From director Nisha Ganatra and screenwriter Mindy Kaling, the dramedy Late Night follows legendary talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a pioneer in her field who is now feeling the pressure to stay relevant when it comes to her long-running late night comedy show. When she’s pushed into making her all-male writers’ room more gender balanced, chemical plant efficiency expert Molly Patel (Kaling) finds herself the first and only female on the writing staff, and she must quickly discover her own voice while also figuring out how to bring her idol’s career back from the brink of losing her show.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Nisha Ganatra talked about her record-breaking deal with Amazon Studios, how she got the job as director, why she wanted to be a part of telling this story, how dreamy the collaboration with Emma Thompson was, how bummed she was to have to take out some very funny jokes, and the way screenings helped shape the film. She also talked about her next film Covers, set in the L.A. music industry and starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson, and that she’d love a crack at the Star Wars or Jurassic Park franchise.
Collider: You’ve directed a lot of episodic TV and you’ve done independent film, and you’ve had a career that spans 20 years, but this is the first time that you’ve taken on a project of this level. What’s it like to have the spotlight on you, with this record-breaking $13 million deal with Amazon?
NISHA GANATRA: It’s pretty unreal. I started in independent film. I’m only recently more into television. It’s just the last couple of years that I’ve been doing television. It was so hard to get those opportunities that I said yes to everything that came, that was interesting. It’s just been insane. The thing is that I’ve always dreamed of making a studio film. You put all of your heart and soul into making a movie, and you want everyone in the world to see it, but it’s so rare, the indie film that gets plucked from Sundance and put into theaters. There’s only a handful. When it was happening, I just had this moment where I was like, “Oh, my god, what’s happening?!” It took me awhile for it to sink in. It happened on a Friday night, and then on Monday, on Main Street, I remember that I just stopped and burst into tears because it finally hit me. I realized it’s because, for so many years, I’ve been reading Filmmaker Magazine and looking at IndieWire, and it’s always a dude being like, “I won Sundance!” It’s never an Indian American woman holding a baby. That’s not who wins Sundance. It was so weird. The thing that I’ve been doing in my work, which is representation, and doing that so there can be identity formation, I just was like, “I’m experiencing it myself. I’ve never seen it, so I can’t even understand that it’s happening because I don’t have an image for it, so I don’t even recognize when it’s happening to me.” It was so interesting to experience it all.
Since you went into Sundance not knowing what would happen with the film, did you ever worry that it would end up in the wrong hands, or did you always have hope that it would end up at the right place?
GANATRA: You know, you’re right. I didn’t even realize it, but I was worried about that. It’s that thing where you just want everybody to see your movie, when you spend so much time, and you put so much heart and soul into making it. So, there was always that fear that you’re doing all of this, and no one’s ever gonna see it. For Amazon to be like, “Not only is everyone gonna see it, but we’re gonna do a record-breaking sale, and we’re gonna make sure it goes to theaters, and we’re gonna advertise it, and we’re gonna do press for it,” that is just heartening. I’m like, “Good, everyone is gonna see this thing that we all worked so hard on.” Nobody was doing it for the money. You really just do it for the joy of audiences seeing it.
Once you do sign a deal like that, that far surpasses anything you could have dreamed of, can you breathe a sigh of relief, or does it add a whole new layer of stress and pressure?
GANATRA: For me, it was a huge sigh of relief. When you’re making a movie, all you’re told is how risky it is because it’s a first-time film writer, it’s a woman of color who’s known for TV, and the other female lead is over the age of 50, and you’re talking about things that people might not want to hear about. In my mind, I’m always making a very commercial, interesting movie, but then, I zoomed out a little and realized that maybe it was a little risky, from the business point of view. When that happens, like when that sort of record-breaking sale happens, I was so incredibly excited because I knew what it meant was that other female-led movies and female-centric movies were gonna have an easier time getting financed. That means, next summer, I get a whole slew of awesome movies with female leads. All I really wanna do is go to the movies and see these stories. I knew it was going to perpetuate work for other women in the industry, and for other female-led movies. That was the big joy of it.
I know that, originally, Paul Feig had been in talks to direct this film.
GANATRA: Not just in talks, he was directing it.
I love his movies, and he’s told some great stories about women, but I have to say that I’m thrilled that it ended up being a female director at the helm. At what point in the process did you come to the project, and how did you end up being the one to step in?
GANATRA: I love Paul Feig’s movies, and I’ve always wanted to be the female Paul Feig. When I was reading the script, I was like, “Oh, my god, this is my story!” When do you ever get to read something that you didn’t write, that is so close to your experience and to your story? When I met Mindy, I said that. I think the two of us realized that we were in a unique position, where the two Indian American women working in comedy could collaborate together. It’s sadly radical, but the cool thing about it was that I didn’t have to explain anything to her, and she didn’t have to explain anything to me. There was no, “Well, this is what it’s like being Indian American, and this is how it’s been in my journey.” It was like, “Yeah, I get it. I’ve done that.” We both have this shared experience, so we could make this movie that didn’t really explain anything, but was just our experience. Artists are allowed to tell whatever story they want, and I hope we all have empathy, but it’s something unique and special, in this period of time, where female directors are so discriminated against, that to be given the opportunity to tell this story and to be able to work together, as two women of color, was so unique. I think the movie may have been more explainy in another person’s hands, and I love that it’s not. It’s just an entertaining, funny movie that takes on issues that are near and dear to my heart. I’ve always thought the best way to talk about these things is in comedy. The joy of it all is that you get to be entertaining and funny, and make sure that people are having a good time, but also talk about things like feminism, ageism, women in the workplace, diversity, inclusion, and sexism. All of that stuff is so important to me to talk about, but it’s in the guise of a comedy. If you look at what’s happening in our culture today, the comedians are the only ones with the fearlessness to talk about it. Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert are putting themselves out there and taking things on in a fearless way, saying what nobody else is saying, and what people might be too afraid to say. I just have so much respect and love for late night comedians.