Every word that first-time feature filmmaker Rebecca Hall uses to describe the genesis of her “Passing” vibrates with intensity. Her first experience reading the Nella Larsen novella she eventually adapted for the black-and-white period piece was like “being in a fever,” the pages flipping by as if she was “slightly possessed.”
More than 13 years after first reading Larsen’s book, Hall has kept up that same passion for the material, enough to propel her through years of denials from Hollywood brass and the distinct possibility that the film would never get made the way she saw it.
Much has been made of Hall’s personal connection to the material — the film, like Larsen’s seminal work, follows the fraught reunion of a pair of friends (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga), both of whom are Black, though one of them has crossed the color line and lived her life “passing” as a white woman (Negga as Clare). Hall herself is of mixed racial heritage and her own maternal grandfather “passed” for the majority of his life. But for the long-time actress, Larsen’s slim book spoke even more deeply about much larger ideas.
“I was so struck by how — like any great art — it transcends the specificity of narrative plot points and becomes something so potent,” Hall said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was in awe of its power to do that, that it ends up being about how all of us negotiate identity and that sort of freedom or lack thereof. We have to really be what we want to be versus what we think we ought to be or what we think society wants us to be. That’s every bit as relevant now as it has ever been and will always be.”
She was also convinced it had to be a film. “It was crazy-making,” she said. “Like 10 pages in, I was fevered with ideas, and I was like, ‘Oh, well this has to be a film. Why hasn’t it been a film already? It has to be a film.'”
Hall said she immediately envisioned the movie in black and white (“that’s going to make a mockery of the categorizations, because it’s the gray areas and also the binaries” at play) and in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, so that the characters felt especially “constrained” on the screen. She also imagined a constant “soundscape” that would help access the internal life of its characters.
“All the big ideas that are in the movie, basically, I had while I was reading the book,” she said. “The first draft was done in 10 days and, in retrospect, of course it was messy and sloppy and over-expository and all the rest of it. But the big ideas were there, and I don’t know what accounts for that, I just always had an instinct about how to do this movie.”
The daughter of stage director and Royal Shakespeare Company founder Peter Hall and opera singer Maria Ewing, Hall said she dreamed of being a director since she was just a child, but her ambitious ideas for a first film didn’t make for any easy sell. Everyone loved her ideas, she said, but no one was willing to put money behind them.
“It was seven years of people, not just saying, ‘You won’t get this made,’ but saying what almost feels like a more frustrating combination of, ‘Wow, this is incredible, what an incredible movie this would make, but you’ll never get it done,'” Hall recalled. “Then people would say, ‘Okay, we’ll do it if you make it in color,’ and I was like, ‘Well, it won’t work in color, it won’t be the same, it won’t have the same potency, it just won’t work.’ And then, ‘Okay, we’ll make it if you take away some of the ambiguity.’ ‘Well, no, that’s absolutely not the point of the whole story,’ and on and on and on it went.”
Asked if it ever occurred to her to let the film go, Hall said, “All the time!,” then stopped herself. “That’s a slightly disingenuous response, actually,” she said. “I think there was a little seed of me that was like, ‘This is going to happen, somehow this is going to happen.’ I had to have felt that, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept going.”
Then she met producers Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi, whose Significant Productions has helped bring some of Hollywood’s most ambitious films to fruition over the past 12 years, including Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” Chloe Zhao’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” and Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.” Bold works from first-time filmmakers are kind of their thing.
“They literally said to me, ‘Don’t change a thing, you’re going to have to make this for less money, but we’ll find the money, we’ll scrap it together from everywhere,'” Hall said. “They never said no to me, and I was asking for tough stuff all the time.”
At one juncture, however, Hall noted that production reached a “crunch point” as they were gathering final financing. “The final piece of it wasn’t landing and the conversation was, ‘Okay, you’re going to have to make it in color,'” Hall said. “There really was that moment where I thought, ‘Am I going to make this film in color or am I going to risk not making it at all?’ And I chose risking not making it at all, only because deep down, I still felt somehow it was going to come together.”
The film was eventually shot in the winter of 2019 with the assistance of a cadre of producers — 25 total, including Hall, Yang Bongiovi, Whitaker, Hall’s producing partner Margot Hand, and fellow filmmakers Oren Moverman and Angela Robinson — and premiered at Sundance in January. After rave reviews, Netflix picked it up for $15 million, making it one of the biggest buys in festival history.
Everything she had pictured during that first reading remained intact, including its striking black-and-white cinematography (beautifully lensed by Eduard Grau) and the 4:3 aspect ratio. And while some have balked at the black-and-white approach — how literal, some online chatter has held — it remains essential to the filmmaker.
“Well, it’s not literal at all, it’s the opposite of literal, it’s pointing out actually, how often we want to categorize and make things literal when they’re not,” she said. “After all, black and white film is not black and white, it’s a thousand shades of gray, just like everything else.”
Using black and white also allowed Hall to cast Black actresses in the roles. She’s not trying to “fool” anyone into thinking that Negga or Thompson is white, she’s simply trying to turn the film’s deeply metaphorical ideas into a practical experience. The audience will have “very fixed ideas about Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga’s racial identity,” Hall said, “which gives me a position from which to destabilize those ideas and point out the limits of just reducing them to that one definition.”
“That is a more honest perspective from which to experience the movie, because it puts you in the Black perspective,” she added. “A really simple way of putting it is: If a Black family has a member that crosses the color line and lives their life as white, that family does not look at that person and accept their whiteness, they only ever see them as Black, they only ever see it as dangerous. That’s the perspective that I wanted the audience to sit in, and it’s uncomfortable, but that’s what it is.”
After the film sold at Sundance, Hall and her team crafted a slightly tighter cut for the film’s theatrical and streaming release. The result is only a few minutes shorter than the Sundance version, but it feels even more tense, timely, and unnerving — in short, closer to what Hall, now a Breakthrough Director nominee at the Gothams, dreamed about from the start.
“There were things that I wanted to do in post-production, that we literally just ran out of time and money for,” Hall said. “There wasn’t really much in the actual cut, it was more in the sound design. I think I ended up mixing it three times, because I was so insistent on silence. It’s the kind of film that you get rewarded for working for, if you take it at face value or you accept what you’re seeing on the surface level, you’re not necessarily rewarded, because not really very much happens.”
When the film recently screened at the New York Film Festival, it was the first time Hall was able to watch it with a live audience. It was the final revelation she needed to make the investment worthwhile.
“Obviously, I come from a theater family, and I know all about first preview. The first time that you see it with an audience and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, they laughed then!’ or, ‘I’ve got to go and change something, go back into rehearsal,'” she said. “So it was a very weird experience for me, because I’d had none of that, and I had no expectations. When the first laugh came, I just wanted to start screaming with joy. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s working!,’ because it is a release of tension, but it’s also a really clear signal for a director that the audience is following, that they’re with it, that they’re in it. I didn’t know how much I wanted to hear that sound.”
The raves have come from her own family, which saw the reverberations of a story that has been passed down to her through generations.
“It’s been very big for my family, honestly,” Hall said. “Something that’s been underground for so long and something that felt like it would almost inappropriate to talk about, is now being blasted about, very publicly. My mother loves the movie and she’s so proud that it exists. She’s so happy to be thinking about her father in a different framework and also to know about her grandfather, whose name she didn’t even know, and now I’ve managed to find out an awful lot about him. It’s an extraordinary history that has been obscured from us that now we know about. And that’s actually very big.”
Netflix releases “Passing” in select theaters on Wednesday, October 27, with a streaming release to follow on Wednesday, November 10.