‘The High Note’ Director on How to Tell an Authentic Story

Director Nisha Ganatra spills the secrets of her feel-good dramedy

The High Note, a star-studded film featuring Tracee Ellis Ross as a boss lady/knows-her-value R&B diva trying to find another hit, was supposed to open in movie theaters this May. In the jargon of the industry, it was a “summer tentpole,” one of those big, showy flicks that marks the entrance of both warm weather and prime movie attendance.

It’s a bold, beautiful film full of original music sung by Ross, flanked by Ice Cube and bolstered by Dakota Johnson, among others. And it’s history making as the first feature film of Ross’ career and the first time we get to hear this daughter of a real diva sing, or, more properly, sang.

Then Covid-19 came, movie theaters temporarily closed, and Focus Features decided to release the film to at-home viewership, where it can be found streaming on a device near you. Yet, to us, it’s still a summer tentpole, especially given that Ross—as superdiva Grace—shines with confidence and perfect comedic timing. And Fanning low-key sparkles as Grace’s “yes, ma’am, right now” assistant, Maggie, who has the job we all wished we once had. Diplo also stars.

Some people compare The High Note to the love-hate-love relationship between boss and assistant portrayed by Glenn Close and Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. But this film is more than that; it showcases a Black woman superdiva who isn’t crazy, who is genuinely funny, and who tells stark truths about the industry for women over the age of 40.

It’s also not a White savior film. Director Nisha Ganatra made sure of that. As an Indian American, the award-winning director of last year’s smash hit Late Night (featuring Mindy Kaling) knows all about the delicate balance of telling a story featuring people of different races. She worked hard to ensure that The High Note is a music nerd-out film about a supergeek and the woman she worships.

Here’s what else Ganatra has to say.

ZORA: The film is super diverse. Did it start out that way or become that way during the casting process?

Nisha Ganatra: Grace was always Black, and Maggie was always White. We had a lot of talk in the beginning about making sure this wasn’t going to be a White savior movie. Katie wasn’t written as any ethnicity, and Zoe Chao came in and was so incredible that she got that part. The one character written as a White Jewish older guy manager was the part I cast Ice Cube to play, because I felt like I’d already seen that [White] manager played in a bunch of movies. More interesting if I had a Black manager telling a Black star to “play it safe.” To me, that said everything without saying it.

How did you convince Ross to sing?

She’s never been in a movie before and never sang before. I didn’t convince her to sing. She actually allowed herself to sing. I think she was hiding it for a long time, intimidated about being in the shadow of her mom. The songs we picked and the music really encouraged her to sing. By the end, we couldn’t get her to stop singing. Now she’s on IG Live singing!

Ice Cube is really funny.

He brought this 30 years of experience and [knowledge of] a lot of those shady-ass managers he was exposed to; [he was] giving it to some people he’s been wanting to give it to. Having Ice Cube in the movie, with his legendary music icon status, helped give the movie an authenticity it wouldn’t have had without him. Even Tracee, being the daughter of Diana Ross, grounded it.

What makes your film different?

I didn’t want it to be the typical nightmare boss and put-upon assistant. Because it was a Black boss and a White assistant, I had to make sure it was more nuanced. It [could’ve] fallen into those tired tropes. Tracee and I, in our first meeting, we talked about that: “Let’s make sure we don’t go wrong.”

You’ve had an extensive career in an industry that has a complicated relationship with Brown people. How do you manage telling our authentic stories?

I think tapping into the story that we all share as a larger community together — being underrepresented, that includes women, the LGBTA+ community, people of color, all ethnicities — the largest theme of underrepresentation is a lack of inclusion. [It’s] something we all share in common. It is a really tricky time. I understand and empathize with the notion that stories about certain communities should only be told by people of that community, which is because we’ve been oppressed for so long. That I understand. But then I can only tell stories about the Indian community, and I don’t want to be oppressed as an artist. If you have empathy, you can tell the story you want to tell. [The question is] can you tell that story, and if you can’t, then you need to step down.

I heard that, like Beyoncé and her band, you hire a lot of women on your films.

I’m part of the group Women in Film, which supports the “reframe stamp,” a stamp that goes on movies that have gender parity in front of and behind the camera, and I’m happy Late Night had a reframe stamp. Before there was a reframe stamp, I worked toward parity. I’ve always strived for gender parity on the crew. As much as representation on camera has been slacking, behind the camera has to be addressed, too.

I’m sorry you missed having your red carpet premiere night for the film. It would have been fabulous!

It’s a little sad, but it’s more important that everybody stay safe and healthy. I was sort of looking forward to it—it’s my first studio film; it’s gonna be in all the theaters and have a proper premiere. I’ve done independent films, [and for] this one, I was like, “It’s gonna be at the mall! It’s gonna be everywhere!” Now it’s like, right, it’s gonna be in everyone’s home. The person I feel the most sad for is Tracee, because it’s her big film debut. We started so gloriously in this wide-screen format, and it’s supposed to blow you away on the big screen. Hopefully, when we return to normalcy, we can see it on the big screen.

Director, Multicultural @Medium. Focusing on ZORA, Momentum, Level and bolstering creators of color. All ideas welcome. And yes, I’ll still be writing.

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