Interview (Part 2): Minhal Baig

I first met filmmaker Minhal Baig at the 2013 Black List Screenwriters Lab in Las Vegas. She struck me as a bright, ambitious, and talented storyteller. Since that time, I have followed Minnie’s progress with great interest. This week she is launching a Kickstarter campaign for a short film called Hala. It tells both a compelling and important story about a Muslim-American girl who faces the tensions between faith, family, and sexual exploration. This project is hopefully a first step toward a feature-length movie.

As I see part of the mission of this blog to support independent filmmakers, I took the opportunity to ask Minnie some questions about her background and what she envisions for the Hala project.

Here is Part 2 of our conversation:

Scott: Your first film is a feature length movie called One Night, which you wrote and directed. Plot summary: “Past and present collide when two couples explore love over the course of one night at a hotel.” Where did you get the inspiration for One Night?
Minhal: The inspiration for One Night comes from a very simple place. Everyone has fallen in love and fallen out of it; for me, I’d graduated school and fell in love with someone who I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with. That didn’t happen, of course. That relationship is a major inspiration for One Night. I’ve always wanted to write an unconventional love story. I also wanted to explore how people fall in love, grow together, drift apart, and come together again. I’d been very inspired by Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy, and of course, Han Canosa’s film, Conversations with Other Women. He is one of the producers on the project.
Originally, the idea was that two people (who were once together) reconnect at a friend’s party in New York and spend the rest of the night talking and getting to know each other again. I revised this idea so that there would be three couples (at different stages of life), in one location, spending the night together. Eventually, the story focused in on two couples (one younger, one older), who end up learning about love from one another. The story went through many drafts and the version we shot has a surprising turn that I can’t quite talk about. You’ll have to see the movie.
Scott: How did that project come together?
Minhal: The story behind how One Night came together starts with a play I wrote in 2012, called This is Los Angeles. After I’d graduated college, I moved out here so that I could get a job working in an agency mailroom, which I eventually did. I wanted to continue creating no matter what. I spent a good amount of time in cafes near UCLA, where I was living at the time, working on This is Los Angeles — a play about my experience moving to LA and working as an assistant in Hollywood. I contacted artistic directors of theaters around town to see if anyone would be interested in putting up a reading of the play. A few requested to read the script, but I never heard back from any of them.
Eventually, a breakthrough happened when I attended a comedy show at Bang! Comedy Theatre and met Lizzie Czerner, the artistic director at the time. I went up to her after the show was over and asked if she’d be interested in reading the script for This is Los Angeles. In retrospect, that was pretty gutsy. We got to talking and she said she would definitely read the script, so I went home and sent it to her. Within the next day, she’d read the play and said she’d love to help. I would have to cast and direct it, as well as market it myself, but she’d give me the space at the theatre to hold auditions and have the reading of the play. I cast through Craigslist, had a friend design the poster and held rehearsals — all while I was working in the mailroom at UTA.
I invited everyone in the mailroom to attend, including a filmmaker friend of mine who I went to college with. She was friends with Hans Canosa, a director and producer, for whom I had completed script coverage for once. He directed one of my favorite films, Conversations with Other Women, which is a huge influence for One Night. In return for writing coverage for Hans, I asked him to attend the reading of my play. After the play, we spoke. He thought I had a voice, and that should be cultivated. He believed in me as an artist right away, and encouraged me to keep writing. Weeks later, I pitched him the idea for One Night and he suggested that I write it. Eventually, I left my job at the agency and returned home to Chicago, where I wrote the first draft of One Night. I sent the script to Hans and he immediately took to it. He said it would need a lot of work, but it was definitely a film that we could make. Without his belief in me, there is no way One Night would have been made.
For the next year and a half, I rewrote the script many times with his notes. We had Kerry Barden, a casting director from New York, come on board after reading the script. Then, in late 2013, director/producer Marius Markevicius, who had produced several independent features, including Douchebag and Like Crazy (a major inspiration for the film), came on board the project. With his support, we were able to push the project into the talent agencies for casting. We submitted the script to talent agents and made offers to cast. While we were making submissions, I was revising the script and storyboarding the film. By August of last year, we had all the financing for the project and had just one more role to cast. I flew out to Los Angeles last August to begin pre-production. We began production on September 22nd and shot for sixteen days. We wrapped October 10th and entered post-production. A year later, we are submitting the feature to film festivals.
The process for One Night was lucky. I had very supportive producers who really believed in the script and in me. I owe everything them; they never stopped fighting for the movie.
Scott: Why did you decide to direct your own script?
Minhal: I initially wrote the script without the intention of directing it. I was given the opportunity to direct the script by my creative producer, Hans Canosa. He was convinced that I knew the story best and that I should direct it. Although I’d written and directed a few student short films, I’d never done anything on this scale before. I’d taken a few courses in filmmaking while I had been at Yale, but my focus had been in painting and playwriting.
Hans gave me the courage to direct my movie. He also gave me a very valuable piece of wisdom: Nobody is ever ready to direct their first film. A first-time filmmaker needs conviction in their vision, patience and perseverance. With that in mind, I consumed everything on the art of directing — from the more technical aspects of filmmaking and production to working with actors. I went through NYU’s graduate film school syllabus and read all the books I could get my hands on. I consulted other directors. I watched a lot of movies and listened to director commentaries. All the while, I kept revising the script and thinking about who we’d cast and what it would look like.
I was ready to direct One Night by the time we shot the film because I’d lived with the story so long. I’d written and rewritten the script, watched reference films, storyboarded the entire movie and knew my story backwards and forward. By the time I arrived on set, I was prepared to work with my actors and crew, and I owe a lot to both of my producers, Marius and Hans, for being so supportive of my vision despite my inexperience. They believed in me the whole way through. I could not have directed this film without them.
Scott: What did you learn from your One Night experience about the importance of writing for actors?
Minhal: Actors are desperate for good writing. When they find a good script, they jump at the opportunity to play a part. Actors are artists just like writers and directors are. They want to find parts that challenge them and give them a chance to do something they haven’t done before. My experience with One Night taught me about the importance of writing a character that an actor wants to play. In a truly exceptional script, character IS plot; the two cannot be separated. Those are the roles that actors want to play the most. Writing for actors is difficult, but it elevates screenwriting. I’ve also learned that I’m not just writing a script, but a movie; writing for actors is an important part of that.
Scott: What was it like directing an independent film and how has that affected the way you write scripts now?
Minhal: I’ve always been in love with words, since I studied playwriting in college and plays are all about dialogue. Dialogue is the most pleasurable part of reading a script but the least visual part of making a film. I learned that while making One Night, which is a dialogue-driven movie; every scene was a conversation between two characters. Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of film I wanted One Night to be.
For Hala, the tone and aesthetic is very different; it’s a lot quieter, for one. While writing Hala, I was always cutting dialogue. If a scene could operate without dialogue, that was ideal. My feature scripts are lot more spare than they were before One Night. I’ve focused a lot more of my efforts on structure and the “spine” of the story.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Minnie discusses her new project Hala.

For Part 1 of our interview, go here.

About Hala: Hala, a sixteen-year old Muslim teenager, has a rich and complex inner world, which serves as an escape from her socially conservative home. When she meets Jesse, a boy from the skate park, she experiences a real and immediate connection. Hala must keep their relationship a secret from her religious parents. In their Islamic faith, dating and premarital sex are expressly forbidden. Her twin identities, however, inevitably collide, and not without consequences.

A teaser for the project Hala:

You can read more about the story here.

Minhal’s director’s statement here.

The Hala team here.

The movie’s website here.

Twitter: @minhalbaig.

Declare Your Independents! Support Minnie and her movie project Hala by donating to her Kickstarter campaign here. And spread the word!

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