Nisha Ganatra has directed episodic television for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Fresh Off the Boat," and "The Mindy Project," just to name a few. Despite her success, however, as an Indian American woman, the filmmaker is reminded that she’s an outsider in these spaces reserved mostly for white men. "I get to the gate at the studio and they say, ‘What are you here for sweetie?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m the director.’ And then they’ll always be like, ‘Oh, good for you,’" Ganatra says. "I am constantly reminded that I’m not the norm here and that gets to you after a while. And that was something I just wanted to show [in the film].”
For the breakout Sundance hit, "Late Night" (written by Mindy Kaling), Ganatra uses her comedic sensibilities behind the camera to expand on this life experience by showing what happens when an underestimated woman of color subverts the status quo in late night television. The comedy sees iconic late-night host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) forced to shake things up or sacrifice her job as host. With ratings at an all-time low, she’s told her all-white male writers’ room needs a face-lift and goes for the diversity hire. In enters Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), an enthusiastic, young voice who’s transported from working in a chemical plant to the job of her dreams as a staff writer. Molly quickly realizes as the only woman on staff — and woman of color — she’ll have to prove her worth to everyone.
We recently spoke with director Ganatra ahead of the film’s Friday release.
This film demonstrates the importance of diversity in all departments — we wouldn’t have the little nuances when distinguishing what otherness feels like in a room that’s been whitewashed and the power dynamics that come with that. How many conversations did you have about showing that environment?
Oh my god, so many. For me, it’s bringing together all the issues I care deeply about and making comedy, which is my passion. It was the first thing [Mindy and I] talked about because it was the fact that we had this shared experience of sometimes being the only women of color or a person of color on the set in television even in 2018 and 2019. To me it’s a little ironic that in telling this story about diversity, we created jobs for a whole lot of white men … even though there are those initiatives and obviously we believe passionately in this cause, it’s still got a long way to go.
When it comes to success in the workplace, women are often told to sacrifice aspects of their personal lives to get to the top of the food chain. This was framed beautifully through Emma Thompson’s character. Was that originally in the script?
The script was really strong, and then Emma just brought so much more [because] she’s been in this business a long time. We definitely leaned on her and she brought a depth and intelligence and layers to the character that we just would not have been able to bring without her because she has lived it. So she was very generously sharing her experiences and bringing it to life in a way.
I’m sure having a woman of color as a screenwriter also helped the process in making the film.
That was a joy for both of us because neither Mindy or myself had to explain anything to each other. We could start from our shared experience and go, "You know?" And that was a huge added bonus of having both of us behind the camera. I didn’t have to explain my interpretation. She doesn’t have to explain her experiences. We just said, "Remember when?" "Yep. OK. Got it,” and went on like that. So it was a joy to collaborate with her.
Seeing these microaggressions highlighted, such as Molly’s name being mispronounced. Even though this is framed in the context of a comedy it really didn’t lose significance.
Oh yeah. I think comedy is the best way to talk about political issues. If you watch what’s happening in society now, the people who have taken on Trump — like what’s happening on Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee — those are our comedians of our time and those are the places to go to see what’s happening in culture and to tell the direct truth about it without any fear. It’s comedians who have done this historically and that’s why I have so much respect and love for them.
In the film, Molly is a diversity hire. I’ve never seen that addressed and represented in a comedy that feels so personal to a character’s journey.
We’ve all experienced it but I think there’s something interesting going on. When I watched "Wonder Woman," it was sort of this feeling of, "Wow, I didn’t know what I was missing until I saw what I was missing," you know? And then "Black Panther," you’re like, “Oh, this is what it’s like to see representation in all areas.” And with this film, I think [as women of color] we all share the feeling as you walk in a room and you’re immediately underestimated and not given the benefit of doubt. And it’s something I wasn’t even aware of because I’ve been experiencing it for so long and trying to overcome it for so long. [And then] they’re overly surprised by your success — all of these things are offensive. With this movie, we don’t go far enough to see the fatigue of being underestimated for so long. If we really were doing the documentary version, I think we’d come back in six years and Molly would still be underestimated.
I would be very interested in watching that documentary.
We wanted to do our fantasy version where everything changes in a year, but part of me is like, it’s important to [show] that too because if we don’t show the world how to do it, then they can’t make it true … When people think about diversity and inclusion, they often view it through the lens of it helping the person of color, but the truth is, it helps everyone. It brings up the entire workplace. It brings up the final product and it brings up the world. That’s the message I’m hoping gets across.
There’s been an uptick in conversation around this pressure that’s put on women directors to produce massive box office hits or else there’s a whole slew of films that won’t get made by women. Can you separate that from your creative process?
No, it was the thing that was terrifying us. Often Mindy would be really worried about it, and saying, "God, if this fails …" There was so much riding on it. If it failed, who knows how long until her next feature? If it fails for me, how long until my next feature? I felt all the pressure of “If it doesn’t do well then the movies that are female-led [behind and in front of the camera] are going to have a harder time to get financing.” And that is why when it was a record-breaking sale at Sundance, it was such a moment of joy for us all because we knew it wasn’t just us that was getting rewarded. We were going to see the repercussions for a while behind us. And that means more exciting movies that are more inclusive in the theaters.
That must have been an amazing moment at Sundance.
It was truly an incredible moment. I couldn’t really grasp that this was happening to our movie and that it was me that had the movie that was going to be the hit of Sundance. It’s because for years I’ve been reading Indiewire and looking at Filmmaker [magazine] and going to Sundance and it’s these young white dudes. It’s never Indian women. So when that happened, it took me a while. I remember it happened Friday night and then Monday I was walking down Main Street and it hit me and I just burst into tears. I realized everything I had been doing with my whole career about representation, to shift culture, and to show people what it is so that they can then [see] it was happening to me.