She’d heard that execs had their hearts set on a famous male director (who she declined to name) to guide the pilot episode, but thought she’d toss her hat in the ring anyway. Given the opportunity to present her vision to series producers, she ― a director with less experience and name recognition ― came prepared: with a scrupulously detailed 70-page lookbook stuffed with photographs, film stills and a corresponding playlist that, together, outlined the appearance, sound and emotional feel of a show that’d go on to score an impressive 13 Emmy nominations.
Yes, Morano got the job. (And she’s nominated for a 2017 Emmy for Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series because of it.)
“I’ve never directed a pilot before,” she told The New York Times. “They were basically betting on me, and what I was proposing, based on my previous work, but I had only directed one feature at that point, and one episode of television. They’ve already asked me to come back for the second season. I would love to, because I feel like, in many ways, it’s my show, and it’s so specific to my aesthetic.”
The show is, in many ways, Morano’s show. Created by producer Bruce Miller, based on source material from the beloved Canadian author Atwood, and cast to the brim with powerful actors like Elisabeth Moss, the series was poised for greatness before she joined the team. But without Morano, known for her work as a director on “Meadowland” and a cinematographer on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and HBO’s “Divorce,” the series might never have achieved the nightmarish beauty that’s become its signature. She’s responsible for the show’s first three episodes, marked visually by an unnerving symmetry, heart-stopping close-up shots and eerie use of natural light. The proceeding seven episodes, guided by a melange of directors, hew closely to the frightening world she built.
We spoke to Morano ahead of the Season 1 finale of “Handmaid’s Tale” about her unique strategy to landing a job, the emotional weight of directing such a dramatic story, and why she’s still asking herself, “Could this happen to me?”
I heard you speak at the 92Y about how you got involved with “Handmaid’s Tale.” In particular, how you created a 70-page lookbook for your meeting with Hulu, outlining in impressive detail the vision you had for the series. What motivated you to go to such lengths to get the job, despite the fact that, as you’ve mentioned, a big male director was already tied to the project?
Well, I wanted the job and that I knew I wasn’t a likely hire. I was honestly ready to do whatever I needed to get it. I thought, I’m going to go all out and get as detailed as possible about what I would do with every aspect of the show. It’s probably the first time I really realized that pitching for a pilot is one of the most competitive things because [...] you get to tell the story, you get to create the world and create the tone, and basically create a narrative language that is going to be followed for the rest of the series, ideally. It’s like the best job! It’s the closest thing to making a movie on TV. I just thought, I’m going to go all out. I have no choice, because I’m not a known quality, I have to work harder ― or maybe a lot harder.
What was inside the lookbook?
So I took what I knew from making lookbooks as a cinematographer and expanded upon that. A lot of the lookbook is imagery, with some quotes from Margaret Atwood’s book; imagery that felt like shots that would be in the show, gathered from photography and stills from certain movies as references. There’s a section that sort of just set the mood and described what the tone of the whole show would be. And then there were sections that described the tone of the characters and performances, and what the sound design would be like, and how it would play into the storytelling and create an atmosphere. And because the show had voiceover, I would basically explain how I was going to visualize that and how I would differentiate the flashback world from the present-day. I did a whole section on the editing, and how it would be edited. I wrote pages and pages.
Really, I just brought up ideas that we ended up using in the show. Like, shooting flashback scenes like fleeting memories, with a kind of impressionistic, romantic, vérité camera. And not doing standard coverage, so that much like a memory, you don’t remember seeing everything, you just remember certain things. And just in general, the way the show would be shot, in terms of the choices of camera movement and lenses.
Did you think at all about how about how the concept of a dystopia translates visually? For example, you have a lot of orderly, symmetrical shots in the first three episodes, or eerie shots where the handmaids are perfectly arranged in their uniform clothing. Did these sort of aesthetic considerations derive from any personal conception of what a dystopia looked like?
Well, yeah, I think there’s almost a mechanical nature to some of the shots. Everything I wanted to do came from an emotional place and an emotional way of telling a story with a camera. And there is something disturbing about all these red dots arranged perfectly in a line, almost as if they’re just objects. The handmaids are just basically objects; they’re property.
There is something kind of disturbing about that, maybe even on a subliminal level, thinking about futuristic films that I’ve seen or grew up on. Even “Star Wars” and seeing Stormtroopers all lined up, and then you see all these handmaids all lined up. There is something a little otherworldly about it. There is something militaristic about it. When I think about dystopia, those kinds of things come to mind: the cold arrangement of objects. And there’s also this idea, particularly in “The Handmaid’s Tale” ― and this might not be true of other dystopian stories ― but for a lot of them, this loss of individuality tends to be a common theme. For that reason as well, this idea of symmetry and things mirroring each other and lots of objects looking the same … their arrangement being so perfect almost becomes inhuman.
One of my favorite scenes was the birthing scene in the second episode, when you strike these really stark contrasts between the experiences of the wives and the experiences of the handmaids. [Editor’s Note: In this scene, a handmaid is physically giving birth to a child while the wife of the commander who impregnated the handmaid is pretending to be in labor behind her.] Can you tell me a little bit about what you were trying to communicate in this scene?
I mean, just how bizarre it is, you know? The idea of these wives emulating the experiences so they could feel better about the fact that they’re not only taking the children from these women, they are also taking away the experience that they are having ― or, at least, diminishing it, by imagining that they could be feeling what that person is feeling in the moment.
For me, I just thought about the feeling that you have after you give birth to a child, which, I have two boys who are 8 years old and 6 years old. The instant feeling I had after I gave birth was you couldn’t get that baby in my hands fast enough. To imagine a scenario when the minute you give birth you part ways with this human that you’ve been growing in your body for the past 10 months and thinking about in every way, because you can’t not think about it because it affects everything, and then to have somebody take the baby away and know that it’s never really going to be yours. I can’t even pretend to know what that feels like.
All I know is that when I gave birth to my son, the first one was a C-section and the second one was a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean). But the first one I had to wait until I could feel a feeling again in my whole body to interact with my son. The [hospital staff] were like, “It’s going to be at least two hours, so just rest in the recovery room.” But I was so desperate to see him, that it felt like that scene in “Kill Bill” where she’s in the back of the truck and she’s like, “Wiggle your big toe.” I was awake the whole time pretty much and in 45 minutes I got to move my leg, so then she let me go see my son. Anyway, it sort of all comes from, you know, when anyone is making anything, they relate it to their own personal experiences. For me, everything that was happening was so bizarre to me in that scene, but you have to think about the most important part. There might be a lot of things happening at once, a lot of power struggles and interesting dynamics, but the most important thing for me to focus on in that scene is the fact that this girl who has given birth to a child ― it’s being torn away from her. And that’s ultimately one of the biggest crimes in the story.
Does that sort of emotional attachment to a scene ever complicate the way you shoot? Does it ever make it difficult for you to bring a scene to life? Or was there a scene in “Handmaid’s Tale” that was particularly tricky for this reason?
Oh, I don’t know, there are so many tricky scenes that are difficult to do for different reasons. But not too difficult to do, because they’re still, like … you kind of have to go all in, especially for actors, they just have to go all in and accept you’re going to go to this place. Not for any sort of particular reason personally, but even shooting the salvaging [in which the handmaid’s beat an alleged rapist to death] was scary. Really scary. There were many moments where I was watching Lizzy [Elisabeth Moss] or some of the other actors going through something thinking, “I think I’m going crazy with them.” Because you are in that world for however many months. It starts to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s the story you’re telling.
If I could pick another scene, probably the protest [before June became a handmaid] was the most interesting because we had shot that in October and I think, for me, the hardest part for editing was … that was after the election [of President Donald Trump]. I looked at it very differently. It was emotionally even more difficult than when we shot the [scene].
Did those emotions affect the way you edited the scene?
Not really, because even when I was editing it, it was well before the Women’s March that happened in January. When that happened, that was really crazy. What’s interesting about editing the protest scene prior to that even happening was that I still had some weird feeling like ... Is this something that could happen? How do you get there? That was the question I kept asking myself in edits. Is this going to happen? What are the steps that it takes to get to this point?
Are you still asking yourself that question as you look ahead to Season 2?
Yeah, you kind of just keep a closer eye on the world around you. Margaret [Atwood] says so many things that resonate all the time ― they resonated in the past and they resonate now. The one [quote] that I’ve mentioned before is, “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” To me, that says it all.
But I actually was watching things change in our country pretty instantaneously. There were a few days in the first weeks after the election where there was a new law being overturned every day, or a new law being made to get rid of an old bill. There were so many changes in the first few days that I was like, this isn’t even gradual. This is, after the fourth [change], I was like, “Hello? Is anyone seeing what’s happening right now? This is insane.”
And not to get political, but in a broader sense ― in terms of the world, not just in terms of here in our country ― there are things we should be more aware of. Because we’re so sheltered here, in America, typically. [...] We have this whole thing of “this can’t happen to me, this happens to people over there.” So when something does happen here it’s like, “Oh my God, poor us.” But this is happening all the time in other parts of the world, while you sit here on your cushy couch on Instagram. Of course, I’m referring to myself. That’s who I talk to when I think about these things. You just think that all these other people who are politically active are going to take care of it for you. Well, guess what? They’re not. You have to take care of it for you. If you don’t say something, you only have yourself to blame.
Are you on board for Season 2?
We’re just talking about it now. They’ve asked me to come back for Season 2, and do whatever episodes I want to do, however many I want to do, and I can’t really say right now, but I am going to do whatever I can, schedule permitting, because I love the cast so much. And all my bosses on the show were pretty amazing, because, as you can see, they creatively let me have a lot of fun and take a lot of risks. And I’d love to do something crazy again.