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‘Rap Sh!t’ Director Explains the Trick to Filming Onscreen Phone Scenes

Director Amy Aniobi walks IndieWire through the challenges of filming a show to look like social media, as well as crafting "sexy" love scenes.

A young woman in a magenta top checks her phone while eating outdoors.

Aida Osman in “Rap Sh!t”

HBO Max

“Rap Sh!t” Episode 6 does not mess around — narratively speaking.

The latest installment of Issa Rae’s HBO Max comedy about emerging female rappers in Miami covers Mia (KaMillion) being targeted on social media while Shawna (Aida Osman) distracts herself from a devastating breakup by hanging out with Maurice (Daniel Augustin). When the women reconvene at episode’s end, they decide to take on Chastity a.k.a. the Duke of Miami (Jonica Booth) as their manager, focusing their emotional energy into creativity.

“An undercurrent in the entire episode is ‘Can I trust you to be there for me?’ and that’s coming off of the episode before where we saw that that trust had been broken,” director Amy Aniobi told IndieWire via Zoom ahead of the episode. “Even though we end on on the moment that’s tied to a guy, the episode is not about the men. It is always going to come back to the friendship between these women. I love that they had both had doubts about Chastity in different ways, but in this moment, it was just a little look between each other like, ‘We’re all on the same page about this.'”

“Rap Sh!t” follows Shawna and Mia’s rise as rappers often through social media: Instagram posts, stories, lives, and more. That element was present even ahead of production, when Aniobi read the pilot, but the final integration still hadn’t been worked out when she came in to direct.

“By the time we were shooting Episode 6, it was right when they were figuring that out,” Aniobi recalled. “There were a lot of scenes in my episode that I shot both ways, because it was still a negotiation of how much social media we’re going to use and how much is going to be traditional.”

Aniobi got her start in directing while working as an executive producer on “Insecure.” These days she’s busy with an overall deal at HBO, producing with SuperSpecial, and mentoring young writers. She has multiple comedies in the works as well as the dramatic limited series “The Dolls” with Rae and Laura Dern. Ahead of the episode, Aniobi sat down with IndieWire to talk all things “Rap Sh!t,” her passion for directing love scenes, and her legacy as a writer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: Were you involved in pre-production or shadowing other episodes before it came time for this one?

Amy Aniobi: Actually, no, but it was such a beautiful way that it happened because I’m new at directing television. I was EP on “Insecure” for all five seasons and directed in the final season, but often people say you did a good job if you get brought back to the show you did. Well, I can’t get brought back to “Insecure.” One day randomly I’m in the streets of New York and I get a call: “Hey, would you have any interest in directing ‘Rap Sh!t?'” Of course I would. I read the pilot, I’m obsessed with it, I love the social media — and they’re like, “Could you come next Wednesday?”

Three women sit around a dining table eating takeout; still from "Rap Sh!t."

“Rap Sh!t”

HBO Max

You said you read the pilot. How familiar were you going into the episode with the social media component of the show?

It’s in the pilot, and what they found coming out of the first episode was they wanted to find more of a balance. My assumption is that selling that aspect, making audiences get used to the social media aspect, [is why] they put it pretty heavily in the first episode, and by the time you get to Episode 3 and 4, it eases off a little bit. There are some scenes that are such a shot traditionally, and other scenes that are shot through the phones… We would sort of go back and forth, and credit to my AD Susan for figuring out the schedule, because we had to shoot the scenes twice just in case.

What I think was so amazing about that is in the edit you really get to decide what’s the most effective way to tell the story. For Gen Z girls who are working on being rappers — as we know from the writers in the room like Chris Sanford who came from the music industry, and Syreeta Singleton, the showrunner —  you’re documenting everything. There are times when the best way to tell the story is through the phones because that’s exactly what would be happening for real. Finding that balance was actually really exciting in the edit to say, “Oh no, this should be on the phone because that’s exactly how it would be, I would watch this on Instagram.”

How are those phone scenes actually filmed?

It’s a camera that shoots a very high resolution so that it can be reduced to the phone. There were certain things that we liked the graininess. So Lucas Gath, the DP for my episode, certain things we did shoot actually in a phone. Usually if it’s an up-at-the-actor shot, it was in the cameras so that we see their face extremely clear, but if it’s somebody shooting something in the club, sometimes it’d be on the phone. There are lots of lens conversations, camera conversations.

It took a second to get acclimated, but I actually really love the decision to keep all of that horizontal even though it maybe wouldn’t be in real life, because it fills up the screen.

Exactly. In the first pass through my edit, there were some moments that we kept it vertical and it felt a little strange. We’re watching TV, and even though we’re in the phone, we want to be able to read all the comments and see the reaction, so the bigger screen just helps.

This is the episode where things finally come to a head with Shawna and Maurice, so how did you approach that — especially having not seen any finished cuts?

Literally my favorite thing ever is working with actors. That’s the director I am. Aida, who’s one of the writers of the episode as well, she was like, “I’m in a love scene in this! Don’t know what to do about this!” What I loved about Aida and Daniel is that they already had a friendship — again, we all moved to Miami to do this, so everybody’s really a family. Then it was just about building space for them to be vulnerable. We had an amazing intimacy coordinator on set (Ash Anderson) because for both of them it was their first love scene. I’ve directed funny, humorous love scenes before, but this was my first sensual love scene so I was like, “It’s got to be sexy.”

The funny thing [is] we were up against the clock, because we were on location for that scene, and we’re running low on time at the end of the day. So what you don’t hear as you’re watching this is me off-camera being like, “NOW TOUCH HER! NOW KISS HER!” We had done a few but there were just some moments we were missing for an edit, so I asked the actors with our intimacy coordinator there “Would it be alright if I shout direction just so that we can move through it?” I love directing love scenes because you know what you have to do. There’s no dicking around — that’s a bad word to use — no fooling around, you got to get in there and get the scene. So having that trust with the actors was just so beautiful. I loved it.

“Insecure” was also so good at love scenes, the funny ones and the serious, sensual ones. What did you learn from seeing all those?

The yelling from off-set is a Melina Matsoukas original. That’s how she does it and I love it because it reminds you that there is work here that’s being done, and we’re also here to protect you. We’re not going to waste time and have you in front of this crew — even though it’s a smaller crew for love scene it’s a closed set, it can still be uncomfortable. Bringing that directness to it sometimes puts [actors] at ease, because they’re like, “I know that you’re watching. I know you’re paying attention. I know that you are getting what you need.”

I still remember the very first love scene we ever did in Season 1 of “Insecure” [was] the first one I was a producer on set for, it was the first one that Melina directed, it was the first one Issa had ever been in, and that was a very intimate day. For us to say we’re all doing this first thing together, and we have to protect each other — knowing that trust that we had on “Insecure,” that’s what I wanted to deliver on “Rap Sh!t” as well.

This episode ends on a bit of a bomb with Cliff, and it is once again a scene where part of it is on the phone and part of it is traditional coverage. How did you nail that?

We actually ended up shooting that moment at three different times, which is kind of dizzying — but we need the shot of the phone, we need the shot of our actor, and then we need to tie her to the scenery. Due to how the schedule was, it was difficult to get all of those at the same time because they’re different cameras. When you’re shooting with one camera you want to finish out with that camera before switching to another. But in that moment, I didn’t want it to end on the note of her being alone — as in she’s not dealing with this by herself, she has her girls. So it was important to me to frame her in that way with both of her friends on either side of her almost like a devil and an angel who are going to advise her differently at any given time in her life. That’s why I always say the episode ends on the note about a guy but it’s about her and her girls. She’s not alone in this, and hopefully we will be seeing what she makes of this news in the next episode.

What are some of your dreams as a director and a producer?

I feel like I was put here to build bridges to future storytellers. That’s what I did on “Insecure,” that’s what I do every day in my job, that’s why I started TRIBE writing program. So much of my goals and dreams is to connect with the next generation of storytellers; the same way that Prentice and Melina have poured into me, I want to pour into other people. That means not only having projects that I write and direct and produce, but also empowering other writer/directors/producers that I know to tell their stories to supervise writers as they’re going along their journey. My dream is to have more upper level writers of color get the opportunity to tell their stories.

“Rap Sh!t” is now streaming on HBO Max, with new episodes every Thursday.

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