Movies

Olivia Wilde and an upstart cinematographer seek to carry a new feminist mantle

Olivia Wilde and an upstart cinematographer seek to carry a new feminist mantle

Olivia Wilde in “Meadowland,” which she also produced.

(Tribeca Film Festival)

To gain airtime for a difficult movie, it helps to have a friend who made “Taxi Driver.” On Monday night, in a small screening room below the Museum of Modern Art, Martin Scorsese stood up and told a group that included Chris Rock, Ellen Burstyn and Kathleen Turner that the recently released missing-child drama “Meadowland” was worth paying attention to. “Focal length, focus, not in focus — I was just taken with the whole picture,” Scorsese said.

A moment earlier, Turner, sitting toward the back, had been volunteering advice to a seat neighbor she’d just met on how to improve his cellphone service. (“You can still go to a Nokia store and lay it out. Or go online to the Nokia site and type in the kind of phone you have and they’ll help you.”) But she straightened visibly when Scorsese began his endorsement of the evening’s movie. “It’s a damn good movie, it really is,” he urged the audience.

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Reed Morano, 38, is a cinematographer, one of only about a dozen women earning a steady paycheck as such in Hollywood. Her work has been known to indie film fans — she shot visually distinct pieces such as “Frozen River” and “Kill Your Darlings” — and has served as D.P. on about half the episodes of “Vinyl,” Scorsese’s upcoming period music drama on HBO. She had never directed a movie before. One could imagine a tougher choice for a debut, but not easily.

In “Meadowland,” Olivia Wilde (who also produced) and Luke Wilson star as a young couple grappling with the disappearance of their young son from an upstate New York gas station. Phil, a policeman, and Sarah, a teacher, are coping in their own way. He attends a support group and lashes out at work; she, in the weightier part, takes an interest in an emotionally troubled child at her school. Feelings are expressed through quiet moments and pained expressions far more than noisy histrionics.

Morano, who also wore the hat of cinematographer, shot the movie with a variety of close-ups and novel angles. In one, the lens tracks Sarah from behind as she walks at night through Times Square, yellow hoodie pulled tight, as if hoping to sink inside herself. (Morano stole many shots for her indie production, including a number of them in the streets of midtown Manhattan.)

She aimed to convey suffering and struggle with a degree of personal intimacy, she said.

“I know that time in life where you’re just trying to get through the next five minutes,” Morano, who lost her father as a teenager and began receiving cancer treatment while in pre-production, said in an interview at a post-screening dinner. “It’s almost like fighting with your own mental state more than anything else.”

Many other movies about such subjects, she said, come with a certain inauthenticity. “Grief isn’t often portrayed honestly. In real life people are not necessarily hysterically crying. It’s not that they’re OK,” added the filmmaker, who is married with several young sons of her own. “But they’re not necessarily showing it.”

There are independent films and there are independent films, and even as “Spotlight,” “Brooklyn” and other upscale award-season fare looks for attention this fall, movies like “Meadowland” — a microbudget directorial debut about the most difficult of subjects — are trying to break out at the stratum below that. The movie had a small release in theaters from the boutique distributor Cinedigm last month and is now available on demand.

“I know the kind of competition at this time of year,” Wilde told The Times at the dinner. “It’s a totally different type of story with films the size of ours. Success is measured primarily by whether the final print is what you set out to make.”

Still, the film does represent an idea that goes beyond the specific results--it is the rare drama that counts women in key positions of director, producer and star. (Even “Room,” another difficult fall drama centering on a strong female character, had a male director and producers.)

Wilde’s role, meanwhile, offers a look at an actress shifting out of her comfort zone (a move that proved compelling, to a point, for voters when Jennifer Aniston tried it last year).

Wilde has played a host of supporting roles in action films and comedies, but less frequently has had lead parts, let alone in material such as this.

“In the few years preceding ‘Meadowland’ I was taking challenges in a different and exciting way and this felt like a logical next step,” said Wilde, who also stars in “Vinyl.” “I didn’t consider it the nonlogical choice until my agent pointed it out to me. He said, ‘You know, to get financing they’re going to want to see actors who’ve done these roles before.’” She ended up inviting Morano to her house and filming a few scenes from the movie in front of her — then, as a producer, she helped land financing by casting actors such as Wilson and costar Juno Temple.

Wilde said she’s quietly developing material for her own directorial debut, though she declined to offer more details, and also is looking to continue working as a producer. “I want to produce more challenging material, not necessarily similar in terms of tone and style to this movie but with interesting voices like Reed’s.” That gauntlet has, in the past, been picked up by the likes of Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore, but there are yet few such actress-producer figures from a new generation.

She said “Meadowland” appealed to her was because, for all the women who worked on the movie, it defied expectations about a female-led work.

“I think our approach to this film is a masculine approach. There’s something nonsentimental in the way Reed tells this story that I think is surprising,” Wilde said. “I hope people are inspired to give females opportunities to make movies that are not feminine in their nature, because we need more of that.”

Morano, whom Wilde describes as “the most badass filmmaker I’ve ever met,” has been playing the outsider for a while, on sets with their largely male crews of grips and gaffers. On Monday, with a short haircut and tattoos peaking out from under an evening dress one suspects she doesn’t wear nightly, she said she has had to learn to roll with a film crew’s largely fraternal rituals, with “a certain personality to earn their respect.”

Morano is seeking financing for her next directorial project, a fact-based story about women fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan titled “Lioness,” to which Ellen Page is attached. As for this film, she acknowledged that the challenges began in many ways after the picture was long locked.

“It’s been very hard. People are afraid of the subject matter. If they know the log line they don’t want to see it,” she said. “But I like movies that make me feel uncomfortable.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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