Shooting the Oscar-nominated, Sundance hit, “Frozen River.”
The year 2008 was a busy one for cinematographer Reed Morano. In January the exquisitely shot Frozen River (starring Melissa Leo who scored an Oscar nom for her performance) premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance (Reed’s first festival entry.) In June she gave birth to her remarkably beautiful first son, Casey. In September she married her “true love,” fellow cinematographer and gaffer Matt Walker.
Reed and her “lighting soulmate,” Matt.
Just days after their Fire Island beach wedding, Reed and Matt reported to set for the first day of shooting on Closet Cases. As wardrobe supervisor of the Lloyd Boston makeover show, I was excited to learn that a woman headed the camera department. Over the course of several weeks I saw first-hand the focused yet easy-going Reed balance the demands of work and new parenthood with aplomb. The beloved baby–welcome amid a tight-knit crew that included not only his dad but his Uncle Justin—was a frequent set visitor allowing mommy the opportunity to nurse on breaks.
Since we wrapped in late 2008, Reed has continued at a frenetic pace, shooting steady TV work between feature films. Yelling to the Sky (Victoria Mahoney, dir.) was her first feature post-Casey. She shot the films For Ellen (So Yong Kim, dir.) and Little Birds (Elgin James, dir.) during her next pregnancy and shot Free Samples, starring Jesse Eisenberg and “Hitchcock Blonde,” Tippi Hedren, a few months after the August arrival of second son Fletcher–another cutie–last year.
I caught up with the busy Bed-Stuy resident to talk about her influences and her trajectory. We share a love of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the grit of Charles Bukowski. Marquez’ “writing is so visual and really immerses you in another world. And I love Didion and Bukowski for how authentic/honest a picture they both paint,” she says. With the naturalist lighting and hand-held camera work she often employs, she brings an authenticity and honesty to her work. Cinematographers Conrad Hall, Ellen Kuras, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubeszki, Wally Pfister and Rodrigo Prieto are on her shortlist of influential Directors of Photography.
She looks forward to tonight’s New York première of Yelling to the Sky, a film she’s quite proud of. Of star Zoë Kravitz she says “Zoë is not only an amazing actress, she is an amazing person.” Reed calls director Victoria Mahoney “an absolutely brilliant writer/director with an infectious enthusiasm for film…Zoë, Victoria and I really bonded on this film.” The trio got tattooed with tiny hearts crossed by a line, a nod to the heart-shaped doorknocker earrings bisected by the name “Sweetness” and worn by Zoë’s character in the film.
Reed has been lovingly inked before. On her right wrist are the initials of her beloved dad, Casey, for whom her first-born is named; on her left elbow is “Lyn” scripted in her mom’s signature and commemorating one year of marriage to Matt is a how-to diagram for tying the only nautical knot named for a man (a sailor)—the Matthew Walker Knot.
The body as homage: dad’s initials, on “tying the knot,” a sorority of three, mom’s signature.
Reed was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the first of two children (she has a brother, Justin) to Lyn and Winslow Mankin and the family soon moved to Minnesota. When Reed was three-years old, Lyn divorced Winslow and moved the children back to her family in Long Island where she’d meet, marry and have three more children (Jordan, Morgan and Ali) with Casey Morano of Fire Island (who had 2 older children, Lana and Cos.) When it was suggested to the entrepreneurial Casey that Albuquerque might be a good place to live, he packed up the wife, kids and extended family and caravaned to a new life in New Mexico. They spent a few years there before returning to Long Island, then off to New Hampshire and Vermont. Of her nomadic upbringing Reed says, “It was great because it taught me about all kinds of people and taught me to be adaptable as well as open to new things. If I had grown up in the same house all my life, I wouldn’t have nearly as much material in my brain for storytelling.”
She clearly admires her parents. Her mother, “a perpetual scholar” studied anthropology and archaeology variously at the University of New Mexico, Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard as she raised her children. She now heads the history department at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. “When I was young, I watched my mom study and get her PhD all while raising 5 kids! I remember her writing 20-page papers while breastfeeding my youngest sister and all of us other kids running around wreaking havoc on the house,” she recalls. Though her father’s entrepreneurial endeavors yielded mixed financial reward, she is impressed by his bold pursuit. “My dad was involved in every kind of business you can imagine. He opened restaurants, he had a landscaping company at one point. He even opened Long Island’s first head shop back when he was in his hippie years. He had an international mergers and acquisitions company before he passed away and he was also developing a TV pilot for a travel/reality show. He definitely dabbled in a little bit of everything. When I was in high school, he turned our barn and property into a horse farm with a horseback riding school. He always had a new idea and always dreamt big.”
“I was a nerd. I read a lot.”
As a child, “I was always making books, even before I wrote I drew pictures and would staple them together,” she says. “When I finally learned to write, I wrote every day until I entered high school. Everyone thought I’d be a writer.” Her father took note of her leanings and presented her with an early video camera (with VHS tape) upon his return from a business trip to Japan, remarking that she should be the family documentarian. And so it began, she shot footage of her siblings, made small films and commercials and when the time came for college, Dad again intervened to suggest film school since she’d embraced a visual form of storytelling. Off to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she’d eventually receive department awards for cinematography and later serve for two years as an adjunct professor.
Though she doesn’t consider herself a spiritual person, she believes there was a mystical connection with her father surrounding her career choice. On the very first shoot she worked on, she took note of the DP. She “became fascinated with what he was doing and I knew that was the job I wanted to do. I wanted to look through the viewfinder and create the world the audience sees. I consciously decided to pursue cinematography.”
Post-shoot she returned to her dorm and to several phone messages from family. “My dad had had a heart attack. I rushed up to New Hampshire to be with him in the hospital where he was in coma and the next morning, he passed away. He had been so obsessed with what I would do and what path I would take in life and I still find it interesting that right before he passed was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she reflects.
“I never considered myself a technical person, in fact I used to joke that I couldn’t set the time on a VCR! But once I put my mind to this craft, it seemed I actually had a knack for it. I do approach shooting in a very creative way that revolves a lot less around technical information and more around the feeling I get in a particular moment. Everything I do, I usually take a cue from my gut. As a DP, you’re an artist, but you do have technical information you need to know in order to achieve whatever look you’re going for. So I absorb the technical stuff I need and then I just kind of go with the flow and rely on the emotion in the story to inspire my shots and lighting.”
Reed on the sets of “Megafauna,” “Frozen River” and ” Little Birds.”
When the Coen Brothers’ (now a Reed fave) released Raising Arizona the pre-teen Reed took note. “It was the first film I can remember really noticing the cinematography on. That was when I realized the power of the camera as a tool for storytelling. Everything about it, the camera moves, the lenses that were used all served the story and enhanced the tone of the movie. It’s a huge part of what makes the film so memorable. It was the first time I became aware –in a good way– how much a lens choice or a camera position could affect the way the audience reacts to the story.”
From the 2007 documentary, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa to today, she is garnering major recognition for her work. Earlier this year she was selected as one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch. Next week she’ll head to Los Angeles for the Women In Film Crystal + Lucy Awards (other honorees include Annette Benning and Katie Holmes) to receive the Kodak Vision Award for Cinematography. “All the women who have previously won the Vision Award have really paved the way for female DPs like myself. It’s pretty amazing to be in the company of my idols. The thing I am most proud of, though, is the fact that I am able to make a living doing a job I absolutely love at the same time as being a mom. I never knew how I was going to pull that off! Like everything else, I just jumped into motherhood headfirst (right when I was getting really busy at work) and I was forced to make it all happen. It’s not easy, but it can be done! Between my mom and my dad, I guess I had some really good training from a young age on how to multitask and how to follow your dreams. Being with Matt was really the key to making it possible–he keeps me going and is so supportive of my working.”
A gorgeous mom, a handsome hubby and two beautiful boys: one stunning family.
In meeting Matt, a gaffer and DP years ago, she found her “lighting soulmate.” He knew what lighting she wanted in each scenario before she spoke a word, they “shared the same aesthetic and his style of working was exactly what I’d been looking for,” she remembers. So she began working with him exclusively. Professional admiration eventually became personal. “We both realized we wanted to be together in every way, not just at work. I never thought I’d find someone who matched me so well and that’s who Matt is. He definitely exceeded my expectations for who I would spend my life with. He is the smartest person I know. He is brilliant, creatively and otherwise and he takes such care in every task he does, big or small.” Her Aries impulsiveness is balanced by his Aquarian intellectual approach. “He continues to amaze me every day and there’s nothing he can’t do. I have never met someone so devoted to the ones he loves. I can’t believe that he chose me.”
She is feeling a tremendous sense of good fortune these days from marriage and motherhood to a recent reconnection with her biological father and “discovering a whole new side to my family” to a career in full blossom. She’s currently in pre-production on her biggest project to date, the Rob Reiner-helmed Summer at Dog Dave’s starring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen and shooting in Rockland County next month.
Before heading upstate for pre-pro, the gifted and grateful visionary shared some of the things that bring her joy:
1. Kisses from Casey & Fletcher. “They are a constant source of joy and amazement. every day, at least once I stop and think, in awe, how did I get so lucky?”
Bussing baby Fletch and big boy Casey.
2. Dancing. “All night long in a flowy dress in Fire Island with my girlfriends.”
“It’s the feeling of freedom.“
3. Steel Pulse. “Especially the albums Tribute to the Martyrs or True Democracy. It’s one of the bands I have listened to since I was in elementary school. It’s great music to have echoing through your house with the windows open on a warm day.”
Live in Germany, “Babylon Makes the Rules,” from “Tribute to the Martyrs.”
4. Reading a new script. “When I work I get to go on a new adventure each time and all these new visuals and ideas fill my head. I get super excited whenever I see an attachment in my email…”
From the Frozen River script.
5. Estee Lauder Tom Ford The Body Oil. “All my life I was looking for my favorite smell, the smell of your skin after a day on the beach. Finally, I found it in 2006 and it is now discontinued! However, I still have several bottles.”
The coveted fragrance.
6. My Uncle Matthew’s Lobster Bisque. From the family-owned Matthew’s Seafood House in Fire Island, “it tastes like my childhood and it’s still my favorite soup.”
Tucked away on Ocean Beach, the restaurant feels like home.
7. My Light Meter. “When I’m using it, that means I’m shooting film and when I’m shooting on film, especially 35mm, I’m happiest.”
8. My Sister’s Morgan’s Gelato. “Her stracciatella gelato mixed with her strawberry sorbet is incredible. She has her own shop in Hanover, New Hampshire, Morano Gelato.”
Gelati in raspberry and egg cream flavors.
9. Scuba Diving. “It’s as close as I’ll probably get to walking on the moon.”
“It’s another world!”
10. Cocktails with my Husband. “Preferably a Bloody Mary or a Cava on a beach somewhere far away.