Kabir Akhtar started his show business career as an editor but strove for the opportunity to direct. After earning Emmy nominations for “Arrested Development” and the 84th Academy Awards, he won his first Emmy for editing “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” That series gave him the chance to grow as a director as well. Now a full-time director, Akhtar’s two episodes of “Never Have I Ever“ benefited from that experience.
In “Never Have I Ever,” Akhtar creates a comedic “Rashomon,” telling the same story from two different perspectives. “…Started a nuclear war” and “…been the loneliest boy in the world” overlap narratives, but the character-driven episodes are guided by empathy. Akhtar sat down with Awards Circuit to talk about striving for understanding through our stories, working on a series with a South Asian-American lead, and collaborating with Mindy Kaling. Akhtar is eligible for Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series for his episode “…been the loneliest boy in the world.”
Alan French/Awards Circuit: Your career started on the post-production side as an editor. How does this affect your choices as a director?
Kabir Akhtar: I don’t know how I could direct without an editing background. It’s such a valuable tool, and I took a unique set of experiences as an editor into my work as a director. Comedy editing involves assembling, crafting performances, and fixing the timing of jokes. There’s a subtle nuance in the craft, and having a knowledge of how all the pieces go together is invaluable when I’m on set. I’ve seen directors overshoot and undershoot. It ultimately does not matter what we shoot, but it matters what we cut to keep the momentum of the comedy.
AF: You’ve previously won an Emmy for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” What were some lessons you learned that helped you with “Never Have I Ever?”
KA: Before the show, I was always editing more than I was directing. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” finally changed that the other way. It was my favorite job I’ve had in twenty years in the industry, and it is indescribable how fortuitous I was to have worked on it. We were the lowest-rated network show for four years in a row. Despite that, the show was beloved. I say, tongue-in-cheek, everybody loved it and nobody watched it. But I would much rather work on a loved show than one everybody watches, but no one loves.
AF: How did you get involved with “Never Have I Ever?”
KA: I know these stories can be very detailed, but mine’s shockingly straightforward. I spoke to my agent manager about it when I read about the show’s announcement. I told him that it looked amazing and really resonated with me. The story of a first-generation South Asian-American Teenager was my story. Trying to fit in and searching for identity was my experience. They waived their magic wands and the next thing I knew, I was working on the series.
AF: Could you describe the experience of working with Mindy Kaling?
KA: It was great to work Mindy. I had never met her before but I found her to be very supportive, creative, and collaborative. It is exciting because when you go to work with someone at her level for the first time you never know what you’re getting into. She has accomplished so much, and it was a tremendous tremendously positive experience. She let me work as an artist and wanted us to shoot the best show possible. I hope we collaborate more.
AF: I love that your episodes provide two different points-of-view on the material. “…Been the loneliest boy in the world” is the only episode that leaves Devi’s narration. How did you approach “…started a nuclear war,” knowing some of the events would be retold by a different character?
KA: When I got the script I was very excited because of how they were laid out. I love parallel storytelling, and stories that look at the same events from different characters’ points-of-views. In real life, you and I can have the same experience but draw completely different emotions from it. Showing Davi going through an event and then seeing Ben go through his experience, sometimes at the exact same moment, can be extremely fun from a filmmaking perspective. For example, Davi rides the bus home from the Model UN trip in episode 5, and we see flashbacks triggered by an ambulance passing by. But then in Ben’s episode, the same ambulance passes by and it’s meaningless to him. Seeing someone else’s point-of-view would probably help society these days.
AF: Davi and Ben were both amazing characters from the jump. “…Been the loneliest boy in the world” connected me to Ben so that I cared about him for the rest of the season. You had two excellent episodes to direct. Which was your favorite scene?
KA: I had a real soft spot for Ben going to the pizza place to meet his online friend. I love that scene because it is expertly written. The guy turns out to be much older and creepier than we expected. Right from the jump all of us are thinking “this is a terrible idea! Don’t go in there Ben!” The kid wisely gets up to leave and senses that there’s something wrong. We had a chance to humanize this creepy guy and feel bad for him. Been stops to consider that maybe he was rushing to judgment, so he sits back down. The next scene undercuts us again when the guy turns out to be extremely creepy. The scene was fun to shoot, and it’s funny because it undercuts the audience’s expectations twice.
AF: There are many great shows on television right now with younger actors. What were your impressions of working with a cast of young adults and teen actors?
KA: I was blown away. They were such pros. Maitreyi [Ramakrishnan] finds great nuances within these moments. I thought that in episode six, Jaren [Lewison] had a lot of ground to make up. For the first five episodes, he had been a pill and a thorn in Davi’s side. He added depth to a character that would be easy to write off as one dimensional. The writers on the show did a wonderful job of humanizing him. Again, it can be so easy to dismiss people with different points-of-view without taking the moment to empathize or understand. Both Maitreyi and Jaren were phenomenal.
AF: Do you find it difficult to find the rhythms of comedy on set, or do you feel comfortable finding those moments while shooting?
KA: I’ve had plenty of practice of that. So much of comedy work is timing, and my experience as an editor certainly helped. Most of the work I did as an editor was adjusting the timing of performances. These actors all had a real natural feel for what was funny, charming, or sincere. It made my job easier to mine those moments.
AF: What do you hope people take away from “Never Have I Ever?”
KA: I was always looking to emphasize the commonality of human experiences. Davi and Ben had such different trajectories. Many shows identify with character A and not with character B. I found it fun on this project by getting to be on both characters’ sides at once. There are grey areas, and not everything is black and white. I think it’s important to not judge people by their cover.
I’ve found it rewarding to work on a show featuring a brown lead character. She is not cultivated or caricatured in any way. I think this show spent the time to remind the audience that you do not know what other people are going through. You may see their reactions, but you may not know what they’re reacting to inside. It sounds like a lot for a light-hearted half-hour comedy, but I think that’s what made it so successful.