BOSSIP: While we’re talking about race — we often get called to cover the “diversity” or “multicultural” projects. Once Reese Witherspoon is involved it’s a lot different. We wanted to ask about the differences between “diverse” projects vs. mainstream ones for you as a director:
Nzingha Stewart: I think the differences on set are primarily ones of budget. The “diverse” projects sometimes don’t have the budgets that other projects have. Unless we’re talking about Shondaland, which I work in quite a lot. Those are very diverse and those have money. That gives you a chance, not that having money, those projects are better or not better, it just gives you the chance to prove that you can manage a big budget and a large crew, and sometimes special effects, and sometimes stunts, and you can do a good job.
I think with this project, it also spoke to how important it is to have other black people in a decision-making role. I think this team was SO amazing, it probably was important to everybody to have a diverse group of cast, crew, directors… Specifically to me, it was Kerry Washington who had worked with me on “Scandal” who brought me to the table, and if Kerry hadn’t had the power that she had as a producer, could she have done that? It was important to have somebody with clout that said, ‘This is who we want for these episodes.’ Now I’m working on something with Hello Sunshine. Now that we’ve had the exposure, Reese and those guys love me so now we’re working on other projects.
BOSSIP: “Little Fires Everywhere” is adapted from the book by Celeste Ng. Some fans of the book may feel a way about how it’s been translated to screen. How would you address the critics and can you address the challenge of adapting for TV?
Nzingha Stewart: Books are tough with critics when you make that leap because it’s never good enough — there is something that makes people feel smarter in saying, ‘The book was better,’ because really what they’re saying is, ‘I read the book!’ So that is one of those categories where you are never going to make people happy if it was a book before… Every single Harry Potter got the same criticism and probably made a billion dollars. It is one of those things that makes people feel smart to A) say they read it and B) be in an elevated position from which they can critique it and compare it and say that.
As far as the adaptation of this book, I think this was also something that brought an element of race into a situation that sometimes makes people uncomfortable. And also sometimes I saw the character as this race in my head and now it’s something else and it’s like when Fox News gets all mad because of Black Santa Claus. And it’s like ‘Santa Claus isn’t even real’ who cares if he’s black or white? but people get upset. Or it’s like White Jesus. That would not be historically accurate for the Middle East, but that’s how they saw it in their head. I think it’s a similar dynamic where now they have to think about this thing they may not be comfortable with thinking about.
Hopefully at the end of it they have a new understanding that not only makes them comfortable but also able to see it from other perspectives. I think the addition of race creates an added tension and wherever you have tension there is more drama. I think there is more humor in it. I think a lot of the dialogue is really funny, I think if you had adapted it straight without the humor it would have felt like it was taking itself too seriously. I think it’s a beautiful adaptation and the writers room crushed it.
BOSSIP: When you finish a project like this, what’s the best part?
Nzingha Stewart: I feel like sleep, because you leave it all on the floor; but I think it’s when you’re in the edit room and you’re like “Oh that decision worked.” You really don’t know until you put it together. ‘Oh that was a good idea or that was a good shot.’ There is a buoyancy in the edit room where you’re like, ‘It’s working! It’s working! It’s working!’ It’s a wonderful feeling to have.
Then just seeing people’s reactions to it. Seeing what worked for them and talking to people about it is great.
Episode 107 of “Little Fires Everywhere” directed by Nzingha Stewart airs on Hulu this Wednesday. We hope you enjoyed our chat with her as much as we did!