How Minhal Baig Made a Personal Story Feel Universal in 'Hala'

How Minhal Baig Put Subtext In The Visuals and Other Lessons From Hala
Minhal Baig's Hala is buzzing at Sundance- we sat down to talk about how she crafted this coming of age gem. 

It's rare to see a movie from a first-time filmmaker as expertly crafted as Hala. The story is a deeply personal one for Minhal Baig, and it was a labor of love, starting with a short, and turning into a multi-year effort. 

Minhal takes us through her process getting the project made, along the way sharing insights into the creative choices that helped the film stand out in the crowd.

Hala was acquired by Apple, according to Variety, and the film opens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Louisville and Columbus on Friday, November 22.

The story of Hala centers on a first-generation Muslim teenager coming into her own, conflicted between the traditions of her family and her own desire to explore the world around her and experience it on her own terms. 

It's a perfect example of how screenwriting and crafting dramatic tension that sustains interest and pushes plot forward without anything bombastic. This is a human story about less than a handful of people, yet it draws you in and keeps you close. 

Sitting down with writer-director Minhal Baig, I wanted to get a sense of how she accomplished this in her writing and directing, while also wearing a producer's hat.

No Film School: I guess the first thing I want to know is just what is it like to have a feature at Sundance?

Minhal Baig: It is an absolute surreal experience to have Hala premiere here. I was literally in the audience, as I mentioned at the beginning, I was in the audience with my friend who also has a movie here, and we were watching Christina Cho's film Nancy, and I knew, being in theater, that part of me, deep down, I kept dreaming of that day, when that would happen for Hala. Because it was always a dream to premiere at Sundance. Because I feel like Sundance really champions emerging new voices and takes chances on movies.

I kept dreaming of that day, when that would happen for Hala. Because it was always a dream to premiere at Sundance.

This is a very, incredibly supportive environment, where people are in a place to really appreciate and love movies for what they are. And for the new perspectives, they bring. I really wanted Hala to be in that space. Because it is a new perspective. And it's something that feels very familiar to me, because I lived many of these experiences, but may not be so familiar to the audience. 

NFS: Where did you shoot Hala?

Baig: We shot everything in Chicago. All the exteriors, all the interiors. It was in the same neighborhood that I grew up in, in Madras Park in Chicago. Yeah, and the high school that I filmed inside of, that was my old high school that I went to.

NFS: And You were also a producer of the movie? So you were the writer/producer/director? That's pretty cool!

Baig: Yeah. I was a triple threat on this film. It was a lot of responsibility. But I was so involved in the inception of the movie that I had to get my hands in and really do everything I could.

How Minhal Baig Made a Personal Story Feel Universal in Hala

NFS: So as far as wearing all those hats, in terms of director and producer, did you have to deal with the clash between resources and creative goals?

Baig: I mean, well I wasn't alone in producing it, so I had a lot of support. But also the positives of producing this film is that when I shaped the story as a screenwriter, I'm always trying to be economical. I'm thinking about where's the fat, and what can sort of be trimmed away to make what is left more palatable and relatable. And this case, all that really helped when I was producing the movie. Because when we got to set, and when we were planning out our schedule and figuring out what our days would be, it worked because that was already part of the process of writing it. And I didn't go into it in the writing process thinking, "I've got to lose this location" It was more like, "What is the essential story being told here? And how can I trim out things that are side-plots, or subplots, or maybe even side character stories that are not really the focus of the movie?"

NFS: Well it shows because the movie has an extremely lean script. It's got a tight, well put together structure, and I'm curious what was this writing process like? And how did you do all that excellent work?

Baig: Thank you so much. The script took several years to write, so I had a lot of time, which is always a benefit and always works as an advantage. I think I wrote a draft of this script in early 2014, and then in 2015, I drafted a short film. And after that short film, the feature script pretty radically changed. I was changing the script so that I could focus more on the family. Because it became clear, making the short, that people were really interested in that.

In the short, the family's the backdrop. In the feature-length film, the family's in the forefront. Seeing how people reacted to the short really helped me understand how to focus the script and that process, that was a long process of learning and I think making a short was an important part of the writing process. Because I was writing and rewriting it based on things that I had learned on that side.

Then when I came onto the feature, I was far more prepared and I knew what was inessential, and started keeping the film in her perspective and focusing it on her conflicts. The relationship between her and her mother, which people responded to in the short. They were really interested in that.

NFS: So did you test screen the short? How did you get the sense of how people responded to it?

Baig: The short was released on Nylon. Then it was on Short of the Week, and it was on Vimeo. It sort of made the rounds. And then I got a lot of letters from young women all over the world who were responding to the movie, and they were talking about how they really saw themselves in the film. They really related to the struggle, and the relationship with her and her family was so real to them, and they wanted to see more of it.

I got a lot of letters from young women all over the world who were responding to the movie, and they were talking about how they really saw themselves in the [short].

Many of them asked, "Are you making a feature?" And in the process, I was reading those letters and I was revising the script at the same time, I was thinking about what the movie starts to feel like it was not just for me, it was also for them, and it was very immediate feedback, too. I was getting letters, and I was also getting comments. And we also screened the film at AFI, and I had a lot of people come up to me and talk to me about how they felt about the film, and what they responded to the most.

And it was great to get all of that before I made the feature because you get one shot. And you're like, okay, this has to be right, yeah. I got to test, and I also got to respond directly to people's needs and desires out of the story.

NFS: You then got connected to people who felt like they were connecting to the story. That's amazing. To me, it felt like in terms of the specifics of the screenplay, the family was the first and third act, and the second act had more to do with the relationship.

Baig: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the relationship was always kind of just an entry point. Because I think that was what I thought was going to be the most accessible form of getting into Hala's story. And that's why we made the short about that. But then, it was very surprising to see that people were interested in her family. I want to know what her dynamic at home is like. So the movie sort of, the family sandwiched that relationship.

NFS: The relationship was like a catalyst that drove the rest of the film.

Baig: Yes, that drove the rest of the story and changed her relationship with her family.

NFS: Earlier you talked about perspective, and I noticed the sex scene, which is among the best ones I've seen, was a good example of perspective in that the camera stayed with her. Did you intentionally do that in your directing approach throughout the movie? 

Baig: Yeah. I mean, in writing that sex scene, because it was also a process I was able to try out on the short, I recognized that I've watched many sex scenes where it's with the male gaze. And so in this scene, it was important that we stay with Hala and her experience and whether it's enjoyable or disappointing, that we're with her and stay with her because it's her story. And if it was a different kind of movie maybe we would've cut away to other things, but I felt like I wanted to be there with her.

And it's not always easy to stay with a character who's going through something where she is having some heartbreak and pain in her life, and recognizing that some things don't live up to expectations. And having sex for the first time is not maybe what you thought it would be in your head. And that deflation of that anticipation, that disappears. And it isn't what you thought it would be. I wanted to capture all of that and stay with her.

NFS: ...I think you did POV at one point.

Baig: Yes. And then we did a POV shot because I realized that while one part of it is staying with her and being on her face and showing that emotion she goes through, But another part is how impersonal what you are looking at can feel like. Because it is in many movies, you see it as this magical experience. And I think the reality is it's a bit more grounded, you know?

NFS: It was very human and vulnerable for both characters.

Baig: Yeah. I think he was also going through something similar in his story, I'm sure that he had also held it up to be something that it wasn't. And that once it happens, it changes your relationship. Because you've put certain ideas of what a relationship should be and what that connection should feel like in your head; "it should be magical like the way we talk, and the way we connect over things, this part should also be the same way..." But then for these two characters, it's not. And I think as a young person, you don't know that because you haven't had those experiences. Especially in Hala's case. So she doesn't have anything to compare it to.

NFS: She can't even talk to anyone about it to anyone.

Baig: Yeah, and it's like all inside of her. I feel that there's so much that she can't say, and she's wrestling with it. And her family doesn't know about it. And I think it's ... it was very much drawn from my own life. The word sex was never said in my house, we never talked about it, it's culturally, it's just not how parents are teaching their children. And as a young woman, I had to learn about a lot without any guidance, without anyone to sort of walk through some of this. I think maybe in another universe, Hala would've had someone to lean on a bit more, and not feel so alone.

NFS: In terms of shooting and capturing that I want to talk about the way you shot the movie, the lighting for example. Particularly the way you changed some of the lighting schemes with the father later on. His scenes, and the way he's dressed and things like that. Were those choices, we'll talk about all of that, did you have a whole plan in place with color and framing?

Baig: Yeah. I think that one thing that we really wanted to accomplish was opening up Hala's perspective. So in the beginning, she is a young person, she has tunnel vision. She's a teenager, she has a romantic interest going on. And so it's very much like this. But as very like what is in front of her. And as the movie goes on, I think her perspective is widening a little bit, and she's starting to see that her mom is someone that has been in the periphery but now is becoming more of the center. And she's seeing, her mother is not just an extension of herself, but wrestling with her own issues.

So as Hala's perspective widens, we also changed how we were shooting the film. We wanted to show her and her mom more in frames together. We wanted to see that they were in separate shots in the beginning, we were trying to separate them more. But then as the relationship evolved we tried to frame them together more.

As Hala's perspective widens, we also changed how we were shooting the film

NFS: So you had a visual language that matched her plot. And it worked really well. 

Baig: Yeah. I mean, even in something as simple as the dinner scene where it would be easy to sort of do the coverage, and sort of make sure everyone's covered ... in a medium shot, wide shot etc. We were very deliberate in keeping her father in a shot by himself, and Hala and her mom in a shot together. Also in some of the wider shots where Hala's sort of in the back and all of these people are crowding around her where she feels like no one is hearing, she's not speaking very much, and all of these people are just talking around her. I wanted to show where she is in the frame and who she's with. She's with her mom in those shots because they'd had the nice moment earlier. 

And then at the dinner table, you see that her father is in a shot by himself, and he's not connecting with anyone. And it's because there are things being said about him, about how he's a family man and he has all these things in his life, and Hala knows it's not true.

NFS: So you put your subtext in the visuals?

Baig: Yes, absolutely. And a lot of the framing that I worked out was to convey that change in the relationships.

NFS: You talked about being personal, and feeling like there wasn't a story like this one and then a lot of people connected to it. So even though it is extremely personal, it's kind of amazing how when you do that, it expands how many people connect to it. Because personal experiences are universal in a strange way. Where is the line between your life and the fiction here?

Baig:  I think that it was a really personal story. But with anything when you're writing it, you want to put yourself in it and make sure it's incredibly versatile to you. But also, it's just a good story. And at a certain point, it was about making sure it was Hala's story and that I wasn't trying to make it about me, as a director. And it was more like, how can I make sure that all of these moments feel true to this person and she would behave in this way, and this is what her relationships look like.

A lot of the framing I worked out was to convey that change in the relationships

I think it was important for me to, as I was writing it, the personal details helped make it feel really specific. But also, it is a story, and it's fictional. And there are pieces of me in all the characters, and pieces of my family in all of it.

NFS: Well, it was great. and congratulations!

Baig: Thank you so much!

Hala opens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Louisville and Columbus on Friday, November 22.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.     

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1 Comment

The short film version of Hala was wonderful. Super excited to see the feature!

January 28, 2019 at 8:42AM

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Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
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It's not her first feature! Do your research and don't let her push her false narrative.

January 29, 2019 at 4:05PM

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