Master of One

by Ramona Flume

After getting cut from SNL after just one season, Noël Wells takes control as director of her first feature film.

Noël Wells is a live wire at a crowded house party. She’s dancing amid a group of hip 20-somethings, bouncing up and down like an ecstatic pogo stick, her hair helicopter-whirling just above her spritely stature. Suddenly she halts and shouts, “OK, let’s cut!” to her film crew and emerges from the throng of extras to watch the scene’s playback. The Saturday Night Live alum returned to Austin this spring to direct and star in her first feature film, an indie comedy about a struggling performer who comes back to her college town when a family member falls ill. On set with Wells, I watched as the star of the critically acclaimed Netflix series, Master of None, alternated between the wild abandon of a performer and the honed focus of an auteur, darting in and out of the camera frame, directing costars, delivering her own lines, and volleying adjustments to her director of photography in between takes. We spoke about her recent rise to fame, how her time at UT influenced her work, and what fuels her creative drive.

What has the process of writing, directing, and acting in your first feature film been like?

It’s been pretty straightforward! The hardest part of making a movie, I think, is writing a script that’s worth making. I had this character in my head for a couple of years and it took me a while to find the right version of a story to take her on this journey. The production process is where it gets fun. You get to put all the pieces together and bring it all to life and you enlist all these amazing creative people to help you make that happen. It takes on a shape of its own outside of what’s in your head … for better or worse.

The script is spot-on in its depictions of everyday situations that people in their 20s and 30s encounter while they’re trying to figure out their place in the world. Did you have a singular vision in mind?

This was just me trying to capture an experience of being this one human being who is a composite of a variety of people I know, myself included. I have a lot of regrets and guilt and shame about how some of my 20s panned out, and I’ve unpacked a lot of them. I’ve looked around and seen a lot of other people struggling, too. My biggest wish is for people to forgive themselves, and I hope this character’s journey reflects that.

You reference guilt and shame as creative motivations, but your work still reads as distinctly humorous and optimistic, whether it’s witty banter with Aziz Ansari on Master of None or an emotionally raw, real-life scenario in your new film.

I think so much art is so decisive and cynical, and I wanted to create something that on the surface looks dark and brooding, but ultimately reveals a more optimistic view of the world … that we can help each other grow. I do have an odd sense of optimism despite how disappointed I am with everything all the time. I always think things can get better and I believe people can change and evolve. I also filter everything through my sense of humor, and I have no idea how I got it except it was probably just a survival mechanism. It’s an interesting balance of brooding darkness and silver linings.

You landed a dream job in 2013 as a featured player on SNL. What would you say are your most poignant realizations after achieving what you’ve called a childhood dream and then moving on?

Well, I made a dream come true, and that in and of itself is pretty insane if you think about it. It shifts your idea of what’s possible. It was a very, very sad thing to me when it ended, but it allowed me to release my need to try and please something outside of myself. It really allowed me to just jump into my own point of view and perspective because after I lost the job, it was so embarrassing and so brutal. I felt like I had nothing left to lose. And I began digging much, much deeper, and I’ve found way more interesting ideas because of it, and I know I am capable of growing for the rest of my life.

I feel like you’ve been able to showcase a dynamic range in recent years that wouldn’t have been possible if you had stayed on at SNL. At UT, you were a Plan II and radio-television-film major. Did those programs inform your skillset?

One of the things I loved about these majors is I got to really shape my education because they were open-ended curriculums. I took classes that I was interested in, and a lot of them were hands-on, which is a more effective way for me to learn. I like putting things into action rather than thinking about them theoretically.

That’s interesting. Watching you simultaneously direct and act in your new movie was like seeing a real polymath in action.

I think this is just what it must look like from afar. I struggle a lot with my ambitions and learning all the things I want to learn. There was a period of time where I was crippled by the idea that I am stuck as the person I am, but then I read this book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which has kind of broken the spell. It describes two different mindsets — a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. I had been stuck in a fixed mindset, which operates from a state of believing you already know what you know. With a growth mindset, you realize that anything is possible, and that everything you do builds on the last thing you do. It takes a while to reorient your mind, but it’s allowed me to take many more risks and evolve much faster. It takes all the pressure off to be perfect or fully formed already and gives you the space to explore and stretch.

That seems to fall in line somewhat with the phrase “you have to put yourself out there,” something people say when sharing tips on success in the arts. What’s your take on that advice?

For me, the advice rings true because it’s what I’ve naturally done for whatever reason. I truly believe you have to put everything into your own hands and not rely on other people or wait to get permission or recognition to create. I just want to make things all the time, even if I’m bad at it, and I can’t really stop. If I was waiting for someone to give me a seal of approval, I would never have done anything because for most of my career, people have been incredibly dismissive. For me, my goal isn’t getting recognition or fame. I just want to put out into the world the sorts of things I see in my head. There’s still such a gap between what actually ends up getting made and what I truly want to make, but sometimes I hit the nail on the head, and it spurs me on to do more. Sometimes I fail so spectacularly, it oddly has the same effect.

Photo credits (from top): Ramona Flume; Jessica Pages; Ramona Flume (2)

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