A walk in the meadow

Reed Morano on casting Meadowland, sound and Misty Upham.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Meadowland director/cinematographer Reed Morano on Mirren Gordon-Crozier: "My costume designer is amazing."
Meadowland director/cinematographer Reed Morano on Mirren Gordon-Crozier: "My costume designer is amazing." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson, with a terrific supporting cast that includes Elisabeth Moss, Juno Temple, Giovanni Ribisi, Kevin Corrigan, Merritt Wever, Scott Mescudi, Ty Simpkins and Eden Duncan-Smith in Meadowland, Reed Morano's subtle and intense directorial debut. John Leguizamo, Ned Eisenberg and a memorable non-speaking guest star in a cameo can be seen both here and in Michael Almereyda's thrilling Experimenter, evoking the "Familiar Stranger".

As a cinematographer, Morano had worked with Misty Upham on Courtney Hunt's complex Frozen River and her composer Adam Taylor did the score for John Wells' furious family drama, August: Osage County, in which Upham has one of the most chivalrous and applause-deserving scenes.

Olivia Wilde as Sarah in Meadowland fully goes there.
Olivia Wilde as Sarah in Meadowland fully goes there. Photo: Reed Morano

Morano's meadow is a place where the worst parental nightmare blooms. Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson are Sarah and Phil, whose son Jesse (Casey Walker) disappears without a trace, and we get an unflinching look at how the couple unravel, each one in their own way. The tragedy has not brought them closer together. They have lost their connection, what Bertolt Brecht called the "Third Thing". Phil's brother Tim (Ribisi), a lost soul, shakily attempts at playing substitute. Whereas policeman Phil has joined a self-help group for grieving parents at a church where he meets Pete (Leguizamo), teacher Sarah takes cues from two troubled students, Adam (Simpkins) and Alma (Duncan-Smith) at her school that lead her even deeper into a self-destructive cycle. Wilde shows us Sarah's descent into hell without a trace of vanity and with each painful epiphany registering as defiance against an unfair world. Wilson's Phil is a man who builds walls around himself.

Meadowland had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and just before its theatrical release in the US, Reed and I had a chance to discuss the importance of sound design for her, how to read the costume choices, missing Misty, real moments replacing a contrived family idyll, getting her dream cast to play against expectations, how a song marks a moment in time, the mystery of American gas station bathrooms, and why you can't wrap the story up with a big bow.

John Leguizamo is Pete in Meadowland: "He is amazing we were so lucky to get him."
John Leguizamo is Pete in Meadowland: "He is amazing we were so lucky to get him." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: You start off the film with a black screen and only sounds. Is that a segue from being a cinematographer to the first film you directed? A little inside joke that you are holding off on showing us any images?

Reed Morano: No, it's funny that you looked at it like that. It's really cool actually that you were thinking that. I mean, not consciously, it wasn't, but I do think in making this film I realised how deeply sound affects me. Sometimes it's when you look back on memories in your life, you can almost just remember the sound of things. I thought it was sort of a little hint at that. Sound does play a huge role in the film, which even came as a surprise to me because I thought the visuals would be the thing that took over but it didn't. It was really the sound design.

AKT: The dialogue in the car at the beginning sounds very natural and at the same time, the way you shot it, I became very worried they would have a car accident. You set us up for an emergency but it's not what we expected. The little cookie monster is very convincing. Can you talk about that scene?

RM: The actors, I let them ad lib a lot. It couldn't feel like a written scene. It had to feel like a very real moment. Not idyllic or perfect-family-ish. It's just a family on a road trip and we're coming in at a moment in their life. It's often the last moments you are spending with someone, you don't know it's going to be your last moment with them. So nothing exciting or special is happening. And also, you know, I cast my son [Casey Walker] in that role [Jessie] and he is not an actor and I got him to ad lib a little bit. It was that in combination of Luke [Wilson] getting him to ad lib. They were all just playing around and I didn't want it to feel like a movie.

Luke Wilson as Phil: "Luke is so talented and just an untapped resource."
Luke Wilson as Phil: "Luke is so talented and just an untapped resource." Photo: Reed Morano

AKT: You have a parent [Sarah played by Wilde] who starts at a terrible point and she is descending into hell and making things worse. She does things, the audience doesn't want her to do. You don't give us the cliché of someone going through a trauma and suddenly becoming a better person. You fully go there with Olivia Wilde in that role and leave us there, in a way. I must admit, that I love the eye to eye. I don't want to give anything away.

RM: I know what you are talking about.

AKT: It astonished me and made perfect, perfect sense. It was my favourite moment in the movie.

RM: Oh, that makes me so happy to hear that. I always wonder, how are people going to react to this. I feel you can't wrap this story up neatly in a bow. The only way you can leave the world with is a symbol or a sign.

AKT: A bit about the clothes - the yellow hoodie is Little Red Riding Hood in yellow?

RM: That's such a cool reference. Nobody has said that to me yet.

AKT: She's not up for red, but she does seem lost in the woods of Times Square.

Sarah (Olivia Wilde) looking to see eye to eye.
Sarah (Olivia Wilde) looking to see eye to eye. Photo: Reed Morano

RM: That's so cool. When something's going on in your life, or you're in mourning, it's not that you're like … Putting her in black would be too obvious. It's a symbol that even if your world might be falling apart, the world's still going on around you. The yellow hoodie is something she had before her son went missing and she never would have gone to buy new clothes after that. It's about putting yourself in comfort. You're so far gone, you're not even thinking about what you're wearing.

AKT: I'm so glad you didn't have a flashback or a photograph with the yellow hoodie and the son in a happy moment. You don't need it. On the other end of costume design, you have Elisabeth Moss with L O V E written on her behind. It's a hilarious choice. How did that come about?

RM: My costume designer is amazing. Her name is Mirren Gordon-Crozier. When we were trying to decide what Elisabeth Moss is wearing, I was like, I feel like she she's going to wear some Juicy sweatpants, sweatpants with writing on the butt. And I didn't say what writing. And Mirren brought L O V E, which I thought was so weirdly right. The opposite of what she represents.

AKT: Have you seen Michael Almereyda's Experimenter?

RM: I haven't seen it yet, but I'm a big fan of Michael's.

Elisabeth Moss is Shannon in Meadowland: "No one would be expecting Lizzie in this role and I thought, she'd kill it."
Elisabeth Moss is Shannon in Meadowland: "No one would be expecting Lizzie in this role and I thought, she'd kill it." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I am asking because you have John Leguizamo with whom I just spoke a few days ago at the cocktail reception for Experimenter at the New York Film Festival, in your film. And also Ned Eisenberg, who plays Solomon Asch. [Plus, there is a third overlap in the cast, a gal who steals every scene she is in. Her name starts with an M and you will know what I mean once you see both films]. You assembled a great cast. Leguizamo is very strong in this role.

RM: He is amazing we were so lucky to get him.

AKT: Elisabeth Moss and Juno Temple have small but very important parts.

RM: I had worked with Juno on a movie called Little Birds a long time ago. So I already knew Juno.

AKT: Little Birds was about two girls… I remember it, I wasn't aware that you…

RM: I was doing the cinematography on that one. We stayed in touch over the years. Those two roles, the first two people I thought of were Elisabeth Moss and same thing for Juno. No one would be expecting Lizzie in this role and I thought, she'd kill it. They both agreed to do it and a lot of the casting came out of prior relationships that I had. Like Luke Wilson and I had worked on Skeleton Twins together. And I knew from working with him the type of person he is. Luke is so talented and just an untapped resource.

AKT: He plays the repression very well. I want to get more into that in a moment. You spoke about the casting of people you worked with. How great would it have been to have Misty Upham in your movie?

RM: I know! Misty could have been in any of those roles. Actually, I was in touch with Misty the summer before she ended up going missing. I was actually going through cancer at the time and she and I were in touch regularly on Facebook. We would message each other and she was like "my goddess friends are putting out good energy for you to heal." She was just the most wonderful woman and so talented. It's such a shame because we were talking about just that, how we wanted to get on another movie together. We hadn't been since Frozen River. I think she was a mega-talent and we never got to see her full potential.

AKT: In Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P., she is the heart of the film.

Meadowland US poster
Meadowland US poster

RM: I think Frozen River was the film that made me realize what types of stories I want to tell.

AKT: Back to the Luke Wilson repression subject. Again, there is an interesting decision with sound. The Yes song [I've Seen All Good People] with the line, Don't surround yourself with yourself, is heard playing and we see him and then you stop the song right before the song turns aggressive. That is like him - he also stops right before turning aggressive. Was that a conscious thought?

RM: That was not that exact reason. I think that's an amazing observation and really great that happened. The placement of the song was more dictated by what I felt was the most heart-breaking moment in the song that I wanted to place over when he's looking at the missing child poster in the window. The song is not really matching the mood. That's like real life, your music doesn't match your mood all the time.

This is a father realising, why is he torturing himself like this? My dad passed away in 1995 and I find myself when I hear certain songs or see certain movies, I always notice whether they came out before 95 or after 95. It's this weird thing, in my head I think, my dad saw this movie and with Phil [Wilson's character] he is thinking, like "my son never heard this song." That's what was going on in his head in my mind, I don't know what was going on in Luke's head.

AKT: Two things I was a little confused about. The gas station is not the same one?

RM: The Elisabeth Moss one is near her [Sarah's] school in New Jersey and the other one is in Upstate New York.

AKT: I thought so. But the first one is an especially confusing place.

RM: That's how we shot it, too.

AKT: The scene when Sarah pays for her, because she says she has no money despite the fact of what she just did, what is going on there? I wasn't really quite sure.

RM: I think, maybe when she went into the bathroom she was paying for drugs. The idea is, she can't use her debit card because it's not over a certain amount of money, and her cash is gone.

AKT: And right after, you have the exchange between the two women with both of them lying.

RM: Yeah, I love how they both lie to each other.

AKT: Another interesting detail, that the car hasn't been cleaned for a year.

RM: Right. Exactly. Somewhere in the seats there is something left.

AKT: Last question, do you have a favourite animal?

RM [laughs]: Favourite animal? Good one. We don't say it. Don't talk about it.

Meadowland opens in the US on October 16. On Saturday, October 17, at Village East Cinema following the 7:40pm screening there will be a discussion moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze with Olivia Wilde and Reed Morano.

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