Warning: This interview includes mild spoilers for The Rhythm Section, in theaters January 31.
“If you were an assassin, would you be in stilettos and a leather mini-skirt?”
Reed Morano didn’t waste time getting to the point in our interview about The Rhythm Section. Sitting alongside star Blake Lively and producer Barbara Broccoli (best known for producing the James Bond franchise), she succinctly laid out the difference between an action story about a woman filtered through a man’s fantasy and one seen through the female gaze.
“It's hard enough as it is to do all the things you have to do as an assassin,” Morano added.
The Rhythm Section is Morano’s first studio movie as a director, but it also marks another sort of debut for Lively. She sheds the glossy, glamorous persona we’re used to in favor of a much grittier, physical performance as Stephanie Patrick, a woman ready to do anything to avenge her family members’ deaths.
“Having all female filmmakers is something that I've never experienced in my career,” she told Refinery29 at the movie’s New York City junket. (Lively starred in the Rebecca Miller-direct The Private Lives of Pippa Lee in 1998, but worked with mostly male producers.) “I was incredibly happy each day to be telling a woman's story, not through the male gaze, but through two women who really understood it and would fight for the experience that represents a multifaceted woman.”
Lively adopted a British accent for the role, which you can watch co-star Sterling K. Brown analyze in this clip from the film. But she also underwent combat training, culminating in a four-minute one-shot fight scene with Jude Law, who plays a former MI6 agent helping Stephanie train as an amateur assassin.
Tough women are Morano’s trademark, on- and off-screen. In 2013, she became the youngest person invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers and remains one of its only 14 women members out of more than 300 total. In 2016, she shot the “Sandcastles” video for Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which got her a job directing three episodes on the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Morano helped shape the show’s unforgettable and painful aesthetic, and became the first woman to win an Emmy and Director’s Guild Award for the same show. Next, she’ll be helming an Amazon series adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, about a group of teenage girls who develop dangerous powers.
Still, Morano stressed that, as far as she’s concerned, violence is there to serve the story, whether it’s in The Handmaid’s Tale or The Rhythm Section.
“It wasn't there to be torture porn or anything like that. [Stephanie] really does hold her own in any of the situations” she said, adding that she thinks “we did it in a way where we were able to show how she builds up her abilities and becomes more empowered throughout the film.”
We first meet Stephanie in a memory — she’s at her parents’ home, laughing and smiling with her siblings. It’s the closest she’ll ever get to looking like Lively. Fast-forward three years to present-day and Stephanie has suffered unimaginable loss: Her parents, brother and sister died in a plane crash over the Atlantic, and she’s turned to sex work and drugs in an attempt to numb herself from the grief. Her pain is mirrored in her appearance. She’s dyed her hair and cut it short, and when she sheds her uniform of battered sweatpants, we see her body is wracked with bruises and signs of neglect. She’s given up.
That’s when an investigative reporter (Raza Jaffrey) comes knocking on her door. A source in the intelligence community has tipped him off to the fact that Stephanie’s family may have been collateral damage in a terrorist attack covered up by the government. Thus begins Stephanie’s quest for justice and revenge.
In a sense, Stephanie undergoes two parallel journeys. Physically, she travels around the world, pursuing her targets from Madrid to Tangiers to New York City. But she’s also finding strength within herself. More than anything, that’s what Lively said she related to.
“The thing that I was most drawn to with this character is — we've probably all experienced this as women — she's always discounted and undervalued,” Lively said. “As a woman, even when you're at your most powerful — I still have moments where I see that I'm being discounted or undervalued. That strength in her pushing to be seen and to not be invisible, that's the thing that I connected with.”
Still, Stephanie’s emotional burdens didn’t follow Lively home. “This movie was physically and emotionally draining,” she said. “I didn't have the energy to carry that with me at the end of the day. I'm not hiding behind a corner and tucking and rolling to [sneak up on] my husband.” (Your move, Ryan Reynolds.)
Check out our full interview with Morano, Lively, and Broccoli below.