‘Passing’ writer/director Rebecca Hall: The story ‘gave me context for understanding my own racial identity’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Writer-director Rebecca Hall discovered the novel that inspired her debut feature film “Passing” 13 years ago at “a very specific moment in my life. I think I was talking more about my own complicated mixed-race heritage, and complicated in that it was very shrouded in mystery and hidden.” The book “gave me this context for understanding my own racial identity, for understanding my grandfather, who I now know was Black.” We talked to Hall as part of our “Meet the Experts” Film Writers Panel. Watch our exclusive video interview with Hall above.

The Netflix film tells the story of two childhood friends who reunite in New York City in the 1920s, one living as a Black woman (Tessa Thompson) and the other whose light skin allows her to pass for white (Ruth Negga). The story and its themes were so impactful to Hall that she “wrote the first draft of the screenplay as a response to trying to shut off the movie in my head … I wrote the first draft in about 10 days after reading it,” but then “I stuck it in a drawer because I was slightly overwhelmed and intimidated by its potential.”

It was “hugely challenging” to capture the nuances and subtext of Thompson’s character, “who’s not hiding her racial identity but is arguably hiding everything else about herself and is crumbling from the inside.” Hall had the idea to shoot in black-and-white and in a tightly enclosed 4:3 aspect ratio from the very beginning, and that decision “did help the writing,” serving as a “visual metaphor” and advancing the story’s themes: “You’re asking your audience to consider perception and what they see in context, which is kind of what the story is all about.”

This is Hall’s first film as a writer and director after achieving success as an actress, but stepping behind the camera was always a goal of hers. “The people I idolized as a child weren’t actors, funnily enough,” she explains. “It was the art of filmmaking that got me into it. That’s what I was interested in and I’ve always wanted to do that. And I’ve always been a writer, I’ve just been a bit quiet about it.”

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