High Note – A story about following your dream and taking risks

Living in L.A. or New York, everyone knows a Maggie—a young, talented assistant working day and night in the entertainment industry paying their dues for their big career break. Screenwriter Flora Greeson herself was once that woman: After graduating from New York University’s prestigious cinema studies program, she started her career as an assistant to an executive at Universal Music in New York, she drew from her experiences in both of those jobs and penned her first full-length screenplay, The High Note.

Graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2014, majoring in Cinema Studies, she worked at Universal Music in New York, working specifically in catalog music, promoting artists who had retired or had passed away. “It was a lot about, how do you make this Temptations box set sexy? Or how do we produce this Rick James live album?” Greeson explains.

When the L.A. native moved back home to California, she took another assistant position with one of the major talent agencies and was exposed to an entirely different side of Hollywood. “I got inundated in the lunacy of being an assistant and having to deal with very high-profile people and wacky demands, while funneling toward a big art form,” Greeson says.

The High Note tells of a gifted striver determined to carve out a place for herself in the music business, her complicated relationship with her demanding employer—international superstar Grace Davis—and the young musician she hopes to help propel to mainstream success.

Setting the story in the music industry felt entirely organic for Greeson, an avid music enthusiast. “I’ve always been a huge music fan and have a lot interest in the behind the scenes of what makes an artist an artist, how you have to keep reinventing yourself, the effect that music has on so many people and the responsibility the artist has to perform it,” she says.

The young screenwriter was also interested in flipping the usual gender script. Of the beloved music movies that have come before, almost all of them center on men with an encyclopedic knowledge of various genres or performers.

“Some of my favorite movies, like, Almost Famous or High Fidelity, they’re always about male fans who are very elitist about their musical tastes.  All the women are usually groupies, or the love interest. I was desperate to portray someone who I recognized, a woman who was just as passionate and just as smart about music and can keep up with all the John Cusack types,” says Greeson, referring to the actor’s starring turn in the 2000 Stephen Frears film.

Eventually, Greeson left her demanding agency day job to focus on writing the first draft of The High Note.

She completed the screenplay in just three months, and when she showed the script to her former boss, he loved it and signed her as a client. Taking a position at a toy store for cash, Greeson continued to make revisions—until one fateful day when her agent reached out with surprising news. “I had to close the store to take the call, and kids were knocking on the door,” she recalls. “My agent said, ‘Are you sitting down? Your script sold to Working Title and to Universal.’ And I lost my mind and reopened the store right away.’”

It was executive producer Alexandra Loewy in Working Title’s L.A. office who first came across the project and immediately communicated her excitement about the script to the company’s co-chief Tim Bevan. “I read it straight away,” Bevan says. “One could see instantly that Flora Greeson had an original storytelling voice. Her script was smart, funny, moving and honest.

It felt like a Working Title film through and through—strong characters, female-driven, comedic, romantic, a world that was fun to be in and one we had not seen before on screen. It is a testament to the strength of the material that we put the movie together very quickly, attracting both an interesting director and our first-choice cast. Although there were the usual re-writes and refinements, the basic shape of the story and characters did not change much from first read.”

When searching for a filmmaker to step behind the camera, the producers turned to Sundance Award winning filmmaker, Nisha Ganatra, who had just completed the Emma Thompson/Mindy Kaling comedy, Late Night. Late Night wonrave reviews when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Says Bevan, “Late Night had just come out and we saw the movie and met with Nisha. She had the right sense of humor and experience to become our first choice.”

Screenwriter Flora Greeson with Nisha Ganatra on the set of The High Note.

Ganatra is a Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee for her work as the director/producer for Transparent. Nisha’s debut feature Chutney Popcorn won numerous Best Feature and Audience Awards at many film festivals including the Berlin International Film Festival, Her sophomore feature, Cosmopolitan, premiered at South by Southwest.

It was a career dream for Ganatra to make a film with Working Title and with Focus and she is still pinching herself. Currently, Nisha plans to direct everything Flora Greeson ever writes and anything Working Title and Focus plan to produce.

Ganatra was drawn to the screenplay and saw the potential not just for great comedy in Maggie and Grace’s relationship but also for great compassion. “Flora wrote a beautiful script with two female lead characters that were really strong and interesting and flawed and funny, and I’m always drawn to that,” says the filmmaker. “I was also really excited about telling the story of two women, one of whom is trying to break into a field that doesn’t really take women seriously, and the other one is struggling to stay in a field that sidelines women when they get to the age of 40. To me, it was a beautiful story that I hadn’t seen told. It’s really funny and very uplifting, which is also something I enjoy when going to the movies.

“I love that both The High Note and Late Night, center women who are being told by society and their industries that they should play it safe and be thankful for what they have,” Ganatra continues. “Both women end up taking big risks, and both women are incredibly rewarded for it. I love a story that supports women taking risks.”

Nisha Ganatra on the set of her film THE HIGH NOTE,

The High Note is a story about following your dream and taking risks. The first time I read Flora Greeson’s script for The High Note, I knew this was a movie I had to direct. The story had all the elements of movies that I love. It centered on the relationship between two multifaceted women who were talented and uncompromising—yet also funny and flawed in all the best ways. It offered an insider’s view of the entertainment industry with a story about just how much hard work and sacrifice is required to achieve success, and to maintain it—especially for women, and especially for women of a certain age.  The script was insightful and smart. It was an inventive take on a genre that I love.

“Nisha’s very good at telling very nuanced, smart, funny, sweet movies about women and how they go about in the world, and how they relate to each other, and how they support each other, or confide in each other,” adds Greeson. “She was the perfect match for this film. Nisha has a great eye for comedy. Working with her is like a masterclass on how to get to the joke out of a scene.”

Before shooting began, the director revisited certain classic films for inspiration—among them were the Academy Award®-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. “One thing I love about our industry is the apprenticeship nature of it; how you can start as a fan, admiring an artist so much, and then you can end up working with them one day as a collaborator,” Ganatra says. “It was that dreamy element of being an outsider and then getting in that I related to a lot with Maggie. I wanted to really show that idea of being so close yet so far from your dream job.”

“The story of a woman putting it all on the line for a career she dreams about is something we haven’t seen in a long time. Broadcast News, Working Girl – those movies did it so incredibly – Devil Wears Prada did too – but we haven’t had a movie like that in awhile. And though we get music driven movies that center the male point of view, we don’t often get them about Women and about Women of Color. And if we do – it is rarely in the form of a comedy.  I love this movie because it’s FUN to be in music and FUN to be an artist – and I want this movie to inspire people to follow their dreams and also inspire a generation of young women to aspire to be a part of the creative process. So many movies tell young women to be a star, get the adoration of fans! But this movie gives weight and desire to the creative process – to being behind the scenes as the producer as well as being on stage as the star. Only 3 women (Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Linda Perry) have been nominated in the history of the Grammys for Producer of the Year. More and more young women are breaking in – and there are so many talented producers out there – I hope this movie shines a light on them too.”

Casting The High Note

Because The High Note relies largely on the two dynamic characters at the heart of the story, casting the right actors to play both Maggie and Grace was critical. For Maggie, Dakota Johnson proved to be an inspired choice—a gifted actress, Johnson has seemingly effortless comic timing, and she brings charm and humility to the ambitious character.

“When I first read the script, my heart fluttered, and I laughed,” Johnson says. “I just thought it was perfect. I really wanted to see a movie with that woman at the center of it. She’s funny and self-deprecating and always working harder, always trying to become better. Reading the script, I never felt like she was compromised or compromising herself or selling herself short. You experience her ultimately getting kicked in the stomach, but she doesn’t give up. She’s a great role model for young women.”

Johnson, like Greeson, is an avowed music enthusiast, and she connected with Maggie’s passion and inner fire. “This is a world that l love, that I understand,” Johnson says. “I just love music. I have my whole life. I love it almost more than I love movies because I love it in purely an emotional way. When I watch a movie, I’m studying, I’m dissecting, I’m learning. But when I’m listening to music, it’s purely emotional. My music history knowledge is totally nerdy.”

“Dakota is a music lover, first and foremost,” says executive producer Loewy. “When we first met her, she made it clear that if she hadn’t become an actress, she would be working in music somehow. She connected very deeply to the character of Maggie. We knew from very early on that Dakota’s very funny but she hasn’t had an opportunity to showcase that as much. We were thrilled that this movie would give her the chance to show the world her comedic chops.”

“Dakota’s love for music shines through in her portrayal of Maggie,” says director Ganatra, “She was always listening to music on set. She had playlists for all of her scenes to set the mood for her character.”

“I love Dakota,” offers Greeson. “She’s such a wonderful actress and bring so much warmth and consideration and thoughtfulness to this role. On the page, Maggie is this snippy, funny, fast moving, type-A person. Dakota really grounded her in so many ways and helped make her so much more three dimensional. Dakota’s someone you want to hang out with, and by extension, so is Maggie. It was wild to watch this character come to life and become someone I laughed with, related to, rooted for. That’s all thanks to Dakota.”

If Maggie is the relatable young protagonist at the outset of her career, Grace Davis is her high-wattage counterpart, an undeniably established worldwide superstar who secretly harbors concerns that her most creatively rewarding artistic achievements might be behind her. To the outside world, she appears every inch the confident, demanding diva, but just like Maggie, Grace is a multifaceted woman wrestling with her own desires and dreams, as well as regret for opportunities in life that possibly have passed her by.

Tracee Ellis Ross was cast in the role and found much that she could relate to in the character of Grace—the music world backdrop was especially familiar to Ross, the daughter of iconic vocalist Diana Ross and veteran music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein. “This is the world I was raised in,” Ross says. “My mom is one of a handful of people in the world who has reached that level of global success and iconic status. I got to witness, experience, live in, love in all that music can offer and the opportunity that it shares with everyone.”

That said, Ross did not base the character of Grace on her mother. Rather, she took her own approach to crafting the character. “Grace Davis is not in any way based on my mom, but I think she’s a woman that we all know,” Ross says. “At the core of this role, the thing that was so interesting to me is this was a woman who, like many women, has had to put her true self aside to play the game and to find the success that she wants and deserves. I think this is that turning point for this woman, where she can either keep going down the road she’s been on or she can let her heart fly and let her passions be what they are and let her secrets actually be her gifts.”

Despite her lengthy resume, Ross notably had never sung on screen before signing on to play one of the world’s most recognizable voices within the realm of The High Note. “What a scary choice I made!” Ross says with a laugh. “Who would do that? But it just felt totally natural for me and way more comfortable than I expected. I obviously come from a legacy of singing, and as a kid, it was something I always wanted to do. I just went in a different direction. But it was a big dream and I had to face the dream and the fear all in one. It’s been great.”

“Tracee Ellis Ross was born to play this part,” Loewy says. “She was the most natural fit in the world. We never actually heard her sing until after we cast her in the movie, and of course it turns out she has an incredible voice. She is so funny. She’s gorgeous. She’s the total package, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing the character.”

“Tracee Ellis Ross is the only person I could imagine bringing Grace to life, and she more than delivered,” says director Ganatra, “Tracee is super smart, she’s very, very funny, she’s hyper prepared and professional, and she is a kind and generous person. She is a movie star through and through because she is riveting on screen, gives an honest and moving performance that comes from truth and the experience of performing comedy. She is a great star, too, because she inspires the cast around her to raise their game and that makes the entire movie better. She knows that this is a collaborative art and that the better the other people in the scene with you are, the better the movie will be. All that and—she can sing. She can really sing. I remember when we went to the studio to hear her sing for the first time. Rodney Jerkins (our music producer) and I were so excited—and then her voice came out of the speakers, and we looked at each other and screamed. She sounds so, so good. And she can really sing. It’s almost unfair  to be that beautiful, that good of an actor, that funny and have that voice!”

“I can’t believe that this is the first time that Tracee has done a part like this where she’s on a stage in a sparkly red dress, singing her heart out,” Greeson adds. “I joke with her that every time I watch her sing I am just crying because she’s so good. This is a world Tracee knows, that she grew up in. She carries all that with her. Her mom’s experiences, and her own. Also, Tracee is one of the funniest people in the whole world. She’s so collaborative, a writer’s dream. And can improv like no other.”

At the start of The High Note, Maggie has been working for Grace for three years. In some respects, it’s a dream job for the lifelong music fan—the product of equally music-obsessed parents, including her DJ father (Bill Pullman) and her late mother, who passed away when Maggie was just six. But running errands and anticipating a diva’s every want isn’t always fulfilling, even if she and Grace seem to enjoy a special bond that supersedes the usual boss/assistant rapport.

“There is such an accepted norm of the powerful boss/lowly assistant relationship probably because of the iconic relationship in The Devil Wears Prada,” says Ganatra. “We wanted to show something different, that they weren’t two women at odds with each other. We’re also looking at the odd intimacy that happens to really big celebrities. They are so isolated. Their worlds get very small in some ways because there’s such a small number of people that they trust or can interact with on a daily basis. I wanted that to be the focus of Maggie and Grace’s relationship—are we friends? are we not friends? and how fuzzy and blurry that line can get.”

“I think that that relationship between Maggie and Grace is one that I see all the time, or that I experienced as an assistant,” adds Greeson. “One moment you’re so close to this person. You talk to them more than probably anybody else in their life, and then the next you’re getting screamed at. So, [I was interested in] just playing with the dance around where the boundaries lie, and if there are any, and how they completely get redefined at any given moment.”