Twenty years after her feature directing debut, Chutney Popcorn, found a warm reception on the festival circuit, Nisha Ganatra is back in the theatrical arena with one of the hottest titles from Sundance 2019: Late Night, written by and starring TV auteur Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project, “The Office”). Emma Thompson co-stars in this topical comedy as Katherine Newbury, a veteran late-night talk show host who is about to be dumped for an “edgier” comedian; Kaling plays Molly Patel, a novice comedy writer who is hired almost randomly to diversify Newbury’s all-white, all-male writing staff. Late Night was acquired by Amazon Studios for $13 million and debuts in theaters on June 7 following a well-received screening at CinemaCon.
Ganatra’s feature output may be lean, but in recent years she’s assembled an impressive list of credits in television: first, as a director and producer on the award-winning “Transparent,” then on to such acclaimed series as “Better Things,” “Dear White People,” “Shameless,” “Mr. Robot,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and “The Last Man on Earth.”
Ganatra reflects on her career trajectory: “I had been the belle of the festival before, but it didn’t really translate to any of my work dreams coming true after that. I mean, it did in the sense that I got to have a career making a living as a director, which is the ultimate journey. But, really, I wanted to make movies and more movies, and [Chutney Popcorn] didn’t ease the path on the way to directing more movies … I think Chutney Popcorn was more of a critical success—it didn’t have the big, splashy sale. This time, that big sale number just reminds you that the business side absolutely counts. Because of that, I think it helped pave the way a little more for all of us—for Mindy, for me, for Emma, for everyone. Not that Emma needed any paving—she’s already queen of the world.”
Born in Vancouver and raised in California, Ganatra had directed one episode of fellow Indian American Kaling’s TV show, “The Mindy Project”—a gig she had to earn. “‘The Mindy Project’ [co-starred] Chris Messina, who I’d known from his sort of dark plays in New York and Hollywood: Any time I saw a drug addict writhing onstage in pain, it was Chris Messina. I was like: What’s this guy doing now? And Mindy, of course, being one of the only other Indian Americans in comedy, I was fascinated: Who is this person and why don’t we know each other? We all seem to know each other. And then little by little it turned out we had a couple of friends in common, and that was my first network directing job. People still didn’t know about Amazon, it was before ‘Transparent’ came out. I remember an agent I had at the time said, ‘Oh, that’s a web series. No one’s going to give a shit about that.’ And I was like: I don’t know, guys, it’s really interesting and different. I think it’s going to be cool.
“So I got on these meetings with ‘The Mindy Project.’ I had to go through like seven rounds of interviews just to get this one episode. And it turned out I had also done the minority women fellowship program at NBC. So I think technically I was the diversity hire on ‘The Mindy Project,’ just like she was the diversity hire on ‘The Office.’ It was really funny when we were talking about the [Late Night] script and the experience. I was like: ‘Hey, this is totally my story, I’m Molly.’ And then she was like: ‘No, I’m Molly.’ I’m like: ‘Oh, okay. How about we’re Molly, can we just figure it out?’’
Recalling that initial working experience with Kaling, Ganatra says, “One of the best things you can ask for on a TV episode is that they let you direct. And she really had a respect for the craft of directing and wasn’t trying to backseat direct—she just trusted that you had a vision and that you were going to execute it and that it would be in line with what she was doing in her show. And then the fun thing that I got to experience was all the alts that a high comedy show like that does. On ‘Transparent,’ we would all come up with improvs or alternative takes together, and on ‘The Mindy Project’ you had [co-star and writer-producer] Ike Barinholtz and [writer-producer] Dave Stassen sitting with you just shouting out jokes for the cast to try. At first you’re like: Oh my God, what is going on here? It’s bananas. And sometimes you felt like they were just trying to crack them up. But it was really fun because you saw: Oh, this is how the comedy gets better and better and better. Just every sort of pass and joke and take. And everyone kept working really hard until it was as funny as it could be.”
Despite her previous collaboration with Kaling, Ganatra took extra pains to ready her pitch for the Late Night assignment. “It’s a weird thing that’s happening out here now, that everyone makes these presentations when they go up for a job. But I think this one was different, because when I read Late Night, the look and the feel of the images just came to me right away, probably because of my deep personal connection to the material. So I started what turned into the presentation just to get the images out of my head and put everything in one place: This is how I see the movie and this is what I think it should look like and this is what I think is important about it. And little by little it kept growing and growing and growing. And then I was like: Oh wow, I have a whole PowerPoint presentation! Maybe I should just talk Mindy and [producer] Howard Klein through it and see if we’re on the same page.
“Initially, I believe Paul Feig was set to direct the movie and it was at Fox, and then Mindy got pregnant and it got pushed and ran into his timing of A Simple Favor. So he had to leave the movie. And then, I always want to be the male Paul Feig, so I just go around trying to figure out what he’s doing next. I heard about it through my amazing agent at ICM, which has really been life-changing for me, and I went to meet them. The minute I read it, I just knew: This is the story. If I’m not going to write my own movie, then this is the story I’d like to tell.”
Late Night mines much of its comedy from the contrast between Kaling’s Molly—naive, earnest, idealistic—and Thompson’s Katherine—aloof, self-absorbed, inflexible, and hilariously acerbic. The stinging irony of her character is that she’s a female television pioneer who hasn’t done a thing to help the next generation of women (not that her stable of male writers whose names she can’t be bothered to learn are treated much better). Kaling wrote the part specifically for Thompson, and it’s a delicious showcase for this Oscar winner’s comic talents.
Says Ganatra, “Emma is just somebody I want to be when I grow up. I think there’s no person like her in the universe. She’s not only a brilliant, brilliant artist, she is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. And she can give you the best advice on any topic, everything from: Should I wear this to what books should I read? She just knows everything and she has a grace and a willingness to laugh—and she’s so damn smart. It’s such a pleasure to be around her, and she does it all without intimidating the hell out of you … She really raises everybody up to her level when you’re in her presence … There were so many beautiful moments through the whole shooting process where we just laughed from beginning to end. She’s such a great partner and collaborator.”
Despite this big-screen opportunity, Ganatra notes that “there were fewer resources making Late Night than in the TV work. I remember when I first came to L.A. with my indie film background, everyone would say: ‘Don’t tell them how little you did it for, because then they won’t give you a bigger budget.’ And now it’s sort of like: Tell them how little you can do it for, like a badge of pride that, hey, I can do so much with so little. I think before that wasn’t valued and now it’s seen as a superpower, which is really awesome.”
Ganatra says that the perceptions of who can drive a commercial film are changing. “It’s that thing where they always tell you: Oh, African American actors don’t drive international. Then Black Panther comes along and blows that away. Or, can we open a movie with all Asian people? And Crazy Rich Asians comes along and blows all that away. There’s been a little bit of a frustrating cycle where every time a female-driven movie breaks box office records, it’s seen as an anomaly and not as a thing we can count on. But I really feel like this year something changed, because I’m getting more scripts that have female leads and nobody’s talking to me about matching them with a big male name. I think Netflix and Amazon and streaming helped blow apart that oppressive assumption that only a certain number of people can open movies, you know?
“Obviously I’m happy about the representation and the diversity in storytelling, but I would think everybody would be happy, because who doesn’t want to see more rich stories and different stories? You don’t want to see the same thing over and over with the same 10 men. I think it just enriches all of our artistic experience of going to the theater, and I am someone who still believes that movies don’t just entertain but have the power to tell us how things can be and could be. I’m not gonna say that because we had movies where there was a black president that we had a black president, but maybe—it definitely shaped culture. I think definitely you can see the parallels between ‘Will & Grace’ and people’s acceptance of gay marriage. So now that we know we influence culture, there’s that great responsibility of making sure we represent culture first and foremost accurately.”
Ganatra is a graduate of the New York University film program, where her classmates included Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) and Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace). “I always take it back to my professors at NYU and the mandate of the school, which was: Don’t add to the shit that’s already out there. Make something new and interesting, or do something else with your life. Tell a story that hasn’t been told.”
But staying true to that mandate can be a struggle. “Years ago, indie film went through a rough period where people weren’t financing much of it and it seemed like everybody moved into TV, that television and the new streaming services were the new indie film. Shari Frilot at Sundance said to me: ‘Nisha, TV has been riding on the backs of independent filmmakers for a while now. That’s what made HBO great.’ And I was like: Wow. I looked at that, and there’s the same sort of aesthetic and dedication to a vision by the writer-director. HBO did really set the tone and the bar, I think. I was trying for a long time to break into TV, but I was in that Catch-22 where people wouldn’t let a person who hadn’t directed TV direct TV. And it wasn’t until I met [‘Transparent’ creator] Jill Soloway, who it turned out was looking for an independent filmmaker to help her with her new series, not somebody with a bunch of TV credits. So my failure actually helped me in the end.”
Ganatra is currently in pre-production on “a comedy with heart” called Covers, for Working Title and Focus Features. “It’s a dream come true. I’m going to the Universal lot and they actually open the gate for me when I drive up, and I drive past the Universal Studios tram tour. I remember being on those trams and just looking and looking and trying to gather: ‘What are those people doing? What’s this industry? What’s going on?’ Just trying so hard to see what this magical world was. So it’s so beautiful for me to drive onto this lot, watch this tram go by, and go to work thinking: I’m one of the people I would’ve been trying to figure out! I did it! It’s like a beautiful circle.”
Of everyone in the comedy world, Ganatra says her biggest role model is the late Mike Nichols. “He always had that way of saying something important without hitting you over the head. Making you laugh and also just leaving the theater feeling good and inspired, not dark and stormy. That was the goal with Late Night too. Working Girl was a big influence; so were Broadcast News and Tootsie. I was watching all of those films about making it in New York. Covers is similar: It’s about a young girl with big dreams to make it in the music industry.”
Ganatra also cites the “poetic and beautiful” films of Ang Lee as particularly inspirational, along with the work of Pedro Almodóvar. “Then there is just an incredible group of female directors that I admire so much, everyone from Nora Ephron to Jane Campion to Allison Anders and Nancy Savoca, Barbara Kopple and Lynne Ramsay, Chantal Akerman, Agnes Varda, of course. When you see a woman’s name in the ‘directed by’ credit, it just unlocks something in your brain where you can start thinking about yourself doing that. I think I didn’t even realize it until it started happening: Oh, I can do it, because these women did it before me. And then I saw Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach in a theater, and I remember being like: Oh my God, somebody’s telling a story with Indian people and they’re not in India and they’re being really funny. Who is this person and what is she doing? And that sort of led me to Mira Nair, and then backwards through the Satyajit Ray movies and discovering the really rich cinematic history of India, because I grew up watching Bollywood movies and didn’t know about all the art films from the same history. That was a really beautiful discovery, to find that in my own culture.”
Speaking of Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham also reemerged at Sundance 2019 with a hit, the Bruce Springsteen-inspired Blinded by the Light, another movie screened at CinemaCon. “That was like surreal. One of my favorite things about this industry is that you can grow up watching and admiring somebody for so long and then suddenly find yourself at a festival with them or as colleagues or somebody who might be directing or collaborating. It just is such a magical industry that way.”
Amazon will be releasing Late Night wide, and Ganatra is urging people to catch it in a theater. “You make your movie and you want as many people as possible to see it. It’s important in that sense. But I always tell my family and friends it’s like voting—that if you don’t go see this movie in the theater, then you’re kind of giving the message back to the people who are putting movies in theaters that you don’t want to see movies like this in theaters, that you want to see other things. I liken it to: Buy a ticket, vote for the movie. It’ll help other filmmakers who are trying to make things with two female leads or a story line that is actually historically proven to make money. It will help them break through and see that, actually, we can have diversity of storytelling. They will make money, because it is a business after all. I always say, I know you want to see that big Marvel movie, but it’s going to be there next weekend. But if you don’t see Late Night, it might not be there next weekend. That’s what’s really important.”