Director. Cinematographer. Stage mom. Reed Morano assumed all three of those roles on “Meadowland,” a dark, disturbing story of parents — played by Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson — who become unraveled after their child is abducted.
The pic is Morano’s directorial debut, but she came to it familiar with film sets, having worked as a d.p. since 1999, most notably as the creator of the stark winterscapes in 2008’s “Frozen River.”
Many crew people and department heads yearn to be helmers, and Morano was no exception. In film school, she learned directing but fell in love with cinematography, Morano worked as a d.p. for two-and-a-half decades before the right script came along.
“I wanted to do something that was special — not necessarily a guaranteed commercial success, but at least something I could do well,” she says. “You only get to come out of the gate once.”
In choosing “Meadowland,” Morano took on a daunting challenge. “The script was bleak, with so many things going against it,” she says. “They told me, ‘You should do a comedy.’ But I wanted to make something that really affects people.”
Then came the casting — especially for the boy at the film’s center. Morano wound up picking her own young son, Casey Walker, to play the film’s abducted child. “It wasn’t planned that way,” she says, “but I couldn’t find someone who was right, and it happens my son randomly looks like he could be Olivia and Luke’s son.”
The boy only appears in the first scene, but his disappearance haunts and defines the remainder of the film.
The decision to place Casey in the film wasn’t easy. “I was scared,” says Morano. “I was like, ‘What am I thinking, going into this mindspace.’ But I wanted to be on the same wavelength as Olivia. I wanted to feel what she was feeling.”
Adding to the project’s poignancy: Wilde was pregnant with her son during pre-production. “It was the perfect preparation for the role,” Morano says.
Another difficult decision was picking the d.p. “My initial instinct was to hire someone,” she says.
“Even though a lot of people wanted to shoot it, I was having a hard time (choosing). Some of my best friends are d.p.’s I’ve come up with from film school, but I’m picky.”
Morano ended up hiring herself, a choice that carried a bonus with it: In addition to maintaining full control over the look of the film, she was able to gain three additional shooting days by eating the cinematography fee.
“It’s a tiny movie,” she says. “They were actually going to make me shoot it in 19 days.” So Morano took only nominal d.p. pay for herself to satisfy union regulations, and applied the rest to giving cast and crew more breathing room.
Operating an Arri Alexa handheld camera, Morano, along with her team, shot during the late summer of 2014 in the New York metropolitan area, including the Meadowlands marshes of northern New Jersey, which give the film its name — and where Morano inserted into the script a scene that lifts an utterly tragic story to a level of magical realism.
Cinedigm will release the film theatrically on Oct. 16, and on VOD Oct. 23.