With the feature-length script for her Muslim coming-of-age short Hala recently listed as one of ‘Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays’ (the script is now being produced by Overbrook Entertainment), there’s no denying Yale graduate Minhal Baig is a director to keep an eye on. With her aforementioned debut short gathering a whole heap of critical acclaim, we sat down with Minhal to discuss her latest short After Sophie – a haunting 9-minute film that follows a documentary filmmaker exploring the supernatural details surrounding a teen suicide.
I wanted to explore these ideas within a horror film because suicide has been explored ad nauseam in drama shorts.
How did the concept for After Sophie originate?
I really wanted to explore a community affected by an unexpected loss, as well as the narratives projected onto suicide. Our human impulse is to rationalize behavior in a way that makes sense within a preexisting framework for understanding the world. Nobody really knows why Sophie did what she did; only she knows that, but she’s not present to share her side of the story. I wanted to explore these ideas within a horror film because suicide has been explored ad nauseam in drama shorts. After Sophie was my psychological, anxiety-inducing take on these bigger ideas.
A lot of the impact in the film comes from how well it sells itself as a documentary, how important was its ‘believability’ and did you study the tropes of the genre?
A few documentaries did inspire me, especially The Jinx. We have talking heads and the b-roll that gives a sense of the eerie atmosphere in which this story lives. My biggest inspiration is actually a psychological-horror fiction film called Lake Mungo. It’s shot like a documentary and employs non-professional actors, so for a minute, audiences did think it was a real story. Believability was important, to an extent. I wanted naturalistic performances from all my actors. But it was also very important that the film be visually striking too. I’m not interested in the found-footage genre, so our b-roll is very beautiful, and the color and sound-design are obviously at a higher quality than perhaps an independent documentary filmmaker might be able to afford on their own.
With the last question in mind, is there anything you would have done differently?
We had another classmate of Sophie’s in the script that didn’t end up making it in the final cut of the film. He offered some complexity to the relationship between himself, Sophie and Mr. Dorsey, the photography teacher. I wish there had been a way to integrate that character without losing the emotional impact of the current cut. I love the way the film looks but that too was a compromise. We used Kowa lenses but in my dream scenario, I would have shot on vintage Hawk V-Lite lenses. They are stunning but unfortunately, also very expensive!
I really don’t believe in acting. There is only being.
What kind of instructions did you give your cast? Were you going for complete realism or did you want them giving away hints that all is not what it seems?
I gave them very minor direction. Everyone we cast was already very natural, and they shared their story to the camera as if it were their truth. Of course, they had questions — was their character lying or telling the truth? I kept the story-at-large away from them because if they knew the bigger picture, it might have affected their performance from being as natural as possible. I really don’t believe in acting. There is only being.
For example, when Drew, the actor playing the teacher, asked me if his character actually saw the figures in the contact sheet. I told him that he did. Mr. Dorsey is very aware how absurd his story might sound to a documentary filmmaker who’s searching for truth, not fiction, especially because he doesn’t have any proof of what he saw.
Tell us a bit about the production – camera, crew size, length of shoot.
I shot the film over a single weekend in November with somewhere between 10-12 crew members. We shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini with Kowa lenses. Ali Helnwein, who I had worked with before on my short, Hala, composed a beautiful score for us. We finished our post at This is Sound Design and Wildfire Finishing for our color.
Fun fact: there is a shot where Sophie is lying in the Los Angeles river that never made it in the final film. That’s actually my Producer, Halee Bernard playing Sophie in that shot. The river water is absolutely filthy and she was game to do it for the sake of the movie. That’s real producing.
What do you hope an audience takes away from the film?
I really hope that people are genuinely creeped out and want to know what happened to Sophie. There is a story beyond what’s presented in the short — that story came before the short — and the goal was to direct a film that would inspire interest in the bigger story.
I’m expanding After Sophie into a bigger project.
What are you working on next?
That’s pretty tough to talk about in an interview because then I’m holding myself accountable to anyone reading this, but why not. The biggest push right now is to enter production on my feature-length film, Hala. I’m also writing another feature, for which I’ll be directing a proof of concept, about a woman who returns to her family after a horrifying accident but she’s not what they expected. I’m expanding After Sophie into a bigger project, as well. There are two other projects: a noir social issues comic book I’m writing with Richard Lyons doing the art, and, fingers crossed, a television adaptation of a graphic novel about the future of incarceration technology.