Director Nisha Ganatra On ‘The High Note’ And Her Love For Bill Pullman

Sometimes, yes, it’s nice to watch a nice movie about nice people just trying to make their way in this world. Though, as director Nisha Ganatra (whose last film, Late Night, was a Sundance sensation) explains, the antagonist in The High Note (which will be available to purchase for streaming this Friday) is the institutionalized norms of the music industry itself. There’s no fiend twirling a mustache trying to sabotage anyone. Even the corporate suits with bad ideas in this movie are, in the end, trying to be helpful. The problem is the system.

Dakota Johnson plays Maggie, a personal assistant to the legendary Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). Maggie wants to be a producer, but is quickly learning about the obstacles set in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. Grace Davis is a world-renowned recording artist, but the record executives aren’t really keen on hearing about her new material (as she points out in the movie, only one black woman over 40 has ever had a number one song) and is pushing her to do a residency in Las Vegas. But, deep down, the heart of this movie is about people trying to do their best when the deck is stacked against them.

Oh, and then Bull Pullman shows up. And as Ganatra explains, she’s a big fan of Bill Pullman.

This movie seems just like, mostly, a bunch of nice people trying to make their way.

I mean, I always liked these big movies, these big studio films that just make you feel uplifted. You can follow your dreams and everything’s going to work out for you. I just feel people don’t make movies like that anymore. I don’t know if we got cynical as a culture, but I just really, always loved to feel really great when I leave the movie theater. It just appealed to me in that way that I haven’t seen in a long time.

And then Bill Pullman shows up, making everything better.

That is one of my favorite things. Everybody has that same feeling when Bill Pullman shows up. Everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, everything’s going to be okay.” I love that was his voice on the radio all along. Because I think people kind of know it in the back of their heads, but then when they see him, there’s that feeling of relief and satisfaction. It’s also because you’ve been hearing his voice in the movie, and you just didn’t know. You know?

Was that a surprise to you? How much people love Bill Pullman?

No, because I’m so into Bill Pullman.

Okay, good.

I wasn’t surprised! Because I think everybody loves Bill Pullman. So as soon as we heard he was available, everybody universally agreed that it should be his part.

Okay, so you went to Bill Pullman and you said, “We have to have Bill Pullman in this movie.”

Yes. For sure. Because it was kind of like, who do buy as the radio DJ dad? Who also is fueled by he was a good dad, makes a good person, and was kind of cool, and a little edgier in his years and now is still kind of cool, but just sort of settled down a bit. It was kind of a very specific thing. And also who has a good radio voice?

Last week when Trump posted that stupid Independence Day video on Twitter, Bill Pullman came out against it. And I love that he did that.

Yeah. I feel so many actors play it safe politically, and they shouldn’t: artists are political temperature takers and aligners of our society. Artists are the ones who are supposed to speak out and get arrested, and go to jail, and right the moral wrongs that have been done, and at least call attention to them. I loved it when he did that. I just thought, yes! Yeah! I’ve been missing that. Where are the people who aren’t afraid of losing followers, but are just like, no, this is wrong. And I’m calling it out?

Like the Michael Jordan “Republicans buy shoes, too” line that was discussed in the recent documentary about him.

I haven’t seen Jordan doc, but that sounds a devastating moment. Oh my god, no.

He says it was a joke.

It’s like when John Waters said, “Don’t buy a house. Because as soon as you buy a house, you’ve got a mortgage. And as soon as you have to pay a mortgage, you start compromising.”

Is it difficult to make a movie without a true antagonist? Even Grace Davis, she has her moments, but seems like a nice person.

Well, I guess to me the villain was the limitations of the music industry itself. Grace is wholly confident and capable and doesn’t question herself or apologize for herself, but the industry is deeming her irrelevant. And I think that’s the villain: sexism and ageism. And so I felt like I was always fighting that as the villain in the arc, but that I wasn’t interested in a story where women were not working together and helping each other. And I love that in this movie they’re each other’s allies, even when they’re sort of getting on each other’s nerves, but they don’t work to hold the other one back. Each is the other one’s biggest supporter, and that is a really important message that needs to be put out there because so many times we’re told this myth of this idea that there’s only room at the table for one woman.

I think the older generation of women, who gave that incredible groundbreaking work to help us all get in, bought into that myth a little bit in front of them. And I think now it’s sort of being exposed that that was a myth all along. And nobody had to believe that, that there’s room at the table for everyone. And in fact, if you try to get more women at the table, it makes your job and your experience more satisfying all around, and everybody can rise together rather than fearing that another person coming in is direct competition for you.

‘The High Note’ will be available via VOD this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.