How 'The Rhythm Section' Director Reed Morano Builds Trust with Her Stars

Reed Morano - Getty - H 2020
Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic
The filmmaker behind the Blake Lively action film, as well as 'The Handmaid's Tale', notes of putting her actors in vulnerable positions: "The women know they can trust me … they know it’s not about how they look; it’s about how they make me feel.”

Whether it’s operating the camera as a director, creating the perfect movie poster or ridding televisions of motion-smoothing settings, Reed Morano is determined to get what she wants. On her latest film, The Rhythm Section, the Emmy and DGA Award winner “strips down” Blake Lively’s Stephanie Patrick as she pursues the terrorists who bombed her family’s airplane. The result is Lively’s most haunting and committed performance to date — much like Morano captured with Olivia Wilde on Meadowland and Elisabeth Moss on The Handmaid’s Tale.

“One thing you’ll notice in my movies and in Handmaid’s is I’ve stripped down my characters. The women know they can trust me,” Morano tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t need them to look hot, and I think that’s what the advantage is of working with me. They know it’s not about how they look; it’s about how they make me feel.”

Since 2014, Morano has also been at the forefront of the war against motion smoothing, a default setting on most televisions that undermines filmmakers’ works via the soap opera effect. With the recent launch of Filmmaker Mode, Hollywood heavyweights like Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese have successfully eliminated motion smoothing as a new TV setting called Filmmaker Mode will soon begin to roll out in order to preserve the original intent of filmmakers and their movies. While Morano is a part of this alliance, she can’t help but feel a bit frustrated that it took as long as it did.

“I think the real question is how did filmmaker mode jump on my train? Filmmaker mode is only a year-and-a-half old, but back in 2014, I really didn’t have a voice yet ... and what I found was that a lot of people were not aware of this thing called smooth motion,” Morano explains. “I was trying to alert people who had more of a voice than me, and no one was really taking it seriously.”

Morano launched a Change.org petition and eventually other filmmakers joined the fight. 

“I’m glad that those people eventually woke up, got involved and were able to help push this filmmaker mode thing through,” says Morano. They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s talk to this person, Reed,’ even though I’ve been yelling at everybody about this for years now. But nobody wanted to listen to the little guy. I’m very happy it’s happened, and I’m very grateful to my peers for using their power for good, which is to save our art.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Morano also discusses her fondness for movie posters, how she improved The Rhythm Section during Blake Lively’s injury hiatus and the benefits of James Bond’s stunt team.

Spelling the word rhythm correctly on the first try is very difficult. Has this movie cured that issue for you, assuming it even was one?

(Laughs.) This is like the best question I’ve gotten, ever. People don’t know that this is the real struggle. I had to spell rhythm so many times during The Rhythm Section, and even now, I still stumble on the word. But, yes, I’m way better at it, and it’s been really difficult for me. So, thank you for feeling my pain.

Profound loss and grief seem to be the throughlines of your directorial work. Have you figured out what attracts you to these themes?

I know it’s weird. I’ll be honest with you: I like capturing emotion. Right now, I kind of feel like doing a comedy next. I had a producer that worked with me on five different movies when I was a cinematographer, and when I went to do Meadowland, he was like, “Why are you doing this? You’re like the funniest person I know. Why don’t you do a comedy?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I just have this feeling I could do this really well.” But I like feeling emotion when I’m making a movie. As a DP, shooting really powerful and emotional things was where I was feeling the most satisfaction and gratification on set. So, it just pushed me in that direction. Also, you sometimes like to tell stories about the things you most fear; maybe even to explore your own demons a little bit. Obviously, I have not gone through the things that have happened in the movies that I’ve directed, but I have experienced other things that I think directly influenced my perspective on these things — on a much smaller scale. I lost my dad during my first year of college — and a lot of people have lost a parent — but that time in your life can profoundly affect you going forward. And the same year I did Meadowland, I had treatment for cancer. Those things all influenced my work and made me want to explore my greatest fear, which is not me dying, but, God, should anything happen to one of my children, which is still, to this day, my greatest fear.

Unlike Meadowland and I Think We’re Alone Now, you didn't serve as your own DP on this film. Did the scope of the film ultimately influence your decision to hire Sean Bobbit?

Yeah. When I got this job, I knew it was a huge opportunity for me at the time, but I had no delusions that I was also going to be the DP on this film. It’s not that I couldn’t do it; I definitely could, but I think that other people need to have the experience at this level. If I did another movie of this size with the same producers, they would probably know at that point, “Yeah, Reed could probably do it because she shot a lot of the film anyway.” On a film of this size, a lot of things have to be happening simultaneously. DPing isn’t just shooting; it’s a lot of management, and on a film of this size, the crew is much bigger. On Meadowland and I Think We’re Alone Now, those crews were really easy to manage. We had big setups on I Think We’re Alone Now from time to time, but I was able to give everybody what they needed. Being a director is being available to all your keys, but being a DP is also being available to your keys.

I also knew that there were going to be really important things for the style of the film that Sean was going to help me elevate but also help me fight for. On a film of this size with people who are not used to doing this style, it was only beneficial to me to have a very powerful presence standing by my side, backing me up on everything. Now, after I’ve done this, people know that I can do action, but it was helpful to me to have someone who saw my vision and had the same aesthetic as me. It’s sad that you need that by your side, but it does help since there’s more power in numbers. I really wanted to make this film distinctive, and I think it helped that Sean was never going to let it be anything but that.

Were you able to take your DP hat off for the most part, or were you still pretty hands-on?

My DPs joke around me, “You can take your DP hat off.” It’s not like that. I know my place on set when I have a DP, and I don’t step on their toes. I don’t tell them how to light stuff. We’ll definitely have a conversation beforehand about what the look is, how we’re going to do things and if I need something dark or whatever. But, I really don’t micromanage. I hired that person for a reason, and I want them to do it their way. Even though I’ll always think about what I would do instead in the back of my head, that’s just part of life, and I won’t say anything unless something needs to be said. I know what I wanted to be treated like as a DP, and I respect that; I respect these artists that I work with. From the beginning, before the person even signs on to the job, I make it no secret that I’m going to want to operate the camera from time to time. That way, they know that. I’m not gonna operate the camera because they can’t do it; it’s because there is some sort of connection that happens between me and the actor, and it affects the way the scene turns out. Sometimes, I”m just going to want to do it. I also think that the actors that work with me expect that to happen. It’s partially something that everyone looks forward to. Interestingly, Sean Bobbit doesn’t really let anybody ever touch a camera on his set; he operates everything. His crew told me that he never lets anyone, and that it was insane to watch him proudly watch me on the monitor when I operated certain scenes. And I let Sean do mostly everything, and he let me operate certain scenes that I wanted operate.

Sometimes, it was just a practical thing. We had that big car chase in Tangier, and basically, we had to be prepping and rehearsing that car chase simultaneously while rehearsing this huge fight scene that we had in a bus. Sean and I really wanted to do the car chase; the car was small, but I let Sean have the car chase because it’s Sean. I let him have fun, and he’s the DP of the movie. Sean was like, “You do the bus fight because let’s be honest, I can’t really fit on the bus.” He’s like six foot; he’s a big guy. And I’m little; I can fit into small spaces. So, with a bus full of people, plus people having a fight sequence, I was the more practical choice for the bus scene. I could rehearse it while he was in a different place rehearsing the car chase. We already knew what we wanted for each, and we knew we liked the same stuff. So, this great trust happened, and that’s how I am with all the DPs that I work with.

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson of Eon had the rights to the book and produced the film. Since they’ve made a spy movie or two, what Bond-related assets of theirs were you happiest to have?

(Laughs.) Their stunt team, for sure. They brought the guys who did Bond and Star Wars. They’re just the best of the best. I was asking a lot of them. Even though it seems like my style is grittier and more lo-fi, I had ideas for shooting action sequences in ways that are more difficult to achieve. They were excited by that, and they were the only guys that could really do it this well.

Thanks to John Wick, action sequences across the industry have become longer, wider and more choreographed. With that in mind, what was your philosophy for shooting your action scenes?

I wanted it to feel as real as possible. I didn’t want it to feel like we were constantly cutting because we were using stunt doubles. I wanted people to feel how raw and disturbing it is. I wanted to make people understand that it’s brutal. It’s meant to be a very grounded character study, and sometimes, action can be very glossy that people take lightly. I wanted people to not take the violence lightly, and I didn’t want to glorify it. I wanted to make people flinch at it. I think that was the inspiration for how we approached it artistically.

I talked to Chris McQuarrie about his last film’s injury hiatus and how it ended up helping the movie in some respects. During the break, he was able to assess what he had and what he needed still. Were you also able to assemble your movie and ultimately improve upon it during Blake’s own injury hiatus?

Yeah! We all wanted to finish the movie at the time, but there was no way I was going to shoot anything until I knew Blake’s hand was really good. We waited until the recommended time, and then we added several months to that. We had to use that time so we could make our financiers understand that the movie wasn’t just going to go away. So, we did do an assembly of the half of the movie that we had already shot, and I did learn things from that that were really valuable. If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t have had Blake’s injury; I think the movie still would’ve been great. But, did I learn some things in that time period? Of course. I never stop learning, and I would always take advantage of that time given to me, as did Blake and the rest of the crew. Blake, Barbara and I all got more into the story and kept questioning everything in order to make it as strong as possible. Honestly, I don’t think there was a silver lining to it, but if there was one, it’s that we had more time to make other things better. But, I would’ve foregone that in order to have Blake not get hurt. That’s more important than anything.

Rhythm included your first sizable budget, which is $50 million according to the Internet. Did the budget add a layer of stress to the process that you’ve never felt before, or were you mostly unfazed?

I wasn’t stressed. My producers are very open with me, and when we had to do things like shorten the schedule in order to help the budget, we did that. Even though we had $50 million or whatever, it doesn’t mean the movie had endless funds. It just means we had more stuff that cost more money, and in the end, you’re really just fighting all the same battles. It’s similar stresses as before. The only stress differences are the politics involving the extra people that are worried about how much money it’s costing. On a level between myself, the producers and the crew, it didn’t feel different. It felt like the way it should be. To be fair, I had shot a lot of big projects before as a DP, so it wasn’t a huge jump from what I had already done. I don’t take it for granted; it was amazing to be given that budget to work with. But, I didn’t feel like I was out of my depth at all.

I love hearing about friends and family screenings because directors will often receive a piece of feedback that helps unlock something important in the movie. Did Rhythm have an unsung hero in that regard?

Without getting into much detail, most of my best feedback has come from Matt Walker. He’s the father of my children. He’s also a creative partner of mine, and I’m working on a few different movies with him. He’s a screenwriter and director as well. On every project, he has continuously given me the best sort of feedback and notes. He’s a huge unsung hero in my career in general. 

When it comes to a woman-led story like Rhythm, are there certain advantages that result from a woman director like yourself at the helm?

Yeah, I think so. Actors who’ve been around are used to baring their soul in front of everybody on the crew. But, I do think there’s a comfort level where they think, “I know that the woman behind the camera isn’t going to let me look bad. I don’t even need to say anything.” Objectifying is not going to happen because I see them in a different way. One thing you’ll notice in my movies and in Handmaid’s is I’ve stripped down my characters. The women know they can trust me. I don’t need them to look hot, and I think that’s what the advantage is of working with me. They know it’s not about how they look; it’s about how they make me feel.

Your directorial debut, Meadowland, is a movie I really enjoyed, and it’s led by Olivia Wilde, who just had her own directorial debut via Booksmart. When you think back to the Meadowland set, were there various indications that she’d be following in your footsteps rather soon?

Not on Meadowland, per se. She’s an extremely supportive partner in crime, but a little bit after Meadowland, we talked a lot about it. She was like, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I want to direct.” She asked me to DP a music video for her; I asked her to be in a commercial. We just kept collaborating, and that’s when I started to see that Olivia was delving into this other area. Here’s the other thing: she’s super smart with story. There’s nothing she can’t do, and when she was going to direct something, I never doubted that she would be amazing at it. It actually made complete sense, and when she told me about Booksmart, I was like, “Well, she’s literally the funniest person I know, and I don’t know anyone who’s more suited.” And she has amazing taste. So, I just knew it was going to be a home run.

Your name has been mentioned in connection with some franchise properties, and I assume that you've enjoyed some water bottles at most of those places. You’ve actually talked about a meeting you once had with Kathleen Kennedy. So, based on all the information you've amassed through meetings and the experiences of your peers, do you think you can make a Reed Morano movie within a major studio's franchise environment?

Yeah, I think I can if it’s a character that has not been established. I don’t want to do characters that have already been put to film unless it’s a whole new thing. A remake is different. A classic character that’s maybe had a movie before is different. In terms of a franchise, if there is some comic book character or superhero whose story has not been told in recent years, that would be appealing to me, and I do think I could put my stamp on it. When people hire me, it’s no secret that what they’re going to get isn’t going to be standard and straight down the line. I think that’s the reason why they’d hire me. It’s not going to be something that looks like it’s mass produced.

I often lament the lost art of the movie poster. However, your three films are exceptions, especially I Think We’re Alone Now. Do you share the same frustration?

It’s funny that you should mention that because I’m obsessed with movie posters. I collect them, which is maybe one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever said. (Laughs.) It’s very nerdy. I get the European bus shelter sizes because they always have the weird versions. But, in any case, I’m very particular about marketing and posters. Everyone who’s worked with me will groan because they know. I’ll often control every detail down to the font. Meadowland, I Think We’re Alone Now, The Rhythm Section and The Handmaid’s Tale are pretty much all the same font because I enforce it. I often bring in a graphic designer friend of mine named Christopher Rubino. He’s done titles on a lot of great movies like The Place Beyond the Pines; he also did Handmaid’s and Meadowland with me. Also, for concept art and posters, there’s this guy named Blair Shedd. He was a comic book artist by trade… and I went to high school with him. He is a super talent, and he’s actually working on something for me right now. He is the person responsible for the I Think We’re Alone Now poster, and I’ve never gotten so many compliments on a poster.

How did you get involved with filmmaker mode?

I think the real question is how did filmmaker mode jump on my train? Filmmaker mode is only a year and a half old, but back in 2014, I really didn’t have a voice yet. I had just been asked to join the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), and what I found was that a lot of people were not aware of this thing called smooth motion. No one was talking about it, and I was horrified after discovering it on my own in 2011 or 2012. I was trying to alert people who had more of a voice than me, and no one was really taking it seriously. I was like, “This is a problem.” I had to google it back in 2011 to try and find out what it was, and I only knew it was called motion interpolation. So, around 2014, it was still a problem. No one had done anything. No filmmakers were talking about it; none of the big people. I was like, “What the heck is going on here? No one is paying attention to this.” So, I made a petition on Change.org, and it’ll come up if you look up motion interpolation. It got like 14,000 signatures. I was trying to petition the manufacturers of TVs to not make it a default setting, because that’s what they were doing I figured out. It was very complex to try and turn it off on all different types of TVs, and everywhere I went, I would grab the remote to try and turn it off. There were many people that were way bigger than me in the industry who didn’t even know about it yet. I’m glad that those people eventually woke up, got involved and were able to help push this filmmaker mode thing through. I got involved with it once they heard that I had been really vocal about this issue for many years before this. I think a lot of people pointed them in my direction and were like, “Yeah, you should really talk to Reed because she’s the one who’s been going off about this.” There are people that are simply more powerful than me that were able to push this into effect. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, let’s talk to this person, Reed,” even though I’ve been yelling at everybody about this for years now. But, nobody wanted to listen to the little guy. So, that’s the story with filmmaker mode. I’m very happy it’s happened, and I’m very grateful to my peers for using their power for good, which is to save our art. I try to be an advocate for it as well.


The Rhythm Section is now in theaters.