Imagine Ava DuVernay’s production company, ARRAY, picking up the first movie you directed. That’s what happened to photographer-turned-director Amanda Marsalis. After ARRAY recovers Echo ParkDuVernay asked Marsalis to direct episodes of sugar queen and the CW pilot Noemie and now this talented director is taking prestige television by storm. BGN spoke with Marsalis via zoom earlier this week about making four episodes of the final season of ozark and how she got started directing for television.
What prompted you to move from photography to directing?
I received an email from a friend and from Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter. I know Rebecca because I photographed Michelle Ndegeochello for VIBE magazine 15 years ago. Michelle hates being photographed, but she liked me, and she liked the picture. Michelle and Rebecca were together at the time, so Michelle came home and told Rebecca, “I met a photographer that I really liked.” Rebecca contacted me later and hired me to photograph her for her first book, Black, White and Jewish. So I photographed her for her portrait on the back of her book.
We kept in touch all these years, and one day she emailed me and asked, have you ever considered directing a movie? I know these guys are looking for a director. I was like “Yes, yes and YES!” The movie was called Echo Park. I was in my thirties and lived in Echo Park. It’s a story that I understood. It was manageable. The story was much more of a romantic comedy sort of thing when I got it. I founded it. I had 15 days to turn it and $200,000, and it was all my furniture.
I gutted my house and put my pictures on the wall, and all my friends were in it. It was a time in my photography career where I wasn’t challenged like I needed to be. It was just a miracle and a gift that this person came and said, “Do you want to try this thing?” Then these people said we had money to make a movie. It’s not like I got paid to do the movie. I mean, I probably donated money to make the movie. We did and gave it everything we could, and then Ava DuVernay ended up distributing the film.
It was also a miracle, and then she was just doing the first season of Queen Sugar. I was totally like, ‘I would like to direct television. Eva. Please, please, I’ll be so good at this. Let me do it. I know I can do it. There’s this sweet spot of being a guest director on TV of being a visitor, but ordering the set, and the vision within the confines of the structure that already exists.
I have worked in advertising for a long time. I figured out all the politics of that, then I steered sugar queen. Then, honestly, the fourth TV episode I directed was the ozark season two finale. Wow. Which was another miracle. I went back to season three, then four episodes of season four. Chris Mundy is a dear friend and Laura Linney is my hero. Jason Bateman just tried to get me to quit my current job to work for him, and I said I couldn’t do that.
It’s pretty cool though.
That’s totally cool, but I was like man I work! I’m working on Kinship right now.
I promise I’m not gonna screw this up. Janicza Bravo directed the pilot. It’s really good.
I am on. I love his work.
I also like your work. Your direction on Ozark was amazing. What was the best part of working on this show?
It’s a three-way tie. It was between the kindness, respect and trust I received from Chris Mundy, the advice, care and knowledge given to me by Laura Linney, and the technical skills of Jason Bateman that made me greatly influenced. I like them all very much.
Both Bateman and Linney are actors/directors. How does your directing process fit when working with actors/directors on the show?
You take a test every day. With Jason, he would say, “How are you going to do that?” And you’re like, “Well, my plan is going to do this, and I’m going to come here, and I did it, you know?”
He’ll be like, “Okay, okay, great.” Sometimes he might be like, “I don’t think you can come across that.” You’d probably be like, “No, I think the reason I’m doing this is because, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Then he might say, “Okay, I see that.” Or you just think, “You’re probably right. whether it was or not. Then Laura is, I think, one of the most gifted, talented, yet prepared people I’ve ever seen.
The music is like another character in the show. How closely do you work with the music supervisor to bring the soundscape to life?
Chris Mundy was a rolling stone journalist just before becoming a writer. He writes music in the scripts, so you know when you’re going to shoot what the music will be. Some of the music we picked together, but like the NAS episode, I knew for weeks that it was written in the episode, so they immediately started working on getting as much out of it as possible.
What brings you the most joy these days?
The actors on Kinship are so incredibly talented. It’s a real pleasure and I feel very, very lucky. As a photographer, the idea is that I am a director, a working director. It always blows my mind. Authentic storytelling really brings me joy. So the days that I can’t believe how many pages we had to turn and it’s so frustrating and I didn’t get what I wanted and all those things you remember you didn’t no need to work with some like 26-year-old white man’s art director tells me to do a dodgy photo, like fu#k it. I am happy.
The four seasons of ozark are now streaming on Netflix. The FX series Kinship based on the Octavia Butler book is currently in production.