Olivia Wilde in "Meadowland"

When Reed Morano was a child, her father brought back a JVC video camera from his travels in Asia, assigning her to be the family’s videographer. It wasn’t necessarily a responsibility she wanted to have, but then he showed her where the fade-in and fade-out buttons were. Not long after, the camera essentially became an extension of her arm.

Perhaps that’s why the images Morano’s produced in the years since have such feeling behind them. As a cinematographer, she’s worked on an eclectic array of films since breaking through with Courtney Hunt’s 2008 thriller “Frozen River,” enlivening stories of the past such as John Krokidas’ Beat Generation murder mystery “Kill Your Darlings” and the immediate present like Elgin James’ wayward teen drama “Little Birds” that somehow feel both intently realized and raw as if to extract the purest essence of the people in front of the lens. It’s surely no coincidence that this seems as if it’s the foundational element for Morano’s feature directorial debut “Meadowland,” a drama featuring Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson as a couple whose young child vanishes and are left to pick up the pieces in the wake of an incident they can never understand.

Even putting aside the hunt for answers that Wilde’s Sarah embarks on, leaving Wilson’s Phil to stew alone and watch helplessly as his wife drifts away, there’s a searching quality to Morano’s exploration of grief, sneaking under the skin of her characters to show how privately felt pain can manifest itself into the most unexpected of directions. To get such intimacy, Morano became her own cinematographer and camera operator to get closer to the actors, a challenge in and of itself that few other than Steven Soderbergh would dare try on a production of this size, but then again, she also thought nothing of filming Wilde walking straight through Times Square in the middle of the night with little more than a yellow raincoat to disguise her or inviting an elephant on set for a key climactic scene. It’s a mix of courage and consideration for her cast that no doubt attracted an impressive group of actors to the film that includes John Leguizamo, Giovanni Ribisi, Juno Temple, Kevin Corrigan and Elisabeth Moss, who nearly walks off with the film in a piercing single scene as a mother Sarah encounters with different issues of her own.

Shortly before “Meadowland” opens after a successful premiere earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Morano spoke about why she was drawn to first-time screenwriter Chris Rossi’s work for her first film, the importance of having freedom with the camera and how personal the film ultimately became.

Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson in "Meadowland"If you’ve been offered other films to direct, why was it the right time for this?

It was probably the right topic because I have read some good scripts, but directing was something I took very seriously because I’ve seen so many of my friends go through it and make their first movie and put their life into it. You have to believe in it more than anything else. It can’t just be something you’re making because somebody’s just giving you the opportunity to direct. I felt I really needed to tell the story. When I got the script for “Meadowland,” it was the first time I read something where I felt there was a purpose to tell the story and it would be nice to see how far we could take this. It was risky and challenging and I thought you could make people go to places they don’t want to go, or places that they need to go, so I just felt like it could affect people, profoundly, if done correctly.

Did you immediately decide you were going to be your own cinematographer and camera operator?

It wasn’t my initial intention to do both jobs. A lot of my best friends are cinematographers, so I wanted that opportunity to collaborate. I always believe that two heads are better than one and I was curious to see what kind of visual magic could happen if I worked as another [director of photography]. What can I learn from them? I even interviewed certain DPs that I really respected, and I thought they could do amazing job with it. But there was a little side of me that [thought], I know exactly how I want this story to be told. I know exactly how I want it to feel and I don’t know if I can convey that feeling to another DP.

There was a little hesitancy to [the idea of] my operating the camera at times because the naturalism was really important to me and being able to have this fluid movement where I could dance with the actors, trying to find the emotion and the moment with them. They would lead me somewhere. That’s not something that you can teach or tell someone to do precisely unless the shot is very choreographed and composed, and you’re restricting the actors’ and the camera’s movements. You’d basically tell everyone exactly what they’re going to do and the whole point of the way I saw this film was to not put these restrictions on anyone. I know that if something is happening, I’m going to get it. I just felt like I would get it in the best way possible.

The other thing was we had a tight budget, and we were told that we were only going to get 19 days to shoot. I’ve shot a bunch of movies in 19 days — it can be done — but the difference between the movies I’ve shot in 19 days and the movies I’ve shot in 24 days is that the ones shot in 24 days are good movies. So in the end, I also felt if I took on all those responsibilities, we’ll have more time and it’s going to be better for the film in the end because I could get as close as I want to get with the camera. To me, looking through the viewfinder and seeing the actual performance, it goes hand in hand. I told Olivia, “I’m not going to do both jobs unless you want me to,” and she was like, “I totally want you to.” She was always the priority, and I just decided from the first moment, I’m not going to get consumed by visuals and cinematography. That’s going to be second, and the actors and the story are going to be the priority.

It’s something you notice in the film too when you’ll see how during a conversation between characters, the camera will linger on the person that’s listening rather than the one that’s talking. Was that just intuitive?

It’s a great observation because I feel like that’s one of those things that I’ve noticed as a camera operator, where you’re shooting one person’s coverage, and you do get the opportunity to see all their reactions to what everyone else is saying, so coming from cinematography, I’m very in tune with the moments that are not always the obvious moments. For example, there’s a scene between Luke [Wilson] and John Leguizamo in the diner, where John Leguizamo’s telling a very moving and emotional story and how the story is affecting Luke is actually the point of the scene, so even though John’s delivering a fucking amazing performance, it’s actually more powerful in many ways. [The trick is also] just not to cut so quickly back and forth, like, line-line-line and to get those long pauses in there because people do that in real life. You can feel the weight of the scene a little more.

This film is full of those moments that settle in, which is partially the way you capture them, but you also obviously in how you conceived them. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Elisabeth Moss, who appears for just a minute or two, but it’s not a piece of stunt casting – you know everything about Adam, the young boy Sarah becomes fascinated with, by the way she plays his mother.

Part of that was casting Lizzie in that role – when we were looking at who we might cast, she was the first person that popped into my mind, but of course, the casting director wanted to submit the usual suspects he would typically see playing a methhead foster mom. And it’s really important to try to play against the cliché as much as possible. That said, I don’t know if the character entirely does that, but Lizzie did an amazing job at playing this girl that we’ve all met before in New Jersey, selling MetaboLife and she’s not doing well. She’s got this kid and maybe she’s getting some drugs in the bathroom. We don’t know. But to get it right, we have to take a few risks. One of those is to not cast safely, though [still] it’s Elisabeth Moss. She’s going to kill any role she does and I just thought it was cool seeing her doing this. That gave me a huge leg up because she’s such an uber-talent.

Luke Wilson and Olivia Wilde in "Meadowland"You’ve said you wanted a limited color palette for this — were there certain colors that you immediately grasped onto?

Yeah, I love coral and turquoises and yellows. There’s something about those colors that are very painterly and have very filmic qualities and once I knew we weren’t going to be shooting on film, I wanted some really rich colors there — vibrant but not super bright. For Sarah, in this time period in her life, the color doesn’t all go away — it’s still there, but maybe things are muted in a weird way. There’s this website that had frames from famous movies broken down into color swatches, just all the colors that were in the frame, so I just picked six of my favorite frames that had the colors that I liked the best and showed those to my costume designer Mirren [Gordon-Crozier] and my production designer Kelly [McGehee]. They loved the idea of just trying to keep all that color control and I feel like we achieved it. From a visual perspective, it’s a great way to create a mood and tone in your film. I always think of when I saw movies like “Le Samourai,” [where] the colors are so controlled at certain times that you almost think the film’s black-and-white, but it’s not.

You’ve also said that this is the most me that you’ve put into the world. Were you conscious of that while you were making it, or were you were surprised when you got the final product to see how personal this became?

It wasn’t really conscious while I was making it, but working on the script for a while with Chris [Rossi], who wrote an amazing script, I really feel like between that and then finally shooting it myself, I would be making something that really was representative of me and the way I see things. It’s because I did put a lot of my own experience into it. I haven’t gone through anything that’s remotely comparable to what Sarah does in this film. But I’ve had loss. I’ve been to a dark place. All I can do was say, this is the unique way that I saw the world when that was happening. I brought those experiences to the film as much as Chris did in the script and Olivia, Luke, Giovanni, and everybody else did in their respective roles. Even down to the music and the way that I don’t want to conform to expectations, I feel like it is representative of me. It’s not everything, but it’s a side of me.

“Meadowland” opens on October 16th in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset and the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and in New York at the Village East Cinema. It will expand to the Winnetka Stadium 21 in LA and Pavillion Theater in Brooklyn on October 23rd, in addition to being available on demand.