Rachel Morrison has been interested in photography since she was a kid. The DP of films such as Cake, Dope, and HBO’s Confirmation explains she was looking through some old family photos and was struck by a picture taken from a particularly low angle. “The only person not in the photo is me, so I asked a friend of the family if I could have been the one taking the photograph and sure enough—I was only five or six. It shows how early I was fascinated with taking pictures.”
I ask her, what was the first film to pique her interest in cinematography? “It was a somewhat obscure Canadian film called Léolo. It was the first time I’d really seen a non-mainstream movie. At that point I was already interested in photography, and film was a natural successor.”
For Morrison, the really consistent theme of her work has been humanity. “I’ve always been fascinated by the subjective experience,” she says. This is clear in her work on the film Fruitvale Station. Scenes and emotions, which might have been exploited by another filmmaker, were instead rendered fully human and dynamic.
Morrison says she is invested in this style of filmmaking and aims to portray people as they are. “My threshold that I won’t ever cross is beauty lighting for beauty lighting’s sake. Being told to shoot that way is like being told to do your craft with one hand behind your back. If you’re lighting strictly to make someone look attractive, and not for character or story, that goes against every fiber of what I set out to do.”
Though most of Morrison’s work has been for dramatic films, she does not limit herself in terms of genre. “I guess I’m a closet wimp when it comes to horror movies, so I don’t necessarily have that in me. I can appreciate horror at times though—especially when black becomes your positive.”
We discuss other types of projects she would consider. “I would love to shoot sci-fi or a western —I think action movies are cool when I believe the characters and their intentions.” Above all, Morrison says she believes in motivated writing.
When it comes to viewing a finished film, Morrison says at times she’s been both happily surprised with the finished product and disappointed with what’s left the cutting room floor. “Kill your darlings—that term really applies to working as a DP. When you watch a movie as someone not involved with the production, there’s so much you’re not aware of that went into it. You’re not biased in that way. But as a DP it becomes so embedded in your mind.”
In addition to serving as DP, Morrison has also directed for television. She says she’s enjoyed her forays into the medium, but has no plan to abandon cinematography because she loves crafting the image.
She feels when it comes to directing for television, there’s a process to everything. “You study the past episodes and all the cuts that are ready to get a sense of what the voice the show is.” Unlike directing a feature, the goal with TV directing is to blend, not to stand out. “The goal is to make your mark but don’t make it incongruous to the whole.”
In this way, Morrison says, directing for television requires the same sublimation of ego as shooting a film. “TV directing is one area of direction where you don’t have ultimate control. You’re in service of the story. In that way it is very much like being a DP on a film. You can’t have a full blown ego in either area.”
We discuss film festivals. Her relationship to Sundance, she notes, is ever evolving. “The first time you go [to Sundance], it’s a whirlwind. I remember feeling like below the line didn’t matter—the directors and actors would get a ton of recognition while the rest of the crew were just hoping to get hired for their next job.”
As Morrison’s become a veteran of the festival, she has participated in panels and discussions. She says she doesn’t mind the nature of things so much now. “That could just be the way of the business. It seems to be a little different in Europe where DPs are considered rockstars in their own right, but here in the states if you choose to be on the working crew, you have to be okay with that at the end of the day. Even though you might feel a sense of ownership over a film, ultimately it’s not yours.”
As far as the treatment of women within the industry is concerned, Morrison says certain things are improving. We talk on the subject of hashtag campaigns like #DirectedByWomen, which aim to highlight the role of female directors within a male-dominated industry. Morrison views these campaigns as useful tools, but says the problem is larger than that. “For all the attention to lack of female directors, there are even fewer female DPs out there.”
She continues, saying that in terms of crew, statistics only go down from there. “I can’t name more than one female grip, which is depressing. There aren’t nearly enough to choose from.”
When hiring crew members, Morrison tries to maintain balance. “I’m always a little bit torn. I don’t want to get hired just because I’m a woman but because I’m the best person for the job. In my own crew, I look for that—for people who are the best at their job.”
Nevertheless, she remembers the beginning of her career and acknowledges that in starting out, female DPs do not have the same resume-building opportunities. “At entry level, when we’re really talking apples to apples, I try to give opportunities to female camera interns.”
Morrison notes the positives, saying, “The thing I love most about feature cinematography is the variety. It’s never the same job twice and the trade is continuously evolving.”
“In terms of picking projects, I’m not interested in telling chauvinistic stories without any female voices,” she says. Though her path has taken several turns, Rachel Morrison is still firmly committed to telling human stories.