Melina Matsoukas on the transition from Beyoncé videos to HBO comedy
Every week, the cast and crew of HBO’s Insecure — the new series based on Issa Rae’s successful web series — is taking EW behind the scenes of each episode. This week, Melina Matsoukas, the executive producer and director of the pilot, walks us through the series premiere, “Insecure as F—.” Matsoukas is a veteran music director (she’s worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga) making her television debut.
On joining Insecure:
I had been looking for some narrative material that I could really relate to and bring to life. This script kind of fell into my lap from my agent, and when I read it, it felt like Issa had really captured my life on the page. I just knew that I had to be a part of it. So I essentially begged my agent to put me in a room with the showrunners, Issa and Prentice [Penny], and the EPs, flew out [to L.A.] and gave them a pitch. I put together a little treatment. It was pretty quick. Michael Lombardo and Casey Bloys [of HBO], were willing to take a risk on me. I think they were looking for somebody who could tell this story very authentically, and felt like I would be that person. And that was that — a month later, we were shooting.
On her relationship with Rae:
When I first met Issa, I told her she was capturing this undefined black woman — this black woman you haven’t seen before onscreen, and someone I felt like I related to in many ways. I also related to the character of Molly. After that initial meeting, we went out a couple of times and just really got to know each other. We formed a real friendship. We would tell each other stories — I’m sure she tried to get me drunk a couple times, and I’m sure that material will be in the series somewhere! We’ve been really comfortable with each other; we definitely speak the same language and come from the same background. I think we have a great relationship; we challenge each other to be better and also give each other the space to be free to create.
On the unique challenge of crafting a pilot:
We’re trying to create a language. But we really didn’t know what that was, and we were trying to form a look to the show and have the scenes be dictated by the characters, their environments, and where they’re from. We had a lot of fun creating a life for each environment, and I had a lot of fun learning about South L.A. I’m originally from the Bronx in New York, but even though I moved out [to California] 13 years ago, when I thought of South L.A., all I really knew about was Gangland. Finally getting to learn about it as a thriving community, full of people of color, and all kinds of educational backgrounds and economic levels, and then making South L.A. its own character for our show as a real landscape, that was interesting and unexpected.
On the first visuals of the series being various locations in South L.A.:
I was really trying to set the tone, trying to put you in a place and a time and a people. I think that it describes where we are very clearly, and also the struggle and the life of the people that inhabit those areas. It’s a perfect pairing with the music [in the show]. We’re trying to create something that is vivid, interesting, and makes people want to watch the show from the beginning.
On the influence that her musical background had on the pilot:
There were definitely a couple of things in the way the episode was written that I wanted to change around and come with a different approach. There are a lot of pop culture references and pop culture design in our direction and in the rhythm and the movement. I think a lot of that comes from my video experience. I really wanted each character and his or her scenes to take on a life of their own and have a distinct feel. For Molly, it was a colder world and supposed to feel more stable and put together. With Issa, it’s a little more unstable and we use a lot of handhelds. When they come together, things get a bit warmer and more inviting, so I tried to use the cinematography to influence the telling of the story, as well.
On her favorite moment to shoot in episode:
There are definitely a couple, but I always die laughing at the lipstick scene. Every part of it was fun — we were literally throwing out really inappropriate p-words to use, and that went on and on. We edited it at the end. I think we had, like, a five-minute version of the scene. It was so hard to pick our favorite moments, but obviously we had to bring it down. It definitely stands out and it’s really f—ing funny.
On the opening scene at the school:
The kids were really into it. I think they have a lot of experience teasing each other at that age, so they fully understood the intention of the scene. Kids are always fun to work with — they get into it and they take the readings well. There was one kid who I don’t think understood any of the jokes, so we had to give him somewhat of a line reading, but we made it clear and they definitely loved laughing at her. Some of the kids come back in future episodes and they definitely bring their own attitude to it.
On filming the club scene:
That’s a really familiar space to me because I’ve done a lot of music videos. I wanted Issa’s character to feel unconfident and hesitant in her rap skills, and I think that comes across. But I also really wanted her to get into it, with the crowd egging her on. Although when you’re shooting for TV, we were recording live sound so there was actually a crowd mimicking and miming the words, not saying anything. It was really weird. I think she could probably really just hear my voice shouting over everything.
Insecure airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.
—As told to Derek Lawrence