Features and Columns · Movies

Nisha Ganatra on Why She Needed to Celebrate the Vibe of L.A. in ‘The High Note’

We talk to the director about how lens choice is crucial to capturing narrative.
The High Note Nisha
Glen Wilson / Focus Features
By  · Published on June 18th, 2020

Check the Gate is a new column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that shot? Why that cast? Why that location? Answers are found within.

Showbiz tales are often sagas of punishment or absurdity. The spotlights don’t just shine bright, they burn. We recognize the darkness that scurries beneath the glam, but legions of performers still flock toward the glossy fabrication. Why?

The High Note does not evade the complicated struggle and the inevitable resulting pains of fighting your way into a world of locked arms and turned backs, but its main purpose is to translate the passion and the joy possible for those that brawl their way beyond rejection. Director Nisha Ganatra wished to celebrate connectivity through creativity, not the addictive lure of fame.

“It is a really fun industry to be a part of,” she says. “It’s a fun thing to spend your life being a part of the creative process. I wanted to inspire a generation of young women to get into music producing, in the way I was inspired to get into filmmaking by watching these movies where you were encouraged to follow your dream and told that it would all work out and everything would be okay.”

Set within the intoxicating universe of the LA music scene, The High Note follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson), the young assistant of one-time megastar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), who aches to do more than fetch coffee and run for dry cleaning. When Maggie encounters a talented musician (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) slinging songs in a supermarket, the itch to produce becomes uncontrollable. By following her impulse, her world is upturned.

Ganatra is not interested in putting a false sheen on the industry. She wants to recognize the champions who make it through. Similar to how she presented the world of comedy-writing in Late Night, there is a great party to be had, but to get there, one must prepare for war and sharpen their skill to its finest edge. It’s one thing to fantasize about, and it is a whole other thing to transform that fantasy into a reality.

“What I really love about The High Note,” says Ganatra, “is that it acknowledges how hard you have to work to make your dream come true and that it doesn’t come easy. You don’t just get this job.”

There is no climax in achieving your dream. Goals inevitably alter and mutate; once accomplished, a new one pops up. The race from one to the next is the thrill of a life chasing creation. It takes time to come to an understanding.

“There is this great scene where Ice Cube tells Maggie that it takes years of hard work to become a producer,” she continues. “This is an art and a craft. It takes apprenticeship and years and years and years of study and practice even to get a little bit good. It is a nice, refreshing thing to show and remind everyone.”

A massive aspect of achieving the thematic vision of The High Note was carrying these narrative ideas over into the visuals. The director needed to see the dream in the cinematography as well, where the bliss of the film and music industry reached out into every corner of the frame. To discover her look, she reached into another medium.

“The one thing I really, really wanted,” says Ganatra, “was this beautiful, sun-kissed LA vibe. We were looking at this book of Philip-Lorca diCorcia photographs. I loved the way he captured sun within interiors and exteriors. We had these lenses that were anamorphic, but I didn’t want that sort of compression.”

When you’re trying to duplicate a specific aesthetic, you may as well go to a master for help. DiCorcia was delightfully willing, and in collaboration with Ganatra’s cinematographer, Jason McCormick, the three created a way to replicate DiCorcia’s visuals into The High Note.

“They made these lenses,” explains Ganatra. “I think only a few people in the world have them. We kind of had to devise the words for them, ‘spherical anamorphic,’ because they’re not compressing, they are spherical lenses, but they’re in the anamorphic format.”

In this discovery, Ganatra reveals an extra layer of enthusiasm. These lenses were an unexpected gift and solidified her concept for The High Note. Some, or even most, might not notice this aspect of the film, but for the film’s director, it was crucial in securing a deeper symbolism to the story.

“The flares,” she continues, “instead of having that oval look that gives away the anamorphic lens, it’s actually a circle. Which, to me, and this is probably reaching and nerdy, is like records, and it felt like the Capitol building. So, there’s this real motif of circles and round edges that remind you of vinyl and record players and records as we’re soaking in the music scene in Los Angeles.”

Another objective for Ganatra was revealing a different side of Los Angeles. Yes, we’ve all seen the Capitol building on screen, and we know the strip of Hollywood Boulevard quite well. The east side of LA, with all its various hubs of music, needs a little extra love, as do the numerous mountain ranges that run throughout the city.

“Nobody seems to photograph them ever!” exclaims Ganatra. “That beautiful LA [mountain] twilight doesn’t look like anywhere else. The extended blue dusk magic-hour that we get here when Maggie’s driving home and Aretha Franklin is on the radio — I love the vibe that happens here, right as the sun’s setting.”

The High Note is all about putting a lasso on that LA magic. Nisha Ganatra cheers those that devoted their lives to their visions. The film acts as a high-five to herself and to all those others who refused rejection and navigated a world of nos to get to their version of yes.

The High Note is currently available at home On Demand. 

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)