Meadowland is an incredibly personal and proud film for Olivia Wilde and director Reed Morano. This is abundantly clear from the moment they enter a room.
While most talent is of course happy to promote a project, both the first-time director and her leading lady/producer showed genuine enthusiasm and candor only a day after its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, chatting at length their relationship with each other and the central protagonist of Sarah.
“We sort of had a language of our own to discuss Sarah that no one else on set probably understood except for us,” Wilde said. Indeed, it might have been a necessity given the picture’s harrowing subject matter, and how close to home it is for both women.
Focused on two parents, Sarah and Phil (Luke Wilson), Meadowland is a movie that deals in a very honest and bitter way with parental grief after their son Jessie is kidnapped from a rest stop bathroom. Unpacking the horror through a grounded approach became crucial for the star and filmmaker, beginning with how they even saw the film’s opening sequence change into something more poignant than what is in the script.
“Pretty much all of the dialogue in that scene is adlibbed by the actors,” Morano reflected about the low-key way a slice of life family car ride pictorial closes in tragedy once Sarah and Phil realize their child is gone. “We ended up not really using anything from the script.”
Morano insisted that the logic of this was to make it as completely real as possible and to avoid the inclination of underscoring a scene with foreshadowing or indicative storytelling. Wilde agreed that developing this sequence informed the entire approach to the film.
“It was very true to life,” the actor said. “We wanted to show that tragic realism of when something bad happens, and if you play it back in your mind, you think, that they didn’t spend enough time focusing on him right before he went…It’s a scene about real life, real parenting, a real family moment where not everyone is 100 percent focused on each other.”
The sequence is indeed nightmarish because of the little details, such as young Jessie innocuously munching on snacks, and Wilson’s father paying attention to the road instead of his son’s daydreams. The scene also displayed the serious desire of grounding the scenario for its storyteller since it not only is about a mother losing a child, but in some sense also of her losing her own child. After all, Morano’s son Casey Walker plays Jessie.
She explained that it was partially done with the purpose of unifying support with her actors, whom she is pushing into some very dark corners with this material.
“It’s such a huge thing to ask of these actors,” Morano said. “Particularly Olivia, who has just had a son. And I know from experience that right after you have a baby, it’s the most emotional time period…I just thought that I’m asking so much of her, and I want to be in it with her as much as possible.”
Olivia helpfully added that Casey Walker’s relaxed old soul demeanor was a boon for the picture.
“He was the best one!” Wilde says with a smile about the auditions.
Morano still confessed, however, her anxiety about the casting process.
“I originally was scared of the idea, because I was like, ‘That’s so fucked up for me to do that! Am I putting this idea out into the universe, and is, God forbid, my son going to go missing?’ And then I thought, ‘No, maybe it’s the other way around.’ I’m doing this so it won’t happen to me.”
Still, such a fluid process of developing the film into a personal experience even changed the final scene of the picture, which was not in the script. The change that the filmmakers collaborated on offered, as Morano put it, a ray of light that will hopefully ward off audience depression.
Despite the film’s dark subject matter, a scene that came to Morano got reedited into the film’s final, hopeful note.
Says the director, “It was a whole different thing, so when we shot the [scene] halfway through the shoot, it way was so moving, and so incredible, and so magical that Olivia and I, and everyone was crying on set. You can’t be around [a moment like that] without being moved…So, that day when we were driving home from the set, I was like ‘We can’t go anywhere after that.’”
Indeed, it’s why Morano rewrote the ending during production. Wilde sees it as an organic evolution of the filmmaking process, as well as finding closure to Sarah’s otherwise bleak arc.
“It’s great to leave that moment up to interpretation,” Wilde said. “And I’ve heard several people say they don’t even believe that moment is real, which I think is really cool.”
It is a conclusion that obviously means a lot to them. They don’t even mind to disagree with my own negative interpretation of the finale. Like Meadowland itself, they seem to share their own private accord about the collaboration.