With one look at Rachel Morrison's resume, it's easy to see why she is regarded as a complete force of nature in the industry. She is the cinematographer behind Ryan Coogler's breakout hit, Fruitvale Station, and the record-breaking Marvel film, Black Panther. In 2018, her cinematography for Dee Rees' Mudbound led to her Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, making her the first woman to ever be nominated in the category. Currently, Rachel is working on her directorial debut feature, Flint Strong, written by Barry Jenkins.
In this episode of the FREE THE WORK podcast, Rachel sits down with FTW Founder Alma Har'el and details the realities of executing a studio feature while balancing the equally tremendous feat of being a mother. While Flint Strong is currently in pre-production, FTW hopes to give you more episodes with Rachel throughout the production process.
Click here to listen to the episode on Soundcloud!
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Cinematographer Rachel Morrison became the first woman to be nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar in 2018 for her work on Mudbound. She is also the first woman to have lensed a Marvel superhero movie: box office hit Black Panther.
Morrison has photographed eight Sundance premieres over seven years; among these are MUDBOUND, DOPE, FRUITVALE STATION, winner of both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture, LITTLE ACCIDENTS and SOUND OF MY VOICE. She recently wrapped principal photography on AGAINST ALL ENEMIES starring Kristen Stewart, Zazie Beetz, Anthony Mackie and Jack O’Connell.
She has garnered numerous awards for her work , including two Outstanding Cinematography Emmy Nominations for her work on Netflix's "WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?" and Showtime’s RIKER'S HIGH, a documentary about the high school within the Riker’s Island prison system. Morrison was also honored at the 2013 Women-in-Film Crystal + Lucy Awards, where she was the recipient of the Kodak Vision Award for her outstanding achievements in cinematography.
Morrison has a background in photojournalism and completed a master’s degree at the American Film Institute. She is a mother of two and an avid (amateur) surfer.
Chloe Coover: What’s up, world? Welcome to the Free the Work podcast. Free the Work is a talent discovery platform that uploads underrepresented creators and connects them to those who hire in film, TV, and advertising. And now like all respectable organizations in this age of human history, we have a podcast! Come kick back as we chat with some of today’s most influential creatives. Consider this the film school that you never have to pay student loans for and the creative guidance that your horoscope could never give you.
Today’s episode kicks off our mini-series with the illustrious, Oscar-nominated DP, Rachel Morrison, as we follow her journey directing her first feature currently titled, Flint Strong, written by Barry Jenkins. In this conversation, our Free the Work founder, Alma Har'el, catches Rachel in the madness of prep mode. Listen as the two powerhouses discuss everything from balancing motherhood and moviemaking to the reality of getting a studio movie off the ground. We hope you enjoy and thanks for listening.
Alma Har’el: So we’re here at the Free the Work podcast. It’s my second time doing this podcast and I’m extremely honored to have somebody-
Rachel Morrison: Aw, thanks.
AH: I really-
RM: The feeling is mutual.
AH: really love both your work and everything you do, um, and how much you’ve helped us. So I’m here with Rachel Morrison, who’s really one of our greatest cinematographers today and, um, if you don’t know her work, her beautiful work, from, um, uh, Fruitvale Station to, um, the huge phenomena of a Black Panther and everything that it has become, um, and of course, um, she was nominated as the first woman ever, I should say, that was nominated, um, to- for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography when she made, uh, Mudbound. So you had quite, um, crazy like few- few years now with all the work-
RM: Crazy few weeks-
AH: Few weeks.
RM: Mudbound and Black Panther just for whatever reason, they were right on top of each other, so that was pretty bananas.
AH: It was, you were thrown into the whole like award season which, um-
RM: Like full force against the wall-
AH: Which you can probably talk about that for an hour alone, uh, but we’re here today because of something else that’s happening that is, uh, very special which is you’re about to direct your first film!
RM: We’ll see. I’ll- I’ll believe it when I- I’ll- I’ll believe in about, I don’t know, how long does it take to make a movie?
AH: Um, I mean, first it take quite a while to get it greenlit-
RM: Yeah. That- That I can speak to, for sure.
AH: So that’s- that’s one thing we can talk about, but I think the reason I really wanted for Rachel to come in today and talk to us is because so many of the filmmakers that we, uh, you know, have on the site and the filmmakers that I know including myself… don’t really know what it takes sometimes to start to get a project off the ground and like to really make a film and especially not your first film when you’re kind of learning as you go along what it really means.
RM: Mhm, mhm
AH: You think like that if you went to film school you’ll know, um, or if you made a few, you know, things that you would know, but you really don’t know the whole thing and you’ve been through, obviously, some of the biggest films ever made, uh, and also very independent projects-
AH: Right? So you kind of have-
RM: A sense of it.
AH: Sense of it, but now you’re in this really interesting point where you are directing your first film- I’d love to, if it’s possible for us to do it today and maybe do it when you’re in post, and then come back to-
RM: If we make it to post, for sure.
AH: You will and like come back to it maybe when it comes out and really kind of talk about this journey. Tell us, where are you, you know, where are you right now?
RM: So well my path is a little bit, I think more- even more unusual because my first film, I thought for sure my first film would be a small film, would be an independent film, in part because that’s- you know, that’s been my currency and I love independent films and I love shooting independent films and somehow, my first film is a studio film. So that’s, uh, you know already a little bit, uh, kind of off the beaten path.
AH: Which studio is it?
RM: It’s with Universal.
RM: I would describe it as I am currently behind the curtain of Oz.
RM: A little bit like, “Oh!” That’s why all of these times when I thought I was hired to shoot something and then the thing never happened or I was hired to shoot something and it pushed for months and months and months or uh, you know, like I…The pushing the boulder up the hill of getting a movie made and this is, I mean, I’m already miles ahead of the game cause a lot of people who self generate and who have been incu- incubating their own babies for years are now at this point after five years of incubating. I came unto a project- unto this project as a director for hire and thought that meant that we were like, “Okay we’re there, we’re making the movie”, and have sort of realized that that’s not just as simple as that.
AH: So tell me a little bit about like, you know, what made you- what was that moment that you got the script? I know that the script, we should say, was written by Barry Jenkins-
RM: Yeah, they made him Barry Jenkins-
AH: That’s pretty- yeah
AH: So, how, wh-, so what happened and like how did that go and what- what made you, you know, kind of choose it-
RM: My trajectory starts kind of… a little further back in that which is it- About five years ago now, it was like around the Fruitvale Station and kind of Independent Spirit Awards circuit, I had had a couple conversations with John Ridley like kind of, you know, those conversations where you- it- it’s like profound for 20 minutes and then you have to go to your own home-
AH: And this John Ridley was-
RM: Sorry, John Ridley wrote 12 Years a Slave and he’s also a fantastic director in his own way. Um, and he called my agency up out of the blue and said, you know, effectively, “I want Rachel to direct, I’m doing this sort of-”, I think it was like a- anthology series, so limited series. He- he did multiple seasons over- over the years, but it was always a contained season. “I want Rachel to direct an episode. Is- is that anything you’ve ever want to do?” And to be honest, for a lot of people who set off to be directors and do whatever they need to on the way up… I- I never set out to be a director. I love shooting! I- I thought I would shoot forever and- and never thought I’d waiver from the path and two things sort of happened. So the first was John Ridley happened and the one thing that I will say about myself is I know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. You know…
AH: Say that again. “You know that…”?
RM: It’s a…USA..I think- I know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. When somebody presents you with something that’s an amazing opportunity, scary, terrifying, but amazing, you take it. You know… as scary as it is and even if you didn’t-
AH: So did you- did you take it?
RM: So I took it.
RM: So I directed an episode of television about five years ago…Um, it was my first time directing, there was a protest scene with like two-hundred, three-hundred extras, uh, horses, like everything they say not to do. Kids, dogs, horses- I think we had kids, dogs, horses in one scene, three-hundred extras, all of these things and it went really well. I mean I was terrified to shit, but it went really well and so then, you know he offered me another episode. And then that went well. And, sort of, the floodgates opened to episodic television directing which is literally-
AH: And so, what was the show called in case people want to go and see it-?
RM: The show is called American Crime. Um and the first season, actually both seasons, you know, my first time directing not only was I directing for the first time, but I had amazingly seasoned actors. Um, Regina King, Felicity Huffman, um-
AH: Mm, love her too.
RM: Elvis N- Navasco [Nolasco], I think his name is…um so, I sort of had this weird, kind of, career turn, but wasn’t- It wasn’t what I set out to do and I think I- I knew that I still had, you know, for lack of a better term, a Black Panther and a Mudbound in me and I wasn’t ready- You know what had happened was that with television they book you so far in advance that it- You know, I agreed to do a show called, Manhattan, with Tommy Schlamme and the show I really liked and I li-liked him a lot and then um Rick Famuyiwa who I had done Dope with called me to shoot Confirmation and I was like, “Guys, I really want to shoot this thing and this is my director and can I get out of, you know, my obligation?” and basically my agents were like, “You can, but you can’t make a habit out of it.” And so, sort of, you have to make a decision and that was- that was, I was sort of, you know, forced to make a decision early in my directing career to close the door to directing-
RM: Which is what I did-
RM: And then, you know, proceeded to shoot Confirmation and then I guess after that was Mudbound and then Black Panther and you know, all the while, at this point I had directing agents so I was-
AH: And Mudbound by the way, for a second to stop and go to those two movies that couldn’t be-
RM/AH: Any more different
AH: Like Mudbound
AH: was so painterly and like a period piece and had like this beautiful, you know, um approach to light and then Black Panther was just like the coolest most fun like big um
RM: Saturated, big
AH: Yeah saturated, big
RM: Yeah yeah
AH: Like film so uh was that something you wanted to experience just like the two ends of things or…
RM: I think so I mean I love to challenge myself, you know, and Mudbound was incredibly satisfying because it was my first real- like I’ve done a tiny tiny period film, but it was so tiny that you couldn’t look outside any room and this was the first time doing a period film- and it’s so fulfilling I mean the cinematographer to look through the lens and sort of- you know it’s world building right you see people in costume and old cars and you know obviously if you can you know get all of them-
AH: And Black Panther is also world-
RM: And Black Panther is also world building but in- in very different ways. And Black Panther challenged me in a, you know, I mean that’s like I had more people on my G and E crew on Black Panther than whereas like the entire crew of Mudbound.
AH: Right. And CGI and like just like-
RM: Oh yeah all of it.
AH: Previews and all of this like pre-visualization of the whole thing
AH: So was there something out of these films that felt the- in any way, closer to your heart or informed the choice as a director or it’s just like totally different rooms in your heart?
RM: Totally different rooms in my heart! I mean, I- I think it’s more than- I mean… the simp- the simplest way I can describe my approach to life is that life is short and you know… take the bull by the horns like grab it by the balls- I mean I kind of- I just- I try to like- I try to live my life to the fullest in every respect and each of these represented new challenges which is exciting, new collaborations which are always exciting, old collaborations which are you know even more fulfilling in some ways, I mean Ryan’s you know my family at this point, which is so nice when you get to sort of work with you know the people that you love-
RM: Um and take a journey together
RM: But they both offered incredibly different things and were amazing. And then what happened is that after both of those films… I found myself reading scripts that weren’t quite of as good- like in my case, you know I was offered big movies that weren’t as good as Black Panther
AH: Yeah it’s pretty amazing, like once you do film and people think it’s good they send you about two hundred scripts that are
RM: Copy copy cat
AH: a pale version of that film
AH: They’re like, “Why don’t you want to do that? It’s the same.”
AH: Uh yeah
RM: In a weird way, it was like now that I had a big movie under my belt you know suddenly I was allowed to do big movies-
AH: And you didn’t want to jump-
RM: That was never- I never set out- There are plenty DPs who just want you know sort of bigger more toys, more time, more money, whatever. That was never- I never said I wanted to be a cinematographer so I can go shoot big things-
RM: I always wanted to be a cinematographer cause I wanted to tell, you know, moving stories and for the most part in this day and age- I mean and that sort of speaks to ultimately bring it to full circle, I wanted like growing up I always wanted like to be a DP, but I wanted to shoot temptful dramas. When I was a kid the big movies, the hundred million dollar movies were dramas.
AH: Wow, like what?
RM: Like Road to Perdition, Shawshank Redemption, like when you go back a bit further then you have you know like On the Waterfront–
RM: You know like those were the big movies
RM: You know-
AH: There weren’t no like superheroes, you know like…
RM: There were no superhero movies.
RM: And, and you know you could tell a story while it was raining for two hours, you know and and that cause money and you know people paid that money you know but for a DP it’s so exhilarating and imagine you know getting- getting those kind of the toys at the time and all those things to tell a fully fledged dramatic you know character piece.
AH: So when did you get this- this script?
RM: You know I think I actually- I guess I got the script after Seabird. I ended up directing a pilot last spring and- and I- so I read the script before the pilot.
RM: And revisited it when I came back.
AH: And what is it called like the-
RM: So the work in title is Flint Strong–
AH: Flint Strong…
RM: Also another working title is T-Rex, I don’t know what it’s going to be called but right now it’s Flint Strong.
AH: And what is it about? What made you jump on that one?
AH: When you have all these other you know like opportunities and you get sent a lot of scripts like, did you feel it? Did you just like felt you need to do it or was it just more something that you just saw…?
RM: When I read it the first time- and Barry’s writing is incredible and super poetic and really creates a sense of you know environment and place and there was something about Claressa that I- So it’s about this woman named Claressa Shields who’s a boxer from Flint, Michigan and you know while on-
AH: Real story?
RM: Real story.
RM: And on the surface we have very little in common yet I think in reality we have a ton in common. So there were things that I saw you know of myself and her and I think that’s the answer to the why-
AH: Woman of color
RM: Yeah she’s- she’s a woman of color, she um, she’s a force, she’s incredible. And the other thing is that I knew- I mean even as a DP you invest so much of yourself over the course of so long that you have to believe in the story you’re telling and care about the people, you know that you’re working with but also in this case you know I- I want to do justice to this woman’s life. She’s amazing, you know you’re in a- you’re basically living with this person and so you better feel you know committed and invested in-
RM: In that story and-
AH: And you’re going to talk about it for a year-
RM: Yeah, but you’re living right now
RM: You better know why you’re there. So I was just incredibly drawn to her um and to Barry’s writing, but structurally, it presents some challenges.
RM: And so I- you know I sort of um gave myself a minute um to make sure that I felt like I could- I could figure it out. And then you know once I felt confident that it was at least worth trying- that’s sort of what I’ve been doing and I think it’s in a much better place structurally. I feel really excited about it.
AH: So on top of having this- probably one of the most impressive careers…um which you know that word is always kind of uh… I don’t know- a bit haunting cause you know it’s a career but really it’s your life’s work and your art and like what you’re passionate about right? The stories you want to tell and like you said like people you work with kind of become your family but you also have an actual family…
AH: So you have two-
RM: I have two small children. Two small human beings. My son is four and a half or actually and-, as he likes to tell people he’s four and three quarters. And my daughter is fourteen months.
AH: And that’s something like people almost don’t like to hear too much about from from- especially not from women directors cause-
AH: God forbid we have anything else going on in our life
AH: Yeah because then we’re not trustworthy. Cause “how-how can we do it?” But um you’ve been really juggling this shit
AH: Like really making it work so what has it been kind of you know like because I’ve been- as a person who doesn’t have children- already so hard sometimes-
AH: To see how the system was built by men for men and how little it takes into account really the challenges that some women have.
AH: I can’t imagine how hard it is once you add this into the equation, so has there been, you know, some things you’ve been dealing with.
RM: Oh yeah, I mean it’s yeah it’s- it’s little things that you don’t even really think about like you know- I was fortunate enough to be able to work through my pregnancy. I had very easy pregnancies, but for people who can’t work through their pregnancy-
AH: I mean your photo with you know- wh- how- what months were you like-
AH: Eight months?
RM: Eight and a half.
AH: Eight and a half months with that camera- it was a Alexa was it or was it a filmkit.
RM: It was film.
AH: It was film camera right?
AH: It’s still one of my favorite photos ever.
RM: Oh thanks.
AH: And one of the reasons that I feel like I can give it a shot-
RM: Yeah do it.
AH: But I just- it’s a killer photo.
RM: Oh thanks.
AH: It’s on my Instagram for sure. So in that regard it seems like you can work until the very-
RM: I- I yeah…
AH: Last minute-
RM: No no I totally… I mean I- I literally work- I actually shot a commercial for Taika thirty-six hours before I gave a birth-
RM: knowing that I might- I mean thankfully- you know Eduard Grau yeah?
AH: Hell yeah! I love Eduard Grau.
RM: As he was standing by the wings to cover me- and originally when I set that up I was like um you know I doubt this is real[ity]- like it was two weeks before the baby was due and then it turned out I was four centimeters dilated on a Friday and we were shooting on a Sunday-
RM: and I called Eduard back and I was like, “You should probably keep your phone on.”
AH: And Eduard shot, this is to anybody who doesn’t know. He shot uh so many films-
AH: But uh
AH: Yeah. Single Man.
RM: Yeah Single Man is beautiful.
AH: And um, so did he come from through?
RM: He didn’t need to. I think-
AH: Right, you just shot it.
RM: Well the joke was we were shooting in a water tank so Eduard was like, “Oh! If worse comes to worse you can just have a water birth.” Um but my point- I was actually- I was lucky! Like I had a great pregnancy and was able to shoot, but for people who can’t, there are issues with you know like Local 600 if you don’t do enough hours-
AH: Yeah, you can lose your health-
RM: You can lose your insurance… DGA if you don’t….
AH: You can lose your health care.
RM: You can lose that kind of thing.
AH: Of course.
RM: The thing…the thing that I feel like um.. You know… One- I mean there’s so many challenges to balancing kids and work and certainly in this industry I mean obviously the length of our days is one of them-
AH: And right now though as you’re like prepping for the film and I think you don’t have offices right? You don’t have any offices?
RM: Oh yeah, no I… I was telling Alma that I’ve been literally like hijacking WiFi from Starbucks so I can have my Skype meetings in my car cause I can’t work from home because of the kids and you know you don’t get an office at a studio until you have your movies like officially greenlit and on track which if you’re not shooting in LA by then you’re not in LA anyway and then I do have offices being offered to me by Mike De Luca’s- you know he’s producing it but it’s on the Westside so I’ve you know a kid at school on the Eastside, so by the time I drive there and back it’s not…
AH: Yeah it’s like an hour and little more than that if there’s traffic…
RM: So basically working from my car like parking near Starbucks where I can get WiFi and having all my Skype meetings from the car um-
RM: So little little things like that
AH: Good things to remember
AH: Later on though, I like that
AH: Um so…
RM: Very glamorous.
AH: What do you feel like um… very glamorous I mean it’s amazing how glamorous it is to shoot films…
RM: It- it really is.
AH: Compared to the image that’s projected outwards and uh on red carpets um so what do you feel like the parts that are I guess… you know easier to transition in to knowing that you have such incredible experience and you are you know the cinematographer that you are, I know you are in the process and I don’t know if you already found a cinematographer but last time we spoke you were kind of thinking about who- who
AH: -who should film this film with you and I would think when I was talking to you… you’re just like, “I got this. I mean I know how to shoot it basically and I can even shoot it so I want somebody that would do what I want.” But you’re not, you’re looking for somebody that’s really going to bring their own game.
RM: Yeah…I mean I-
AH: So how has that been going?
RM: I think- I mean for me as a DP the best collaborations are the ones where the directors, you know- were just that- it’s a collaboration- they hire people whose work they you know like and respect and then kind of you know challenge them to do their best work and- hopefully you’re challenging each other in a good way like inspiring each other to sort of you know bring out the best in one another. Um and so you know from a DP perspective I mean the first decision was whether or not to shoot it I mean for me you know this is my first feature like I want to focus all of my energy on-
AH: Hell yeah
RM: On everything else…
AH: Agreed, I shoot like two documentaries which is oftenly a totally different game, but um I’m so happy I had a cinematographer and Natasha Braie as a partner…
RM: Natasha’s amazing, she did such a good job
AH: So you know…
RM: I know I want a DP! And then I know that I want um you know I don’t want… somebody who is going to look to me- for all the answers. I don’t actually want to puppet somebody I want somebody you know who’s so good at what they do that I’ve not even tempted to micromanage that.
RM: Which I know I think that’s… the trick is finding somebody who has artistic integrity and really um is excited at an artistic level but also knows how to run a crew. Um and then… I really- I mean I want to surround myself with people are kind and respectful to-
AH: Are you specifically looking for a woman cinematographer?
AH: Cause you mentioned Ed Grau for instance who we both love-
RM: Um I think in a perfect world on this project because you know the lead- I mean it is a story of a very strong woman- I’m effectively replacing myself by hiring a DP, I like the idea of a female DP but I want the right person for the job and if I don’t- if I don’t find the right person in a female DP I’m totally going to open it up to many of the-
AH: I really looked for a woman cinematographer in my film-
AH: I was just like… it was very important to me to have that um perspective I guess on my film cause it was so much about like masculinity in many ways and I kind of wanted that eye on it. Um… do you think that- how are you when you are on set with a director I mean and you’ve worked with really you know- with directors that have a vision and have a story to tell and- do you- are you kind of um very fiery I guess or do you feel like it’s been like collaborations that are you know-
RM: I’m not fiery by nature, I’m kind of uh pretty even keeled like maybe even to a fault um I definitely have opinions you know I think it’s like not being fiery it’s different from not having a vision or not having a you know…
AH: No, no not at all. I just mean like are you somebody that gets um work done? …
RM: Is it… um no… I don’t even know how to get work done.
AH: You look pretty chill right now…
RM: Literally as I said, it probably frustrates my wife to no end but like our kid could run out to the middle of the street and I wouldn’t even know how to like yell at him, you know?
RM: It’s just not in my nature.
AH: So you need somebody that works with you and can kind of- are you looking for somebody that can chill with you or somebody that’s…?
RM: No, no I think that’s important too, you know I mean especially when you’re making a film on location which they almost all are now you were very fortunate to shoot in Los Angeles but that’s a- like- and actually like Seabird was too. But um-
AH: Right Seabird was shot in LA?
RM: Yeah it was also LA. But um yeah you want somebody who you want to have dinner with.
RM: And who you wanna you know- you’re going to be in a van together for God knows how long
RM: Like personality is huge!
RM: It’s like it’s not, it doesn’t trump talent, but it’s-
AH: It brings so much out of you.
RM: -it’s right up there with it you know what I mean?
AH: Yeah, it brings so much out of you when you’re with somebody- it’s chemistry right?
AH: It’s like you…. It’s almost like when you have a conversation with somebody you could be funny and with some people you’re not or you could just be saying things that you really care about or some people you can’t be bothered.
AH: And it’s the same. It’s like- it’s a conversation.
AH: Making something with somebody is a conversation.
RM: Yeah. And I think one of the things that’s been interesting in interviewing people is like you know trying to find out- like figuring out for myself like, “Do I want somebody who loves the script and is kind of going to blow smoke up my ass? Do I want somebody who’s going to challenge me?” But, “How much do I want to be challenged?” You know it’s like you want that right balance between somebody who will be-
AH: Yeah for sure.
RM: supportive of you know of… the thing as a whole but also you know question you a little bit-
RM: like get- get you bringing your best self to the game.
AH: Yeah, and do you, are you worried about certain things or are you- I mean, let’s say this do you- are you planning on bringing whatever it is that you bring as a cinematographer and I don’t know how much on your films- was there an extensive amount of, I don’t know, storyboarding… I imagine Black Panther fuck yeah cause you gotta like you know previsualize things for this CGI and all of that and everything you’re doing but in general, a person that storyboards a lot or not…?
RM: Not storyboards. I actually… and we didn’t even… we had to previs some of the action features in Black Panther, but we ignored a lot of them you know I don’t know how Marvel feels about that, but Ryan’s such a- you know, he’s such a get your- roll up your sleeves and get your hands in it…
RM: like I mean we would sort of [crosstalk] or he would just like… another film, you know?
RM: And it wasn’t just knocking, not taking things off the previs board. Um in general… sort of… not encountering action sequences I almost kind of never storyboard anything. Shotlist, yes. I think I mean they’re very different, like shotlist is kind of about the intention of the scene and you know, “Do you want to tell the scene with a one or do you want this scene to be…” You know maybe you make a plan with your cinematographer for instance like that you wanted to be shortsighted on this scene or you want to minimize the character in frame or you’re trying to… basically you’re trying to get on a same page-
AH: What’s the intention of the scene and what you’re trying to go to-
AH: I… didn’t shotlist even, I didn’t storyboard, I didn’t shotlist. I storyboarded and shotlisted things that were more visual like you know like I feel like a car accident.
AH: Or certain things that um have- involved other people.
AH: But when it was acting you know and it was time to kind of bring life something I really wanted to let… that life happen
RM: That’s nice.
AH: But I did go to scene by scene with Natasha and I think about what’s the intention of the scene-
RM: The intention, yeah.
AH: And what kind of shots we wanna-
AH: You know kind of how- I guess like how we want to shoot it together. Uh to that intention-
AH: So are you- are you thinking- are you feeling pretty confident now that you’re doing whatever breakdown you’re doing of the script? Are you already there or…?
RM: I- yeah no I’m starting to break down the script. I mean the… I’m very confident on the technical components of the production side cause obviously I have a lot of experience in that. Where I’m nervous and excited- I mean that’s the thing right? I guess this goes back to what I was saying earlier but like I love a good challenge so far the most part the fear- it like it fills me in a way you know? But the thing that I am nervous but excited about is post!
AH: Post? You mean like the editing?
RM: Yeah, I mean like I’ve never seen something through in the way. I mean like I’ve done television now- you know I’ve done three episodes of TV and then I’ve done a pilot and a… second episodes- I’ve done five episodes cause it’s television. And in the pilot I had a little more control over, but- no, I wasn’t there mixing the sound, I’ve literally never- never been in a sound mix, I’ve never- like I’ve never seen something all the way through. And that’s something that will be entirely new to me and I was like-
AH: Right the great thing about editing and about sound is that you can always give feedback and you can always bring people in to um you know see where- what you’re stuck with or give you another perspective on something.
RM: Yeah, but even in hiring people-
RM: It’s… just not something that’s been sort of the fabric of my world.
RM: So it’s a new language that I need to learn.
AH: Right. Easy.
RM: Oh good. Alma says it’s easy…
AH: I mean no I think editing was the hardest part of my film.
RM: Oh there you go…
AH: But it’s not easy at all, it’s the hardest part of my film other than- it wasn’t the hardest thing to do. The hardest thing to do was to shoot everything we shot in the motel. If you saw- you saw the film?
RM: Mhm yeah yeah.
AH: If you saw it was…
RM: It was beautiful…
AH: …And that was the most beautiful part because we shot all of that in ten days. Um the whole motel, the whole thing was shot in nineteen days.
RM: That’s bananas.
AH: And it was just like- and by the way those nineteen days felt like a year. But uh the editing was the hardest cause we kind of reconstructed the whole film and decided to not to shoot- not to edit it in a linear way-
RM: Tight, tight.
AH: I mean when it was written-
RM: …and that was…
AH: And thank you.
RM: It worked so well.
AH: Thank you.
RM: As somebody who read the script in linear format.
AH: Right! Right.
RM: I think you- I think you really um you cracked it in post which is amazing.
AH: Thank you, thank you. Yeah and to make that film intentional, but still again like as hard as it was it’s something that you do with material that exists… you know on set it’s like, “if you didn’t get it, you didn’t get it”. And you have that like crunch time-
RM: Right, right.
AH: Right? Or like crunch time when you have that hour to bring the heart of the film. It’s like if you don’t… if you didn’t touch- if you didn’t touch the heart of the film in that hour then you don’t have a film sometimes.
RM: See now you’re making me nervous about production again.
AH: But no, but that’s… that’s the magic.
AH: That’s the magic of production and then like the editing is more like… you’ve done- you’ve done the act you know like you’ve exercised the demon or you danced the dance or whatever it is you had to do and you’re sitting there and it’s like- you have suddenly like this time to really digest what you did and deconstruct it or build it you know and you have people around you giving you feedback and it’s qui- it’s hard and it’s challenging and it’s that cycle that I don’t know if you go through but like a lot of artists do where you’re just like, “I’m a piece of shit. I’m a genius. I’m the best. I’m the worst.”
RM: Oh yeah.
AH: “This is the fucking worst hell. I’m never going to do anything again. I’m leaving. I’ve done the best. This is great. You’ll never see anything like it.” You just go up and down like that through all these feelings again and again.
AH: Until you- you know you finally feel like you’ve found the film. And um so… I mean that’s kind of… we are all a bit of masochists to a certain degree.
RM: Yeah, oh… for sure.
AH: So um, but I can’t wait to see what you do with that. Do you feel that, I mean I know you’re saying you’re worried about the editing- by the way um- there’s so many amazing editors that-
AH: I think like the editor on my film um her name is Monica Salazar. She’s a first time editor-
RM: Oh wow.
AH: She’s never edited a feature film before.
AH: She’s a Mexican woman who was an assistant editor and uh did an unbelievable job and her dedication was beyond anything you can imagine and then Dominick Perrier who joined us and helped us kind of finish it in time for Sundance was also just such a good addition and we edited all three of us on like three computers like literally back and forth and um… I feel like it’s all about, like what you said before, which is to find the right team and I feel like people you want to talk to all day cause really what you said about sitting in the van- man! In the edit is when you really grind with somebody and eat together all day you know and… edit and work and have a million conversations so as long as you got that I feel like you can lead it there. Do you feel like that- there’s certain things that you picked up with the directors you’ve worked with and you’ve worked with such amazing directors from Ryan Coogler to Dee Rees to uh Rick that you mentioned before that- are there things that you’re going to bring into this?
RM: Oh yeah absolutely I mean in different things from different people. Um I mean yeah look Ryan’s… one of the most incredible people if not one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met, but one of the things he does that I think is so magical is um… he cares as much about what the third electric thinks about the script or performance or you know-
AH: Yeah I know I like that.
RM: I mean literally he takes the pulse of anybody who will give him the time you know to- I mean he’ll be like, “What do you think?” To… you know
AH: Yeah, yeah.
RM: I just think that’s so profound in a way and I also think it translates. I mean his movies have this universal appeal because he surrounds himself both with a- you know a very kind of inclusive group of department heads, but also cause he’s asking-
AH: He cares.
RM: Yeah you know, he cares about everybody.
AH: He cares about what people feel and think…
RM: Yeah and I think that that’s really special you know and as long as you don’t get lost in it I mean at the same time you have this medium that’s completely subjective there’s no rights or wrongs and people are not always going to agree so as long as you can find your way through the chorus of dissenting opinions like- I mean like that can work really well.
AH: And is Dee… Dee was such a- he’s like a big piece of like so many- like an ensemble in many ways…
RM: Yeah, yeah. Dee has a very, very clear sense of what she wants. Um, she does, you know, she does a lot of preparation over time.
AH: Rehearsals you mean?
RM: She does rehearsals but I only learned about her rehearsal process in the awards campaign of it all. And it sounds- I mean I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall for some of her rehearsals. But also she’s just- you know- she’s somebody who does have a shotlist, tends to stick to it unless I’m like, “Hey Dee look at this angle.” You know I can always sell her on another idea um usually in addition to the thing that she had in mind. So you know it will be more of a like either we’ll figure out a way to get two cameras at the same time or we’ll shoot it as planned and then shoot it another way and then you know we’ll see which one ends up in the cut but um I think Dee um has a very clear sense of what she’s after um and I think that works really well…
AH: And do you think you’re planning right now, knowing the story and the nature of the physicality of the character and all of that, is there anything you’re planning to do that is less planned and is more improvisational at all or physical or…?
AH: Or just kind of building a dance floor basically for an actor or letting them-
AH: Move on it?
RM: I think and that’s…
AH: Which I’m a big fan of obviously but that’s like a…
AH: Like what’s the- what’re you thinking now?
RM: I mean part of it it’s I need to find my own methodology.
RM: And figure out what works best for me you know? Where Ryan, for instance, is much more about finding it in the moment on the day- I think because this film is going to be largely location based you know? We’re not going to do a lot of set builds and location as a DP. It's sort of location meets production design meets light. It meets natural light often you know, “When does the sun come into the ground or just at an angle?” And you want to kind of take all of that into account as you’re- I mean you don’t want to have to tell the actor that you have to stand here, but you want those things to kind of work together as a poem of some kind you know? And so I think I air towards more the side of improvisation and finding it then fully sort of finding the thing and sort of knowing exactly where the person is going to stand and what they’re going to do. But I’m open to be surprised I mean maybe I’ll, maybe I’ll realize that my methodology is much closer to the other, I don’t know.
AH: Right. And… are you doing now anything towards discovering it through rehearsals, I mean like are you going to rehearse…
RM: Well, we’re not totally there yet. I mean that’s the thing, I don’t have- I have a like soft green light-
RM: I mean who knew that these things exist. But-
AH: So tell us…it’s kind of good to hear because I feel like filmmakers need to know-
RM: the reality of-
AH: the reality of it sometimes, like I’ve been like through some of it obviously different- very different cause ours was super independent but where are you know and how is it to you know the bureaucratic part of making film is pretty astounding, so where are you…?
RM: Yeah… what I’m finding about the bur- about the studio side of things, let’s call it, is just that things only go so fast. It’s not about….so far you know- Universal’s been really supportive it hasn’t been like that they’re saying I have to do things their way it’s just that it’s such a process.
AH: It’s a big…
RM: I’ve never…
AH: It’s a big commitment-
RM: I’m maybe known for my even kindness but I’m not known for my patience. I would not say that patience is my best quality, and so I can see things three weeks out and be like, “Guys we’re gonna-” I mean for instance we had done a budget for Toronto to shoot the movie in Toronto it’s set in Flint, part of what I liked about Toronto is that it’s four hours from Flint so there’s no way we’re not going to Flint if we’re shooting in Toronto. And I’ve been advocating from the very beginning that we have to shoot at least some of the film in Flint. Flint is a character, Flint is unreplicable.
RM: I mean it’s so specific and um and so we went in from this meeting you know we were going to do a cost analysis between uh Toronto and Atlanta and low and behold they’ve done a budget a little blindsided for a budget they’ve done for Winnipeg. Winnipeg is a very different part of Canada which in the winter average is like negative six degrees but more to the point the entire cast is black and the thing is there’s like two black people in all Winnipeg. I mean so I sort of said to them, “Guys, when you did this budget did you, did you take into account the fact in our movie you can’t just moves the lines over- we’re now going to have to bring the entire cast- we’re going to bring all of our-” I mean to get our budget where it was we had made it to almost all the department heads we’re going to be local to Toronto. With the exception of like the DP and the production designer and a few other people. Now we’re in Winnipeg suddenly we have to bring in all of our department heads and so basically I can look at this budget and say like, “Guys Winnipeg’s not going to be-” They’ve- I mean they’ve- it was presented like it was the solution to all of our problems and I was kind of like I think it’s actually going to be very comparable if not more sense than Toronto. And it took three weeks to then go through all of the rigmarole to realize, “Oh yeah Winnipeg’s just as expensive as Toronto for our film and that kind of thing is just like- all the while the department heads like, “Is this going to be happening?” Things like that.
AH: Most boring part is pre-production. We can agree on that.
RM: Yeah. I mean pre- I mean well I would say pre-pre-production.
RM: As soon as the movie is happening…
AH: I would…pre-production into it’s own-
RM: Really? I’m excited for like- as soon as we have a true go.
AH: I don’t like building that matrix of like um you know how can we put all of the days in and shoot with this and shoot there even though the truck gotta be there and you can’t put the catering there…
RM: I kind of like puzzle solving, I mean to me that, once we’re like officially happening and it doesn’t feel like I’m essentially spinning wheels for a machine that’s not going anywhere then…
AH: It’s going though. Stop saying that.
AH: It’s going!
RM: You see a million dollars? Or two million dollars! So basically we’ve been- we’ve been greenlit at a number.
RM: And we’ve can’t seen- we’ve gotten the budget significantly closer to the number.
RM: But we’re still off by about two million dollars so if you wanna give us two million dollars we’ll have a movie…
AH: Oh I have- I always have two million dollars running around.
RM: But yeah.
AH: But I have faith in this somehow and you know- I and I really can’t wait to see what you do with it and I also am excited about your casting. I know you casted a non- a non- I hate that term, ‘non-actress’. She’s not a non-actress.
AH: She’s a beautiful performer who happens not to be famous.
RM: This will be her first feature.
RM: Um she’s actually way more famous than I thought she was, she’s certainly at least has a huge social media presence, but she um- her performance in the casting was so unexpected and so raw and so natural and I’m excited for the world to see this side of her because what they have seen of her is a very different kind of- very different take on things but um yeah she’s amazing um but yeah we haven’t-
AH: Can you say who it is yet?
RM: Oh yeah, she’s- this one’s been announced for- her name is Ryan Destiny. Um and she-
AH: That’s a name.
RM: It’s a name.
AH: Ryan Destiny.
RM: Ryan Destiny.
RM: Um and she’s a source too.
AH: So what is Ryan Destiny- how did you find Ryan Destiny?
RM: I had an amazing casting director, a woman named Francine Maisier who cast for like Inarritu and has cast for Barry and is just has cast for Ryan, I mean she’s really incredible and you know we did a pretty extensive search um we actually piggy backed on the back of Barry done an extensive search for his film as well and um looking at a similar age group um and beyond that I wanted to you know I asked Universal if we could go to Detroit and look at the theatre community to see if there were any local you know Michigan kids- cause you know the lead actress at the time- the ac- or you know the character is seventeen for most of the film, you know we were trying to find eighteen to play seventeen…
AH: So how old is Ryan Destiny?
RM: Ryan’s actually twenty-four but looks-
RM: Yeah she looks seventeen, she looks twelve-
AH: I can’t wait for this.
RM: She’s awesome.
AH: So do you think that um maybe if everything happens, which it will, knock on wood, um maybe we can do this again when you are in the trenches um I know you won’t have time when you’re shooting but maybe in post.
RM: In the post trenches
AH: Yeah in the post trenches-
RM: Sure, sure
AH: And then when the film comes out and we’ll just kind of uh be there with you for the ride. I uh- I know there’s nothing that can probably prepare you for any film cause you like you kind of have to- my friend Alia told me like a week before, she was like, “It’s like no matter what you do you have to just um awaken the monster.”
AH: Like you have to start shooting and like the film awakes. And then you uh meet the film like you don’t know who it is yet and as somebody that gave birth um have two children…somewhat somewhat similar to meeting you know something that you kind of wait for for so long but you really have no way of knowing until until you meet it.
AH: It’s so, it’s so encompassing. I don’t know how to even explain how I took over my my my mind I had no personal thoughts for the whole time I was just
RM: Oh that’s interesting
AH: shooting this film
RM: That’ll mean that I- it’ll be interesting to see.
AH: It bothered me!
RM: How I navigate that with kids. Because I don’t- you know- I can’t- I can’t not give them anything for the course of the film.
AH: Yes. Um it’s probably healthy to have some personal thoughts.
RM: Yeah maybe. Although your film certainly worked out beautifully so…
AH: That doesn’t mean it was healthy… It was an incredible experience. So thank you for being here and coming here now that you’re like in the midst of all of this. Is there anything else you kind of want to like tell your future self now that we can revisit- like ask yourself a question now that you’re going to revisit in in the edit?
RM: Ooh, ooh. Yeah.
AH: Like ask yourself something.
RM: Um, I’m going to ask my future self what I would’ve done differently to prepare and maybe what the best part of the experience had been so far.
AH: And if that editing is indeed scary.
RM: I’m not- it’s not that I’m scared-
AH: Not scary. Challenging-
RM: You know what’s going to be challenging for me is sitting still. I don’t sit still either like you know part of what I love about shooting- again it’s like-
AH: It is yeah.
RM: If I could shoot Shawshank Redemption and Road to Perdition like I’d still be…. You know like I love being out making the thing you know it’s like I love getting my hands wet with it and it’s- I don’t know how I’m going to sit still for two months but-
AH: We’ll come visit you.
RM: Yeah maybe I need a standing desk or something.
AH: Yeah standing desk is the thing.
RM: Or a yoga ball…But yeah
AH: Alright! Well thank you so much
AH: And um yeah I’m going to chase you and hunt you down for…
RM: I’m hoping, I’m hoping, praying that if I you know if that actually gets off the ground some time soon that I’ll be able to do Black Panther Two with Ryan so you might be chasing me down on the set of Black Panther but…
AH: Hell yeah, well Black Panther podcast is not something we’re going to turn down by the way-
AH: Like just putting it out there. And that Ryan is also- would be an honor to have him here. So um yeah so keep following our Free the Work podcast until next time.
RM: I commend you guys for this. Free the Work is amazing.
AH: Thank you, thank you so much.
RM: So single handedly changing the faces of the streets it’s awesome.
AH: Not so single handedly…
RM: Sorry multi-handedly
AH: So many women here with me from every country in the world supporting this but thank you I really do appreciate it thank you so much.
RM: Of course:
CC: Thanks for listening. For more of everything Free the Work, go to www.freethework.com .