About The Production
Much like the character Katherine Newberry in Late Show, actor, writer and
Mindy Kaling is an entertainment industry pioneer, breaking down barriers by
becoming the first
woman and first person of color to write for the hit sitcom "The Office," then
creating and starring
in her own show, "The Mindy Project," and penning two best-selling books. Now,
dynamo, who has emerged as one of the most original comic voices of her
channeled her own career experiences into her first feature screenplay, which
takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of television comedy.
As a college intern, Kaling got an up-close-and-personal view of late-night
comedy on "Late
Night With Conan O'Brien." She decided this male-dominated world would be a
for a film, with one important "what if." Her protagonist, Katherine Newberry,
is a woman who has
long been at the top of the entertainment world heap, but whose star is fading
"So much of television, in particular late night, is about exceptionalism,"
says Kaling. "Sadly,
there hasn't been a female late-night talk show host on any big network since
Joan Rivers' show in
the 1980s, which lasted less than a year. During award seasons I can't help but
notice how few
women there are even on any of their staffs. In our story, Katherine was able to
rise up through the
ranks and become the exception to the rule."
Kaling is herself the exception to many television rules that she believes
are ripe for change.
"Women are socialized to believe there can only be one in a work environment,
Hollywood," she says. "It breeds a lot of competition. When it's the norm for
only one woman to
be hired, you feel like you're fighting for that one spot and so you can't
support other women."
She imagined a female stand-up whose blazing intellect, unstoppable energy
humor would provide young women interested in comedy with a role model. As it
happens, her own
personal hero, Academy Award-winning actress and writer Emma Thompson, began
a sketch comedian and quickly segued into what she has called "militant
feminist" stand-up comedy.
Before becoming a world-renowned dramatic actress, she hosted a comedy-variety
in the U.K. Knowing Thompson would be perfect for the role, Kaling tailored it
specifically for her.
"When I pictured this character, I always saw Emma playing her," she says.
"She has been
such an enormous influence on me. I think of it almost as a love story between
two women of
different generations who have the same passions: comedy and television, two
venues that have not
been very kind to women, and both characters are a bit like me. Molly is like me
at the beginning of
my career - eager, hopeful and trying not to show how intimidated she is. As I
have gotten more
successful, I identify as Katherine, someone who has worked super hard to get
where she is."
Kaling took her idea to producer Howard Klein, the Emmy-winning co-founder of
management and production company 3 Arts Entertainment, who served as an
on "The Office" and "The Mindy Project" as well as numerous other hit series.
"She pitched me the
idea, and I thought, this is fantastic, it's a comedy that has poignant moments,
and great character stories," he recalls. "As it entertains you, it reveals a
lot about the late-night
world, which is a huge part of American popular culture. But people don't know a
lot about the
backroom stuff. What makes it truly special is that the movie includes a lot of
things that Mindy has
30WEST and its sister company Imperative Entertainment also signed on to Late
immediately. Imperative's Jillian Apfelbaum said "I was convinced that we needed
to be a part of it," she
remembers. "The writing is some of the best I've ever read, and the characters
of Molly and
Katherine are particularly well-drawn. Mindy is incredibly talented. Her sense
of humor has been on
full display in her previous work, but this script delves into observations
about comedy and
womanhood and competition. It's very sophisticated and really nuanced. It's the
kind of movie I will
watch with my mom, with my family and with my friends and really enjoy. There's
so much darkness
in the world right now, so it's great to see something so uplifting."
'I Am Molly'
Kaling and Klein knew it would be essential to find a talented director who
had a personal
connection to the story. They immediately thought of Nisha Ganatra, a feature
director whose numerous credits include "Better Things," "Transparent" (for
which she received an
Emmy nomination) and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," as well as "The Mindy Project." An
IndianAmerican born in Vancouver but raised in California, and one of the rare
female television directors,
Ganatra brought unique insights into Molly's situation. "We felt she had the
experience to tell this story like no one else could," Klein says. "Her approach
to the script was
really smart, so with her attached we were off to the races."
Ganatra says her first reaction to the script was: "I am Molly." The
struggles the character
faces mirror a lot of the challenges Ganatra has met in the television and film
world. "Mindy had
written this hilarious, amazing script that is very much her own personal story
about starting out as
an American woman of Indian descent on a television writing staff," says the
director. "It really is an
ode to hard work and she brought a lot of her life to it. Becoming a director
wasn't a path I thought
would ever be open to me as an Indian-American woman."
"Seeing Molly subvert the system through sheer chutzpah was inspiring and
Ganatra. "To even have a shot at a job like that is fantasy fulfillment for me
and a lot of people, as is
the idea of Katherine as a late-night television host."
She and Kaling both recognize the irony that a film exploring the positive
diversity in the workplace required hiring a mostly male, white cast. "I always
want to work with a
diverse cast, but that is not the reality in the world we are portraying," the
director points out. "The
whole point is the lack of diversity, so necessarily the cast is not going to be
that diverse. That was a
tough thing to get my mind around. But unfortunately, it's accurate. I often
find I'm the only
woman of color on a set."
The Smartest Person in the Room
Katherine Newberry's wit and tongue are both razor-sharp, and years in a
have given her the reflexes of a battle-hardened general. As played by Emma
Thompson, she is used
to being the smartest person in the room and sees no reason to hide it. "Emma
takes her from the
brink of making you hate her to making your heart break for her, and then she
makes you laugh,"
says Ganatra. "Whether it's her completely unexpected, brilliant improvs or just
the look on her
face, she inherently knows what's funny. Emma brings everything you could ever
wish for as a
director, and when you meet her you think, 'How can I be like her when I grow
She may be best known for her dramatic acting, but she honed her comedy
Cambridge University's acclaimed theater club, Footlights, which boasts an
alumni network that
includes several members of Monty Python, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, John
Oliver, Peter Cook
and, yes, even the Prince of Wales. She helped put together the group's first
comedy revue before launching herself as a stand-up.
Like Kaling, Thompson is a writer as well as an actor and is famously the
only person ever to
receive Oscars for both, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and
Sensibility and Best Actress
for Howards End. "Emma Thompson is my favorite living actor," says Kaling.
"She's one of the rare
movie stars who can be hilarious but is also incredible at drama. For this role,
she had to do both. I
had my agents send it to her and she wrote back saying, 'We have to make this
Katherine shares with Thompson a past that included Cambridge and a stint as
comedian, but from there she landed a coveted job as an American talk-show host.
But after nearly
three decades she has become complacent. "She's intellectually superior, a bit
snobby and she really
doesn't understand why the ratings are slipping," Thompson explains. "In some
ways she doesn't
care. She's come to take her audience for granted. But things start to happen
that wake her up, and
Mindy's character becomes the catalyst for changes."
Kaling has written her a dream role, Thompson says. "I was astonished and
she had written it with me in mind. The quality of the script is extraordinary.
When people say
they've written something for you, it can be touch and go, but her comic take,
her timing, the
cadences in her writing are just beautiful for all the characters."
Thompson believes the film accurately conveys women's standing in the world
Pointing to the examples of brilliant comediennes like Victoria Wood, French and
Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Rita Rudner, Tina Fey and more, Thompson says she has
understanding why she still hears people says women aren't funny. "Stand-up is
very much a male
bastion," she observes. "The actual form of it is extremely masculine - come on,
tell those jokes,
talk about your dick a lot. Female comedy's very different. It's often circular,
with little laughs in
between. But Katherine grew in this very male world and swallowed it whole. Then
woman says: Your show has become completely irrelevant, you're getting old and
you're white. So
what are you going to do about that? Molly modernizes Katherine, but in a very
ironic way, which
makes it very attractive."
Working with Kaling has been a joy, she adds. "Mindy's smart and sharp and
fast. She can
punch up scenes in the moment. I hope we'll be able to work together again. I
mean, that's the best
thing you can say, that you want to carry on working with someone because they
are so inspiring and
original. She's such an important voice in our world."
Though she was initially unfamiliar with Ganatra's work, Thompson was quickly
by the director. "Nisha is quite unexpected," says Thompson. "She's extremely
funny and sharp
herself. Her work on 'Transparent' is well-known, but she's also done three
features. She's worked
hard to make her mark. She's always able to add something funnier to a scene,
and she's marvelous
at editing the acting. Her direction is very subtle and very true."
A Different Side of Mindy
Molly Patel is a big dreamer who grew up obsessed with "Tonight With
Newberry" in general and with Katherine in particular, but from her suburban
home in central
Pennsylvania it all seemed so far out of reach. And with little experience as a
stand-up and none in
television writing, it still does. "Molly is an underdog," says Kaling. "I have
felt like one since I was a
child and I had a big chip on my shoulder. I just made Molly a more comically
skewed version of a
Kaling confesses she too was fixated on late-night television growing up,
Night Live," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and David Letterman endlessly. "For
me, there was
such mystery in how they put those shows together," she says. "I thought that to
write for a show
like that must be the best job in the whole world. In some ways, the film
mirrors my path. In this
work environment, Molly is made to feel she is a token, and I have sometimes
felt that I represent all
That said, it wasn't her intention to make Molly a "perfect" character whose
always unfair. In fact, Molly's inability to take no for an answer, understand
boundaries and listen
before she speaks are a frequent source of uncomfortable laughter. "She makes a
ton of mistakes,"
says Kaling. "She has this infuriating quality that a lot of young people have.
When she starts,
instead of doing the hard work of writing, she does an analysis of what's wrong
with the show. My
advice to Molly - and to anyone trying to get started in this business - would
be to spend her time
producing good material."
Her portrayal of Molly shows off a different side of Kaling, according to
she is still wry and ready with a quip, the actress had to draw on some painful
moments in her past.
"This is a deep, soulful performance in places," the director says. "We talked a
lot about her life
before she 'made it,' before she wrote her books. Before she was Mindy from 'The
she was just a young woman struggling and wanting so badly to be a part of the
world of comedy
and not seeing any way in."
Funny Because It's True
The filmmakers soon discovered that when you have Thompson and Kaling as your
headliners, you can assemble a cast that includes Oscar, Tony, and Emmy
"Rounding out the cast was surprisingly easy," says Kaling. "This is not a movie
that people did for
the paycheck. It's an indie movie with a limited budget, but fortunately some
amazing actors wanted
to be involved. We have John Lithgow and Amy Ryan!"
Lithgow plays Walter Laval, a retired manager of A-list comedians, who has
been married to
Katherine since before she landed "Tonight." Now suffering from Parkinson's, he
is still Katherine's
rock, the only person she really trusts. "It's a wonderful portrait of a long,
successful marriage," says
the actor. "Katherine is a piece of work and certainly a bit of a dictator, but
when she's with Walter,
she's a completely different person. My role in the film is to give her a
relationship that reveals a
different side of her character. That really drew me to the role. This is
absolutely a comedy script,
but it shows that comedy is serious business. That's a very tricky thing to
With her career slowly sinking and no idea how to turn things around,
become frustrated and angry. "She has a tremendous talent that she's neglected,"
"Walter challenges her by saying, 'Sure you can give up. You're not very good
right now anyway. Or
you can fight back and get good again.' And that is what she counts on him for."
Lithgow brought real pathos and weight to his scenes, says Ganatra. "Watching
Emma during some really intimate moments was very emotional," she reveals. "I
was crying; the
crew was watching as if it was a play and crying. We were all so moved by the
raw emotion they
found. It was beautiful to witness."
Even off camera, Late Night reflected the chaotic, anarchic energy of comedy,
Lithgow. "The actors who play the guys in the writers' room have terrific improv
kept their juices going between scenes with a ridiculous game where you hold a
card on your
forehead and try to guess what it says based on what everybody is yelling at
you. It's a madhouse and
a great glimpse backstage at the making of comedy."
Katherine's nemesis, network executive Caroline, played by Amy Ryan, is the
with the power to face her down - which she does with a fierce glee. Caroline is
ready to cut
Katherine loose, and Ryan's scenes with Thompson are some of the most intense in
"Caroline gives Katherine a hard time, but she deserves it," says Ryan. "She has
the talent to
be extraordinary, but she's not doing anything like her best work, and it's
frustrating. Katherine has
been given this golden chance and she's just coasting. It may come across as all
those terrible words
that we use for women in power - bossy, bitchy, controlling - but it's really
that she cares so
Ryan knows Kaling from their days together on "The Office" and has watched
talent evolve. "If I could sum up the way Mindy writes... I'd be as talented as
Mindy," she says. "It's
a magnificent script, but her mind was still working on set. She'd whisper an
alternative line to you
and somehow, the scene changed. She's very facile and she doesn't rest on her
laurels. With this
film, she is holding up a great big glaring mirror at us all. We save our ladies
for daytime TV and I'm
not sure why."
With a brief 25-day shooting schedule, Ryan was gratified to find that
Ganatra still took the
time to help the actors develop nuanced characters. "Sure, Caroline calls all
the shots," observes the
actress, "but she can still feel a little vulnerable or offended. And that
reveals something new about
Caroline is holding the threat of a younger, hungrier successor over
Katherine's head, the
kind of comedian who plays giant arenas and has an avid social media following.
who was one of the stars as well as a writer on "The Mindy Project," plays
Daniel Tennant, a
cocksure funnyman who is more than willing to shock. "His material's a little
Barinholtz. "And he is beginning to usurp Katherine, slowly take over her show,
and turn it into
'The Daniel Tennant Show.'"
The actor first read the screenplay while he was still shooting "The Mindy
admits it made him just a bit jealous. "It's such a good script! She came up
with a fascinating world
and two great anchor characters. The minute I read it, I knew it was going to
Kaling's willingness to go to the mat for a laugh makes her one of the
funniest people he has
ever met, Barinholtz says. Whether it is getting a bag of garbage thrown in her
face or falling down a
flight of stairs, she never hesitates to go for it or to ask someone else to.
"And she has spent enough
time in writers' rooms to recognize the different archetypes of comedy writers.
There's the super shy
guy who has a hard time even getting words out, the alpha guy who's way too sure
of himself, and
then the bitter, surly guy who's really just holding on to his job. They are all
in our writers' room and
she nailed those types."
Roomful of Comics
When Ganatra and Kaling sat down together to brainstorm their fantasy cast,
their dream list
included Denis O'Hare, John Early, Paul Walter Hauser, Reid Scott and Hugh Dancy
- all of whom
said yes. "Everybody brought their A game," says Ganatra. "We asked them to do
some improv in
the room and we had a frenzy of comedy to choose from. A lot of my job was just
trying to quiet
some of it down. You have so many choices when you have such a talented cast
that you have some
hard choices in the editing bay.
"For example, I have been a fan of Denis O'Hare for a really long time," she
"That guy can do anything from the most frightening characters to the most
hilarious comedy beats.
He's a fantastic foil for Emma."
As Brad, Katherine's executive producer, three-time Emmy nominee O'Hare is
between the insecure writers and the aloof host. Katherine, in fact, has never
visited the writers'
room. "If she had her druthers," O'Hare says, "she'd keep them in a small cell
them occasionally and get the output when she needed it."
Brad, who used to be a writer himself, has one foot in both camps. "But in a
nauseating way," says O'Hare. "Now he's just Katherine's tastemaker, trying to
figure out what she's
going to like and hoping he doesn't get it wrong. I like to play characters who
face some kind of
massive obstacle - like pleasing Katherine. He's not given the authority to
really decide, and yet he's
expected to make all the decisions. It's a really uncomfortable position."
Thompson was front and center during the writers' room improvs, he says. "We
to improv a lot in those scenes, especially at the beginning and end of scenes,
and everybody in there
is funny in a different way. One person is more verbal, one person is wackier,
but everyone's got
their own little corner. Emma is such a good actor that I often had to ask, are
you Emma or
Katherine right now?"
Hauser, whose recent appearances in the Oscar-nominated films I, Tonya and
have brought him new celebrity, plays Eugene Mancuso, a writer he describes as
"always ready to
play ball." "Every writer has a unique identity," he explains. "Eugene is
extremely malleable. He just
doesn't want to lose his job. He will pitch four terrible things, and then on
his fifth swing, he'll get
the really good idea."
Late Night, for all its topicality and insight into the rough-and-tumble
world of late-night
television, is a sweet film at heart, Hauser believes, one that he plans to take
his mother and siblings
to see. "It is a legitimate dream-come-true scenario," he says. "Comedy can be
so thoughtless and
kind of dumb, but this is smart and sincere. Even when the characters are at
their worst, they are still
endearing. And it's a great tribute to women in comedy. Audiences will be
reminded of how talented
Emma and Mindy and Nisha are, and by extension so many women who came before
As Tom Campbell, head monologue writer of the show, Scott embodies the
entitlement of some men in the comedy world. His father was one of the original
writers of the
show and he considers the job his birthright. "He's a Harvard-educated, entitled
prick who feels like
Molly just came in off the street and got this really coveted job, which he
wanted to go to his
brother," Scott says. "He likes his little boys' club, and here comes this woman
who has a brain and
some great jokes. He starts to feel threatened by that. I've worked in comedy
for a long time, and
Mindy really got the dialogue and the way these guys behave down."
Scott looked forward to the big group scenes, where the zingers flew and the
clicked. "Thankfully Nisha's got a very calm, steady hand," he says. "You want a
captain with a cool
head in that situation. The script is so well-crafted that you don't want to
mess it up, but she was
great at recognizing moments where she could let us go. She got us all to do
some theater games,
which I thought was a gag, but no, we did theater games and it was fun. It
helped us get the
chemistry right out of the box."
Early impressed the filmmakers with his stand-up skills and his ability to
push a bit as far as
it will go and no farther. As Chris Reynolds, he is the only gay writer in the
room, a role Early says
he has become used to. "There's a power that comes with that," he says. "When I
was in high
school the only way I could find any agency whatsoever was to make fun of the
straight boys to their
faces. They were always shocked, but they loved being made fun of. Chris can
make fun of everyone
because he has this minority status and people probably don't punch back. But
like everyone in the
room, he's also terrified of Katherine- even though he's never actually met
The actor says Late Night really captures the sometimes toxic energy of a
"It's every man for himself in comedy. Writing is such a high-pressure
environment that your job is
always in chaos or in flux. Katherine wields her power by never talking to these
through intermediaries. There's a very specific kind of fear that's bred through
For Hugh Dancy the biggest challenge of playing Charlie Heyne was performing
his standup routine. "It's just a snippet but it was about as scary a thing as I
can imagine doing," he says.
"Then again, when else am I going to get to do that and have lines written
for me by Mindy
Ganatra admits asking Dancy to do the scene was a calculated risk. "I think I
was as terrified
as he was," she says. "What if Hugh Dancy can't do stand-up? We shot it on his
first day of work
and, of course, he's Dancy so he performs perfectly. How can he be that
good-looking, that good an
actor, and now apparently also do stand-up?"
Charlie befriends Molly - or, more accurately, he's less rude to her than his
when she joins the writing staff at "Late Night." Dancy found being part of the
exhilarating. "Everybody's so good," he says. "Everybody bolsters everybody
else. I've never been in
a comedy writers' room, so for me it was about understanding that dynamic and
figuring out how
would I fit in there."
Imagining Thompson as the lone woman to host on late-night was no stretch for
"This film is an amazing vehicle for her," he says. "She's quite unique herself,
so I never thought, 'A
woman in that role, how surprising!' I just thought, 'It's Emma Thompson. Okay,
Also in the mix is Max Casella, whose career began on the television classic
Howser, M.D.," and has kept busy ever since. As Burditt, a longtime survivor of
room, the actor brings a slightly different energy than his younger cohorts,
according to Ganatra.
"We wanted to make sure there was someone with a little bit more experience and
says. "When his character finally comes around to helping Molly, it's sweet and
Talk Show Mecca
Shot in entirely New York City, Late Night takes advantage of all the scope
and variety the
Big Apple has to offer, from Katherine's lavish Manhattan townhouse to Molly's
in her aunt's modest Queens apartment. "Shooting there has its challenges, but
it's hard to replicate
the look and feel of the city," says Jillian Apfelbaum. "New York is like the
brass ring for Molly. It's
a place that's larger than life. The city has an aspirational quality that makes
it seem just out of reach.
Moving there is a long-held dream for her."
In addition to creating an outsider's idealized vision of New York,
Elizabeth J. Jones had to build an iconic talk show from the ground up, from the
set and logo to the
tiny backstage offices shared by the writing staff, and tailor it all to fit
Katherine's image - a little
dated, somewhat sophisticated and surprisingly masculine. "She is a woman who is
femininity," the designer explains. "The offices are incredibly masculine; the
set design is all clean
lines. Nothing has curves. Even in her house, there's only one room where she
lets her guard down
and uses a more feminine color palette."
Along with Kaling and Ganatra, Jones and her design team visited the offices
and sets of
some of television's most recognizable talk shows to get a feel for the
day-to-day of that world.
Using references including David Letterman's and Jay Leno's early shows, Jones
created a signature
look for "Tonight With Katherine Newberry."
"We wanted it all to have a strong feeling of New York, in part because we
all felt it was the
mecca for this format," says Jones. "And this character would never base herself
in L.A. We used a
lot of Art Deco influences that evoke the classic New York of the 1930s, which
we found are often
used in late-night TV. The environment is meant to be inviting and at the same
removed, like Katherine."
While visiting the real-life talk shows, Jones noticed one thing they had in
show had created a photographic history in the hallways of the offices. Jones
decided to fabricate
one for "Tonight With Katherine Newberry." Working with Ganatra, Thompson and
designer Mitchell Travers, she constructed a fictional visual record on the
walls of the sets. "It
provides a sense of Katherine's legacy in pictures," says Mitchell Travers. "You
can also see the
point at which her passion has faded. It becomes muted, safe, stable. She's
comfortable, but she
needs to be shaken up."
Travers and Jones agreed on a precise look for Katherine's wardrobe, one
based on the Art
Deco details already planned for the set. "We looked at iconic women in comedy
to see what
worked for them and arrived at a menswear-inspired silhouette," Travers recalls.
"Emma is someone
who loves to come in and get her feet wet in the fitting room, so I gave her a
sandbox to play in. We
had lots of options for her to try out, and she would throw on a jacket and try
a bit in the mirror. If
it worked, we expanded on it. The cool thing about the menswear of that era is
all the little elements
that could then be incorporated into the sets, the furniture, the drapes, the
In general, Thompson's wardrobe is very safe, notes Travers. She is clad in
old standards in
conservative navy, charcoal and cream. "Then toward the middle of the film, we
wanted it to feel
like maybe somebody is styling her and bringing her up to date. It starts to get
more interesting and
we get into greens and reds that would have been foreign to her at the beginning
of our film."
Kaling is a well-known fashionista, and Molly's wardrobe also evolves over
time, going from
suburban casual to a much more exciting and glamorous look, says Travers,
reflecting the aspiring
writer's growing confidence. "She starts to feel like she is a woman wielding
power in the
workplace," he explains. "Suddenly, she doesn't have to obey as many rules.
Mindy loves clothing
and the two of us just can talk about it forever. It's great to work with
someone so knowledgeable
about designers, the cut of a garment, the fabric. She was really involved,
which was a blessing,
because we could work in tandem."
The themes Late Night explores are timely and important, Apfelbaum continues,
but it is
also an aspirational comedy. "As viewers we want Molly to succeed, we want
Katherine to succeed,
even though they're both very flawed," she says. "Katherine learns so much from
Molly about being
open and trusting her instincts. Molly learns about skill and hard work and
earning your spot at the
table from Katherine. They really do need each other in this very interesting
Ganatra says Late Night is the kind of story she became a filmmaker to tell.
"I want to
bring more attention to women and immigrants on the screen. I don't get tired of
stories myself. I also love comedies, so this was a dream project. Filmmakers
sometimes forget that
movies should be entertaining. I hope the audience will be laughing, crying and
feeling inspired to
do something they didn't think they could do."
Late Night also has a serious message about the importance of women
other, she adds. "We can be our own worst enemies and hold each other back more
than any man,"
says the director. "Or we can be our biggest champions. The problem with being a
that the ground is really hard! The whole point is making it easier for the next
person and the next
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