Rachel Morrison, from ‘Mudbound’ to ‘Black Panther’ to the Oscars
Rachel Morrison is having quite a 2018. On Jan. 23, the Cambridge native became the first woman nominated for a best cinematography Oscar, for “Mudbound.” Her next movie, “Black Panther,” opened Feb. 16 and has already earned some $800 million at the global box office.
After graduating from Concord Academy, Morrison went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has more than 40 cinematography credits: shorts, documentaries, and television work, as well as feature films. Her breakthrough film was “Fruitvale Station” (2013), the feature-directing debut of Ryan Coogler, who directed “Black Panther.” Morrison has herself directed, an episode of the television series “Quantico” and two of “American Crime.”
Morrison, 40, spoke recently by telephone from Los Angeles about the lack of female cinematographers, catching up with the Marvel film catalog, and why someone who played hockey in her teens might turn to surfing in her 30s.
Q. Do you have any particular Cambridge moviegoing memories?
A. I lived within walking distance of Harvard Square, and that’s where I discovered my love of cinema. I saw a lot of foreign and independent films there. All I’d been exposed to had been tent-pole movies. A French-Canadian movie called “Léolo” , that’s the movie that broke everything open for me. From that point, there was no turning back. Basically, I’d be back and forth between the Harvard Square [Theater] and Brattle.
Q. What about Concord Academy?
A. A large part of the reason I ended up going to Concord was for their photo and film program. I almost went to [Cambridge] Rindge [and Latin School, the Cambridge public high school]. A lot of my friends went there. Concord had film, photo, and ice hockey. Rindge had film and photo. That settled it.
Q. What position did you play?
A. Right or left wing, mostly right. Also [at NYU] I played one semester of ice hockey on the men’s team, but got my ass kicked so bad.
Q. You went to NYU for both photography and film?
A. Actually, I went to Tisch for photography. But at that point I was becoming interested in cinematography and started taking as many film classes as I could. After graduation, I spent a year taking around my [photography] portfolio by day and [film] reel by night. Basically, I was told I couldn’t do both.
Q. Why are there so few female cinematographers?
A. It’s a question I get all the time, and I really can’t answer it. The job speaks to things women do inherently well: empathy, alertness to the emotions of others, multitasking. I’m surprised [the gender ratio of cinematographers] is not 60-40 in our favor. It makes no sense to me, other than the historical brotherhood of it all and nepotism.
Q. Any favorite cinematographers or influences?
A. There are so many. Different favorites are influential for different films. Three of the more influential ones for “Mudbound” were Gordon Willis, Nestor Almendros, and Haskell Wexler. In general, there are more than I can count.
Q. “Mudbound” is set in the South during and after World War II. It has such a distinctive look, inspired in part by such Farm Security Administration photographers as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
A. There’s a tendency with period films to glamorize the period. We wanted to show life as it really was. Most of the FSA photographers were black and white, and just doing it in color meant the film was going to take on its own life. While I looked to “Days of Heaven”  for parts of the film, it was important the whole film not look like a Terrence Malick film. It was about contrasting these moments of beauty with the harsh reality.
Q. Also, there’s the contrast between the openness of the horizontal exteriors and the crowdedness of the interiors.
A. I love visual variety: when [a film] doesn’t feel on repeat. One of the references for that was Robert Frank’s [photography book] “The Americans,” and that’s exactly what we liked about it. That tension between crowdedness and isolation. In the man-vs.-nature game, nature is always going to win. In the context of an interior space it was all about family, friendship.
Q. How different was it shooting a superhero movie? Or did you think of it more as a Ryan Coogler movie?
A. The Ryan Coogler movie component of it was very similar. I’ve known Ryan for five years and am very close to him. He’s as much himself as he ever was, which is quite refreshing and surprising in this day and age. He hasn’t been affected by Hollywood. That part was very familiar. It was like making a massive independent film, in some ways. But the VFX components and the larger-than-life action scenes were all new to me. I had to watch the library of Marvel to get myself up to speed. I had to learn a language to figure just how I could push things: the visual language of the Marvel movies, or tent-pole movies. You need a certain number of action scenes, and it’s more of a three-act structure even than dramas are.
Q. What was the biggest challenge?
A. It wasn’t what I expected it to be: lighting continuity for an action scene over a large period of time. The battle scene and the waterfall scene I had to take control of the lighting so something would match. That was a new challenge for me, shooting an exterior and actually having to take out the sun and light it from scratch.
Q. I noticed more hand-held camera than I think I’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie.
A. That’s probably accurate, which is very much a testament to Ryan. One of the reasons he hired me in the first place, to shoot “Fruitvale,” is I’d done a lot of hand-held work, which came from my background in documentary films. This was the first film I didn’t operate the camera.
Q. Did that feel weird?
A. Yeah, it felt really weird. I don’t know that I ever got used to it. But there are so many more moving parts to concentrate on.
Q. A lot of directors start out as cinematographers. Is full-time directing a goal?
A. Full time, probably not. I love shooting, and I can’t imagine a world where I don’t shoot. Would I consider directing? Yes, but here’s the problem: The target I’ve been chasing my whole life has been big feature dramas — like “The French Connection” , “Three Days of the Condor”  — and those have largely vanished. That type of work has gone to television. You end up shooting 14 episodes of the same show.
Q. What’s next?
A. I don’t actually know. I’m getting restless. I’m ready to shoot another movie.
Q. When you’re sent a script do you ever like its visual possibilities but not the script itself?
A. That’s something I’ve been faced with a number of times, where a script offered to me on paper was perfect and I had to turn it down. For example, I recently got one that’s set in Tokyo, with a director I respect, a lead actress I really admire, highly visual. But I couldn’t connect with the material, and I read it twice, really wanting to.
The first few features I did were projects I wouldn’t do now. “Fruitvale” set the bar for what I wanted to do with my career, which was to make films that had consciousness and messaging in an entertaining package. Once I hit that mark, I never wanted to go back.
Q. How does someone from Cambridge develop a passion for surfing?
A. Surfing is incredible. It’s both meditative and physical. I think it was my way into California. It took me a long time to adapt to the West Coast. I lived eight years in New York before California and might have gone back. Then I discovered surfing. It’s the California equivalent of ice hockey, I guess. It gave me a real sense of place. Unlike ice hockey, you can do it by yourself. It’s hard when you’re 30 to round up enough people for a game.