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Director Nzingha Stewart’s Music Video Expertise Shines in ‘Daisy Jones and the Six’

Director Nzingha Stewart’s Music Video Expertise Shines in ‘Daisy Jones and the Six’

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Nzingha Stewart directed the iconic music video for “The Light” by Common and since then she’s directed episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Netflix’s hits Inventing Anna and Maid, and is directing four episodes of the limited series Daisy Jones and the Six, which is based on the best-selling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid. BGN spoke with the director via Zoom about her process.

How did working with musicians influence directing Daisy Jones and the Six?

I know how musicians think, and it’s so different from actors. There is almost a feeling actors are always auditioning for you. With musicians, you’re always auditioning for them. So I tracked that in the performances, and it felt like many of my notes would be things like, “No, make them come to you.” Also, I just know how to shoot music. Our block had all of the big performances, the stadiums, the arenas, even the small punk band. I’ve done them all. It’s almost like shooting dance. 

The complexity of relationships among the musicians was juicy! How much of that was in the script, and how much of that was your direction? 

I can’t take one apart from the other. Scott Neustadter, our showrunner, was so enamored of music and musicians and how they work that his love for music and that era of music shone through when you even read it on the page. I remember when we first talked to Scott, and he said, “Which one of these characters are you?” And I said, “Honestly, probably Camilla because I know what it’s like to love a musician.” I know I would see things through her eyes, and there is the dance I have to give this person, the freedom that they belong to the world, and then there’s certain moments where you just want them to yourself. 

How did you come to direct four episodes?

I had a good working relationship with Hello Sunshine [Reese Whitherspoon’s production company], and I was working on From Scratch. I was with [Executive Producer] Lauren Neustadter, and she just asked me, ”What’s up on your dance card after this?” And I was like, “Well, I think I’m gonna do this pilot.” And she was like, “I have something for you. It’s not a pilot, but it’s like a pilot because we’ll let you bring your own DP, your own first AD. It’s going to be different sets and locations. You’re going to be traveling.” I was like, “Keep talking!” She said, “It’s Daisy Jones and the Six,” and I was like, “I’m interested. Who’s the showrunner?” She said Scott Neustadter, who she knew I was a huge fan of because in Little Fires Everywhere. I brought in my script of 500 Days of Summer that was all marked up. I was like, “This is good writing!” and showed it to her.  It was the same production company. So they made it easy for me to do post on From Scratch while I was doing prep on Daisy Jones.

Those big concert scenes are incredible. How much of that was practical, and how much was CGI edited in post?

There was a lot of CGI, but there was a lot of background. There’s always a fight between the line producers and the production designers about what we do in post and what we do now. Even though we’ll do tiling, we want the audience to be present. You can see their faces at times, and it’s not just a behemoth of moving pixels. 

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It was seamless. I have to ask you about Shondaland. How do you get to be a long-term member?

You have to do good work, but it’s as important to Shonda to be a good person. In a way that I’ve never seen a culture like that where everyone knows that bad behavior is not rewarded here. In fact, you will be gone and never heard from again. And she really cares that it’s not just the actors that you’re nice to. If a director is unkind to the PAs in Shondaland, they’re not around long. She would hear reports from the actors like, “Oh, Nzingha, she’s really good, but she’s also so kind. And we see how she’s talking to people who aren’t in front of the camera.” They see when you are kind, and that’s important to them in the culture of Shondaland.

Do you think the culture in Shondaland had a role in beginning to shift the culture in television?

Yes, and no., I think it makes working in Shondaland a good place to work, so you get good people. Do I think the culture of the business has changed because of that? Not necessarily. I just think it gives her shows a leg up because you see how many actors repeatedly shot shows because everybody wants to return to a place where they’re treated well, where they’re appreciated, and where the showrunner has loyalty. 

I feel the same way about Hello Sunshine. I’ve done repeated work with them too. At Hello Sunshine, what I love is a similar thing of no asshole policy. But there is just such a shorthand between women. So many times, the key department heads on Daisy were women. And video village should have the universal symbol for women on the door of the tent. Production designer, director, producer, first ad, music supervisor, costume designer script supervisor — it was a world of women. 

Recently I worked on something, not in Hello Sunshine, where the most junior staff writer possible would give me notes about how to direct, and I would have to be like, “I’m sorry. You’re not equipped to tell me this. And so I can’t listen because it would jeopardize the show.” That never happens in Hello Sunshine because they feel like,  “We’ve hired good people. We know their work ethic.” And, they trust that women know what they’re talking about. 

There have been other shows when men give notes, at the level that we’re talking about, which shouldn’t be happening anymore. And I know if I were a white man, I would not get those notes. I called Hello Sunshine after that and was like, “I missed you guys so much!” There’s something so wonderful about working with a company that just trusts you.

If you could play any character in Daisy Jones, who would you play?

I would love to further explore Karen’s story. There’s something so effortlessly cool about that girl. She just makes everything look easy and nonchalant and cool. 

What about directing brings you the most joy?

When I can bring something that exists only in my head into the world, it feels almost like I’ve given birth, and that’s very special. And there’s also the moment when you can tell that a direction you’ve given to an actor inspires them. You’ll see a light go off like, “I know what to do.” It’s magic.

Daisy Jones and the Six new episodes stream Thursdays at 7pm ET/ 4pm PT on Prime Video.

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