PARK CITY — It was an early morning for "Late Night," but neither the appreciative audience nor the filmmakers seemed to mind the hour.
The feature film starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, who also produced and wrote the screenplay, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night, and played again at Park City's Eccles Center at 9 a.m. on Saturday to a full house, with director Nisha Ganatra, Kaling and three of the film's actors participating in an audience Q&A after the screening.
"Late Night," a much-talked-about film heading into the festival, was purchased following its première by Amazon for a record-breaking $13 million. While that is not the highest price paid for a film at Sundance, it is, according to Deadline, one of the highest prices paid for a U.S.-only deal.
Ganatra, flush with the film's success and the crowd's cheering reception, told the audience before the screening, "I have dreamed, dreamed and dreamed of the Eccles Theater, this magical place. This is truly a dream come true."
A smart, laugh-out-loud crowd pleaser, "Late Night" follows Katherine Newbury, an iconic late night talk show host played by Thompson who finds herself at the end of a decade of low ratings and facing possible replacement with a younger, more popular comedian. Katherine is no good-timesy Jimmy Fallon, but rather an acerbic and often intimidating figure who has never met her writing staff, scorns social media and only wants to book intelligent but not exactly viral guests.
Enter her new writer Molly Patel, played by Kaling, a "diversity hire" with no previous comedy experience and a habit of speaking her mind. Molly is all earnest goodwill, so likable that even the show's skeptical writing staff, populated entirely with white men, find themselves eventually appreciating her work and work ethic.
But the film's true chemistry is between Kaling and Thompson, in a role that Kaling admitted she wrote for the award-winning English actresses — although they had never met.
"I think only she could have played this part, which is probably one of the stupider things you can do as a screenwriter is tether your movie to the only person who can play it and hope that they can," Kaling said. "… I was this creep in my home writing fan fiction for me and Emma Thompson, a woman I don't know, and hoping that she would one day read it and do it."
Thompson, who was not in attendance at Saturday's screening, took the character that Kaling wrote for her and made her a complicated, nuanced woman, not unlike Meryl Streep's dragon boss in "The Devil Wears Prada," but also witty and brutally funny. Her push — mostly push — and pull with Kaling's Molly provided some of the film's biggest laughs, but also allowed for thoughtful commentary on women in the workplace, race and elitism, all topics that the film skewers and dives into with gleeful abandon.
For Ganatra, the film steered clear of comedic and romantic stereotypes largely thanks to Kaling's screenplay.Comment on this story
"(Kaling) just made sure that nobody's arc was clichéd in any way because they were all headed towards the same goal, which had nothing to do with romance or marriage," she told the audience. "… We always say this movie is an ode to hard work. It's not 'when will I meet the man of my dreams, when will I get married," it's 'how can I break into comedy when I come from nowhere.'"
Given the audience's and distributor's responses, Kaling, best known for her writing and acting work on the TV shows "The Office" and "The Mindy Project," as well as two best-selling books, has found a big screen home for her writing skills. Audience member Melanie Hatchell, who was visiting the festival from Los Altos, California, summed up what many in the audience seemed to be feeling as the house lights came up.
"That was almost a perfect movie," she said.