By Edward Douglas
Nisha Ganatra has been directing for some time, first in independent film but more recently in television, and it’s obvious that it’s been hard to get noticed in the competitive world of filmmaking. That is likely to change with Ganatra’s latest film, “Late Night,” which is written, produced and stars Mindy Kaling of “The Office” and “The Mindy Project.” In the movie, Mindy plays Molly Patel, an ambitious young Indian woman who comes to New York with dreams of being a comedy writer. She somehow manages to get a job in the writers’ room for “Late Night with Katherine Newbury,” starring Emma Thompson’s title character, a veteran comic who is one of the first women of late night. Her writers’ room, on the other hand, is made up of all white men, so Molly needs to find her way through the sausage factory to get her voice heard. At the same time, Katherine is about to be replaced on her own show unless she can turn things around.
The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to raves, and Amazon Studios quickly picked it up for release. It’s not too surprising, since the movie plays so well with audiences of all ages, genders, and races, as well as being very timely to some of the discussions being had in the world today.
Next Best Picture spoke with Ganatra over the phone last week for the following interview...
I was at CinemaCon and Mindy said a lot of nice things about you when she was introducing the movie. I know you directed an episode of Mindy's show, so was she already talking about the project or had she written something back then?
She hadn't written it yet, but I had met her when I directed an episode for her TV show. I started in independent film, so I'm an independent filmmaker, and I only recently have been directing television. Mindy's show was one of the projects, just because there are a few Indian-Americans working in comedy. I really wanted to work with her and meet her and do her show, but we really hit it off.
Then when she wrote the script, I read it, loved it, met her, told her how much it was my story and it's obviously her story. It was just a really great thing because we had this shared experience. We could make this movie where neither of us had to explain herself to each other. In fact, it was really important to me that I wasn't explaining Molly to the audience, as well. It was just showing her experience, and I think that was a really unique thing. By both of us working together we could start a little further down the road than normally in the process when there aren't two Indian-American women with the same shared story working on it.
Had you worked on late night yourself? Have you been in that world at all or was your avenue into comedy directing sitcom type stuff? I’m not sure if “Transparent” is considered a sitcom.
No, I've only done one sitcom or two sitcoms: “The Mindy Project” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” because they were the only ones with an Asian-American cast. Mostly, I've done more of the auteur-driven or HBO-like TV, because that's more in the vein of independent film as well, which is where my heart is and has always been. I haven't worked in late night at all. I really have just come from indie film and been a fan of late night and always watched these comedians, especially now, while our culture is going through this crazy political time. I just find that comedians are always tasked with being the truth-sayers and the fearless ones in our society. If you look who's out there saying the things that nobody's saying and everyone's afraid to say, it's Seth Myers and Samantha Bee and Steven Colbert and they're all taking risks and putting themselves out there. I just have so much respect for them. I think it's so brave and important, so I'm so excited to be able to make this movie in that same world.
It's also great when actors write their own material. I think Judd Apatow was one of the first filmmakers I heard talk about this, as he’s always pushing his actors to write their own material. That’s actually led to some great stuff. Besides working with Mindy, have you had that experience yourself?
Yeah, I mean, Lena Dunham and “Girls,” she wrote her own. Pamela Adlon obviously wrote “Better Things,” and I directed her in that. I always gravitate to actors who write their own material. I just ordinarily love actors so much, so whatever I can do to help them give their best performance. It’s always a little tricky when they write because they're worried on two fronts, so it's a harder job for the director when it's an actor who wrote it. You have to take their baby away from them and say, “Don't worry. I'm a really good nanny and it's going to be all right. You just focus on your acting right now.”
It’s fairly well known that film is a director’s medium but television, not so much, even though directors are important. When you're making a movie with someone who is a producer, writer, and actor, how are you able to help her separate those roles but also have your space as a director without Mindy losing her own vision of the movie?
It gets tough. It's challenging for anyone to give up that control. To me, it was really important that she felt that I was respecting her words. It was her first feature, so there was definitely nerves. Ultimately though, we found a really nice balance to where I was respecting her words and her intentions, but also allowed to have my own creative freedom and expression as a director. The reason people make movies is for the creative freedom. Otherwise, we'd all just do TV, which is a lot more lucrative. [chuckles] When you keep your eye on that, it's the most collaborative art I've ever experienced. The joy in making a movie is everybody gets to bring their creativity to it, and it gets all put together. If you try to strip that away from people and say, “No, these are my words and this is my vision,” then it becomes a very different experience that's not joyful for anyone. That’s not how I'm interested in living life, much less pursuing my passion. I think we've found a nice balance of, “Trust me, I'm not going to disrespect your words, but also you have to allow the creative joy of directing to come through as well. Otherwise, what are we all doing here?”
It's nice when you can go back and forth from TV and film. I've spoken with Lynn Shelton quite a few times over the years…
Yeah, she's fantastic!
She's a great filmmaker and really has just gotten better since doing TV as well. Have you found the same thing, that working on TV made it easier to go back when directing this movie?
Television is a really fun place for me, just coming from independent film. There are more resources in television, so you get more toys to play with and you get more experience with how to do things that you wouldn't necessarily have the tools to do in indie film. It's really nice to go back and forth between the two. Also, in television, you can play around with different genres that you may or may not make a movie in. For me, I get to sort of go do sci-fi in TV or make a drama in TV or make a really broad comedy in TV, wherein film I sort of reach for more subtle work. It’s fun to kind of do both of them – it’s like right brain left brain to me.
Was Emma already on board as Katherine when you came on board? Had Mindy already approached her or had her in mind?
Yeah, Mindy actually wrote the script for Emma. I had assumed they were best friends, but then she said, “No, I've only met her once,” and I said, “What?” So I had to fly to London to meet Emma and get her on board with the film and get her to approve me as the director of the film. It was all this big mission in London. I met her. She couldn't be more gracious, more generous. I think she's one of the finest actors of our time. She is someone who I've seen all of her movies and been such a fan of because she truly gives an impeccable performance every time. It’s rare that an actor can do that for such a long career, and she's also such a stunning writer, too. It was just a dream come true to be able to direct Emma Thompson. If I only made movies with Emma Thompson for the rest of my career, I would be very happy.
I'm not sure how many people, at least in America know about her comedy background. I feel like she never really became known for that here, but you then have two brilliant, funny women, both writers, so how do you direct them to keep the comedy on course?
That was a joy because you're right, a lot of people don't know that Emma started in comedy. She had that college on improv troupe, and she did standup comedy when she was 23. In fact, that clip in the movie of her doing standup is Emma Thompson doing standup comedy. So it was a joy to remind people that she is such a comedic force. For me, to have two comediennes working together in the movie was just such a joy, because Mindy's so fast and funny and Emma is so layered and intelligent and open, that the two of them together really sparked and had a lot of fun. The script was in great shape, so it wasn't hard to make things funny, but it was really fun to do. I'll take some improvs and really do fun runs and make everything just as funny as can be, and then dial it back so that I never lost the emotional arc of the story when I was editing. There are so many outtakes that I wish could have made it in because they're both very funny women.
I saw the movie a second time last week with a different audience. The first time I saw it was at CinemaCon but the second time was with a theater full of New York critics, and the reaction was just as great.
Wow, that's good to know. I was like, “Oh God, a room full of critics… How did that go over!?” [laughs]
It went really well, which doesn’t happen often. I know this was picked up by Amazon at Sundance, so have you had any chance to work on it since then? I know a lot of times people bring movies to Sundance having rushed to get them done in time. Were you able to do some more work on it or was there anything you felt you had to work on since then?
Yeah, sadly I didn't get to. I did get it done for Sundance in the nick of time. I was hoping I would get to smooth out a couple of things before it got released, but it really just went straight to Amazon, and it's coming out the same way it was at Sundance.
You’re working on your next movie now called “Covers” so what’s that about?
I just started. We start shooting in a couple of weeks. They just announced it, so I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it. It’s exciting, and again, like comedic powerhouses together. It's really fun with Traci Ellis Ross and Zoe Chao, and hopefully, Lisa Kudrow. I'm hoping that closes today. It will be a really fun time. I feel like the luckiest person in the world because I got to shoot in New York last year and I get to shoot in LA this year. It's going to be amazing.
“Late Night” is now playing in New York and L.A. and will expand nationwide on June 14th.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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