Speaking before a capacity audience at the 2019 Produced By Conference Saturday, Mindy Kaling traded memories from the set of “Late Night” with director/producer Nancy Meyers, outlining the challenges faced by women in the industry, particularly those who want to make a comedy.
“I think there’s some that think that comedy is like the kiddie table,” Meyers said. “But the truth is…it’s hard to be funny.”
It can be even harder when making a comedy that runs against the popular trends for the genre. Kaling — whose career as both an actress and a writer began with NBC’s “The Office” — said she’s a fan of comedies from the ’80s and ’90s, which she described as movies “where people are professional and dress well and want something, but they’re funny about what they want.” That runs in contrast to the raunchier, more improvisational comedies of the 21st century, which Kaling says tend to involve “grown-ups who are acting younger than they actually are.”
In the case of “Late Night,” the indie nature of the production forced Kaling and her team to hew closer to the style that she wanted. With a smaller budget and a tighter production schedule, Kaling, her cast (including Emma Thompson), and director Nisha Ganatra had no time to experiment or improvise with the script.
“We only had 25 days to film, and I knew it could be difficult at times because we had guys in our cast like Reid Scott and Paul Walter Hauser that came from an improv background,” Kaling said. “But it gave me security because I trusted my own script.”
Such confidence was a plus when it came time to market the film. Meyers and Kaling said that when making a female-fronted comedy, studios tend to want to cut trailers that only feature the broadest comedy from the film. “If you show women crying or having an emotional moment, they think men aren’t going to go see it,” Meyers said.
But “Late Night” isn’t a broad comedy. It’s a more nuanced affair that explores the struggles of being a woman in the male-dominated world of late-night talk shows, whether it’s as a veteran host or a newcomer and woman of color to an all-white, all-male writers room that sees her as a token hire. Kaling said she worked closely with Amazon Studios’ marketing team to make sure that the social issues and comedic moments in the trailers were balanced out.
“It’s inherently such a political film because it stars a British woman who’s 59 and an Indian woman in her late 30s,” Kaling said. “And there’s all this talk about age gap and cultural barriers and people might think it’s like a docudrama. But I wanted people to know they’re not going to get preached at. It’s a hard comedy.”
“Late Night” is a hard comedy that, once upon a time, Kaling believes she might not have been able to do, even during the heyday of mature adult comedies that she enjoys so much.
“I’m not sure that someone like me would have been able to make a movie like ‘Late Night’ back then,” she said. “I think the reason why I had an opportunity is because people are being shamed into it by the current political climate and because they are smaller budget, and that can protect you. I think that all the horror stories you hear about filmmakers being in filmmaker jail is because they had these bigger budgets and longer shoots for films that didn’t work out.”
“Late Night” is in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles now, and hits theaters everywhere June 14.