It took 90 years, but the Oscars finally has its first female nominee in the best cinematography category: Rachel Morrison, who was nominated for her stunning work on Mudbound. (Read the full list of nominees here.
Directed by Dee Rees (Pariah), Mudbound follows two sharecropper families — one white, the other black — working the same plot of land in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. As the film’s DP, it was Morrison’s job to help Rees find the intimacy within this grand story that takes place across two continents and dives into racial and gender inequities of the time. Her work on the Netflix drama has already earned her a best cinematographer win from the New York Film Critics Circle and a nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers.
EW hopped on the phone with Morrison (Dope, Black Panther) after the nominations were announced on Tuesday to discuss her historic recognition, what attracted her to the film, and her work on Marvel’s Black Panther.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you were about to get on a flight to Sundance when you heard about your nomination. Did you spend your entire flight freaking out in silence?
RACHEL MORRISON: Well the funniest thing was that I was trying not to wake my son up at 5:30 in the morning. We successfully transferred him all the way from our house to the airport. So, I found out and was trying to scream but not scream. But yeah, I’m just trying to wrap my head around how I return 300 text messages and 500 emails, and it’s all pretty mind blowing.
What does this nomination mean to you, because you are the first woman to be nominated in this category?
It’s a huge honor. I hope that it’s the first of many. If it serves as nothing else, I hope it inspires more women to get behind the camera and become cinematographers.
How do you plan on celebrating the nomination?
Well, I’m on my way to Sundance to watch movies for five days. In some ways, there’s no better way to celebrate than to watch a bunch of films made by friends and peers and up-and-coming filmmakers. I’m actually very excited about that.
In past interviews, you’ve said that you’re drawn to emotional and character-driven stories. What did you connect with when you first read the script?
I thought it was incredibly timeless. I don’t think I realized just how timely it was. [When] I first read it, it might have even been before Trump announced he was running. It was certainly before he won. There was something about the gender inequities and [racial] inequities that rang really true even to today. I think it’s all really relevant and important as someone, especially in this day and age, who feels like it’s not enough to just entertain. We really owe it to our world to infuse our entertainment with messaging. I thought the story was incredibly potent and powerful, and I also had a lot of faith in Dee and her ability to sort of see it through. I didn’t know how the hell she was going to take six narratives and different points of view and make it into one feature, but she did it tremendously well.
When you and Dee first started talking about the look of the movie, what did you settle on as the goal of the visuals?
The biggest goals were how do you contrast the American dream with the American reality — scope with intimacy. I think we wanted it to feel like a big movie, but we knew that at the end of the day it was going to be made in the smaller moments and the relationships and the conversations and the dinner table scenes and things like that. But it was really about epic and intimate, and just American dream and American reality.
How did you attempt to capture that contrast?
I think it was about showing just enough beauty to understand why people would give up everything for an acre of land, or to move to the suburbs or the farmlands or whatever, and to basically try to visualize what hope looks like and also visualize what the day-to-day reality is like. It was never designed to be just beautiful in a Terrence Malick-y way. It had to be the contrast between beauty and harsh grit, and also see just how disparaging those two things could be.
What were some of the challenges of shooting on location in Louisiana?
The biggest challenges were just trying to shoot this movie in 28-30 days. This is a film that, on paper, probably needed double that. Literally, we shot a battle scene before lunch on one day. The other challenge was the elements. We set out to shoot in January, and by the time cast came together, we were shooting in July in the South. So, it was 100 degrees, 100 percent humidity, bugs, flies, mosquitoes, and the mud. Everything that you see on the screen, the film crew experienced in spades. We had camera gear stuck in the mud, camera trucks stuck in the mud, rain spinners fogging up the lenses. It was a very challenging shoot just in regards to the amount of rain and heat and humidity and mud. Those were the two challenges: Not enough time and the weather kind of kicked all of our asses. But I think it actually benefitted the film. I think for the actors, too, living in those conditions really played into their performances, and I think it also played into the visuals of the film.
You also worked on Black Panther, which is directed by Ryan Coogler, whom you worked with on Fruitvale Station. I read an interview in which you said that you weren’t super interested in doing big blockbuster movies. Apart from the fact that Ryan was involved, what made you want to do Black Panther?
Yeah, well Ryan’s a big part of it. If Ryan wanted to shoot a Bollywood movie, I would shoot it. I would shoot anything for Ryan anytime. But also, I knew that he was going infuse the movie with a message. I knew it wouldn’t be just a typical superhero film. And I also know how important it is to have a superhero that is representative of a culture that’s not just the Caucasian culture. For Ryan and so many others like him, it’s a chance for kids to see a vision of themselves as a superhero. I also knew to be the first woman to shoot a [Marvel Cinematic Universe] film is a huge responsibility and honor, and hopefully it would lead to the doors being opened to more women shooting big tentpole movies.
Mudbound — which was also nominated for three other Academy Awards — is available to stream on Netflix now.