Rebecca Hall on the Development of Passing
Some projects that form in the brain seem to be coated with a layer of Teflon. I don’t know how else to describe it. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, you just have to hold on to it. Yes, things can be dispiriting and make you want to give up. I can’t tell you the amount of times that people told me that Passing would be impossible to make. Even when it was cast and was close to being made, financiers would say to me, It’s great. We love it. Can you just make it in color? Then we’ll give you all the money that you want.
I was left with a really hard choice: Do I make it how I want to make it for an uncomfortable amount of money for a period film? Or do I make it for a comfortable amount of money for a period piece, but how I want to make it?
Something about it was just like, I know how this should be, and I’ve just got to stick to it. I’ve got to stay true to that. It cannot be changed. It just cannot. I don’t know why I had that feeling. I really don’t!
We all decided to work out how to make it for less money, but do it the right way.
Black-and-white was one of the first things that was always an idea that seemed very integral to Passing — the master key to the whole story and everything else. It’s about perception, and who gets to decide who is what. There’s a process of translation that happens when we watch a black-and-white movie. Of course, the world isn’t black and white and yet we naturalize it, we make it real, even though we know it’s an abstraction. Something similar happens with race: We look at everybody and we have the main categories of Black and white, even though nobody is Black and white. And similarly, film isn’t actually black and white, it’s gray.
I wanted to draw attention to that and hopefully complicate it and make people think about that obsession with those categories. There’s a history of passing movies, and they always cast white actors. It felt imperative to me to cast Black women. Also I found there was something interesting about casting women who don’t necessarily obviously “pass.”
Modern contemporary audiences don’t think of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson as white in any way. I thought that was powerful. In an abstract space of black-and-white film, nothing is as the world is. There’s fluidity with how people are accepted.
I hired the right people. Production designer Nora Mendis has done all the research and knew exactly what these houses ought to look like. She had to contend with me saying, “Be that as it may, I want everything to be much simpler, and cleaner. I want there to be emptiness.” I want the house to feel like the perfect bourgeois, beautifully achieved home, but there’s got to be something about it that doesn’t quite feel lived in. I don’t think Irene (Thompson) is entirely comfortable in her own house. She doesn’t know how to exist in it because she’s not being straight with herself. This was something we talked about a lot.
The ’20s are actually a time of lots of clashing wallpaper and lots of woodwork and business, everywhere. We tried to strip that down. It’s ’20s enough, while also being timeless.
As an actor on other projects, I was always thinking about this stuff. I was always nerding out about everything on every set I’ve ever been on. I’m quiet about it, but I watch everything like a hawk. There’s not any cost in playing this game. You can read a script and imagine how you think of things. Then you show up on day one on the set, and you’re like, Oh, these are the choices they made, clearly different from how I imagined it.
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