Reed Morano, the cinematographer behind The Skeleton Twins, Kill Your Darlings, and And So It Goes, makes an ambitious and auspicious directorial debut with Meadowland. (She also served as DP on the film.) This intense drama concerns a couple, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson), coping in very different ways with their son’s disappearance. While Phil goes to support groups and tries to adjust to living with his loss, Sarah goes off her meds and falls into a downward spiral, trying to find ways of recapturing a sense of balance in her life. Morano infuses this film of haunted intimacy with a palpable sense of dread from its opening moments, and she coaxes a canny, nervy performance from Wilde. In a rare leading dramatic role, the actress, who also serves as one of the film’s producers, gives predictably detailed expression to her fragile character’s increasingly bad decisions, so often captured in claustrophobic close-up. The director and producer/star spoke to me about Meadowland from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
The film is very much about various techniques people use for coping with trauma. Why did that subject appeal to you, and what approach did you take to telling Sarah’s story?
Olivia Wilde: I was blown away by Sarah’s strength and complexity. I loved that she wasn’t a hero or a villain. I thought the film had a really unusual perspective on grief. It was a lot more thrilling and unpredictable than any story about grief I had ever read. I turned the page not knowing what she was going to do. Was she going to hurt herself or others? Will she find her son or not? I thought that was exciting. Then, meeting Reed, and hearing that she shared my instincts, that it wasn’t a relentlessly sad, dark story, that there was humanity to it and points of humor—there was a dynamic nature to the story, and to the characters, that maybe other storytellers wouldn’t find in the same topic. Ultimately, it was my connection with Reed that made me want to produce it.
Reed Morano: My dad is the one who made me go to film school. He suggested it. He said, “We’re going to make a movie together one day.” This is the first film I have made on my own, so it was important for me to dedicate it to him. He gave me my first video camera when I was in the second grade. What drew me to the story was when he passed away. What I noticed was that it had a ripple effect through my family, and what I started to notice was that everyone—I have a lot of siblings—was dealing with their grief in individual ways, and it was affecting everyone really differently and it had residual effects on their whole lives. It changed the course of people’s paths. I thought when I read Meadowland that it would be really good if we could home in on that aspect of how people deal with trauma. What do you do as a mom, with motherly instinct, when you lose something that was a physical part of your body. It’s like you’re losing a vital organ. How do you live without that? I think it’s fascinating to see the deterioration of the mind—what your mind thinks is okay, or not okay. What do you start to care about? What are your priorities after that happens?
Most films about people dealing with loss are inspirational. But Meadowland is anything but. Sarah makes bad decisions, and the film, and Olivia’s performance, are more interesting, and more insightful, about human nature as a result.
Wilde: We decided at one point that Sarah was a terrible teacher. I like that this is a different way to tell the story of the public school teacher. She was in no way inspiring. She’s teaching them poetry that’s way over their heads.
The poetry is a way of magnifying her self-destructive behavior.
Olivia: Exactly! What’s considered going crazy? Madness is something that’s totally subjective because it’s based on societal rules. When do you decide to go off the rails because it’s no longer worth playing by the rules? That’s the journey every main character is going through in their own way. Tim [Giovanni Ribisi, who plays her brother-in-law] isn’t coloring within the lines. Phil is an NYC police officer, someone who represents those lines and boundaries, and even he goes off the rails in terms of his morality. Adam [Ty Simpkins, who plays a special-needs student] is incapable of understanding social cues. He’s living with a totally unique perspective, and Sarah relates to that. She feels she doesn’t fit in.
Reed: Adam is like an old soul. There’s something about him. He’s an observer.
Closure is, for me, a socially constructed emotion. It promises false hope. Phil seems to think closure is viable, but Sarah doesn’t.
Olivia: Closure would be admitting defeat. While we were preparing to shoot, I watched a documentary about the tsunami in Japan. A man was searching through wreckage for his daughter a year after she had been killed. They asked him, “Why are you still searching?” And he said, “When I stop looking for her, she’ll be dead.” And I remember writing to Reed and saying, “That’s Sarah.” The second she stops believing that her son is out there, he’ll be dead. Sarah doesn’t want closure. It would be killing him in her mind. She wants no part of closure.
What can you say about Sarah’s expressions and body language? She’s often shot in close-up. What was the sense behind presenting her characteristics, and with such a sense of dread?
Wilde: We talked a lot about Sarah’s physicality—that she was caved in. Once I assumed that posture, I felt Sarah. It was all I needed as a trigger at the beginning of the day. But this was absolutely something Reed kept a careful eye on, keeping that physicality consistent. That sense of dread is interesting. If we didn’t know what was going to happen, would we still feel that sense of dread?
Reed: Shooting it, I wanted to maintain that dread. It’s so much what the actors were doing. I filmed the actors as a documentarian. You know where you need to go with the camera. Following Sarah in the Times Square scene, where I couldn’t catch up to her, that was intentional. I like the idea of not always needing to see a person’s face to know how they’re feeling. You can see their one eye, or how Sarah holds her shoulders. It’s knowing those moments where you need to go in tight, such as the cutting scene. It was important to focus on Sarah’s face because it hurts more watching her eyes than the blade cutting.
Olivia: Absolutely. It speaks to Reed’s proficiency as both a DP and as a director. She allowed us to move in any way that was right for the character. Never once did she say, “Can you lift your chin because the light’s better”? Or: “Can you cheat out so I can get a better shot”? That, I think, often creates inauthentic performances.