It's a rare film that confronts hot-button issues — from tokenism to gendered double standards — while being engaging and fun to watch.

By Naveen Kumar
Updated: Jun 07, 2019 @ 2:07 pm
Amazon Studios

Director Nisha Ganatra already had three feature films under her belt when she faced trouble landing gigs in television. A Golden Globe win and Emmy nomination for Transparent led to a slew of work in both prestige and popular series, and finally Late Night, a Sundance breakout that landed a record-setting deal at this year’s festival and opens in theaters June 7.

Its story isn’t all that far from Ganatra’s own. Mindy Kaling wrote and stars in the sharp and hilarious workplace comedy about an Indian-American woman who lands a job in the all-white-male writers’ room of a late-night talk show. Emma Thompson plays its host, an imperious and silver-haired no-bullshit boss cut from the mold of Miranda Priestley, equipped with the kind of armor and tunnel vision one might expect from the only woman in her position.

Ganatra didn’t arrive in Hollywood from working in a chemical plant, as Kaling’s character Molly does in the film (she studied at NYU film school). But the Canadian-born director certainly knows what it’s like to be the only person on set who looks like her. Late Night is a rare and refreshing film that confronts hot-button issues facing more than just the entertainment industry — including tokenism and gendered double standards — while also managing to be a buoyant, engaging comedy.

“It was first and foremost important that it be funny and entertaining,” the director tells InStyle over the phone from L.A., en route to the set of her next film. We spoke to Ganatra about the personal perspective she brought to the project, Hollywood’s slow but sure progress toward inclusivity, and why adding more voices elevates the conversation for everyone.

There’s a lot of talk in Hollywood right now about bringing in artists who’ve lived a certain experience to craft that narrative onscreen. As an Indian-American woman who works in TV and film, do you feel you brought something to this story another director may not have?

“It's such a tricky thing to think and talk about, because we want to believe that artists can tell whatever story they want, that we all have empathy. But stories have been told by the same small group of people for so long that it feels like it's time to make room for more voices.

“Mindy and I didn't have to explain our journey to each other. Because we were both Indian-American women working in comedy with similar experiences, we had a starting off point that was further down the road, and then just naturally [the movie] never goes to a place where it feels like we’re explaining [Molly’s position]. A person who didn't have the same experience would have felt the need to make it, quote, relatable. Jill Solloway says, whenever you hear somebody say, ‘What's our way in?’ It's basically them saying, ‘Well, how are white people and white men going to get into this?’ Mindy and I just never really thought about that, because it wasn't on our minds. We were just like, ‘Well, clearly, this is Molly and her journey.’

How do you negotiate feeling like there are stories you’re uniquely positioned to tell, say about queer or POC experience, and not wanting to be pigeonholed into only telling those types of stories?

“That is the other side of that equation, right? If I'm going to say, ‘I'm the only one that should tell these stories,’ then the other side is, ‘You don’t get to tell any stories but your own.’ So that's a difficult position to take. But to me, I am incredibly interested in telling POC and queer stories, so it wouldn't feel like a pigeonhole it would feel like success to be able to tell these stories over and over in different ways and means.”

South Asians seem to have reached new heights in Hollywood, particularly in comedy. Do you have any theories as to why now?

“I'm so curious about that, too. I remember in the beginning when I was looking for South Asian filmmakers in America, and they were all women, like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. That was unexpected. My one theory is that the second generation have it easier, like they're not being forced to be doctors and lawyers and engineers. I used to feel like I knew every single Indian American in our industry, and now there's no way I can keep up with all of them.

“Part of the reason I think I got to break away was because I came out. It was like, now the door is wide open and I can pursue anything, because I'm already not going to meet any of these expectations that are being placed on me.”

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You’re a mentor in NBC’s “Female Forward” initiative, and Universal, which is producing your next film Covers, pledged to join the Time’s Up 4% challenge and hire more female directors. How do you think these initiatives are going so far?

“I'm pretty heartened that they seem to be working. It's so heartbreaking when you see the statistics every year of institutionalized discrimination against female directors. We all felt it, anecdotally, but then you get these stats from the Department of Justice, and [you realize] this is systematic discrimination; no wonder we can't get in.

“I'm super invested in making sure that these programs don't just expose women to things that most of them already know, but actually help them close that circle and land the job. A lot of the success I see outside of [Female Forward] is really anecdotal as well, and every year the statistics go down, like it’s getting worse. We needed these challenges and the Time's Up promises to incentivize people to do not just the right thing, but what's better for their business. We actually have reports showing that diversity and inclusion makes for a more successful business.”

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Do you find that holds true creatively as well?

“As a director, the more inclusive my crew is, and my heads of department are, the more points of view I get, and the richer the experience and the richer the final film. That's one of the messages I was hoping to get across in Late Night. To think that diversity and inclusion only benefits the person it's seeming to benefit is a myth — it actually benefits everyone, and it raises everyone up together.

Late Night is also about that generation of women [who were] the first ones to get in. I think a lot of them bought into this myth that there was only room at the table for one person, that hiring women was a sort of zero-sum game. 'If I got in, I better close that door behind me because any other woman coming in is going to replace me.' The movie also shows it’s not just that we can be each other's biggest champions, but that there was always room at the table for everyone.

“One benefit of this sudden cultural awareness of the lack of diversity and female voices is you can say the things you never could before. Like I can say, ‘There are no women here, this is fucked up!’ And everyone will be like, ‘Oh, shit, we better get on that.’ Where before I’d just walk in the room and feel like, ‘Oh my god, I'm the only woman here,’ and just quietly keep it to myself the way Molly has to. Hopefully [Late Night] will seem like science-fiction in a couple years, where this girl walks into this room and it's all white guys.”

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