Spring 2019


Just Say Yes

For Late Night director Nisha Ganatra, willingness and tenacity have earned her a place in the spotlight

By Amy Nicholson

Director Nisha Ganatra (Photo: Eve Bregman)

Nisha Ganatra's film Late Night takes place beneath the harsh lights of the fictional Tonight With Katherine Newbury, which, after 31 years of sinking ratings, is showing its age. After the new network head (Amy Ryan) threatens cancellation, Katherine (Emma Thompson) takes stock of her all-white, all-male writers room and agrees to give a trial hire to a young Indian woman named Molly, played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the film's script and serves as producer.

In a way, Molly can be seen as the director's alter ego. As such, Ganatra believes in giving unknown talents a break. "Everybody was a first-timer on my first movie," she says, referring to her indie debut, Chutney Popcorn, which won the Audience Award at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival. "That was very challenging," she admits, "but what we got that we could never get was everybody's heart and soul."

Since then, Ganatra has often been the new kid herself, as her eclectic career has spanned the spectrum of television, leading her to direct multiple episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Better Things and her first big break in the medium, MTV's Real World. (She met Kaling helming an episode of The Mindy Project.)

"I've directed everything from reality to episodic to comedy to documentary to film," says Ganatra. "Why? When I said yes to Road Rules, it was because I got to shoot an action sequence. Nobody was giving women eight cameras to shoot sports scenes." Plus, she notes, directors face similar challenges in independent film and TV: a fast pace, limited resources, and the need to be quick and decisive about what to prioritize.

"Directing is directing," she continues, explaining her choices. "You always have to get a performance. You always have to tell a story visually. You always have to make sure you're covered in the editing room. And you always have to use the camera as dynamically as possible in a way that serves the story. So whenever I got an opportunity to do that, I just said yes."

With Late Night, her first feature in almost 20 years, that willingness and persistence have paid off. The Sundance sensation was at the center of a bidding war, which resulted in Amazon paying roughly $13 million for the U.S. rights alone, with a theatrical release set for this summer.

In the movie, Molly shows up at work with zero experience—and zero qualms about telling her co-workers and Katherine that their jokes have gotten lazy. Bad call. Now Molly's under attack by seven angry dorks and their furious queen.

Ganatra, right huddles with Mindy Kaling, on the set of their recent feature, Late Night, which sparked a bidding war at Sundance. (Photo: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios)

"I really wanted to make an adult movie with smart people talking about political issues in a funny way," says Ganatra. Under Late Night's office fluorescents, the stakes feel as high as with the Watergate scoop in All the President's Men (Ganatra's main visual influence). Late Night appeared simple on paper. Quips Ganatra, "It's just a bunch of adults talking in a room. How hard can this be?"

Actually, hard. Ganatra's first hurdle was figuring out how to make the indoor setting visually compelling. Kaling wanted authenticity. But when Ganatra toured the offices of Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert, she realized authenticity meant four dry walls, no windows and ugly lighting.

"The worst thing we could do for this movie is just shoot it as written, which is mostly in a writers' room," says Ganatra. Especially with a running gag that the male writers who make up most of the cast are, basically, identical. As a visual joke, Ganatra shot a beat where all the men turn at once to watch Molly enter the room, as though assimilated by the Borg in Star Trek.

For depth and light, Ganatra made the aesthetic choice to pick an above-average room with views of Manhattan. To heighten the feeling of claustrophobia, the director decided to shoot scenes where the writers step outside. Notes Ganatra, "If you don't show what they're sequestered from, it won't read like they're sequestered from the world."

Still, the set needed more to credibly establish the show's long history. Ganatra handed Thompson a box of props and two outfits that could be color-changed in post, and they improvised 30 years of skits in an afternoon. For background shots, every office extra was assigned a specific job, from cue cards to graphic design, so no one would be aimlessly shuffling papers. "That's something I think All the President's Men did really well," says Ganatra. "Nobody in those rooms looks like they're just sitting at a typewriter typing."

Tonight With Katherine Newbury had to look iconic, yet musty. The composer Lesley Barber even wrote an original theme song just generic enough to sound believable. As for the live studio audience, Ganatra could only afford to hire them once. "The producers were like, 'We gotta shoot all your reaction shots on the same day,'" sighs Ganatra. "That meant that me and the 1st AD (Julie A. Bloom) reenacted all of Emma Thompson's first scenes so the audience would have something to actually react to. At one point, I was like, 'Mindy, can you just go up there and start telling jokes, so they laugh?'"

Kaling wasn't the only comedian. Before signing on, Ganatra flew to London to meet Thompson, who was already attached. The two connected over a three-hour walk, and when they made it back home, Thompson's 86-year-old mother Phyllida Law, an actress herself, hooted, "Are you going to play another boring woman in an ugly frock?" Law was serious about her daughter's dormant comedy talents. To prove it, Thompson handed Ganatra a stash of VHS tapes of her doing stand-up in the '80s.

Ganatra works with Emma Thompson, who plays a talk-show host in Late Night. (Photo: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios)

One of those old stand-up sets made it into the film, though most of the words were dubbed with Late Night-themed punchlines written to incorporate snippets of Thompson's original dialogue. "An editing trick," Ganatra explains.

Back then, Thompson used to time her routines with a stopwatch. Ganatra added that detail to the film's first fragmented glimpse of Katherine in the wings. "You get what a perfectionist she is right away," says Ganatra. For Katherine's grand entrance, Ganatra would holler, "Katherine Newbury!" and Thompson would shrug her shoulders, fix her lipstick and walk out. "She's been in the wings of the Oscars and the BAFTAs—why not just embrace what she'd do?" When Katherine emerges from the shadows, the camera soaks in her profile. She looks like an icon.

It's not a spoiler that Katherine eventually delivers a humbled, on-air speech. Yet, on the shooting day, Thompson was continually interrupted by loud trucks. "You could see it agitating her," says Ganatra. In the cutting room, her editor Eleanor Infante realized those awkward pauses helped solve that scene's biggest challenge: how to glance away from Katherine to check in with other characters. "Her frustration was a beautiful, cinematic accident. It allowed me a natural cutting point to go to other people without losing the impact of Emma's monologue."

Early on, Ganatra decided to use camera movements to link Katherine and Molly's parallel journeys as the odd-women-out. "If Katherine was in a single, three-quarters-away from the camera, we would mimic that shot for Molly. When she's in a smooth dolly shot, Molly's in a smooth dolly shot." For the score, the characters have similar themes. "We're always being told these are the same person musically, even though they couldn't be more different."

"I always come from character," says Ganatra. Her style is deeply humanist, both in the projects she picks and the way she approaches them. What unites her career from indies to television to today is her emphasis on creating the same supportive environment that made Chutney Popcorn a success. "I don't hire people that aren't collaborative, and I truly respect other department heads and what they bring," she says. "If I just tell people what to do, it's only going to be as good as I see it. But if I can take everyone's inspiration and put it together, it's going to be better than any of us can imagine."

Even so, how did Ganatra direct Kaling when Kaling literally wrote her own character? Answer: by reminding Kaling of her roots.

"Mindy walks into a room like she owns the room," says Ganatra. "I did a lot of rehearsal with her to rewind her and take her back to before she became this formidable show-runner. We had a lot of talks about her feelings and her fears and her anxieties. Her many, many, many secret crying moments."

"I said, 'This is my story. I'm Molly,'" recalls Ganatra. "And she said, 'No, I'm Molly!'" Finally, they called a truce. "We both were like, 'Okay, we're Molly.'"

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