Late Night: Director Nisha Ganatra Talks Emma Thompson’s Improv Skills and Portraying an Aspirational Writers Room

When Molly (Mindy Kaling) walks into the writer’s room on the first day of her new job at Tonight with Katherine Newbury, there are two chairs available and she’s not allowed to sit on either one of them.

Both chairs “belong” to physically absent but palpably present white male coworkers who are even later to the meeting than she is. The ever-plucky Molly improvises by strewing the contents of an office trash can all over the floor so she can flip it upside down and use it as a stool. It’s a scene that rings both funny and true, a balance that Late Night, a feel-good comedy that addresses issues of race and gender inequality in the workplace, manages to maintain throughout.

The spectacular Emma Thompson stars opposite Kaling as the acerbic late-night host Katherine Newbury, whose network head (Amy Ryan) is threatening to oust her for someone younger and not so stubbornly highbrow. Hired to fill a gender quota, Molly turns out to be the only writer on staff with the vision to turn the show’s ratings around—even if her naive honesty and total lack of experience threaten her already precarious position on multiple occasions.

Written by Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, whose credits range from the indie darling Chutney Popcorn (1999) to episodes of Girls and Transparent, the world of Late Night is an aspirational one: a female host is allowed to reign supreme for decades, hard work and talent yield concrete payoffs, and the writer’s room actually has windows.

Mindy Kaling in high spirits as Molly Patel as she walks the NYC streets in Late Night. Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Emma Myers, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): You come from a background directing scripted television and indie film. What drew you to Mindy’s script about trying to make it in the world of late-night TV?

Nisha Ganatra (NG): I started out making films, and television was a world I had been trying to get into for a really long time and was not allowed to be in. When I read Mindy’s script, I felt very much in line with Molly being an outsider dying to be on the inside. When I eventually started directing TV, it was still the same way: you’re still the only woman most of the time—or the only woman of color. [Mindy and I] both had that shared experience, and that experience informed the film. My background in indie film gave me the ability to shoot the movie in twenty-five days on a budget and get it done! [Laughs]. That was quite the challenge.

MM: The scene where Mindy first comes into the writer’s room and they won’t let her sit in either of the empty chairs is such a great literal example of the larger issue of exclusion in the entertainment industry the film is addressing. Was that a real anecdote?

NG: I believe that actually was a true anecdote from Mindy where they literally did not have a seat at the table for her so she had to sit on the floor. She didn’t sit on a trash can—she punched that up to make it funnier in the script, but yeah, she sat on the floor because they were being petulant and not giving her a seat. That was something she was not going let go from this movie.

MM: Screenwriters are quite famously excluded from the filmmaking process, or at least from the set. What was the workflow like having Mindy as both screenwriter and star on set?

NG: It’s tricky because film is definitely a director’s medium and television is more of a writer’s medium, and Mindy comes from television and I come from film, so our [practical] assumptions were a bit different. But we were in such agreement on the vision for the movie that there wasn’t any conflict. The reason people make movies is for the creative joy, and that joy comes from the fact that it’s an incredibly collaborative process. If you don’t allow that freedom of expression from everyone—from the writers, from the actors, from the cinematographer—then the movie is not going to come out that great because it’s only going to be as good as you see it. That’s ignoring the artistry of the amazing group of people around you.

Having Mindy on set was a huge asset because she is a great comedic mind and can punch up things in a minute. If anything wasn’t working we could shift it quickly. We also had the great Emma Thompson who is not only a comedic force and one of the finest actors of our time, she’s also an incredibly talented writer. When Emma comes in and says “well how about this or that,” it would be a shame to ignore that. My fun as a director was taking the best of everyone’s suggestions and putting them together.

MM: Emma Thompson is amazing in the film. I know it was written for her but she’s also an unconventional choice—another writer might have envisioned someone like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, or Kristen Wiig. In other words, someone more strongly associated with the title “comedian,” at least for an American audience.

NG: I never really thought of those, but you’re right. I’ve also always thought of Emma as such an incredible comedian and lots of people don’t know that she started in comedy. She finds comedy in whatever role she’s playing, but she actually started in an improv troupe in college and was a stand-up comedian when she was younger, which I didn’t know. The clip in the movie of her doing stand-up is actually Emma when she was 23. It’s just such a joy to remind audiences that she’s a comedic force. Putting her together with Mindy and watching their two different styles of comedy come together was just such a pleasure.

Nisha Ganatra directs Emma Thompson on the set of Late Night.

MM: Was she writing her own jokes or monologues for the show?

NG: A lot of what made it into the movie is Emma; she has such good instincts. One of my favorite jokes in the movie is the scene where she comes back and calls all the writers by their names after calling them by numbers. Her instinct was, “I don’t want to be in this scene and have it be so serious and then have the next scene be me crying with John Lithgow.” Our DP suggested the idea, what if she can’t remember one person’s name and they’re still a number. And she was like “yeah that’s great.” She took that brilliant pause and said “six” and we all died laughing. She can deliver any joke but that’s part of the problem; you can’t tell which jokes are good and which are bad when she’s delivering them all so well. We had to start different criteria for judging: what’s good vs. what’s right? All the takes are brilliant, but which one is going to tell the story best?  

MM: What were some of your filmic influences for the tone and look of the film? You’ve talked in past interviews about Working Girl and Tootsie.

NG: Mindy gave me the script and said, “I want it to be real, because I don’t want writers picking us apart; it’s important that this community of Hollywood writers take the movie as authentic.” But all the writer’s rooms I saw were these closed off spaces like casinos, and nobody knows what time it is and no one can see out the windows, and you just stay there for hours and work really hard. And I was like, oh God, a lot of the movie takes place in the writer’s room and I really don’t want to be in a four-walled space that I can’t see out of because that would be visually very ugly. There was one writer’s room [we saw at Late Night with] Seth Myers that had a little more humanity to it. I also thought that if we don’t know what the writers are being cut off from, then we don’t understand that they’re sequestered. I looked for a space that had windows on three walls so the writers could be stuck in this room but you could see day turning into night and really understand what their lives are like.

I said to Mindy we’re going to us All the President’s Men as an example. We know all journalists aren’t Robert Redford, but that’s the aspirational version of a journalist. I wanted everyone to watch our movie and think “I hope I can be a writer.” It’s the difference between two great movies: All the President’s Men and Spotlight. When I watch All the President’s Men, I think, “I want to be a journalist!” when I watch Spotlight I’m like, “Thank God these guys are doing the important work, but I never want to work in that office!” [laughs]. We went for the version that would encourage a generation of women to become writers.

Mindy Kaling (L) and Emma Thompson (R) pose as writer Molly Patel and host Katherine Newbury in Late Night.

MM: I love that while there’s a romantic subplot for Mindy, the main romance in the film is really is between her and Emma Thompson. The scene where Emma treks to her apartment in Brooklyn is very much structured like a traditional scene in a rom-com—she’s tripping on toys climbing the stairs to make this grand gesture, and Mindy puts the words into her mouth and says “you love me.” Can you talk about filming that scene and using/subverting those rom-com tropes to make it work for these two characters?

NG: In terms of filmic references, I was definitely drawing from Mike Nichols movies and Working Girl. It was important to shoot it in a cinematic way, which comedies often get this bad reputation for not doing. That line “you love me” was actually an improv that Mindy did, because she felt that the scene was written a bit too conventionally. That was one of the rare days that I cross covered both actresses at the same time so they could just improvise and be edited together. In the middle of the scene Emma just improvised “is this filtered?” and it made us all die laughing. The other great improv that Mindy did in that scene was the whole speech about “if I come back and work for you… it won’t be this, that, and the other, and could you smile.” Of course, Emma took that as a chance to do her most awkward smile ever. One of my favorite moments is when she’s leaving and you think she’s going to say something like “good job, Molly,” or “I really do love you.” But she just says “God, I hate Brooklyn” [laughs]. It’s so fantastic. Her character won’t ever give, even when she’s in that situation.

MM: How do you make sure the gender and racial politics throughout are both funny and true? One scene that springs to mind is when Reid Scott is on the phone while ordering shawarma and complaining that “it’s a hostile environment for white men.” 

NG: That scene was actually written at an ATM—as it turns out, you can’t shoot at an ATM, it’s incredibly expensive and difficult. We wanted to shoot a few things outside the office. I took it to a food truck because it would be funny if he was complaining about being oppressed as a privileged white male while literally, this immigrant is busting his ass to make him a sandwich [laughs]. It was a fun twist on the “immigrants are taking our jobs” narrative.

MM: I love Molly’s response to his speculation that she’s a single mom: “I’m not a single mom, I just dress like one!”

NG: [Laughs] Yeah that was a little rough because [Mindy and I] are both single moms. So that hit us both, we just took ourselves down [laughs]. MM

Late Night opened in theaters June 7, 2019, courtesy of Amazon Studios. All images courtesy of Amazon Studios. 

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