Com­edy, doc­u­men­taries ig­nite Lisa’s soul

As vice-pres­i­dent at Nextflix, she sources global ma­te­rial to keep 125 mil­lion sub­scribers riv­eted, writes

The Mercury - - NEWS -

GROW­ING up as a child of Ja­panese im­mi­grants to the US, Lisa Nishimura never thought it would be her des­tiny to end up in the me­dia space.

She thought her world would be medicine – a field that she loved and in which many of her fam­ily mem­bers were al­ready prac­tis­ing.

“It’s an in­ter­est­ing thing be­ing in the position that I am to­day, and to re­mem­ber that vividly. The idea of be­ing able to see our­selves, whether it is on screen or just in the world. I grew up in a space where it was an im­mi­grant men­tal­ity: work hard, do that much bet­ter, keep your head down and don’t make waves.”

Even though Nishimura didn’t go into medicine, she ended up ex­plor­ing it through a dif­fer­ent medium – doc­u­men­taries and com­edy.

“I have al­ways been deeply moved by the hu­man con­di­tion,” she said.

“Medicine, in par­tic­u­lar psy­chol­ogy and psy­chi­a­try, were com­pelling for me, be­cause it was about un­der­stand­ing the deeper drive in all of us to syn­the­sise in­for­ma­tion around us in a cer­tain way.

“It was just an end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing world for me.”

The work at hand

Nishimura is vice pres­i­dent of orig­i­nal doc­u­men­taries and com­edy pro­gram­ming at Net­flix. The in­ter­net en­ter­tain­ment ser­vice has 125 mil­lion sub­scribers of whom 75% watch their doc­u­men­taries.

“I think both those fields are con­nected in a way. Doc­u­men­tar­i­ans and co­me­di­ans are the best com­men­ta­tors of our day. They have many things in com­mon… they’re tire­less ob­servers of the hu­man con­di­tion. It’s the thing that drives them. The best of them use their ob­ser­va­tions and syn­the­sise them in a way that view­ers can re­late to.

“Be­cause peo­ple tend to be a lit­tle un­com­fort­able with the un­known, co­me­di­ans and doc­u­men­tar­i­ans can pro­vide that in­for­ma­tion for anal­y­sis and re­flec­tion.

“Hu­mour in the right hands wraps it in safety be­cause you are laugh­ing, but it can be sub­ver­sive as well. I think in any art you of­ten take from it what you’re able to take in the mo­ment and re­flect on it later.

“The ex­plo­ration of those things in film and great com­edy is fas­ci­nat­ing and nec­es­sary for me. It helps to make sense of the world around us, and it’s my hope that it also helps us un­der­stand one an­other more.”

The award-win­ning ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for works in­clud­ing the 2017 doc­u­men­tary The Keep­ers, Mak­ing A Mur­derer in 2015 and Al Mi­dan in 2013, is se­ri­ous about en­sur­ing that the hunger for doc­u­men­taries of Net­flix’s au­di­ence is fed.

Career in mu­sic

Just as in medicine, she was sur­rounded by a fam­ily that loved the arts. Her mom was a vi­o­lin­ist.

“I grew up with mu­sic, but I never thought it was some­thing that I would end up in. I was do­ing in­ter­na­tional mu­sic dis­tri­bu­tion for a while.

“Then I started my own record la­bel (she was one of the found­ing mem­bers), and we re­ceived a pro­duc­tion dis­tri­bu­tion deal through Chris Black­well, who founded Is­land Records and Is­land Films.” Her re­la­tion­ship with Black­well be­came a men­tor­ing one.

“I’ve been for­tu­nate in my career, grav­i­tat­ing to­wards peo­ple who re­ally value art and champion the arts.”

Chris, the man be­hind leg­ends like Bob Mar­ley and Grace Jones, was a huge in­flu­ence on Nishimura. Af­ter selling Is­land Records to PolyGram En­ter­tain­ment, Black­well started Palm Pic­tures and asked Lisa to join the com­pany. She ended up work­ing with him for about 12 years, and merged into film-mak­ing.

She met her Net­flix fam­ily while she was gen­eral man­ager at Palm Pic­tures.

Ted Saran­dos, chief content of­fi­cer and Cindy Hol­land, vice pres­i­dent of orig­i­nal content for Net­flix, met her at a time when they fan­cied the films Palm Pic­tures was mak­ing and they were buy­ing their DVDs.

Net­flix, an en­ter­tain­ment com­pany that pro­vides stream­ing me­dia and videos on de­mand on­line, started out as a DVD by mail com­pany in 1997.

“They knew their stuff. They were very bright, but they were also fans. I met them in 2003, and even­tu­ally they cre­ated a brand new role in the com­pany to buy content from all the ma­jor stu­dios in the world and that’s a big job,” Nishimura said.

Net­flix spe­cialises

The de­ci­sion to buy content from stu­dios around the world was the be­gin­ning of recog­nis­ing that when you make those types of shows – every­thing from Ja­panese Anime, Scan­di­na­vian tele­vi­sion shows to French drama – avail­able, peo­ple are fas­ci­nated and keen to en­gage, she said.

Work­ing with co­me­di­ans

Her ado­ra­tion for co­me­di­ans is based on her re­spect for their work. Hav­ing worked with the likes of Dave Chap­pelle, Mar­lon Wayans, Craig Fer­gu­son and DeRay Davis, among oth­ers, Nishimura was taken by their “never-give-up at­ti­tude”.

“It’s the most thing in the world.

“I find it amaz­ing that it doesn’t mat­ter if you are at the top of your game or just start­ing, you can’t cheat – you have to write the ma­te­rial and per­form it.

“You go out night af­ter night. And the sheer amount of work that goes into it… they are rad­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tors.”

When peo­ple find a co­me­dian that res­onates with them, they be­gin a fan­ship.

“It’s re­ally deep, be­cause you feel like you have found some­one who has added to your ex­pe­ri­ence or words.” ter­ri­fy­ing

Au­thor­ship is vi­tal

Nishimura uses Ali Wong as a prime ex­am­ple. The come­di­enne taped her first Net­flix spe­cial stand-up show, Baby Co­bra, when she was eight months’ preg­nant.

“She is so can­did about her ex­pe­ri­ences – dat­ing, get­ting mar­ried, preg­nancy and be­ing a mom.”

On Mother’s Day her sec­ond spe­cial – Hard Knock Wife – de­buted on Net­flix.

“Iron­i­cally, she is preg­nant again. She flies in the face of ex­pec­ta­tion; you would not ex­pect that from an Asian wo­man. She rep­re­sents that which says you don’t lose as­pects of your­self just be­cause you are mar­ried. You’re still a whole, com­plex per­son.

“It is through these story forms that peo­ple have the abil­ity to fully par­tic­i­pate in, ex­pe­ri­ence and ob­serve as a viewer. There’s a rich­ness.”

Awards are im­por­tant

“Doc­u­men­tar­i­ans are in it for the pas­sion. They care about the recog­ni­tion from their peer group that they re­spect and ad­mire. The re­al­ity with recog­ni­tion is you can change the tra­jec­tory of some­body’s career and be­cause it is so im­por­tant to film-mak­ers, it be­comes a pri­or­ity for us.”

She said film-mak­ers should know that when they work with Net­flix as part­ners, the com­pany has the ca­pac­ity, re­sources and de­sire to sup­port them to the full po­ten­tial of their work. Awards re­sult in more cov­er­age.

With the White Hel­mets cam­paign, the cov­er­age given to the film al­lowed the film-mak­ers to speak to the cause and what was happening in Syria.

There is no box to tick for the per­fect doc­u­men­tary

“It’s about what the story is telling the uni­verse. Is it an im­mer-sive, en­gag­ing, in­ter­est­ing world? Then it cen­tres on the sto­ry­teller – are they qual­i­fied? What is their point of view? I get ner­vous when some­one comes in and says ‘what do you want, what is Net­flix look­ing for’?

“No. It should be the thing you can’t get through af­ter five min­utes of meet­ing some­body. That thing that sets your hair on fire.”

She uses an ex­am­ple of renowned Amer­i­can film­maker Er­rol Mor­ris, who she met more than three years ago.

“He is one of the great­est liv­ing doc­u­men­tar­i­ans. I asked him what hasn’t he done? He is one of the most imi­tated doc­u­men­tar­i­ans to­day,” Nishimura said.

Mor­ris, at that time, had an idea he had been think­ing about for over a decade and thought it would be im­pos­si­ble to make. “It piqued my in­ter­est. I asked him why, and that’s how we started talk­ing about what be­came Worm­wood.”

Nishimura re­mem­bers how Er­rol’s am­bi­tions were huge for the project. “It was ex­cit­ing, and an ex­am­ple of the value of innovation in film-mak­ing. We sit with a film-maker and we talk about how you want to tell the story. And we let the story di­rect the for­mat…”

Doc­u­men­taries should never be de­scrip­tive

“Doc­u­men­taries can take a lot of dif­fer­ent forms, with doc­u­men­tar­i­ans it’s a lot of sub­jec­tive views, you’re step­ping into some­body’s world and it is not in­tended to be jour­nal­is­tic. It’s ex­pe­ri­en­tial and it’s about en­sur­ing that the au­di­ence is clear about what it is they are watch­ing.

“There are film-mak­ers who come with heady jour­nal­is­tic cre­den­tials and that’s what they are there to do, so we spend a lot of time talk­ing to un­der­stand the in­tent.”

Work les­sons

Lis­ten­ing is one of the big­gest les­sons for Nishimura: “I have been hum­bled and im­pressed by the cre­ators that I work with. There’s pas­sion and con­vic­tion.”

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