script. “With all of these coincidences, and the fact that meadows, as you say, are some of the most beautiful places on Earth,” Morano recalls, “and the characters end up in the Meadowlands at the end, in a dream-like sequence, it was as though it became this strange place that does not really exist anymore, so we kept the title.”

While Morano is an excellent cinematographer, her directorial debut is also impressive for its use of sound and music. In a key scene, Sarah seems to descend into the spooky depths of a heavy-metal song. “I consulted with my friend Elgin James, who is a musician and filmmaker,” the director recalls. Morano was DP on his film Little Birds (2011). “He gave me a list of several black-metal and hardcore bands, including Burzum, who is Norwegian.” The name is a J.R.R. Tolkien invention, which means "black speech" or “darkness.” He is actually Varg Vikernes, a convicted murderer. “I felt his music had something ‘underneath’ it that felt score-like. I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, but it’s something like ‘She rises from the earth’ and then ‘Everything is new now.’ It is about death, but it is about finding power in death. Very weird stuff.”

In the same way that Morano pared down Rossi’s script to keep the audience close to her protagonists, she also deftly avoids melodrama in a scene that could easily have veered in that direction. Sarah and Luke are called to the police department, and shown evidence that might indicate Jessie is still alive. “Luke’s body language says everything,” Morano explains. “I knew I was going to have to cut to show what Phil is looking at, but I wanted to keep the shot wide.” The director explains that she and editor Madeleine Gavin (What Maisie Knew) edited the scene many times. “We were trying to find a way to do it, as you say, so that it would not be melodramatic,” Morano recalls. “So I extended that moment of Phil looking down, as if there was nothing on the table.”

As a DP, Morano had a great deal of experience on-set before she began production, but like many first-time directors, she was concerned about post-production. “I always wondered how I would feel about the editing process,” she says. “When I actually got to the edit, I enjoyed myself. Editing is right up there with cinematography for me. The power that you have in the edit, you cannot have that on the set.”

Morano’s instincts again led her to tone down the drama. “I had amazing performances, but I made the choice to remove a lot of dialogue to make this movie very spare,” she explains. “You get more from the silence between the lines than you do from the dialogue.” Morano credits her editor with a lesson that will serve her well in the future. “Madeline taught me that you have to deconstruct everything in order to learn how to reconstruct it,” she says. “I never looked at the script after we wrapped shooting.”

In an e-mail exchange in September, Morano wrote that “people assume I’m jumping categories, but these are two jobs, cinematographer and director, so closely related that, in my mind, they go hand in hand.” She feels her knowledge as a cinematographer is what gave her the confidence to direct, and that her experience as a director will now make her a better cinematographer. “I think the challenge I have been facing is that I have such a love for both jobs, and I’m not willing to give either one up,” she says. “But maybe I don’t have to.”