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“I Want to Call Out and Support All the Female Directors”

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LBB sits down with Ramaa Mosley to discuss her large range of work as a director

“I Want to Call Out and Support All the Female Directors”

Ramaa Mosley, who began directing spots as a teenager, is today more prolific than ever across the distinctive disciplines of commercials, feature film and television. After being encouraged by mentor Lesli Linka Glatter to apply in 2019 to NBC’s Female Forward program, Ramaa was selected from 1,000 applicants to direct the dramatic series, 'Blindspot.' It marked her first opportunity in episodic television and was one of two episodes she directed for the series. She went on to direct episodes of 'Manifest,' 'Animal Kingdom,' 'All Rise' and most recently, '61st Street.' The latter is AMC’s courtroom drama from BAFTA-winner Peter Moffat, Michael B. Jordan and AMC studios, with Courtney B. Vance and Academy Award-nominated actress Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard).

Ramaa enjoys shifting from directing television to commercials, applying learnings from each format to the other which enable her to do her best work as a storyteller. She is represented for commercials by Station Film, where her focus now is to do more of the cinematic narrative storytelling she has been gaining recognition for in episodic television.

Ramaa remains a passionate and tireless advocate for women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, undertaking initiatives through grassroots program Educate Girls Now which was founded in response to the dire needs of Afghanistan girls as seen in the documentary Girl Rising, and via her global Gen Z Creative Consultancy & Content Studio, Adolescent Content which supports brands to more authentically reach Gen Z and strives to shift parity and create space for marginalised people in and around advertising. 

LBB spoke with her about the awe-inspiring breadth of her work as director and advocate.

 

LBB> You recently directed episodes of ‘61st Street.’ What was that experience like? 

RM> Working on “61st Street” was really exciting because the showrunner Peter Moffat ('Your Honor,' 'Criminal Justice') and executive producer J. David Shanks are both extraordinary individuals. I really enjoyed 'Your Honor' which Peter created for Hulu.  Mr. Shanks worked as a policeman in Chicago’s South Side. Working with both Peter and David daily was impactful.  I directed two episodes of the first season of '61st Street' and the last two episodes for the second season. Getting to work with the incredible cast - including Aunjanue Ellis who was just nominated for an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress in King Richard) and the inspiring Courtney B. Vance - was a highlight of my career. It was similar to working on a film in many ways. Peter and David, as well as Jeff Freilich (Producer), were looking for me as a director to come with a point of view. In television, it’s exciting to be able to approach a series cinematically. 

It was also challenging at times for myself and the cast because the material was rigorous and triggering. Courtney set the tone and there’s nothing held back. The devotion that he, Aunjanue and Tosin Cole brought every day was spellbinding and also cost something emotionally and energetically. Normally, when working on a challenging scene, I call cut and everyone lets go and relaxes. This was a committed cast that stayed in it. They kept going as we set up for the next shot, they didn’t let go. They stayed in the scene and kept going and going. Even the crew cried daily watching the monitor.

Meanwhile, there was a lot to accomplish because the scripts were ambitious. We were filming complex scenes in a short amount of time. But it was also awe inspiring, breath taking. We shot in Chicago on location on the South Side and also on stages. Walking onto the stages - a replica of the Chicago courthouse as well as multiple homes and prisons were built on standing stages there - the sets were just beautiful. Every part of the craftsmanship and details was exceptional. It was a powerful, special project that I feel privileged to have worked on. 


LBB> How did you delve into the TV world from commercials? Did you have a mentor?

RM> I made my first two feature films back in 2013 and 2018, Brass Teapot, then Lost Child. I was pondering the move into directing some TV, then the DGA Mentorship Program paired me with Lesli Linka Glatter who really gave me that incredible support. She basically reached out and pulled me up. She had launched the NBC Female Forward program. I applied. They had over 1,000 applicants and I was selected. I was placed on my first show which was an NBC show, 'Blindspot.' I directed my first episode; it was a very action-packed series. I was invited back. And then I was invited on Jeff Rake’s show, 'Manifest.' I directed an episode of “Manifest” for season two, and was invited back for season three. That was the beginning. 

I think so much about how commercials set me up well to be a good TV director. On one hand you need to come with a very clear vision on what you’re doing, and be very prepared. On the other hand, you’re also working in collaboration with the show runner and the studio, so to know how to do that, having come from commercials where being very collaborative is the way it goes, is crucial. 


LBB> What is your perspective about women directing in television? We see more and more women, but do you think it’s “there” yet?

RM> There’s a huge opportunity for women to be directing in television and that’s what I’m after. Having started directing when I was a teen in the early 2000s, I had opportunities. I feel very lucky. At that time, I heard other people talking about a lack of opportunity. I never wanted to be that person talking about the lack of opportunity when I was so young and felt privileged. Over the years, I have been directing big projects steadily, but I never broke through to the next level. I have yet to direct a Super Bowl spot for example. I consistently would get to the point where I would get bid on things and even though my reel was so much better, the person who was getting the job was a young man who had just finished college and had two spots. The Bro. I was the same age but had been directing for 6, 10, 15 years and had a much deeper breadth of work. It just didn’t make sense. Now we talk about unconscious bias. Which previously I didn’t understand. I thought if I just worked harder I would break through. Now I understand that many agency creatives - both male and female - work with male directors because that’s what they are familiar with. As opposed to really pushing into the unfamiliar. It’s also the brands. Agencies have a challenge to educate their clients. That said, it’s frustrating to work very hard, deliver consistently and not break forward. It’s not a matter of being busy - I’ve stayed very busy - but it’s about getting the best boards and the most creative opportunities. In some ways that’s what opened up my interest in TV.

Now with television, even more than commercials, what I’ve seen is the networks, the studios are dedicated to trying to create some semblance of parity. They’ve signed on to say, “Yes, we want to do this.” In a way the commercial industry hasn’t even been tackled. I think the commercial industry is still centred around a core group of five to eight female directors. Television has a much wider group that they’re going to. 

Television has been exciting to move into not only for that, but also because I love storytelling. I kept looking for the opportunity to do storytelling in commercials, not just lifestyle vignettes which for a long time is what women have been given, but also storytelling. It wasn’t happening consistently in commercials so I had to move into a medium that was going to give me this opportunity to tell the stories. And that’s what TV has done.  


LBB> What are some general similarities and differences to directing a commercial campaign?

RM> Directing a commercial and directing a TV series is extremely different. It’s the difference between knowing how to be a sprinter and knowing how to race a triathlon. You may be able to run, but it’s a question of how long can you do it for and do it well? I’m not saying that everybody can do commercials because that’s not true either; you have to be able to tell a story in a short amount of time. That said, it is undoubtedly much more challenging to direct television. The whole process of preparation and then going out and directing television is totally rigorous in the way that you would train for a triathlon versus a sprint race. 

I’ve always been someone who is totally focused on prep, including my shot list. All of that work of learning how to communicate to a storyboard artist what I wanted to see on the page in commercials has been useful for TV. But it is different because it’s not just making a shot list or storyboards, you also have all these standing sets that have been built for the show which remain standing for the duration of the show. You do blocking - thinking about how actors are going to move between a scene. You do all this work, the blocking, the shot list and then you come in every single day and have to be ready for the actors to make different decisions. Then pivot, all with a very limited amount of time. 

In commercials, generally, you have more shooting time for a script even though it’s a shorter format. In television it’s very different, you need to shoot at least four to ten scenes on a TV shoot day. Most of the time there are big sequences in these scenes. 

So developing the muscle to work fast and create excellent results has been key. I did this sequence in “61st Street” which was a race, two guys were racing against each other. Then they get into a fight. Then there’s this big explosion of smoke and the guards coming in. We did that in half a day. It was a massive amount of sequences. If that was for a commercial, easily, that would have been shot in its own day or more. Television is rigorous. You have to run, swim, ride faster and do more and for longer but the process is different. TV also doesn’t have input from clients and agencies and repeated takes of a scene, which allows the set to move faster. 

Another big difference for me is I’m used to casting the talent for commercials, then really working with and directing them towards how I see it on behalf of the agency. With TV a lot of time you’re walking in and the talent has already been cast. You’re coming in support of them. You’re working with different personalities. It’s not like you’re gonna say, “Go there, move there, this is what I want.” Not only do you have more to do and have less time to do it, but you also have a lot of conversations that are necessary. I am trying to adapt myself because growing up doing commercials I’m used to having a clear vision of what I want - this beautiful shot and this beautiful camera angle. I’ve spent so much time thinking about it, I want to go and do it. In TV, actors don’t want to hear about the beautiful shot. It’s about their character. Actors need to find the moment for themselves and need time - which TV doesn’t often have. So it’s a skill, to help actors do their work and capture the scene cinematically and also be responsible for the overall production and logistics.

Those are some of the things that are different and the challenges around them. Which makes going back and forth between commercials kind of fun.


LBB> How does it impact your commercial work?

RM> I just learned how to lift this heavy weight. The way my brain thinks right now, I’m much more efficient. The way I think about sequences right now, it’s more cinematic and overall just better than who I was as a commercial director a few years ago before I started directing TV. And this goes even for my films. My film work helped me be a better director, but TV takes me to the next level in terms of how to be a better director with talent, how to be a better director for the crew, how to be better for everyone.  


LBB> What are you watching right now?

RM> I’ve been watching all the Oscar nominated films. I just watched Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which I thought was really amazing. Queen of the North I thought was incredible, directed by Charlotte Sieling, a mentor. I really enjoyed Plan B. I try to watch as many female-directed movies as I can because I want to call out and support all the female directors. I went back and re-watched Top of the Lake by Jane Campion which is extraordinary. I am finally watching “Game of Thrones” which I had held back on because I didn’t have time. 


LBB> Who are some of your favourite directors in television? 

RM> Hanelee M. Culpepper. Ava Du Vernay. Lesli Linka Glatter. Millicent Shelton. Ellen Kuras. Amanda Marsalis.

 

LBB> Are you writing any screenplays or teleplays?

RM> I am working on a series right now that is called 'The New Age.' It is about my life being born in a cult and my family’s journey through about 10 different cults. It’s kind of like 'This Is Us' meets 'Unorthodox.'

 

LBB> What do you want to do next in the commercial space?

RM> Really wanting to do work that is in and around either storytelling - really incredible storytelling projects, or just super super visual. I loved Burberry “Open Spaces.” 


LBB> Do you have a go-to cinematographer? 

RM> I love working with Polly Morgan. She’s one of my all time favourites. 


LBB> A big part of your life is being an advocate. What cause-related initiatives have you been focusing on most recently?

RM> I’m focused on creating space for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creators to get into the industry through Adolescent Content, and a mission to try to shift parity in and around advertising. Adolescent Content just was hired by Meta and Google for a variety of interesting campaigns. We’re supporting their efforts as an ad agency, research division and production company. We’re doing trend reports, concept plus strategic thinking as well as having this amazing group of Black creators make content. It's exciting work. We’re about to help a non-profit launch a brand that’s focused on raising awareness on the national debt. That’s been super interesting. 

After I directed the documentary Girl Rising, my family and I founded a non-profit in Afghanistan dedicated to helping girls in the most rural villages get an education. We have 176 children in our program. When the US announced the withdrawal, we had to figure out how to help our female foundation workers get out of Afghanistan because their lives were at risk. From summer to fall, it was a full on mission. We’re still working on getting the rest of our people out of Kabul. We’ve got most of them out, but they’re in the middle place. They crossed by land to Pakistan and so now we’re working to get them out through various channels to countries that are willing to take them. I’m literally on conference calls with state department people. Part of my life is paperwork working on that. You go through extreme stress getting them out, then spend days working on piled up paperwork to get them visas to get them somewhere. Meanwhile, we’ve worked day and night to ensure that the 176 children in our education program can continue their schooling.

In between directing commercials and television, working on the Educate Girls Now Foundation, the driving through-line in my life is growing Adolescent Content and the work I do as the co-founder and ECD. Our mission is to help brands more effectively reach Gen Z and at the same time create opportunities for these incredible storytellers to tell their stories and be able to make a living.  

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Station Film, Thu, 03 Mar 2022 15:20:22 GMT