When Rebecca Hall came across a copy of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel “Passing”It was almost fifteen years ago that she began picturing the movie she wanted to make. “It just started playing in my mind,”She remembers. “Black and white, in 4:3.”
Hall, who has starred as a star in fare so diverse as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”And, even more recently, “Godzilla vs Kong,”She was only a few hundred pages into the novel, and had never directed before. But as soon as she finished the book — about two Black women who reconnect in adulthood when one has begun “passing” as white — Hall pulled out her computer and began writing the screenplay. After she was done, Hall put the screenplay in a drawer. This is where it remained for the next six decades.
“I think I sort of vomited out the first draft in 10 days,”Hall. “And then I was terrified of it. It sat on my computer. I was like, ‘What did I just do?’”
Larsen’s novel about “the story of the emotional lives of two women of color,”Hall describes how it happened: She was gripped. “The story feels so potent to me,”Hall says so, because it “actually contains something universal about humanity. And when I realized that, it felt enormous to me, and terrifying.”
There was another reason. “Passing” had burrowed its way into Hall’s heart and mind. Hall’s maternal grandfather, who was born in Virginia, was Black. “At a certain point in his life, he made the decision to pass for white,”She elaborates. “But the thing that I’m sort of left with, as a descendant of that, really, is what the psychological toll of a life hiding [your identity has] on the people that you birth and the people that they birth.”
Hall eventually pulled the script from her drawer, and she decided to attempt making the film. It would take seven years, however, before she was able to get funding. “Everybody looked at me blankly and said, ‘Well, of course it’s a brilliant screenplay. It’s very, very interesting. I’ve never seen anything like this before. But you’ll never get it made,’”She says. “Again and again and again.”
The odds were stacked against you, on paper. “Passing.”Hall was a debut filmmaker. She was female.“Nobody said it explicitly, but I suspect it played into it,”She said that she was making a period movie about two black women. And that was before she’d even revealed she planned to shoot in 4:3.
“I didn’t tell anyone about the 4:3 until very late in the game,”Hall admits to being mischievous. “I just kept that one under my hat.”
Hall, who describes herself to be a “first-time filmmaker”, may have felt discouraged by the setbacks. “stubborn as an ox,”It was even more determined. “I remember saying to financiers when I was talking to them, ‘Look, yes, I’m a first-time filmmaker. I might not know how to make any film. But I absolutely know how to make this film.”
Ruth Negga (“Preacher”) and Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Love and Thunder”) both signed on to the project — and stayed attached for another two to three years while Hall battled to secure funding. “There was a very real moment where it looked like I was going to have to risk not making it at all or making a version of it that I wasn’t going to be happy with, in color,”Hall recalls.
“And I remember calling both [Negga and Thompson] up and saying, ‘I don’t want to take this away from you, this opportunity. I want you to have this, but I don’t think I can make it in color. I don’t think it will work.’ And they both said to me, ‘You’re right. Let’s hold tight, something will happen.’ And it did in the end.”
Although Hall’s decision to shoot a movie about race in monochrome may, at first, seem somewhat on the nose, her motivation was in fact to show how complex questions of identity can be. “Black and white film is [really] a thousand shades of grey,”She says. “Just like this narrative.”It enabled her to manipulate light, and consequently context. “only something I could have done in black and white,”Hall explains.
Hall, who has now made her screenwriting and feature film director debuts, is already anticipating future projects. Hall gives hints about “something”She is planning to pitch soon and has another idea. “I’ve got to direct something that I connect with in the way that I connected to this,” she says of how she’ll pick her next directing gig.
Hall is not going to stop acting. Hall will next be seen as an indie thriller. “Resurrection,”Tim Roth. Acting is a creatively satisfying pastime that can be paired with having young children. “Acting roles take up less time, you know. ‘Resurrection’ I shot in five weeks over the summer,”She says. “Directing a film takes a year or two years or possibly even more.”
Would she choose one of the two? “The truth is, I think directing holds everything for me,”Hall said this after much deliberation. “The best bits that I love as an actor are the thinking and the kind of logical road-mapping of the emotions and what’s happening. And you do all that as a writer, and then you do all that, again, as a director when you’re working out how to capture and film that.”
“But [directing] also combines music and composition and image, and I’ve always painted and I’ve always played music, and you know, all of these things, combined — word, music, image — are all the things that I’ve ever cared about,”She says. “I’m more me when I’m directing than anything else.”