CIFF 2019: Minhal Baig on “Hala”, “Dune”, and Returning to Chicago

Minhal Baig Filmmaker Minhal Baig (Hala)

The director of the Sundance favorite Hala, Minhal Baig, discusses her coming-of-age tale and cultivating an all-female creative team.

Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview podcast hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.

Apple’s new streaming service Apple TV+ has leveraged its brand on all-original content; while the last month has seen several shows come and go (many of which we’ve covered here on this website), this weekend sees the release of Apple TV+’s first original movie, Hala. Written/directed by Minhal Baig, Hala is loosely derived from Baig’s own experiences as a Muslim-American teenager growing up in a Pakistani-American household in Chicago. Torn between the conservative religiousness of her parents, and the temptations of freedom that come from the outside world, Hala (BlockersGeraldine Viswanathan) goes through an earnest, painful journey of self-discovery, finding new angles to the coming-of-age story.

Hala was set and filmed in Chicago, and back in October Baig got the chance to show the film at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, bringing her story back to the city where it’s set. While she was here, I got the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss the lines between Hala’s life and her own, what it’s like coming back to Chicago, and getting the writing bug from slam poetry and anime fanfiction.

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(The following interview is edited for clarity and length.)

This film has been making the festival rounds for about a year now. How does it feel to bring it back to your home of Chicago?

BAIG: It’s pretty exciting. One of the most exciting things, too, is getting to send the email to some of the cast and say, “Hey guys, the movie’s finally here.” It’s always very delayed gratification for everyone who works on the movie. It could be a year — in this case two years — between filming and getting to see the final thing. And you’ve been away from it long enough where you think, “Oh, I don’t even remember doing that. Did we do that?”

It was always in the plan (and something I discussed with Apple early on) to bring this movie to Chicago because we filmed here. And it’s important to take the movie to where it was set and where we worked on it. But also because I grew up here; the city’s grown on me more now as an adult than as a kid because I took it for granted. Every time I come back from LA, I feel like it’s a breath of fresh air. It feels different.

What sticks out to you now about Chicago coming back after being away–

BAIG: Public transport. [laughs] This city is so on it about public transport. In comparison, at least.

Yeah, I feel like I take it for granted now, especially coming down here for the interview.

BAIG: It’s so cool. It reminds me that, like, it’s possible.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that Hala is more of a personal story than a strictly autobiographical one. What aspects of your life did you draw from in your own experience, while still making Hala her own person?

BAIG: So it started from the emotional truth of this young woman’s coming of age, wrestling with these two identities. Of having this person she is with her family, and the person she is with her friends and at school, and those two selves not being completely aligned with each other. And she’s dealing with the obligations she has with her family, but also navigating her own wants and needs and desires. That was very honest, and coming from a very real place in my life.

The question I always ask before I start writing is, “Is this true?” Not in the literal sense, but “is it emotionally true?” So that was where it started. And then it was to steep it in a place that feels like my home, and I’m gonna set it with a Pakistani-American family, they’re going to speak the language I spoke at home. It’s going to be steeped in that culture and that faith. But then the things that happen, and the journey that she goes on, is going to be pretty different from my life. I do think Hala is, in many ways, braver than me, and in other ways, she doesn’t say the things I would say in the moment.

There’s a stoicism to her in a lot of moments, where she has to take a lot of difficult things on the chin, but then she’s really vulnerable in other important moments.

BAIG: She has a more quiet strength than I had when I was a teenager. I felt like I was really loud, and would just say the thing that would come to my head, and it would be very hurtful. Hala’s someone who processes more and digests, and is suppressing a lot. Then there’s the tension in her household, so much of which is unspoken. Her journey was going to be more about figuring out “okay, you can have these parts of yourself, they can be contradictory at times.”

And the other awakening is learning that her mother is a human being and not just an extension of herself. In the beginning, she’s got blinders to that, and it’s only about her. And by the end, the blinders are off, and she can see in the periphery the people she’s been marginalizing, which includes her mother.

She’s also a poet, which I thought was a fascinating device. What made you land on that as a way to side-step the traditional mode of point-of-view narration?

BAIG: The original script always had her reading that poem in the front, and then a piece that was read at the back. Those two pieces were there, but as we started editing, we felt we needed a few more glimpses into what she’s feeling, but we don’t want to do it in a very didactic, straightforward way, where it’s just repeating what we already saw. How would Hala write about what’s happening to her? How can we give it something we’re not getting visually? Something into her psyche that’s not immediately clear.

Part of it was I grew up writing a lot, and I was also on my high school’s slam poetry team, an alternate for Louder Than a Bomb. Never got to the main team, but was an alternate [laughs]. I wasn’t that good. I remember being part of that team, and in the first few weeks of that, we had to bring our own poems. They had to be deeply personal because everyone bares their souls in those competitions. So you dug in there and would drop this very personal thing, and it would be so uncomfortable. “Oh my god, these people know everything!”

I think with Hala, she’s writing it and people are hearing it. I never wanted to have the shot of her writing it like five times, it was just assumed it was done.

Hala

Was slam poetry a good training for you as a writer later on — being able to pull out those personal things and lay them out there?

BAIG: There were a couple of things; writing poetry was definitely part of it. Another part of it was also that I wrote a lot of fanfiction growing up. I was a fanfiction.net frequenter. Also, it started at a young age, I think it was third or fourth grade, I had these composition notebooks and I’d write these alternate episodes of Dragon Ball Z. I would go home, watch Toonami, and say “that episode was terrible, they’re still doing this filler thing where the plot doesn’t advance.” And so I was like, “I’m gonna make my own story.” I’d literally write what happened next, and I would bring it to class and share it. I got into trouble for distracting people, because they were trying to read on the bus.

That was pre-fanfiction.net, and then that happened, I was writing on that all the time. I was on LiveJournal trading fics with people. There was always a community of other people writing, and I got to be a part of it. Then I eventually graduated to, “Okay, I’m writing about other people’s worlds. Why don’t I just write my own?”

Full disclosure, I was also a huge fanfic kid, but I was more of a Gundam Wing person.

BAIG: Oh, me too!

Who was your favorite? Of the five guys? I was definitely a Quatre kid.

BAIG: I was definitely Duo Maxwell. And that’s where it all started! Because it was all so exciting. When I was young, I felt very disconnected from my peers. So escaping to the Internet was a way to find people who had similar interests, where it wasn’t so weird. Now, everything’s kinda cool, manga’s cool, and people watch stuff, but I felt like I was in a transition phase where some people watched Toonami but it wasn’t for everyone. Escaping to the Internet was a natural part of finding people who like what I like, especially where the creative expression was coming out.

Going back to Hala then, you chose to film it in Chicago. What was it like coming back to film a movie in the neighborhoods you grew up in? Were there specific places you had in mind?

BAIG: Chicago was my first choice to shoot the film. Part of it was because I could see the movie better here, partly because I grew up here, but I had shot the [Hala] short in LA, and I got an idea of what it’d be like to shoot it there. And I just knew that there’s a school I want to shoot inside of, and it’s the school that I went to. I envisioned it in my head; “okay, they’re walking in the library now”, “okay, this is where they’re walking behind the school.” There were specific things I imagined. And I knew there may be a chance I’d get to shoot in these places, but I find it useful to imagine a place when you’re writing it.

When we did get to shoot here, I told my location manager, “I really want to shoot at Northside College Prep, these are the interiors, this is what I want to do.” And then when we scouted those places, it felt exactly how I’d imagined it. This looks exactly how this interaction would go because I’d already seen it in my head before. Bringing it back home, it made it easier to feel steeped in the details of where it came from. Literally, that house looks like my house, and that street looks like the street I grew up on. I grew up in West Rogers Park, and it was actually filmed in Skokie, but it’s really close.

I spoke before to your cinematographer, Carolina Costa, and she’d mentioned that you cultivated a largely female crew for Hala. What was it like working with her, and what kind of environment did that foster?

BAIG: Carolina came on board to the project because I’d seen this movie she’d shot called Las elegidas (The Chosen Ones). It was a Mexican film that had premiered at Cannes Film Festival a couple of years back, and it was on Netflix. And she’d already worked with a friend of mine, Daniel Sawka, on a film called Icebox. She had worked with people I knew, and they had nothing but glowing things to say about her. But I also watched this movie and fell in love with her sensibility and the sensitivity to which she photographs. It was very clear to me that she knows how to photograph women, and to do so in a way that gives dignity.

So we sat down, we talked about the movie, she read the script and she fell in love with it. She shot four features that year, which I mean, she had an amazing all-around year. But then when we were choosing department heads for the film, I chose a female DP. It wasn’t in the plans or in the works, but it was intentional for the producers and myself to look outside the usual suspects when we were considering department heads and keys. I’ve encountered this in my own life, where I haven’t been given the opportunity because I don’t have the experience, the line on my resume, the reel. And then I don’t get hired, which means I don’t get the resume or the reel or the experience. It’s a vicious cycle, and I didn’t want to do that for my film and the way I hired people.

What I did was I didn’t work with anyone I personally knew before the movie. Carolina was someone I found through the movie, and [production designer] Sue Tebbutt and [costume designer] Emma Potter. Emma’s work I fell in love with; I’d watched a couple of films she’d been a part of, like James White and Christine. She captures characters. Saela Davis had worked on The Fits, she was the editor; I felt like that was one of the best-edited films I’d seen that year.

I fell in love with all of their work, and they were all my first choices, and we got them. They got the script and they were on board. I remember looking down the table at the production meeting, and all the department heads were women. And it wasn’t anyone saying, “oh, we can only hire women”; we got the best-qualified people, the folks who had the taste the movie needed, and the perspective that I was wanting. They just happened to be women.

And I think, with a movie about a woman’s coming of age, it helped to have other female perspectives at the table, not just mine. What it did for me on the set was that I felt like it was so organized and efficient, and very clear. Everyone could just say what they wanted to say. There wasn’t running around and trying to be careful – you didn’t have to do that. Communication could not have been better on this movie. It was so smooth, and everyone was so professional. I’ve been lucky to work in a lot of environments with women, but I don’t think it’s common to work on a set with this many women in key positions.

Hala

And of course, there’s Geraldine [Viswanathan], who’s fantastic in the role [of Hala]. What was it like looking for her, casting her, working with her?

BAIG: Geraldine is a phenomenal actress who I’d heard about from other folks, but I hadn’t seen anything she’d done before. Blockers was being edited while we were casting, so there was nothing for us to see. I’d heard she’d been cast in this movie, and she’s the star, but she’d done this short film a couple of years ago in Australia that was more dramatic. And then she submitted a tape from a scene of the film, and I knew from that moment. Just the way that she said things, there were a couple of things that happened: first, it was unexpected, not the Hala I saw in my head but a Hala I was excited about an interested in in a way I couldn’t have written. I wrote a version that was very serious, and Geraldine brings a lot of levity and charisma. She reminds you that she’s still a teenage girl. And she makes you like her too because you want to like somebody like that.

When Geraldine came to be a part of the film, she had never done anything like this before. This was her first leading dramatic role — she carries the film, she’s in almost every scene. The movie was an exciting challenge for her. And the role itself is very different than other things she’s played if you’ve seen other things she’s a part of. But even so, she told me that when she read the script, she saw something in this girl that she related to. Even though she’d lived a very different life, there was this part of Hala that made her want to live in that space.

When she came on set, we rehearsed very closely together with her and Purbi [Joshi] and Azad [Khan, who play Hala’s parents] to make them feel like a family, and she was acting opposite people speaking a language she didn’t understand. Which is a lot. To her credit, she was a quick learner and was able to take it and go and make it feel authentic. It’s very challenging to be playing an American accent, speaking in Urdu, responding to people in English when they’re speaking another language. And also embodying this person who, at her core, has grown up in a conservative household — the way you carry your body.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock (5882260n) Silvana Mangano, Francesca Annis, Sian Phillips Dune – 1984 Director: David Lynch Universal USA Film Portrait

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Dune [The Sisterhood], because I’m very excited about that. Is there anything at all that you can tell me?

BAIG: Um, it’s really exciting… it’s gonna be on HBO Max [laughs]. The team behind it is really cool, Jon Spaihts and Dana Calvo are co-showrunning [EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this interview, Spaihts has stepped down as showrunner]. It’s a really cool endeavor, I think it’s really cool to create a new universe; I’ve never worked on something of this scale before, which alone is exciting for me. But also I fell in love with the original novel, and I loved it. I’m really excited for the movie Denis [Villeneuve] is directing, and I think it’s something in science fiction that’s different than what we’ve seen before. It’s a vision of the future that is fundamentally different than something like Blade Runner, and the questions presented are really exciting. I’m excited for something new!

So am I; I’m kinda sick of the Paul Atreides story at this point. I would love to see other aspects of the universe open up.

BAIG: There’s so much! There’s a lot to mine. What I’ve been most surprised by is how many people even my age are excited by Dune, because I always thought it was a generation above me who was into the books. But there are younger people who’ve read the books and are very familiar with the world and the mythology.

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