Hala director Minhal Baig discusses fictionalising her own life story, her filmic influences, and Gerladine Viswanathan’s brilliant performance. We reviewed the film back at TIFF.
After an acclaimed premiere at Sundance and showings at the Toronto and AFI film festivals, Hala is about to become one of the first films released on new streaming service Apple TV+. It’s a huge deal for such a small film, which might have otherwise slipped by unnoticed in the swathe of festival indies. But its role in helping to launch such a huge platform, as well as the fact that the service will make the film available worldwide simultaneously, means Hala may well get the time in the spotlight it deserves.
The main character of Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) is a muslim teen growing up in America, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. Her story is inspired by first-time feature director Minhal Baig’s own coming-of-age story, although Baig clarifies that while the story is “emotionally true” to her own experiences, “it’s a fictional story.” Baig is clearly an accomplished talent. Her framing is precise and her editing patient; we’re given time to observe still frames and Hala’s space within them.
Just as impressive is Viswanathan, who gives an extraordinarily moving dramatic performance after a career of comedic roles (Blockers, The Package). Baig allows her to shine by holding on Viswanathan’s face even in scenes where she doesn’t have any dialogue. There are many family scenes where Hala sits silently while her parents talk or argue, and Viswanathan is captivating to watch. She embodies Hala as a highly intelligent character who’s always paying attention; Viswanathan eyes are constantly moving, her expression shifting as Hala takes in what her parents are saying, so attuned is she to the world around her. As Baig puts it, she has a knack for “visually communicat[ing] a highly internal conflict.
At TIFF, I spoke to Baig about fictionalising her own life story, Viswanathan’s brilliant performance, and her filmic influences.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Hala?
Minhal Baig: A couple of years ago, I was back living at home after my father had passed away. It was this time in my life when I was reflecting on what it was like to grow up with my parents, who are immigrants from Pakistan. It started out as a collection of vignettes that later turned into a screenplay. The story is emotionally true, but it’s a fictional story.
I had not imagined that it would end up getting made into a feature length film, although that was always the goal for me. In 2015, we made a short film [also named Hala], and in making this short and having the feature script, we were able to package things together to get financing for the feature.
7R: Is it difficult to know when to fictionalise and when to stay with the truth when your writing is inspired by your own life?
Minhal Baig: In the case of this story, it was always like, “This is fictional. Hala’s fictional.” There are moments and emotional truths in it: the relationship Hala has with her mom is very much based on the relationship that I have with my mom, and there’s even lines of dialogue that we’ve definitely said to each other. But at a certain point in the process of writing, I had to put it at arm’s length and know that this is Hala’s story and not my story. She’s going to experience things that I have not experienced. As long as those scenes felt true to the character and true to the story, it ended up in the script. It was always a question of, is it true? But not in the literal way. Does it feel true?
7R: Geraldine is an amazing actress.
Minhal Baig: Yeah, she’s the best.
7R: When she came on board and started to work on the character, how did the character change from the script to screen?
Minhal Baig: It did change a bit, because when I wrote the script, Hala was a very self-serious teenager. I feel like that’s pretty common with teenagers. When Geraldine submitted a tape for the part, it was very clear that she had all this emotional depth to her, and she could convey all of that without saying very much.
But on top of all of that, because of her comedic work, which is most of what she had done prior to Hala, she brought this really great charisma, lightness, and levity to Hala which was not originally in the script.
It was nice to see that addition to the character. Even though [Hala is] very self-serious, I wanted her to be very likeable and someone that you’re rooting for, even if she’s imperfect and makes mistakes. Geraldine brought that lightness.
7R: There are a lot of scenes where you’re just watching her reacting to things wordlessly, and she’s so captivating.
Minhal Baig: Yeah, her face is like this canvas that changes quite a lot even when there’s no dialogue. That was the hardest part of casting the character: how do you find somebody who visually communicates a highly internal conflict? She did an incredible job.
7R: Did you have much chance to rehearse with her beforehand?
Minhal Baig: Oh yeah. We had to because part of the script is in Urdu, and it’s a language that Geraldine doesn’t know how to speak or understand. Once we cast her, we cast the parents, Purbi [Joshi] and Azad [Khan], and we had them come in and rehearse all the scenes with [Geraldine] in English. Then we had them do it in Urdu so that she could react very naturally once we were shooting on set. So she wasn’t responding to my cues, she was responding to what they were saying. She had rehearsed the scenes so many times that she knew the arc of it. We went through every scene in the script.
7R: How much time did you have to rehearse?
Minhal Baig: It was about a week, but it was an intense week.
7R: Yeah, it must have been!
Minhal Baig: I think she arrived on the first day and was like, “Wow this is a lot!” It was a lot more than she expected, but once you broke it down and you saw the scene… in most of the scenes between Hala and her mother, [Hala is] speaking in English and her mother is speaking in Urdu. Once they got that rhythm down, and they rehearsed those scenes together, it was really easy.
7R: What kind of relationship-building exercises did you do to help them feel like a family?
Minhal Baig: The character of Eram [Hala’s mother] always has to embody this feeling of being hurt and being in what she feels is a peripheral role in her daughter’s life. Azad’s father character had to embody someone who was a very easygoing, likeable person, but Hala’s opinion of him changes over the course of the movie. When I was looking at tapes, I was looking for that first thing, which was the surface of where they start in the movie, and then I would give them a second scene that was more of the later stage of the movie, and see if they could do both.
When we had them together and did the table read, we did it all in English. It was very clear they had an incredible immediate chemistry. Azad kind of took Geraldine under his wing and would make sure that she was comfortable and that we weren’t going too fast for her. She’s the one who doesn’t understand Urdu, whereas [Purbi and Azad] understand Urdu between themselves, which was a great asset on the day because they could support her.
7R: Hala is a character who’s trying to find her identity. How did that manifest in her costumes? What teenagers wear is such a big part of their self-expression and identity.
Minhal Baig: The costume designer, Emma Potter, she’s done a lot of incredible movies. She did Creed and worked on James White; she’s worked with a lot of directors I love. When she came on board the project, she had put together a… it wasn’t exactly a Tumblr, I don’t want to say Tumblr, but a lookbook online where she had built out ideas and sketches about each of these characters.
The biggest most extensive one was about Hala. What did she envision for this young woman who’s straddling two lines? No matter what, she’s going to be an American teenager, and she’s going to be influenced by American culture, so that was always going to be a part of the wardrobe.
But the modesty part of her wardrobe was going to be a big part of it, too. We had to look at all the outfits and make sure that there were pieces here and there that show that she’s embodying the modesty that is part of her faith and her culture. But always modern, because that felt like the most natural thing for her character. So she’s wearing long sleeves, but sometimes, she’ll wear short socks, and you can kind of see her ankles, which is a big no no.
That was always something we were conscious of when we were shooting, little bits and pieces, like how her hijab is not always perfect. We imagine she’s running around, and then putting it on, and then playing around in a playground, and it’s sort of slipping off so you can see a little bit of hair. It’s not tightly framed to her face.
7R: Hala is firmly the point of view character in the film. What was your approach to getting us inside of her head?
Minhal Baig: When I was building the shot list with our cinematographer Carolina [Costa], it was so important that we make sure that in every scene, we think about where Hala is emotionally — in the beginning and at the end of the scene. For example, the scene where her parents are arguing in the kitchen: originally, they were just arguing, and we had that scene by itself. But we felt it was important for Hala to be in that scene, because she’s witnessing this dissolution of a marriage before her very own eyes. So we see it through her eyes. It’s unfolding in front of her and including her.
There were a lot of scenes where I had written the scene and I was like, “Well, I don’t exactly know where Hala is.” Scenes where something is happening but she’s not responding to it. So we were always conscious that when we’re placing the camera, we often begin with her or end with her, or we stay with her throughout a scene. We don’t cut away unless it’s very important. It was a very economical shot list because of that, because we wanted to stay with her long enough so you could start to gain empathy, but also show an arc so she’s not hitting the same emotion over and over again.
7R: I was struck by the choice of score. It’s quite classical and orchestral, which is an interesting and unusual choice for a modern coming-of-age film.
Minhal Baig: We tried a couple of things, but I’d always imagined that it would be strings and not piano. It was actually one of the biggest decisions that we made early on.
The score for the film is by Mandy Hoffman. We sat down, and we watched the whole movie through when it had no score, and then I said, “I think this doesn’t need piano.” She was like, “OK, but maybe I’ll throw in some piano,” and then she came back, and I was like, “There’s no piano in this.”
The reason I was so attracted to her work was because she did the score for The Lovers, an incredibly sweeping orchestral score that is so much a character in the movie. When I saw that film, I knew I was going to work with her, so we worked very closely together to develop themes for each of the characters — especially for Hala’s theme, because it was something that was going to be repeating in the movie in subtle variations. There was a certain kind of sound to when she and Jesse [(Jack Kilmer)] were walking down the path or in the playground. When we scored those scenes, we were able to fill in the score for everything else.
7R: Did you have any particular cinematic influences?
Minhal Baig: Yeah, I have a lot. Actually, one of my favourite filmmakers is here [at TIFF] with a movie, and I haven’t seen it yet, but she’s a big influence, Céline Sciamma.
7R: I’ve seen her new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s fantastic!
Minhal Baig: Oh my God, I want to see it so bad! I love everything she’s done — Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood — she’s one of the greatest! Her films have such great sensitivity and emotion.
I also think about Andrea Arnold and Asghar Farhadi, as Fish Tank and A Separation are big influences. And Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. They’re different movies, very different from this film, but they’re all very important for me, visually. I wanted to go in a more poetic, lyrical direction and have the poetry guiding it. I was thinking about movies that have a lyrical quality, and those movies were big inspirations.
7R: What are you working on next?
Minhal Baig: I have this project that’s set in the ‘90s in Chicago. That’s all I can say about it. It’s going to be a really fun project. I want to work with younger actors and work with new faces. It’s going to be exciting because it’s going to be a different process. It’s been more of a journalistic endeavour, to go into a community and build the story through the research first, as opposed to this, where a burst of feeling and so many years of my personal life experience went into this film. This new project had a more documentary-like approach in the beginning, and now it has taken on a new life in that I’m hoping to cast it and workshop the script with the actors. So it’s a long process, but hopefully I’ll get to shoot it next summer.
7R: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Minhal Baig: I think the only thing I wanted to make note of that I’m proud of is the way in which we made Hala. All the department heads on this film were women: Carolina, Mandy, Emma, [editor] Saela [Davis]… they were such a big part of the film. In making a film about a female protagonist, about a female perspective, it was really important that we’re basically all women at our production meetings. I don’t think I could have made it so intimately, in such a personal way without them. I hope that more filmmakers do this, because it’s not hard!