When Rebecca Hall came across a copy of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel “Passing” almost 15 years ago, she immediately began picturing how she would make the film. “It just started playing in my mind,” she recalls. “Black and white, in 4:3.”
Hall, who has starred in fare as varied as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and, more recently, “Godzilla vs Kong,” was just a few dozen pages into the novel at the time and had never previously directed. 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. When she finished, she shoved it into a drawer, where it stayed for the next six years.
“I think I sort of vomited out the first draft in 10 days,” says Hall. “And then I was terrified of it. It sat on my computer. I was like, ‘What did I just do?’” What she did clearly worked, however, as the film is on the BAFTA awards longlist in 7 categories as well as scoring a best supporting actress award nomination for Ruth Negga at both the SAG and Golden Globes awards (Negga lost out to fellow nominee Ariana DeBose at the Globes on Sunday).
Larsen’s novel about “the emotional lives of two women of color,” as Hall describes it, gripped her. “The story feels so potent to me,” says Hall, 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 explains. “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.”
Eventually, Hall pulled the script out of her drawer and decided to try making the film, although it would take a further seven years before she managed to secure 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.”
On paper, the odds were stacked against “Passing.” Hall was a first-time filmmaker, she was female (“Nobody said it explicitly, but I suspect it played into it,” she says) and she was trying to make a period film about two women of color in black and white. 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 mischievously. “I just kept that one under my hat.”
While many first-time filmmakers may have been disheartened by the constant setbacks, Hall, who describes herself as “stubborn as an ox,” was only 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.”
Somewhere in the process, 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 also enabled her to manipulate light and, consequently, context, which is “only something I could have done in black and white,” explains Hall.
Having now made her feature film directorial and screenwriting debuts, Hall is already looking ahead to future projects. She hints at “something” she plans to pitch soon and also has another idea brewing. “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.
As for acting, Hall has no plans to give it up. She will next be seen in indie thriller “Resurrection,” opposite Tim Roth. As well as creatively enjoyable, acting is ultimately easier to balance with the practical realities of 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.”
If made to choose between the two, which would she pick? “The truth is, I think directing holds everything for me,” Hall says after some 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.”