In only a few years, Reed Morano has gone from being the youngest member of the American Society of Cinematographers to an award-winning director. After her devastating debut feature Meadowland premiered in 2015, she’s moved into directing TV dramas including Halt and Catch Fire, Billions and The Handmaid’s Tale. Just last year, she earned an Emmy award for directing the pilot of The Handmaid’s Tale, and immediately continued work on film projects. Along with two upcoming films, she has I Think We’re Alone Now in theaters now, a relationship drama set just after the apocalypse, starring Elle Fanning and fellow Emmy winner Peter Dinklage. And while an intimate study of how two very different people cope with the prospect of a life of solitude, the film also manages to be a fun and twisty experience.
Lesley Coffin: How did this film come to your attention? Had you heard about the project or was this a case of them coming to you after seeing your previous work?
Reed Morano: It came to me. I know Peter, who also produced the film, had seen Meadowland and the screenwriter Mike Makowsky had as well, I believe he saw it in the theater, which is always great. And they thought I was the right person to take on the material.
Lesley Coffin: Did the script undergo any major changes once you signed on, even considering the economics of making a film like this on a relatively low budget?
Reed Morano: Actually, once I signed on we were able to make things a little bigger than in the original script. We added the traffic jam later and the scene at the end wasn’t in the original script. So the production value was actually bigger once I went through the script. I felt the film required a slightly bigger ending. The biggest difference was changing the order of things, and more than half the dialogue was cut out. The spirit of Mike’s screenplay remained, although he wrote it to be more of a comedy with a dark undertone. I wanted to keep that fun the script had but really ground it and never let the audience forget that they’re in the apocalypse. But the first time I read the script I thought there were these really profound messages and used those as my starting off point.
Lesley Coffin: The film has three distinct parts, the scenes with just Peter, the scenes with Peter and Elle, and then the ending. And the length of those parts is atypical for a film with a three act structure. Were you ever concerned about losing an audience by taking that approach?
Reed Morano: I really wasn’t, because one of the things that really drew me to the script initially was the fact that the film really subverted audience’s expectations and I couldn’t see the twist coming myself. It comes later than it should. And I loved that. Why should every movie take the same approach or use the same structure? Sure the formula works, but I want to make films which mirror real life. And in real life, we never know when a twist is coming. The best thing you can hear about your movie is, I never saw that coming. Because the worst thing you could hear is, I totally saw that coming. I want to throw people for a loop, that’s part of the fun of making movies. One of the things that I will say, without giving too much away is, we definitely planted foreshadowing in the film. If the audience is paying enough attention, they know to expect that something’s coming.
Lesley Coffin: Despite this being a relationship drama, and focusing on two people, we are left with a lot of questions about the characters. Even though the audience wasn’t made aware, did Peter and Elle write out their backstories?
Reed Morano: I can’t speak for them, but we certainly talked about those things together. They might have come up with a couple things on their own, but they’re both very open and collaborative. I had to answer for Grace when trying to convince her to do the movie. I spoke of Grace in reference to my own life, and tried to explain that I thought her behavior made sense. And then Elle found her way into the character, and used some things from her own life to fill in the blanks. Elle told me that Grace is one of the characters she feels is the closest to her. And Peter and I spoke a lot about Del. Even things like the music he liked, we decided he liked the band Rush. I had such a great creative process working with both of them.
Lesley Coffin: Besides the music, there’s scenes of him watching parts of movies on laptops until the battery dies. How were those films selected?
Reed Morano: I picked the movies, but I did ask Peter which movies he thought Del would like to watch. The script said he watched black and white movies. And from there asked Peter the movies he thought he would or wouldn’t watch. And then I picked the one that would be cool but also make sense for Del. And in the projection scene I figured that’s a movie Grace picked out.
Lesley Coffin: As with Meadowland, you were your own cinematographer, but you had other camera operators on this film. Was it hard to separate yourself from that role?
Reed Morano: Not directing this film, because of the directing I’ve done in TV since Meadowland. I had a DP on Halt and Catch, Billions, and The Handmaid’s Tale. And when I’ve DP’d larger productions like Vinyl I had a really big camera department. I’ve always directed other operators, before I started directing. But it’s always frustrating because I like to do it myself. It’s hard when telling a story through camera movement, I feel like it’s quicker and easier to do it myself. On this film we needed to use two cameras because we had a lot to shoot and not a lot of time. I knew I wanted to shoot at dusk, so to get a whole scene in within that time, we needed two cameras. So I picked my favorite operator, Michael Heathcote, who did Handmaid’s Tale, and is a Steadicam operator first and foremost. And that was important because I knew we’d be shooting a lot of Peter’s scenes with a Steadicam. And he’s a great handheld operator too, someone I could totally trust. On I Think We’re Alone Now, when we were operating simultaneous, I had a monitor next to my camera so I could see his shot.
Reed Morano: First and foremost, Peter’s shorter than me, so to follow him around at his level, you need to use a Steadicam. We wanted to get his perspective. We didn’t want the camera to look down at him, only look up. And that’s the reason people connect with Peter in this film, they can see him the way I see him. And because the character is so regimented and kind of OCD, the movement of the Steadicam really works. I ended up shooting Grace all handheld because she’s wild and crazy.
© Lesley Coffin (9/21/18) FF2 Media
Photos: I Think We're Alone Now