Interview with Rachel Morrison

Sarah Hurtes
Sarah Hurtes

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison is not one to shy away from shooting raw and unrefined beauty, unafraid to defy conventional depictions of truth and love through her unique take on imagery. Since completing her MFA in Cinematography at the American Film Institute, Morrison has photographed twelve features, ten in the last four years. With feature credits including “Little Accidents,” directed by Sara Colangelo and starring Elisabeth Banks which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and “Fruitvale Station”, which won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Rachel has earned a reputation for crafting haunting images that tap into the emotional core. In 2014, she shot “Cake” starring Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick, and Sam Worthington which was directed by Daniel Barnz. 

Rachel has garnered numerous awards, including an Outstanding cinematography Emmy Nomination for her work on Showtime’s Riker’s High. Her work notably features on most major TV networks including HBO, SHOWTIME, ABC, and CBS and she recently made her directorial debut for John Ridley’s new show “American Crime”. Rachel finds inspiration through her love for worldwide travels, continuously defying her own limits and pre-conceived notions of humanity’s many faces.

What inspired you to become a cinematographer?

I began taking photographs at a very early age. I saw it as a way to defy mortality and freeze time. I started down the road to become a photojournalist but soon discovered that with cinematography I had the chance to visualize a more complete narrative and could evoke intense emotion through lighting and composition.

You lensed director Daniel Barnz’s “Cake” starring Jennifer Aniston, which premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Which memory do you cherish most from working on this project?

I was given a rare opportunity to photograph a very recognizable face [Aniston] in a whole new light. She was incredibly brave to allow me to light for drama, not for beauty. It was both a challenge and a true pleasure.

You also worked on “Little Accidents” directed by Sara Colangelo, starring Elizabeth Banks, which came out in January 2015. For both “Cake” and “Little Accidents” the leading actresses take on unglamorous roles and are shot in very different ways than what we are used to seeing. Is this a way to make their characters more real and attainable for the audience?

Very much so. Ideally every character in a feature film has a major story arc. The characters experience highs and lows, moments of despair and others of hope. When you have to light and shoot for beauty or glamour, you flat line those peaks and valleys. With “Cake” and “Little Accidents” it wasn’t about making Jen and Elizabeth look unglamorous just for the sake of it, it was lighting and lensing for their characters and the drama of the narrative. And yes, I do also think that the goal was to make them feel real and identifiable. Any time you are watching a film and can’t see past the actors themselves, then you don’t get to be fully immersed in the experience itself.

How do you feel about the transformative power of film to help individuals transcend their everyday realities?

I find it awe-inspiring and humbling. It’s mind-boggling that we can suspend our disbelief long enough to fly through space, revisit historical conquests, or simply find ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a few hours!

You say that truth can be deceptive. Can you explain what you are referring to?

Things aren’t always as they appear. Love has many layers and can manifest in pain and betrayal -- but is it not still love?

Your work is known to be particularly haunting, with beautiful elegance. Where do you get your inspiration from?

Life. I experienced a huge amount of tragedy at a very young age but try now to see the beauty in each waking moment. Humanity is both fragile and magical.

At the 2013 Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards, you won the Kodak Vision Award for your work in cinematography and collaboration with other women filmmakers. Do you consider this recognition a career high or is there another moment in your career that you consider the most fulfilling?

It’s definitely one of the highs (so far). The other is when “Fruitvale Station” premiered at Sundance and Oscar Grant’s family was in the audience. We were met with a standing ovation and not a dry eye in the house, but the most meaningful moment happened when Oscar’s uncle thanked Ryan [Coogler] for making the film.

Gender parity both on and off screen is an EWA Network concern – and one that increasingly preoccupies the media. Does this subject impact the choice of films you produce or on the way you work creatively - e.g. with other cast and crew members?

Not overtly. I definitely try to select projects that speak to me and to avoid making films that are misogynistic in any way. But I don’t think my gender affects my working methods.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I guess so. In a subtle behind-the-scenes kind of way.

You directed an episode of John Ridley’s new show “American Crime” which will play in May. What was that like? Is this something you hope to do more in the future?

It was a unique and amazing opportunity. My first time directing for television and my episode had 300 extras and a riot scene! It went really well so I do think it will lead to more directing work but I have no plans to give up cinematography, as I am and always have been very comfortable and passionate about being behind the lens.

You recently gave birth to a little boy. Congratulations!! Do you think this will have a big impact on your career?

It has already to some degree ... I had a very easy pregnancy and managed to work right to the end but I did miss a few big shooting opportunities in order to have the baby and spend time bonding with him in the first few months. But it circles back to your earlier question. Life inspires me and informs the art. So overall, if anything, I think parenting will add a new dimension to my perspective on the world and will only make the work stronger.