Vancouver-born Nisha Ganatra hits a High Note for women’s hopes with new film

Director’s movie reminds audience that women helping each other is rewarding for everyone

Vancouver-born director Nisha Ganatra, director of The High Note. ‘I always want to make movies about women being each other’s greatest allies,’ she says. Courtesy of The High Note

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Nineteen years ago, Golden Globe-winning Vancouver-born director Nisha Ganatra’s first paying gig was as a director on the MTV reality show The Real World Las Vegas.

That job, as it turns out, may have laid groundwork that will help Ganatra do her job now under the new and enhanced COVID-19 safety and health protocols that are currently being applied to the film and TV production business.

“It was my summer job between years at NYU film school. I got paid to direct for the first time,” Ganatra said over the phone from Los Angeles recently. “You direct the whole series without interacting with the cast at all. It’s a really small crew. A crew of like three people, so I think that’s a little bit where we are headed until there is a vaccine.”

Like every single person in the film business, Ganatra saw her industry grind to a halt in the second week of March. At that time she was just finishing post-production work on her new film The High Note and was looking at doing a commercial when it became clear that Hollywood was being put on hold.

Right now she in Los Angeles working on a script for a new TV series she says is a  “dramedy.”

The High Note has just been released to VOD (video on demand). These social distancing days it’s VOD for most movies. As it stands now, some theatres will be opening up in the coming months but with limited seating. It seems the only movies that will risk the theatre release are a few $200 million-plus blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Disney’s live action Mulan and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984. Most of the big tent-pole pictures, though, have been pushed back to late 2020 and into 2021.

The good news is The High Note isn’t dependent on a big screen and a deafening sound system for it to work. No one is flying through the air or dissolving into thin air in this one.

It is a character-driven, feel-good movie that focuses on two women with similar but different ambitions.

One is superstar singer/songwriter Grace Davis, played perfectly by the interesting Tracee Ellis Ross. Davis has topped all the charts and won all the awards, now she has crossed into the 40-something age bracket and is feeling unnoticed by the youth-driven entertainment game. She is not ready to hang up her microphone, but wants more out of her career than another live album or a hokie Groundhog’s Day of a life in a Las Vegas casino tenancy.

Ross, as the divine diva, is a force. Frankly, that’s not surprising as the star of the hit TV series Black-ish grew up with a Supreme — Diana Ross — as her mother, something Ganatra said la fille Ross reminded her of while they were filming a scene where Davis gets out of a car and is surrounded by fans.

“I was telling her what it would feel like in that moment,” said Ganatra with a laugh. “She texted me a clip of her mom getting out of the car in front of Studio 54 and just being mobbed. She couldn’t even move from the car to the club and there was little Tracee behind her. She said: ‘I remember being in the car, holding the security guard’s hand so I didn’t get separated from my mom.’ So it was really incredible that Tracee experienced it first hand and could bring that to the movie, so it wasn’t just that one-note portrayal of a monster music icon. She really kept her grounded, quirky and warm and interesting.”

In the new film The High Note, Tracee Ellis Ross plays a superstar singer who is mobbed by fans wherever she goes. That reality is something Ellis Ross knows something about as her mother is the legendary singer Diana Ross. Courtesy, The High Note

The other woman at the centre of this story is her young assistant, the overworked and underappreciated — is there any other kind of assistants in movies — Maggie (played by Dakota Johnson). Maggie does her job, sometimes through gritted teeth, all the while dreaming of working towards becoming a music producer. Johnson, also the product of famous parents (actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), settles into the roll nicely and gives the viewer someone to cheer for without too many underdog clichés there to weigh her down.  Spoiler alert — not really — in the end (after a not bad twist) the women both get what they want. But what is key is they combine their efforts to do just that. Yes, women helping each other. How novel.

Now that spirit of sisterhood has a lot to do with the film’s production and talent pedigree. Directed by a woman, written by a woman — Flora Greeson — and starring women makes The High Note truly a chick flick in the best possible way.

“I always want to make movies about women being each other’s greatest allies. Because I think there has been enough movies made where we are each other’s worst enemies,” said Ganatra, whose feature film career began back in 1999 with her own film, which she also starred in, called Chutney Popcorn. “We need more messages and examples and real stories that show that when we help each other it is rewarding for everybody and we all rise up together.”

The High Note stars Tracee Ellis Ross (right) as a superstar singer in need of a fresh career boost and Dakota Johnson (left) as her assistant and an aspiring producer in need of a career break. The film was just released on VOD. Courtesy of The High Note / jpg

Ganatra’s turn at the helm of The High Note comes on the heels of a strong directing career that includes ground-breaking TV shows like Transparent, which she won a Golden Globe for directing, Dear White People and Better Things, plus last year’s feature film Late Night starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the film.

Ganatra says she knows having two studio films come out within the same 12-month period is like witnessing a unicorn cantering down Hollywood Boulevard, but she says she gets the feeling that the times are indeed changing.

“It is a really exciting time because I go to these studio meetings and meet a lot of really smart dynamic women who have worked their way to the top and are now finally in positions of making creative decisions and having the power to say what movie gets made and what movie doesn’t,” said Ganatra. “That is leading to a lot more interesting work making it into theatres, I think. Also, a lot of men on the Focus Features side and the Universal side saw the value in this movie and that is really heartening. I felt like before whenever there was a movie with female leads and it did well it was looked at as an anomaly, and now they understand that women can drive box office and have the economic power to declare movies hits or not hits.”

In the new film The High Note Tracee Ellis Ross (right) plays a multi-platinum music star who overworks and for most of the film overlooks her ambitious assistant played by Dakota Johnson (left). Photo credit: Courtesy of The Hi / jpg

Ganatra was born in Vancouver and lived here for three years before her parents moved to Los Angeles.

The following years were a constant whirlwind of travel as Ganatra’s father was a chemical engineer who, she says, was probably “chasing the oil.”

While they moved almost every year, they managed to come back to visit family in North Delta every summer.

“God, I loved the PNE. My whole childhood was spent bugging everyone to take me to the PNE,” said Ganatra, whose favourite fair food was snow cones.

With the border closed and the PNE shuttered, Ganatra like everyone else is staying close to home, and that means watching movies on streaming services or VOD.

“It is obviously a bummer as we shot it for the big theatre experience,” said Ganatra of The High Note’s quick trip to VOD. “But I think given what has happened in the world, this is the only responsible way to release a movie and it feels more important that everybody be safe.

“Hopefully not too far in the future we can all go to movie theatres and watch movies together again, but for now this feels like the right thing to do.”


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