The opening scene of cinematographer Reed Morano’s directorial debut could easily be every parent’s worst nightmare.
A couple, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson), and their young son, Jessie (Casey Walker), stop at a gas station in the midst of a family outing. He visits the restroom, his parents merely feet away buying drinks and snacks. As the minutes tick by, their primal paternal alarms go off.
Something is not right.
When an attendant opens the door, they are faced with an empty stall. Their son is gone.
Skipping the cliché route of a police procedural, “Meadowland” picks up one year later with the couple trapped in cycle of grief and uncertainty in the 95-minute feature, which will screen this weekend during the Hamptons International Film Festival. And those who know Ms. Morano best as an optimistic, humorous person continuously ask her why she would choose to make such a depressing film.
But after reading Chris Rossi’s script, she said she knew.
“It really touched some crazy-deep emotional chords in me and I thought, ‘Well, maybe if you feel that way reading it on paper, maybe there’s some kind of a chance that once it’s on screen with actors, amazing actors doing an amazing job, you can really move people,’” Ms. Morano said from the set of HBO’s new series “Vinyl,” for which she is the cinematographer. “I thought if I ever directed something, I would want to really do something that was powerful and affected people.”
The script pushed her into the mindsets of Phil and Sarah, she said. And over the course of filming, she had to keep herself in a dark place.
“To me, I’ve been through nothing comparatively, but it was one of those situations where going through the process of making it, I had to force myself to imagine all the time and sit there and imagine what it would feel like in order to make the whole movie feel authentic and not make the moments feel melodramatic—more like what really happens when you lose anything in your life, where you feel like your world is not the same,” Ms. Morano said. “You feel like you’re living in the Twilight Zone. You just walk around in this tunnel vision where no one really understands. You don’t feel like people even know. Nobody knows what’s going on with you and your life changed forever.”
As a mother herself, the film’s plot was especially painful to imagine. In fact, her seven-year-old son is Casey Walker, the child who disappears. “It definitely made it more personal,” she said, noting that her father’s death when she was just 18 lent itself to the pain she needed to feel while directing.
“One of the things I learned when my father passed away was that I was keenly observant of how everyone in my family was affected by the loss,” she recalled. “I just found myself paying attention to everyone, how they’re all reacting to this. I was going through the worst pain I’d ever gone through, or have known, because that was the worst thing that had ever happened to me up to that point. I remember my mom stopped eating. I remember she had nothing to live for, and I remember trying to remind her that she had all of us.”
Looking back at the different types of grief she observed, Ms. Morano was able to differentiate between Sarah’s and Phil’s coping mechanisms. The former, an elementary school teacher, takes a destructive path, seeking out adrenaline rushes that border on dangerous, impulsive acts as a way of coping with her grief. Meanwhile, Phil, a police officer, tries to sort out his emotions in a group setting by attending a local grieving parents circle. In the original script, though, Ms. Morano said the film was much more about Sarah.
“You really didn’t get to know the father at all, but I kind of felt like in order to tell a more well-rounded story, you actually needed to see what was happening to her husband as well, because then there’s a base for comparison,” she said. “Then, he becomes a three-dimensional character.”
The actors fell naturally into their roles, Ms. Morano said, referring to them as “complete pros.” Ms. Wilde, who also produced to the film and is scheduled to attend the festival, was the first person attached to the project and intimately worked with Ms. Morano from day one.
“She was really super passionate about it and so we talked for a really long time over a period of a year and a half about the characters, all the characters. I think by the time we started shooting, she and I knew exactly what the goal was. I just had this feeling that she could go there, that she was super hungry to go there,” Ms. Morano said. “We came up with a lot of plans on how to transform her, how her whole physical being would be transformed—like how she carries herself physically because of what she went through.”
She said she talked to Mr. Wilson far less about his role as the devastated, soft-spoken father. “He was drawing on his own personal stuff to go to this place,” she said. “It was sort of like he kind of knew who his character was.”
The end result is a brutally honest depiction of a genuinely human experience. And it questions how far a person can go without the closure they so desperately seek.
“‘Meadowland’ is sort of exploring a period of time where you don’t know if you should be grieving or not,” she said. “So you can’t move on because you’ve lost something, but you don’t know if you’ve lost it forever.”
“Meadowland” will screen on Friday, October 9, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, October 10, at 4:15 p.m. at Regal East Hampton Cinema. Tickets are $28. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.
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