Interview: Cinematographer Carolina Costa on Letting the Imagery Breathe in “Hala”

When Carolina Costa first grabbed a camera that her father brought home, it wasn’t with the thought that she would create beautiful images with it.

“I was more interested in the actual construction of a reality and a story,” says Costa. “At the beginning, I was just fascinated by storytelling, so I wrote a lot of short stories and [when] that camera ended up in the house, we did a lot of music videos that my friends would have to lip sync and act [in] and then I had little soap operas with my sisters [where] it’d usually be the news of the week and family dramas.”

Costa had no aspirations of becoming a filmmaker then, but that purity of intent in terms of just wanting to tell a good tale has served her well as a cinematographer when so often her images have been so striking in how seemingly straightforward they are. Her appreciation for what could be conveyed with just a single frame began when she worked for a still photographer in Brazil in her teens where the hours spent processing pictures in a lab suggested how powerful a picture could be in the dark, and in the years since, she’s developed a remarkable eye for compositions that invite you to look deep into scenes that might otherwise go unremarked upon, capturing the dignity of characters who feel marginalized in their everyday lives and vividly bringing their rich interior lives to the surface.

It’s no wonder then that Minhal Baig had thought to contact Costa when she began envisioning what “Hala” would look like, having extracted the riveting drama from her own middle-class upbringing in Chicago where her family had relocated from Pakistan. At first, one can feel the warmth inside the home of the Masoods, where a conservative Muslim family have created a retreat for themselves in which parents Zahid (Azad Khan) and Eram (Purbi Joshi) have reminders all around of the life they had to leave behind while still observing religious tenets such as praying to the East, with burnished crimson and golden hues giving the regal quality of a palace before one realizes it’s actually a bit of a fortress for their teenage daughter Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) to break free of. The Windy City may seem at times unforgiving for the family trying to integrate, but through Costa’s camerawork, it’s as if you can feel the breeze touch the back of your neck as it does for the film’s heroine when she’s allowed to be in her own element, skateboarding or expressing herself through poetry, letting Viswanathan’s radiance speak for itself when Hala begins to find her own way in life.

Costa has become so gifted at visually articulating the effects of walls physically, doing extraordinary work on timely dramas such as “Icebox,” Daniel Sawka’s moving story of a young boy trapped at the Mexican-American border, and “Workforce,” David Zonana’s recent Toronto sensation about a day laborer who struggles to keep himself off the streets while building homes for the wealthy in Mexico, but it’s how she creates the space to understand their effects psychologically that is most impressive. Her use of distance in “Hala” to Hala to relate to the character’s disorientation, particularly when she falls in love with a classmate named Jesse (Jack Kilmer) while being prepared to be married off to someone her parents have selected for her, is able to access emotions that Hala could never bring herself to speak out loud and knows how to use light in such a way that a room that once felt airy can come to confine and vice versa.

In the midst of a busy year for the cinematographer, Costa graciously took the time out to talk about her work on “Hala” and her collaboration with Baig, bringing to the screen a story that is so close to the filmmaker and creating an universality to the experience.

How did “Hala” come about?

[Minhal and I] have the same circle of friends and I think we both had been keeping tabs on each other’s work, so when she got to do the feature version of the short, she reached out and we started talking and very quickly, we realized we had similar tastes. And I just loved the script. It’s a coming-of-age movie and there have been so many of those, but it was a perspective we hadn’t seen and at the same time, I felt it was super-relatable. I wasn’t raised by a Muslim family like Minhal was in the U.S., but I really connected with what [Hala] was going through between what’s happening at home and what’s happening in her social universe, her school and her friends, the guy she likes, and how the relationship with her mom changed [where] sometimes you’re the kid, but also sometimes you take care of them and they’re the kids. All of that just felt so human and relatable and I felt I could look [at this] from an emotional and psychological standpoint rather than just cultural [lens].

Minhal and I started talking and eventually we went to Chicago to prep and shoot the movie. It was a short shoot. We had 18 days, so it was a little hard in that sense, and the work was done through pre-production, which was really, really important because we had to be so precise and prepared on set, otherwise we couldn’t have made the movie. But everybody that joined the team made it possible for us to be precise [in that timeframe]. It also helped a lot that Sue Tebbutt was the production designer and I had just worked with her on another movie [“Icebox”] as well, so we already had this short language that we could just communicate.

When this story is so personal to Minhal, what was it like scouting Chicago?

It was special in that sense that we shot in the high school that Minhal went and in the neighborhood where she grew up. That’s special because it gives a little window to be able to understand where it’s coming from generally. It was my second movie actually that I shot in Chicago, but it’s like even though I had been there before, it’s not my place. The way that we lit came actually from how I saw the light reacting and bouncing around the buildings in Chicago and I felt that once they had moved from that family home and they were starting a new life, then the light has to feel completely different.

I read about how the apartment would face mecca because of the family’s religion – did you build the rest of the lighting design around that?

Yeah, because I feel we can cheat so much [in other films where] sometimes we can have light come from one side of the house and then it’ll come from the other, but I felt for this story in particular, I could not because you obviously see them inside the house and they face a certain way that’s true to their nature and their culture and their religion, so the geography of the lights should respect that. So we decided where that side of the house was and the sun could only move around based on that philosophy. That determined how a lot of the scenes were lit because [for] the daylight scenes, I would be like, “Oh right, the sun is coming this way, I can only come through this window.”

There’s a couple lighting set-ups I never anticipated, but as we started shooting the movie and the darker side of the family, let’s call it, [started to emerge], I felt something on set, like that unnatural light that happens and it gave me an idea of this light being bounced back from the bottom, from the ground, and I [thought], “Oh this is interesting. It’s talking something about their emotions here.” But that’s the hard part [because] you have to be so precise and so sharp, we had only two days in the house and we had to get so many scenes and emotions, so the hardest is to figure out how to tell the story through cinematography, but also use the least amount of time to get that shot.

You also have to be open to what the actors are going to bring to the table on the day and maybe it’s something you haven’t thought about, and that’s the beauty of making movies. So you also have to have that side that is open to finding what the movie’s about, but also making your day. Geraldine was such a pro. In the morning, she was doing a fighting scene with her dad and the end of the day is like the beginning of the movie when they’re still a team, so it’s such a hard thing that directors and actors are doing, and I felt like my job on this movie was to help tell the story because that’s what I’m there for, but also help stay away from it a little bit so they could have that time, so I wasn’t lighting for two hours. It had to be the right light to tell the story, obviously, but not something extremely complicated.

You mentioned working with Sue Tebbutt before on “Icebox” and I liked the idea throughout of this confined world Hala is breaking out of and how the walls can feel like they’re closing in. Was that something the two of you talked about this?

Yeah, we tested so many colors, like each room has a particular color — [Hala’s] teacher’s house and the boy [Jesse]’s house all had a particular color, so that was very important and then when we started scouting, the architecture of it is so important. When we found that house [that Hala’s family lives in], that was such great opportunity for framing that spoke a lot about how this family is acting with one another.

And it felt like a static movie because in many ways that’s how she felt in this world where she was trying to find her footing, so [Minhal and I] always wanted this more static camera. We always felt that the camera should be close to her [in a way] that felt honest to her experience, so [it’s still] at the beginning of the movie and then it starts changing and it has a little bit more controlled movement towards the second act or the third act. I think we have one handheld shot that we particularly chose for that moment [at the dinner table] where everything blows up in her universe and there’s no way back. We felt the camera should entirely be through the experience of Hala and at the beginning, that’s very little movement.

When I spoke to Minhal, she said everything was storyboarded except for that beautiful scene in the park. What was that like to figure out?

Yeah, we shot-listed everything like very carefully and took photos of people in the location, [again] because of what I mentioned of having to be precise with the work. That scene we let it run a little freer and we found the shots in the moment [which is] what I think makes that scene fresh. I generally feel like that’s two young kids falling in love and kind of figuring out who they are and who they are with each other is so beautiful and I don’t know if [we did that] consciously, but I feel instinctively we wanted that to be played on the day as that is the first and only time this is happening.

What’s Minhal like as a director?

Minhal is an incredible director to work with, such a hard worker and someone that really, really genuinely understands story and very much connected to that. She doesn’t put form over content and that’s why I enjoy working with her because we talk about story all the time and everything is built from there. She’s also really present and really good with her actors and someone who’s really easy to collaborate with, and she’s very open-minded to people’s ideas. That’s why she takes her time and she’s very specific about who she wants to work with.

One of the things I’ve gotten from your work and this conversation in general is this deep respect for the cultures that you enter. Has that been an exciting part of this for you?

Yeah, I’m curious and I have to connect with the story and the characters and I have to put myself in there, even if I come from a completely different background or rationale as a person. That’s what I respond to in scripts and then I read stories like “Hala” [where] I hadn’t seen that story on the screen and I want to be part of that. I’ve been doing a lot of immigration stories, coming of age about young women – themes that matter to me or I feel are important to be shared and told, and at the beginning of this year, I said I want to reach out a little bit out of my comfort zone, so I did my first horror movie in Mexico, I’m a week out from shooting a period piece and I’ve been writing a script that’s sci-fi that I want to direct, so I’m trying to shoot different genres and see what else I can do.

“Hala” opens on November 22nd in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and in New York at the Village East. It will premiere on Apple TV+ on December 6th.

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