The Handmaid’s Tale Director Spills the Secrets to Her Creative Process
Welcome to Kind of a Big Deal, a series dedicated to introducing powerful women who are breaking boundaries in various fields. You’ll meet the rising stars of the most buzzed about arts and get the inside scoop on how they made it, what they’re working on now, and what’s up next.
Meet Director Reed Morano. She’s the woman tasked with bringing the first three episodes of New York Times best-selling author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to life on Hulu. The NYU film school alum has zero reservations about jumping into fields traditionally dominated by men—she prefers the challenge.
VIDEO: Here's the Full Trailer for The Handmaid's Tale
Her cinematographic and directorial work is regularly featured at Sundance Film Festival, among others. She’s been named one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch, Indiewire’s 20 Best Breakthrough Directors, and her latest release for Hulu is already generating rave reviews. It’s an impactful project that’s been buzzed about recently in political spheres for its connection to women’s rights issues. The book-turned-series (airing April 26) depicts the totalitarian dystopian Republic of Gilead. Think a female-focused 1984.
Morano’s no stranger to emotional projects. She’s also directed Meadowland, her first feature-length film that follows a couple struggling to deal with the loss of their son. And at this moment, she’s shooting a post-apocalyptic film called I Think We’re Alone Now starring Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage (which she insists is more about human connection than apocalypse).
We hopped on a call with the lauded director while she was en route to set to talk about her inspirations, working with Margaret Atwood, and what we can look forward to next.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been recreated into a movie, an opera, a ballet, and is being turned into a graphic novel. Why did you want to work on the TV series?
The book was one of the few that resonated with me when I read it in college. I thought this would be up my alley because I like to tell stories that are very cerebral. And the pilot was chalk full of quiet moments where I saw opportunities to express things visually that are more easily expressed through words, which I enjoy. It has a lot of creative challenges like flashback, voice over—all things that are usually red flags for me. But you get to a point where you do something over and over and you get bored with it and want to see what else you’re capable of doing to become better.
What was it like to work with best-selling author Margaret Atwood?
Pretty amazing. Margaret is an icon, and hyper intelligent to the point where I’m not even sure if I can engage her in a conversation she’d find stimulating. That’s a very intimidating challenge to come in and say to someone like that “I’m going to transform your story for a series and make it exactly what you’d hoped it would be.”
Atwood has a cameo in the series and has written about finding it difficult to watch certain scenes be shot because they are so emotional. Were there any scenes that struck a similar chord for you?
I cried while we were shooting the salvaging (a ceremony between the Handmaids that involves beating the Guardian to death). At the end when I yelled “cut!” I ran out to the field and burst into tears. But for me, it’s more difficult when I’m watching and editing it later. I guess I really like making material as uncomfortable and raw as possible. And I think that’s a good match for Margaret because frankly that’s how she writes. If it was difficult for her to watch come to life, then I probably did my job.
What do you want people to take away from watching this series?
For me, it’s about not taking anything for granted. And there’s one quote from the book that we put in an episode too that’s stuck with me: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” That’s what I hope people take away from the series, whatever that means for them.
You went to film school thinking you’d be writing and directing, but cinematography caught your eye first at NYU. What drew you to it?
When I got on my first set, I watched what the cinematographer was doing and at that level in film school, the cinematographer has the most control. They’re the one looking through the viewfinder, carrying the camera, framing the shots. And I just thought everything the audience sees they’re going to be seeing quite literally through the cinematographer’s eyes. And I wanted to be that guy.
Do you think it’s true that female directors have more trouble landing projects? And how do you think that Hollywood could change that?
I don’t really see it as difficult for women (if you have an original point of view). If you’re a woman, you know what you’re talking about, and you’re good, I think you can have an advantage. Huge studio movies are handed over to a man with less experience before they’re handed over to a woman with less experience. That’s a fact. But I think it’s not just about men not hiring women, it’s about women not hiring women, too. Everybody needs to forget about gender and look at the person. Look at their personality. Can they handle it? Do they do good work? Do they have a good vibe? What's their vision and how do they collaborate? It doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman, it matters what they do.
What’s one surprising thing about your creative process?
I really connect with the music, that’s where I draw a lot of inspiration. Even if I wasn’t going to use music in a scene, I still use music in my mind to create that scene. I have a playlist for every project that I do. I made one for Handmaid before I got the job. The major song I listened to we actually ended up getting in for episode 3. It’s so dark and intense. When we finally had a scene that was intense enough for that piece, it was cool to be able to use it.
You’re working with Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning right now and you’ve worked with Elizabeth Moss, is there anyone that you really want to work with that you haven’t yet?
You know I actually was talking to Nicole Kidman at one point about a project and we’re trying to plan to work on something together. I love strong women like Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep, and Charlize Theron.
Do you have any advice for aspiring female cinematographers or directors?
There’s no instant formula and sometimes the direct path is not always the best path. Just keep your eyes on the prize and you’ll get there one day.