Rebecca Hall and Robin Wright discuss their directing debuts
Cinema Cafe panel moderated by Lindsey Bahr
Actors Rebecca Hall and Robin Wright have touched people’s lives throughout the years with roles they have portrayed in front of the camera.
During this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, however, they hope to make a mark with debut projects they oversaw from the director’s seat.
Hall’s film “Passing,” which is based on the Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, premiered in the U.S. Dramatic category, while Wright’s “Land,” an original script, is currently screening in the festival’s Premieres section.
Hall and Wright participated in a Cinema Cafe panel discussion moderated by Lindsey Bahr, film writer and critic for the Associated Press, to talk about why they wanted to direct and the challenges of being first-time female directors.
“I think (directing) was always in the recesses of my mind,” said Wright, who is known for roles in “Forrest Gump,” “Wonder Woman” and “Blade Runner 2049.” “Having been in the industry for 40-something years, (I would think) I would love to do that, but I’m not ready.”
Wright finally got a taste of what it was like to take the helm while she was involved in the Netflix political thriller series “House of Cards.”
“They gave me the opportunity to direct one of the episodes,” she said. “I had such a great support team with so much experience, (and) I basically got a mini cinema school.”
Hall, whose filmography includes “The Prestige,” “Please Give” and the upcoming “Godzilla vs. Kong,” had also spent years thinking about directing.
“I’ve been stealthily, quietly masquerading on film sets as just an actor while silently spying on everyone I’ve ever worked with,” Hall said. “It’s always something I wanted to do.”
Still, both directors thought for a long time about what types of stories they wanted to tell.
Hall wrote the first draft of her script nearly 15 years ago. The story follows Larsen’s book that addresses the concept of racial passing, which happens when a person of one race passes for being a member of another race.
“It felt very ambitious, because I knew I wanted it to be in black and white,” said Hall, whose mother is of African American and Native American with Dutch and Scottish ancestry. “It was a period (piece), and a very complicated subject matter.”
Because of all the challenges, Hall put the script aside.
“I just thought this can’t possibly be my first film,” she said. “So it sat in a drawer, and I pretended like other things were going to be my first film.”
Eventually Hall realized if she was going to direct a film, “Passing” would be it.
“Because the heritage was African American and I was spending more time in America, I started to think more about how racism is so baked into so much of this country’s history,” she said.
The idea for Hall to even write a script came when someone gave her the book.
“It was a completely personal circumstance,” she said. “I was a little older than 25, and I began to think about the aspect of my own family heritage. Someone gave me the book as a sort of ‘you might find this interesting.’ (And) I found it to be a breathtaking modern work. From a purely artistic perspective I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a movie, already.”
Wright’s decision to make “Land” came a few years ago, when the United States was plagued by mass shootings.
“When I received the script it was the time when these random shootings had gone from one every two to three months to bi-weekly,” she said. “It was becoming the norm.”
The script, which follows a grieving woman, as she starts a new life off the grid, resonated with Wright.
“Everybody deals with loss and grief in their own ways, and I wanted to make a movie at that time, because there was so much pain in our country,” said Wright, who also acted in the film’s lead role. “(And with) the administriation we had to endure for four years, the explosion of Twitter, and everybody being a judge, there was so much bullying going on.”
As she read the script, Wright came upon a scene where the woman asks another character why he is helping her, and he replies, “Because you’re in my path.”
“That’s human kindness,” she said. “(This is) a movie about one woman’s experience dealing with grief. She chooses to go live off the grid and do it in her way, on her own terms, and realizes she needs human connection and kindness to pull her through adversity. It’s about human kindness and resilience and hope. Something the world needs to be reminded of right now.”
Both Hall and Wright faced adversity while trying to find funding for their projects.
“It’s a real game of endurance, and I didn’t make things particularly easy for myself,” Hall said. “It was years of going and not going, and a lot of people said if I make the movie in color they would give me the money. But I said, ‘No. I’m going to be stubborn, but it’s absolutely necessary. It’s just part of the movie.’”
Even Hall’s cast, which include Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, championed the film.
“That made a huge difference,” Hall said.
The call for funding was heard by Significant Productions, which is run by Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, whose slate includes “Fruitvale Station” and “Godfather of Harlem.”
“They were a miracle of producers,” Hall said. “They said to me, ‘We get your vision, and you’ve got to make it your way. We’ll find the money for you to do it.’ I got lucky. The stubbornness paid off in the end, hopefully.”
Wright tried to sell her idea at the Cannes Film Festival.
“You sit in a room and every 10 minutes 15 to 20 distributors would come in and you have to do the pitch,” she said. “No one was biting, and the air would kind of go out of the room.”
At the end of the three-day grind, Wright met with Focus Features, whose films include “Darkest Hours,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Blackkklansman.”
“They walked in and said, ‘We so get this movie and we want to make this movie,’” she said. “We jumped up and down in the room. It was kismet.”
Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” and Robin Wright’s “Land” are currently streaming at the 2021 virtual Sundance Film Festival. The festival runs through Feb. 3. For information, visit sundance.org.
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