Buy sound equipment. I was always scurrying around New York City to borrow random people’s sound equipment. It didn’t occur to me I could own my own because I wasn’t a sound mixer. But when I even invested slightly in some equipment, it made my life a LOT easier.
DSLRs are nice but not always what they’re cracked up to be. I started making my own projects around the DSLR craze and invested in one. It’s GREAT and a super handy prosumer tool that I still use to this day, but maybe I could have saved up for something that doesn’t do things like “shut off when it heats up too much, which is always sooner than you think.”
Don’t be afraid to make your own rules. I think I would sometimes get nervous to start a project because I didn’t know the “right” order of operations or way to do things. But that’s okay! You can make your own rules, and, when in doubt, ask other people and do research online.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rekha Shankar who is currently a writer on Hulu’s ANIMANIACS. She was also a writer on Netflix’s MAGIC FOR HUMANS and prior to that was the Head Writer/performer for COLLEGE HUMOR. She stars in the new BETWEEN TWO FERNS movie and was a writer on NETFLIX’s sketch comedy series ASTRONOMY CLUB, executive produced by Kenya Barris and Dan Powell. She is also the writer/creator of Hustle, which premieres at Slamdance in February of 2021. Also, check out the quarter-hour mockumentary series GODS OF FOOD Rekha created for College Humor’s ‘Dropout’ streaming platform.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I grew up in the suburbs on the East Coast. My family is all Indian immigrants, and I’m one of the only people in the family born in the U.S.A lot of immigrants who watch American sitcoms when they immigrate, so I grew up hooked to Nick at Nite, watching it til my eyeballs fell out with my grandparents. I feel lucky to have them and our mutually-loved TV shows in my life.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I met a friend when I was nine years-old who was so deeply funny. I didn’t even know someone could be that funny. We became best friends pretty instantly, and I felt her comedic sensibility rub off on me. But while I dreamed of making people laugh, I, like many others, had no idea that was an actual job. I was fortunate enough to take TV classes in high school and still didn’t even think a career in TV was possible. When I was in 9th grade, a friend even suggested I go to NYU Film School to learn how to write comedy. I truly laughed — I grew up on TV, with an embarrassing absence of movies. I could never go to NYU Film! Flash forward, I am at NYU my freshman year, miserable, and decide to give a transfer to the film program a shot. I worked my ass off on my application (I did a documentary and a “comedic essay”), and managed to get in. And from there, I tried to take any comedy writing opportunity I could, even if I had to invent it for myself.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I was on a student film set where the catered lunch was vegetarian Indian food, and the gaffer and grips got so mad there was no meat that they walked off set. It was pretty overblown especially because (and maybe I’m biased) Indian food rules. I almost didn’t include this, but when they came back, they drank straight out of the communal 2-liter bottles of soda as a mark of their “protest.” College cis-boys are horrible, and triply horrible on a film set.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I find I get along best with people who are passionate about they do — even if what they do is something that might ordinarily be boring to me. So I have friends who are psychiatrists, sage brush grouse researchers, tree pruners, beer writers, and the like, and their dedication to those jobs makes me, in turn, super interested in learning about them, too.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a few people who I am eternally grateful for. One of the ones that comes to mind is my friend-since-I-was-nine-years-old, Alex. She doesn’t ever remember saying this, but when I got rejected from, like, eight colleges my senior year of high school told me I’d be more accustomed to rejection at an early age than the people we knew who got into their first choice school. And she was one hundred percent correct: I think not expecting the world to always reward me for hard work has been a tough pill to swallow, but certainly easier to deal with as I go. And it definitely always helps to have a few dozen rejections under your belt already!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My life lesson quote is stolen from a True Hollywood Story episode about Heidi Klum (which I saw an airplane): plenty of people are going to say no to you, but you can’t say no to yourself.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
There are so many reasons diversity is important in entertainment. Off the bat, if people don’t see themselves from a young age, growing up becomes infinitely harder. You question your culture, your values, your appearance — everything. And that is deeply unfair and damaging. There is absolutely no reason I, someone with 2c curly hair, should have been using the same shampoo as my straight-haired family. But I never even knew curly hair was taken care of differently than straight hair because I never saw that on TV or anywhere around me. I was still going into Supercuts like an idiot hoping I’d come out with “The Rachel.”
Another reason it’s important is that there are literally so many stories and points of view out there even within just one culture — nothing on earth is a monolith. So the fact, as a brown woman, I often feel like we only get “one” show per year (if we’re lucky), sucks. Because that one show doesn’t represent everyone or everything about that ethnic group.
Representation is also important because seeing people that don’t look or feel like you is necessary especially at a young age. If you only see cis-white straight people on TV, then that becomes your “norm” and everything else becomes “other.” And that impacts how you see every single person you meet and absolutely influences your politics.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m working on some pilots I’m excited about, like one about my favorite thing on earth — boybands. I’m also touring Hustle around some film festivals! I am also passionate about food and host a weekly Top Chef livestream called Talk Chef where we raise money for food-based charities.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
The aspect of my work that makes me the most proud is how much my edit and my editor plays a role in telling jokes. I am a former editor so I try as hard as I can to use post production for additional jokes and joke punch-up.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Get the cool shot. I am not someone who pays attention to cinematography. If left to my own devices everything I made would be shot-reverse-shot. But as I go along in my career, I am always grateful for people who have that sensibility, and I wish I had allotted more time for that kind of creative process in my early work.
- Be clearer than you think you need to be. Nothing in filmmaking is obvious. Follow-up, double-check, and make absolutely clear what the process and expectations of a task will be. And if you start to see someone slipping up, either remind them of the expectation, or re-assess if it was a reasonable expectation to begin with!
- Buy sound equipment. I was always scurrying around New York City to borrow random people’s sound equipment. It didn’t occur to me I could own my own because I wasn’t a sound mixer. But when I even invested slightly in some equipment, it made my life a LOT easier.
- DSLRs are nice but not always what they’re cracked up to be. I started making my own projects around the DSLR craze and invested in one. It’s GREAT and a super handy prosumer tool that I still use to this day, but maybe I could have saved up for something that doesn’t do things like “shut off when it heats up too much, which is always sooner than you think.”
- Don’t be afraid to make your own rules. I think I would sometimes get nervous to start a project because I didn’t know the “right” order of operations or way to do things. But that’s okay! You can make your own rules, and, when in doubt, ask other people and do research online.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d have more people do small daily actions in their local communities — whether it’s helping unhoused people, participating in local politics, or supporting rising stars in their community who are making a difference. I think if we start local, the behemoth of national change becomes less mystifying and intimidating.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
IfMaya Erskine or Anna Konkle ever need anything, I’m there. Same goes for Jordan Peele, Tig Notaro, David Hyde Pierce, and Raphael Bob-Waksberg . I’ll cook!
How can our readers further follow you online?
I’m at @RekhaLShankar on Twitter, rekha_s on Instagram, and you can see my work on rekhashankar.com !
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!