With three shorts featured on our site in the last three years, starting with Hala in 2016 and followed by After Sophie and Pretext, Minhal Baig is a filmmaker with a unique voice and an undoubtedly exciting future ahead of her. Just a few years after her first short was released online, Minhal has written and directed a feature film version of Hala. The film, which was executive produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith, had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently sold to Apple TV+ as the streaming upstart’s first narrative fiction film acquisition.
With that, this stage of Baig’s career, as a creator in the online/streaming realm, will come full circle—from Hala’s online release as a short, to the feature version’s launch on the new streaming platform. In-between, she has written for Hulu’s Ramy, Netflix’s Bojack Horseman and right now writes for Dune: The Sisterhood, which is slated for a release on Warner’s streaming service HBO Max.
We took the chance to talk to Minhal about her journey as a filmmaker and how she made a career in TV and independent film in just a few years based on her enviable work ethic, dedication, and—most obviously—talent.
What follows is an in-depth, step-by-step guide on how she made her debut short Hala and used that film, in combination with a feature film script, to garner industry attention, land TV writing jobs and establish a burgeoning career as an indie auteur.
The writer/director also opens up about how a difficult time in her personal life has influenced her professional path, the inspirations behind her creative process and why “Hala saved her life“. Enjoy!
I still remember when I first saw the Hala short, as a submission, years ago. How has it been for you with all that’s happened in the meantime, from the short to the Hala feature?
I actually remember when I submitted to Short of the Week, too. This is how everything came to be:
First, I wrote a feature script and the intention was always to make a feature from the beginning. I felt like I was going to take a page from Damien Chazelle’s book (Whiplash) and make the short first, but I didn’t really know that many people in Los Angeles.
I moved to LA in 2015 and applied for the AFI directors workshop for women, but didn’t get in. I remember that, because that’s how I thought I was going to make the film—dget into this program and then I’ll have the institutional support to make this short. But I didn’t get it in and I remember being really disappointed and feeling like I don’t know how I’m going to make this short, I didn’t have $35,000 lying in my bank account.
“I was very upfront that I didn’t have any money, that this is going to be a passion project”
Someone from Twitter gave me some great advice and basically said, if you want to work with AFI students, you can work with them without the program. So I went to a couple of global cinema classes on Monday nights and I started talking to some people. I met my cinematographer through an email group. All the cinematographers, editors, producers, they all have their own email groups at AFI.
I had written a short script, which was the subplot of Hala, just the relationship between Hala and Jesse. I thought that it was very contained and we can make this movie on a small budget, which at the time I thought it would be around $5,000. I didn’t intend for it to be a much bigger project, but lots of cinematographers responded and I started interviewing people. I was very upfront that I didn’t have any money, that this is going to be a passion project and that we’d have to shoot after graduation for them, because I wanted to give it the time and energy that it needed.
I got Benji [Dell], the cinematographer, and he referred me to an editor, Salvador Perez Garcia. Salvador and Benji had both worked with Constanza Castro and Sara Nassim on different projects and they brought them on to Hala. Once I had this team of people who were all committed to working on the project, they treated it like an AFI project and they brought that process to my movie. For me it was very much a learning curve, because I didn’t go to film school, so they brought all of that experience to the movie.
I had been on Twitter since 2013, I had followed a lot of filmmakers that I loved, and I had just been part of the conversations that were happening there. I really tried to build a following as much as I could, but it’s hard to do that when you don’t have much to show for yourself. Benji and I went out and shot a teaser for $200 in a parking lot in LA and I remember we got kicked out of the lot. It was a very renegade DIY shoot. I spent $200 of my own money, we got a fog machine and we got actors who we cast through a music video casting director, who just happened to help us.
Then I posted that teaser alongside a very thorough Kickstarter page, which I wrote by myself. It was a lot of work to put this all together. I had a lookbook that walked through everything from why I’m making this movie, to telling the visuals, references, etc. I put that all online, and then I tweeted about it. Originally, I kind of knew that I would get maybe $5,000 from people I knew personally, but I had no idea that the majority of the money would come from strangers. When we put it on Kickstarter, I remember it quickly became a full-time job. I was tutoring kids at the time, so I quit my job like maybe a day or two before the Kickstarter launched. I didn’t want to work there anymore, but also it was getting to be unmanageable to run the Kickstarter successfully. And if it wasn’t successful, I wouldn’t get any of the money.
“We didn’t get into any festivals”
I was on Twitter pushing the film, DMing people, asking them to share the link, even if they couldn’t contribute themselves. Then people started sharing it and retweeting it, and I even put it on Facebook, and we blew through our first milestone and within the first day we had enough money. Then it was like – “okay, now that we have enough money to make the short on the bare minimum, let’s try to get more money to do it in the proper way”. So we had a full size crew on Hala and we had full post and color and sound and we had an editor working on it.
I was just working on the short film that winter, and then when the short was done, we submitted to festivals. You know the story that we didn’t get into any festivals. I think we submitted to Sundance, SXSW, Aspen Shorts Fest maybe and then one other that I’m not remembering, but we didn’t get into any of them. We didn’t have a lot of money either, so we weren’t going to submit the short to a ton more festivals.
I talked to my friend Sam Boyd, who had a short film called In A Relationship and his approach was very much gung-ho, like, “release it online“. So I was like, “All right, but I don’t have famous people in the short like you.“ He had Dakota Johnson in his short film and I thought that was how he was able to build an audience.
Then he told me that you just have to be smart about how you release it. If there’s an audience for the film, they’ll find it. So I made an online strategy, which was basically like being my own publicist, to do a rolling online release, which meant that no place would have it exclusively for more than two weeks at a time.
We released it and premiered it on Nylon, it became a Vimeo Staff Pick, was featured on Short of the Week and one other place. They were all excited about the movie, but I knew that we needed to maintain interest in this film for a longer period of time, because with the internet, there’s just diminishing returns. You put something out there and then everybody’s moved on to the next thing already.
“I’d gotten a lot of messages from young women”
By the end of this process, which was like two months of releasing it on all these different platforms, there were a lot of people watching it. I got a lot of data from everywhere, that it had been a success and I’d gotten a lot of messages from young women which was amazing.
But what was disappointing, was going out with the short film and the feature script and finding out that nobody wanted to make it. I think we got over 40 passes, from production companies and financiers. So then the strategy was to look for a producer first and that’s how I met Overbrook [Entertainment]. I met Clarence Hammond through a general meeting and we were talking about another project, but I think he could sense that there was something else I wanted to be doing. So I told him, “well, I have a script for a film I want to direct. It’s called Hala and I have a short film, which you can watch now”. He watched the short film and he fell in love.
He sent it in to Jada [Pinkett-Smith]. At that time, I’d started working full-time at a startup [B.J. Novak’s The Li.st App] because I started to feel like I don’t know if this movie is ever going to get made. Even though we were still trying to set it up, I knew that if it was going to get made, it would be a long process. Then one day I got an email from Jada’s office saying that she wanted to meet with me. I made up some excuse at work, that I couldn’t be there in the morning and my manager drove me up to Calabasas. I pitched her the movie and she loved it. Even though it wasn’t about her experience, I think she was really excited about how universal it was, and how emotional it was and she wanted to put her resources behind me.
The script then made The Black List at the end of the year. It was in the top 10 in 2016. It was the only original script, from a writer that didn’t have an agent. I think it was kind of a cool thing to have all these people who had read the script and passed on it and didn’t want to make the movie, still vote for it on The Black List.
“Within 30 days, we had offers from financiers”
After this, two assistants at WME found the script and they pushed it up to their bosses and I got a call. By this point, I was back living at home [in Chicago] and I got a call from my manager saying WME wanted to meet with me about Hala. I flew back to Los Angeles, I went in for a meeting and they wanted to send it out to financiers and find a home for this movie.
Within 30 days, we had offers from financiers and it was all very fast after that. This was around February or March of 2017, I had gone back to LA to be a shadow on Ryan Murphy’s HALF Foundation and I was on set when I found out we had offers for money. I met with all the different financiers and at the end of it, Endeavor came up with the best offer and the intention was to start filming in the fall. It was pretty fast once WME got involved with the movie and specifically, Graham Taylor and Christine D’Souza were essential in the process, along with Negeen Yazdi working from the UK.
Then things really sped up. Over the summer, we had to start soft prep and onto pre-prep. We hired all of our heads of department, they were all women, which was amazing and then we went to Chicago and started location scouting. From the moment WME got involved it was like the train had left the station and the movie was going to be made.
That was a long answer. Sorry.
No worries. It’s interesting to get to know all the details and hear about the nuts and bolts.
Oh, in that time though, when we were sending [Hala] out waiting for answers, I also shot two other short films. I shot After Sophie and we just went online. I said, “Hey, I want to do this short film about this girl, it’s supernatural and it’s going to be a little bit of a horror short“, and a couple of the people that supported Hala, the short, gave me money to make that.
After that was done, I shot another one. It was absolutely absurd that I had enough time to shoot another short film, right before entering prep. I released After Sophie, which was featured on websites like Directors Notes and Nowness and the we shot [Pretext] over a weekend with a crew of around 10 people and raised money again from people who supported Hala and After Sophie.
Each time we went through the same steps that I’d gone through with Hala, except it was less money each time. With After Sophie we had a crew of 15 people, and then for Pretext we had 10. It was just about recognizing what was possible with less resources and maximizing what we did have. It was a really good experience to go through all of that before Hala and right before I entered shot prep on the feature, I released Pretext and it was amazing that people could watch all three films.
But, yeah, the hustle obviously didn’t stop. It didn’t stop when we shot Hala, because it was a challenging movie to make, for a lot of reasons. With an independent film, as any indie filmmaker will tell you, there’s always the external forces that you have no control over, that you try to make the most of.
Our production and post was very quick and we submitted the film to Sundance. When I found out we got into Sundance I was already working on [Hulu’s tv show] Ramy as a staff writer and that was a very difficult secret to keep for almost four months, until they announced.
Did you get the writing job for Ramy based on your script for Hala?
Yeah. Ramy [Youssef] had read Hala and he had watched the short film. Actually several people sent him the short film, people I don’t know, but they wanted him to watch it and they felt like it was relevant to the show he was making. I got called in for the show, to interview with Ramy and the showrunner Bridget Bedard (Transparent). We sat down and we talked about what his show was going to be. The show is basically about this 27 year old Egyptian-American guy who’s wrestling with his relationship with God and that was the thrust of the show.
From the pilot, which I watched prior to meeting Ramy, it was very clear he had a very specific and unique voice and that the show was going to touch a lot of people. The writers room started in, I believe August and it was 14 weeks of being in the room and then I was done.
I thought I was going home, but then I got a call, not even three weeks later, about BoJack Horseman, saying they were looking for a writer. I think they had some writers leave from the past season to develop their own work and Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, creator of Bojack Horseman] had read Hala and he wanted to meet the person who wrote it. So I went in and I talked to Raphael and one of the producers and I told him I don’t have a background in comedy, but Ioved the show and he was okay with that.
“We sold the movie to Apple. There were multiple offers, it was competitive and exciting”
Two or three days later, Raphael hired me and I started working on Bojack. That was in September and I had to take a week off for Sundance, which was amazing, but a lot of work because we were there with the intention of selling Hala. We sold the movie to Apple. There were multiple offers, it was competitive and exciting.
I was done by mid-February, so I went back home to start writing my next movie, doing interviews and research. Then we went to festivals, I came back from our international premiere in Sicily and I got a call about Dune, a TV show that was set in the world of the 1960s, based on the novel by Frank Herbert. It wasn’t the events of the novel, because those are being made into a movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, but this would be in the same world.
I had interviewed with the creator Jon Spaihts a couple months prior, but I didn’t know what was happening with the series. When I got back from Sicily, I started that job on a Monday and now I’m on Dune until March of next year.
The film I started working on while I was in Chicago, was then pitched at the Toronto International Film Festival with producers that I found. That’s hopefully the thing that I’m going to be shooting next summer, fingers crossed, if everything works out and aligns. It’s been a very busy last couple of years… since October of 2017 life has been very busy and I haven’t had a lot of time off.
How do you handle the workload? I’m so impressed. I mean, how do you combine the writing jobs and your own films? Do you compartmentalize them, do you have different parts of your brain you’re to trying to activate?
I think that working in a writers room is an incredible experience and it was very good for me because I learned to write with structure and became a better writer through the experience. I’ve been lucky to have worked on shows that I really love and feel fortunate to have been a part of shows that are amazing. I love Ramy and [the first half of season 6 of] BoJack Horseman [came out in October] and I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done and also the work of my peers and the other writers in the room.
At first TV writing was not necessarily my goal. Before Ramy approached me for the show, I hadn’t intended on becoming a TV writer, I had expected to go home and write my next movie. I didn’t think I was going to be doing television.
“I feel like the TV writing has helped my own personal writing a lot”
When I watched the pilot [for Ramy], I realised it was a project that I couldn’t not be a part of. If I miss out on this, I will regret it. It was the same thing with BoJack — if I miss out, I’m going to be really bummed. With Dune, it was this cool new opportunity to work in science fiction, work on a show where there’s so much world building, which I’ve never gotten to do before. Each time, it’s a very different experience than working on a movie that I’ve written and directed.
I’ve gotten to be a part of a lot of really amazing things, that are also very different from each other and I feel like the TV writing has helped my own personal writing a lot, because it’s brought structure to it. With the writers room the schedule can be more like a day job, where you’re going in every day from Monday to Friday. So I learnt to maximize the time before writers room. If you start at 10:00, then I have like two hours in the morning and I would come back at around 6:00 or 6:30 and then I have like maybe two hours at night.
Those two blocks of time become important for focusing on projects. Last summer, it was the next movie I’m writing, which I wanted to finish by the fall. I want to have a draft that’s ready to go. At that time, I didn’t even know we were going to go to TIFF, but what was amazing about TIFF was that I went there for Hala, but I also had this other project that I went and pitched to financiers and studios. I was doing press for Hala and having meetings for the next movie. It was very productive, because some of them were New York based or international financiers that I would never have been able to meet [in L.A.].
I’ve managed to find a way to create a schedule for myself where I can work on projects that are in different stages. The movie is in a rewrite stage and with Dune, it’s more like I’m going in there every day with the room and then I have another project that is in an outline stage. I like to stagger things so that they can’t all be in the script stage. If something is a rewrite it’s different, using a different part of my brain, than if it’s an outline, than if it’s just an idea. I think I can’t have too many projects that are in the script stage, I’ve done that before, where I’ve had to write two scripts back to back.
Last winter, I wrote an episode for BoJack and I wrote the first draft of the movie that I’m hoping to shoot next year in the same break. That was really hard, because it was using the same muscle. Now I feel like because I don’t have full days to myself, I have to be very organized and prioritize the things which are going to be up next. The projects which I’m getting paid for have to take precedence, because there are more formal deadlines for those.
“I don’t really see weekends as weekends. I see them as time for working on personal projects”
I’ve found that by focusing in on a project and then sort of putting it away for a moment, then working on something else has been helpful. I think you can start to lose sense of the bigger picture and in the writing process, you have to refresh yourself and be able to walk away from something when you’re too close to the details. So at any given time, I have like three or four projects in various stages and one of them might be the writers room.
I don’t really see weekends as weekends. I see them as time for working on personal projects. And then evenings are a short window to work on projects before I go to bed. I have been lucky this past summer to go to festivals and even though I’m working at the festivals, it does feel like more of a break from the day to day.
There’s a scene in the third season of Bojack Horseman where BoJack gets asked, “So what’s next?“ And he anxiously answers, “What do you mean what’s next? Why does there always have to be a next?“ Do you ever feel that way and does it ever feel like too much? Do you sometimes have a moment where you can appreciate everything you’ve accomplished?
I love that quote. I love when he says that, because I think it’s what artists struggle with all the time. When they’ve finished something and they’ve put a lot of themselves into it, it’s taken a lot of time. For Hala it was almost half a decade to put the movie together.
On the other side, you become a very different person since you started making it, you’re emotionally spent. You put so much work into something and then so often, when somebody asks you about the movie, they ask you “what’s next?”. At first, it’s hard to answer that question in a way that feels genuine, because everyone’s working. I mean, I know that I’m working on at least more than one thing.
For me, I also have to fall in love with a project. I have to live inside of it for a long time and be completely immersed before I can talk about it. Also, once you’ve made a piece of work and you put it out there, it no longer belongs to you and it’s a painful separation. Sometimes it takes time to find the next thing that you get, that fills the hole in your heart, and gives you a purpose beyond just that of making money. I’m not here to just make entertainment and get paid to do it. I want to make things that I really care about and love.
“I want to fall in love with something in the way that I fell in love with Hala“
It should be difficult for artists to find the next thing to fall in love with, because we all have high standards for ourselves, and we want all of our projects to be real labors of love if they can be. I want to fall in love with something in the way that I fell in love with Hala. It’s like trying to fall in love all over again, it’s hard and you have to go through a lot of ideas and a lot of dates before you find you’re born again.
There’s a lot of heartbreak too, in knowing that it’s over. After Hala was finished, it was a very surreal moment because I never thought that a short that I made using Kickstarter money would lead to a movie that went to Sundance, that would lead to Apple’s first narrative acquisition. I never thought that. I just thought that if I keep putting one foot in front of the other, I’ll get to make the thing I want to make.
Some people would say that you have to celebrate your small successes and I agree, but I also think that for me, as an artist, the most important part is the making. I love the making and the process of making it. I love the sharing too. I love when people watch the movie at festivals, but I am very much the kind of person that likes the experience of making things. I feel like the fun part is the making and if it’s not fun, then you’re just looking for validation.
Something that I recognized at a festival recently, was that a lot of friends of mine, many of whom had traveled the festival circuit, were there at Toronto at a party and almost all of them wanted to be working. They were like, “we’re glad we’re at this party but we’d love to be home and working or on set right now”, because that’s what drives us.
“A movie should have to change your life.”
I think a movie should have to change your life, you should have to come out the other side a different person, because if you’re the same person, then what did the movie do for you? It has to be making you better as a filmmaker, but also you have to be evolving as a human.
I learned a lot, by the end of Hala, I felt like I was a very different person than the person who started writing it. I thought I’d become more mature. I’d recognize a lot of the hopefulness in the movie as belonging to a younger self. I was very, very hopeful going into that movie, it was like the world was rapidly changing.
Now with [the new] movie, it’s the same thing. I think living inside of a world is what makes you fall in love with it. I don’t necessarily believe in love at first sight, I know that there are projects I’m drawn to right away on a very instinctual level, but I have to live in it. I have to do the research and spend a lot of time and read all the books and look at a lot of images and watch a lot of reference films. Then when it’s ready, it’s like steeped in a world and then I can write it.
But yeah, “What’s next?“ is a very terrifying question for a lot of filmmakers, because they want to make the next thing as beautiful, if not more so, than the thing they just made. It’s hard to know at the beginning of a process, because it’s art, it’s not like a product, it’s not the same thing as a product at a store that you can just buy. It’s a scary thing to work on the next thing, and to not know if it’s going to resonate. You have a movie that you’ve made and people are connected to it, there’s expectations of what you will do next and what it means.
I think I’ve been lucky that I had something that I was really excited to do right after Hala. I didn’t have as much of an existential crisis, but I know that that won’t always be the case. I know that there may be a time when I’m done with the writers room, or I’m done with the movie and I don’t necessarily know the next project that I’m going to do. We’ll see how I feel about it then.
I think it’s so inspiring that you go into a project consciously not knowing how it will turn out. Is that what keeps you going?
I think I’m very open to the thing changing. There was a first draft of the movie that I’m working on now, that was very different. I cut almost 30 pages of it in the past summer and it’s a very different movie now.
Then I pitched the movie in Toronto, and I realized, “oh, the movie is still changing” and now I’m going back into the script and revising it again. The script is like a soup, there’s certain flavors that have to be enhanced and I realized in the process of revising, I’m learning what the story is, I’m finding it. The skeleton is the same, but what is this movie really about? I was always asking, what is this about? What is the emotional truth that I’m seeking to show with this movie? How am I going to do that?
“TV is an incredibly attractive medium to work in right now.”
It is also about what you want to say, right? Is that the reason why you never thought “I’m okay with doing TV writing jobs, I don’t need to make features, I’m earning money, I’m being creative?“
TV is an incredibly attractive medium to work in right now. I think you can do longer form serialized storytelling in a way and explore different worlds. In the case of working on shows that are not your own, it’s fun to live in a world that isn’t one that you necessarily created, it’s just fun to be inside of it.
Originally, television was more like a day job for me, like in the sense that I was going to take this job working on Ramy so that I could have more time to work on my own scripts, because then I would be financially secure. After Ramy ended, and the BoJack opportunity came, it was more of a question of what am I trying to do in television?
I want to do things that I may not necessarily ever get to do in features. I don’t know if I would ever get to do an animated feature, but I get to work on an animated TV show. With Dune, I don’t know that I would ever get the money to make a massive, sprawling Game of Thrones fantasy world, but I do get to do that in TV. I find that TV has very much supported the feature filmmaking, because I’ve become a better writer and storyteller, as a result of being in those rooms.
I’m in a place now where I don’t have to work on feature projects that I don’t absolutely love, because I love the TV work and then the rest of the time, the time that I’m not in the room, I want to focus on the projects that are my passion projects. I find that they complement each other very well and it’s worked out so far in terms of my scheduling, that I’ve been able to do both. But who knows?
I’ve also been lucky that I’ve had very understanding bosses, ones that support me as a filmmaker, not just as somebody who’s writing on their show. When I’ve had to go to a festival, for example, and take time off, I think they understand that’s just part of the job.
There’s one last larger question I want to circle back to, back to the beginning of our conversation. Because if I understand it correctly, you had no connections to the industry before doing the Hala short?
I had worked as an assistant. In 2010, I worked at Scott Rudin Productions in New York. I was an intern. I was not an assistant for Scott or anyone, but I worked as an intern. I spent a summer there, and then 2011, I was working at ICM in the books apartment in New York.
I graduated in 2012 and was working as an assistant at UTA. I worked in the mail room, and then from the mail room, I got promoted to a desk, a TV literary agent’s desk and I was there about four or five months. I was not there for a long time.
My father passed away in 2013 and I moved back home. So I was at home for a while and I didn’t go back to Los Angeles full time until 2015, when I got an email from someone I’d met while I was an assistant at UTA and she had an opening in her department and she was like, it’s yours if you want it.
Then I moved back [to L.A.] and was tutoring kids and working. I was back and forth a lot because of my family. It was hard after my dad passed away. I thought I was going to be there for a summer and I ended up being there for much longer than that and I’m still going back to Chicago, because my whole family is there.
It was this very weird process when I was in Los Angeles, I thought that was the dream job, working in an agency. It was a very coveted position and then I gave up all of that to go back home, because of this family emergency. Then that family emergency became such a defining feature of the next few years. It’s hard to imagine those years without it, because I think my life would have been pretty different had my father not passed away.
I think I probably would have been a development executive or something, because I was on the track for doing that. Usually, you spend a year or so at an agency, and then you do work as a development assistant and you can be a development exec and a creative executive, and then move your way up.
“I didn’t feel like I could really write about those experiences, honestly”
There was something sort of devastating about what happened with my dad and how that connected to writing Hala. Before my dad passed away, I didn’t feel like I could really write about those experiences, honestly. Not because he was alive and I was worried about him finding out, but because it didn’t feel right to do it then and then after he passed away, my family was undergoing therapy.
In that therapy, we had to talk about my dad, and it was painful to talk about him and to remember the things that we loved about him and the things where he was less perfect… the imperfect parts. As I was talking about my dad in these therapy sessions and spending time with my siblings, it was how the genesis of Hala sort of came to be, through the grief for my dad, who was sort of the glue of our family. Without him, there was this… literally like a black hole. Like where we were all drawn to the gravity of the black hole caused by my dad’s death, but we were scared of getting stuck inside of that grief forever.
I prefer not to discuss what happened [between 2013 and 2015], personally and professionally. Everybody, every artist has a period of time where they’re going through something where the things they are working on, or the things that they make don’t feel like an accurate reflection of themselves or what they want to put out into the world.
I completely get that.
That’s why when I was in LA, in 2015, I wanted to start over. It wasn’t like I left my grief at the door, but there was a lot of baggage that I had to just compartmentalize to be able to make Hala. Which in the beginning stages was very much a therapy and a relief from everything else.
“Hala saved my life”
Even as I was living in Koreatown and didn’t have much money and was working these small, odd jobs, Hala was the source of comfort that I was always coming back to. I have this movie, I have this movie that I want to make so bad and if I get to make it, then it will be really special experience. That will be the thing that sort of guides me.
In a way, Hala saved my life. I very much feel like if I didn’t have something that was giving me purpose, I probably would be doing something else with my life. I probably would have been in a totally different profession. I think in the making of Hala, it was always like, “okay, I have this thing, I have this story, I care about it so much and I care about it more than anything else in the world”.
That’s why when making the short, it was easy to get people on board. That’s why when we made the feature, everybody just understood how personal it was. Even though the movie itself doesn’t deal with my dad’s death, it’s very much borne out of those two years of grieving and learning to live with my family again. Which is not easy, after you’ve spent time away and you’re an adult now and you are supposed to at this stage have your own life. To then go back home and kind of relive what it’s like to be teenager, it’s very hard.
It’s so touching to hear and I completely get that because my own father passed away almost three years ago and last year, I had another devastating death in my family. It’s the point in your life where you ask yourself, what do I expect from myself, my life and from my future? It’s inspiring to hear you talk about it, even if it doesn’t directly influence the actual film. Like you said, it gives you purpose and something to move forward into. As bad as it may sound, you have something to show for it.
I guess this is the part of me that wants everything to be productive. I felt like if I’m going to be home and living with my family, we’re coping with this incredible tragedy, I want to spend some time working on something and giving myself something to do. At first I didn’t know that it would be a feature script, I started to just write these vignettes. And then the vignettes became the first draft.
“I wrote the story because I can control it”
After I had that first draft, I became very determined I was going to make the movie. I felt like if I don’t have it, I’m just going to be in my grief all the time and that’s no way to live. That’s why when people go back to work after a death in the family or something, they’re going through something difficult personally, I think they go to work because it’s helpful to resume a normal life. It’s important to normalize what you’ve gone through, because if you sit on it too much, it’s overwhelming.
Once I started working on it, it was very consuming and took so long. It didn’t make the grief go away, but it helped with finding direction and using my time in a way that was emotionally and creatively satisfying. It’s also like an exercise in control. When things happen to you, when tragic things happen outside of your control, you feel helpless. Sometimes the reaction for me has been to find a way to exercise control inside of that helplessness, so I wrote the story because I can control it. Nobody can tell me what to do, it belongs to me and it’s my thing.
As you’ve said earlier, you followed all these people on Twitter and it inspired you to some extent, and now you’ve become this inspiring figure on social media yourself through your work. How does that make you feel? And also, what would you tell those who want to follow in your footsteps?
It was interesting, at Toronto I met with the TIFF Next Wave group – a group of high school students that select movies for a section of the Toronto International Film Festival. What’s really cool was there was a 17 year old girl, a South Asian Muslim, who watched Hala and fell in love, she finally felt represented.
“I never thought of filmmaking as something that was an attainable goal.”
That was very gratifying. They all want to be filmmakers, so I got to have dinner with them and spend some time with them. I realized they see me and what I do as very difficult and what I was trying to explain to them was, when I was in their position, I never thought of filmmaking as something that was an attainable goal.
I always thought you had to have a special education. You had to have resources, you needed to tell certain kinds of stories. All of that was sort of unraveled for me as the years went on, as I realized, “no, you can make movies without having a film school education, you can be self- taught, you don’t have to tell stories like everybody else, you just have to have a story that you love and you care about”. They were asking how I find time to write any of it? I know it’s really hard to write every day and I don’t always write every day, but I try to make it more of a schedule. Even saying that small thing was demystifying the process for them.
That’s what Twitter was helpful for, demystifying filmmaking, and making it understandable to someone who didn’t go to film school. Following these filmmakers was educational, in that I was learning things about screenwriting and filmmaking, that made it feel less of a difficult, out of reach, technical thing. Like I had to do X, Y and Z to be able to get there.
“if you have a story, especially for women and women of color, it’s more important than ever to encourage them and make them feel like their voices are important”
The more I saw filmmakers making things independently and DIY through Kickstarter and putting things on Vimeo and Short of the Week, it made it feel like this is doable. I mean, it’s difficult, but it’s not an unachievable task. I’m still on Vimeo and Short of the Week, I’ll watch things and I’ll still be surprised and impressed by a filmmaker who is still emerging and that’s fun. Short of the Week was such an important part of the story of Hala, that it’s weird to think about it now.
When people reach out to me on Twitter and social media, it’s often those kinds of questions of, how do you do this? For them, it seems like “oh, my God, this is so hard” and I try to be helpful in recommending things for them to read and movies to watch. In a way, I want to make them feel like if you have a story, especially for women and women of color, it’s more important than ever to encourage them and make them feel like their voices are important, their stories are important. They shouldn’t feel like they are not welcome at the table.
Perfect. It’s been very enlightening. Thank you so much.
Some parts of the interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Thank you to S/W team member Serafima Serafimova for her Short List filmmaker portraits, including the one of Minhal Baig.