Meadowland follows a couple named Sarah and Phil, played by Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson, as they navigate the horrible aftermath of their young son’s kidnapping. (The cast of the low-budget indie also features Giovanni Ribisi, John Leguizamo, and Elizabeth Moss.) The film is the directorial debut of Reed Morano, previously well known in the industry for her work as a cinematographer in (The Skeleton Twins and Kill Your Darlings). As writer Marin Gazzaniga observes in a profile of Morano, “When she was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in 2013, Reed was not only the youngest member, but also one of only 11 women, or 2% of the membership.”
Morano decided to not only direct but also serve as cinematographer on Meadowland, largely for budgetary reasons, making directing the film a double test of stamina. It would be a remarkable feat in and of itself, even setting aside the fact that Morano already had an incredibly physically challenging year: In April, Morano was bedridden following treatment for stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma (a cancer of the base of the tongue). She still had a feeding tube in her stomach this summer. She gargled Lidocaine to help manage pain through the shoot.
Fast Company sat down with Wilde (who also produced the film) and Morano to learn more about the passion and the struggle of bringing Meadowland to the screen. The film opened in select theaters on October 16 and will come to more theaters as well as on-demand on October 23.
Fast Company: How did you both come to be excited about this project?
Olivia Wilde: From the first meeting, it felt like we were on the same page. We sat at the Bowery Hotel for an hour and a half, at least. We both found there was more to the story than just a relentless drama about grief. There was something about this character that was a little bit edgy, sometimes a bit funny.
Reed Morano: Sometimes we each had our own reasons for why Sarah did things, but so long as we got to the same goal, it was successful. We were feeling her in different ways, yet we were very much in sync about the goal. Narratively we felt the same thing.
Wilde: We decided early on to defend the story that we knew was worth telling. In preproduction, you spend time defending ideas that are in danger because of budget restrictions or casting issues. We really threw our bodies in front of the story.
Morano: It helped having Olivia come on as a producer. I knew she was really plugging into it for the long haul. I felt like a stronger director having her with me, because I felt like we would lead each other to the truth of the story.
Olivia’s character goes to extreme places in this film. Was that a challenge?
Wilde: If I were in the same situation as my character, I imagine I would be far more unstable than she ever was. I can’t imagine being able to survive. It was almost easier to shoot the scenes where Sarah was unhinged. I can imagine wandering around aimlessly, losing all instinct for self-preservation. What I can’t imagine is getting up, going to work, driving home, trying to pretend it’s okay.
Morano: Sarah and Phil are trying to get through the next five minutes without pain. It was hard to ask Olivia to put herself in that headspace. It’s really a scary place to ask someone to go to.
Wilde: There are directors who encourage you to go to difficult places, but they won’t necessarily be there to bring you back. Reed created a safe environment where I felt like I could commit 100% without feeling that I would be left without a safety net. One of the first days of shooting, I really went for it on one scene. Reed pulled me back just enough. She said, “Your character has all this going on internally. You can do less, and I still feel it.”
Reed was doing three jobs on this film: directing, serving as the director of photography, and operating the camera.
Morano: I was really nervous and worried about it. I had another friend who had directed and DP’ed his film, and he warned me away from it. But I felt desperate, because we needed more days to shoot. It was not my first choice. But also subconsciously in my head, I thought, It would be so cool, though, wouldn’t it? What I gained from it was an intimate relationship between me, the camera, and Olivia–and Luke, Giovanni, John, and the rest of the cast. It feels more magical somehow, not to be sitting off at a monitor.
Wilde: It was thrilling when Reed told me she wanted to shoot the film as well. It’s something I never would have asked of her. It seemed like a Herculean effort. I also wanted to respect the fact that she was directing a film now. It’s sort of like asking a musician to play their hits–you want to let them play the new songs. Come on, play Let It Be! It’s a dream to be shot by Reed. I also thought, if she’s going to do this–direct and DP and operate the camera, after the year she’s had–then there’s nothing in this experience I’m going to complain about ever. I don’t care how tired I am, how difficult a scene is, how cold or hot it is or how hungry we are: I’m not gonna complain. People felt, when they saw her hoist the camera on her shoulders the first time and shoot the first scene: “That’s now the standard. There’s no bullshit on this set.” It set a great, badass tone for the crew.
This interview has been condensed and edited.