Directed by veteran cinematographer Reed Morano, Hulu’s new original series The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterwork of television adaptation. Elegant and disquieting, it’s the perfect crystallization of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia: a near-future America, renamed Gilead, whose population is dying out and whose religious fundamentalist government has forced society’s remaining fertile women (handmaids) to work as child-bearing sex slaves for the members of its ruling class.
Normally, Morano would have only directed the first episode, but before production began, she’d compiled a 60-page look book to convince the producers to expand her role in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is how she ended up directing the first three episodes, her rich visuals molding the aura and essence of the adaptation. Most striking is how she oscillates between past and present – between the oppressive outer order of Gilead and the handmaids’ memories of a freer time. For the former, Morano uses rigid symmetrical shots, in which the harsh red of the handmaids’ robes segregates them in an otherwise muted world of cream, white, and peacock blue. The women’s flashbacks, by contrast, are rendered with impressionistic spontaneity – fleeting fragments of their former lives that Morano captures on hand-held camera.
An emerging director and accomplished DP, Morano earned her MFA in cinematography from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating, she worked numerous jobs to support herself as she pursued her artistic career. Full of talent and tenacity, Morano is the youngest member to be accepted into the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). She is also one of only fourteen women among its ranks.
In her interview with the New York Times, Morano noted with disappointment that so far no female DP has been nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars. “Ellen Kuras should have been nominated for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” she said. “It still pisses me off that she wasn’t.” When questioned about gender disparities in the industry, however, she is not militant. She’s eager for women to bring unique perspectives to cinema but insists that talent should be rewarded regardless of gender. She also observes that the playing field has evened out significantly over the course of her career. The first time she went to an ASC convention, she was the only woman. When she attended several years ago, she was among fifteen others – either working or aspiring cinematographers – all of whom approached her seeking career advice.
When asked what she considers most important as a DP, Morano named two things. The first is that the DP must always be attuned to the director’s instincts – must act as an extension of his/her vision. The second task of the DP is to achieve an intuitive chemistry with the actors that will induce them to give their best performances. In terms of selecting projects, Morano says she gravitates toward scripts with less dialogue that allow her to focus on atmosphere and subtle ways of revealing a character’s inner state. So far, indie films like Frozen River (2008) and Meadowland (2015), as well as the HBO series Looking (2014-2015) and Vinyl (2016), make up the core of her diverse and ever-growing canon.
The reason it is hard to pin down a precise “Morano style” – as one might do with Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson – is that she always adapts her visual parameters to best preserve the essence of whatever script she’s working on. Her first acclaimed collaboration – Frozen River – has none of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s exquisite crafted-ness, but it does create, as one critic put it, “a vivid sense of place.” Tasked with filming the story of two working-class women who get caught up in human trafficking along the Canadian border, Morano knew better than to steal the spotlight with stylistics. She adopted an unaffected camera style that allowed gritty realism and human emotions to come to the fore. The result: The film received two Academy Award nominations and won the Jury Prize at Sundance. Unpretentious and powerful, Frozen River was confirmation for critics that the indie movement was alive and well.
At the other end of Morano’s aesthetic spectrum is her meticulously stylized Kill Your Darlings (2013), which follows the college days of the Beat Generation artists as one of their founders, Lucien Carr, is convicted of murder. Kill Your Darlings remains a great source of pride for Morano in terms of the work she has done as a cinematographer. The crew had a limited budget and a tight 24-day production schedule that spanned 30 locations, yet she proved more than capable – getting the necessary takes with a furious energy that actually befitted the film’s fevered labyrinth of jealousies, friendships, and ambitions. Just as impressive was her recreation of the early ‘40s period in which the drama unfolds. The brooding quality of the era’s emergent counterculture pervades the film’s monochrome coolness, while its restlessness bursts forth in sudden, eccentric scraps of color. Palette-wise, Morano says, she drew inspiration from William Eggleston’s photography and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967).
Morano’s cinematography was also highly stylized in the dark comedy-drama Skeleton Twins (2014), in which two estranged siblings (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader) are abruptly reunited following the brother’s suicide attempt. Notable in critics’ eyes were the film’s surreal underwater sequences and the mirror-like shots of the twins as they begin to reconnect. When asked why she wanted to work as DP on this unorthodox project, Morano said she had fallen in love with the script and had always been eager to work on films that would force viewers out of their comfort zone.
Pushing the emotional boundaries of the medium was one of her main goals in her directorial debut Meadowland, which was met with critical acclaim. Starring Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson, it focuses on a couple trying to cope with their son’s abduction. Atmospherically, Morano said, she aimed for the visceral alienation of Requiem for a Dream (2000) – in which the characters drift through the haze of their nightmare while the wheels of reality slowly grind them down. Morano claimed that with Meadowland, she had “only scratched the surface” of Olivia Wilde’s potential and said she hopes to collaborate with the gifted actress in the future.
For now, Morano is working on her next project, I Think We’re Alone Now, about the relationship that develops between two survivors (Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage) in a post-apocalyptic world. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, it is more limited in scope and does not take on the larger mechanisms of oppression that define the ambitious Atwood adaptation. Hopefully, no future projects will interfere with Morano’s eventual return to direct Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Her tapestry of dystopian America is vivid proof that the time is ripe for quality television.