“Late Night” director Nisha Ganatra chats with YouTube star turned real-life late night host Lilly Singh
Story By Christina Campodonico | Photo courtesy of Film Independent
Golden Globe-winning film and TV director Nisha Ganatra intimately knows how fickle the wheel of Hollywood fortune can be. After the success of her first feature film “Chutney Popcorn” at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2000, she thought her career would take off in many new directions, but could barely make the trek back home to her apartment upon returning from the festival.
“They send this Mercedes to pick you up and drive you around and you win this award and you’re getting free drinks and all that,” recalled Ganatra of the way she was feted in Berlin, “and then you literally fly back to Brooklyn … and you’re like, ‘I can’t afford the taxi from the airport to my apartment.’”
Ganatra, who directs the new film “Late Night” starring Oscar winner Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling (the mastermind of “The Mindy Project” and screenwriter/producer behind “Late Night”), shared honest tidbits like this during the Film Independent Forum, held at LMU’s Playa Vista campus on Saturday, April 27, and Sunday, April 28.
At the time, “Late Night,” which opened in Los Angeles June 7, had already gained buzz for its $13 million sale to Amazon Studios at Sundance, but Ganatra seemed even more proud of the fact that her collab with Kaling — itself an unlikely-to-get-made comedy about the mentorship between an older female late-night comic (Thompson) and a young-and-hungry diversity hire writer (Kaling)—carried a ReFrame Stamp of approval. (That means that at least four out of eight key areas of production were helmed by female-identifying people.)
“It really takes on the idea that who’s telling the story is as important as what stories you do,” she told YouTube star Lilly Singh, who moderated. “It does matter who’s doing your makeup, who’s recording your sound, who’s deciding where the camera goes. … All of that matters … That makes me proud of the ReFrame Stamp.”
Uplifting female voices in Hollywood was a theme throughout their discussion—from the comedic and playful Singh encouraging the humble Ganatra, who’s made a point of placing female creatives in key behind-the-scenes positions since her first film,
to talk about her elite and unlikely film education (studying cinema with Spike Lee at NYU; before that sneaking into film classes) to serious fan-girling between the two media-makers, both of Indian descent.
“You were saying, ‘Who inspires you?’ And I didn’t want to be cheesy, but you,” Ganatra told Singh.
“Oh my god, stop it,” replied Singh, who has over 14 million YouTube subscribers.
“Honestly, I would not wake up this early on a Saturday for anyone else,” Singh gushed at the top of the Q&A.
Each trailblazers in their own right—Singh is slated to become the only female late-night host on one of the Big Four networks when she steps into Carson Daly’s slot on NBC later this year; Ganatra’s “Chutney Popcorn,” about a gay Indian-American woman, made waves in the ’90s — the two female creatives talked frankly about the pressures and obstacles of being queer women of color in a white- and male-dominated industry.
“If I failed at directing an episode [of TV], it was going to close the door for a lot of women behind me,” Ganatra confessed, adding later: “I look back and I’m like, ‘Was it smart to make my first indie film about an Indian-American family with a gay main character? Probably not. I probably could have had an easier, faster road if I hadn’t done that, but I didn’t think about it. … The whole reason I became a filmmaker was to represent people and stories that I wasn’t seeing.”
Even after directing episodes of “Mr. Robot,” “Transparent” and “Girls,” and now a major motion picture, Ganatra confessed she still feels a little bit of what she describes as “Cinderella syndrome.”
“I always feel like the clock is going to strike,” she said. “Every time I drive up to Universal and I give them my I.D. and they lift up the gate, I go, ‘Oh my god, they let me in!’ Like, every day. … I don’t know if anyone feels like they’re ‘in,’ finally.”
But if Ganatra has one Cinderella moment, it might be from directing “Late Night.” On a tight indie budget at the time, she went to her alma mater to secure rehearsal space for two of her movie’s biggest stars.
“In the room where I took my very first class on how to make films, I come back fifteen years later with Emma Thompson and John Lithgow, having rehearsal in the same room,” she recalled. “And that was mind-blowing.
“There was this moment when I realized how everything happened when it was supposed to happen,” she said later on. “I have this rare moment where I get to do the art I always dreamed of doing and that’s all you can hope for. … And for that I feel successful and so thankful.”
“Late Night” screens this June at HHLA’s Cinemark 18 & XD, 6081 Center Drive, Westchester. Visit cinemark.com for showtimes and tickets.