By Rivka Yeker
Artists create for different reasons. Each one has a chosen medium, a desire to craft, and something to get off their chest. For Minhal Baig, L.A. based and Chicago born artist, there is no order to the criteria of being a creator. For her, they all blend into the same priority—the same agenda of telling honest stories about versatile characters.
We Skyped on the day that she was editing a music video that she wrote, directed, and produced for musician: Brandyn Burnette. Her schedule is never free. She is always seeking new work—itching to make something and trying to be on set as much as possible. It’s inspiring, really, because anyone that has spent 14 hour long days with the same people can at least understand the basic level of exhaustion that filmmaking can bring.
“I would never put myself through all the work of production unless I really cared about it,” she says. People often don’t realize the amount of grit required in these processes—the amount of energy needed just produce something that is worthwhile. For her, there is no option to make something that isn’t.
Baig graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in Visual Arts, meaning that she has no classic film training— she started as a painter and a playwright. Considering the level of form and creativity in her work, one would think otherwise, but people tend to forget that just because someone went to film school doesn’t mean they’re going to make exceptional films. Likewise, someone who didn’t go to film school absolutely could. Minhal is dedicated and with her knowledge focused on the visual arts, her work is visually striking and particular, as if a painter meticulously crafted the entire film—which in this case, one did.
She’s no stranger to narrative, either. Her comic, Sunset Cleaners, published by Image Comics, is about the minor traumas she experienced in the days, months and years after 9/11 as a Muslim-American. Baig is talented in just about every way possible. She is also capable of being kind, calm, and easy to speak to. People like her don’t come around too often, especially not in her industry.
Since Minhal is such a passionate worker, it’s hard to find people on that same level, which makes gathering a crew all the more difficult, especially when money is tight. “I always have to give a disclaimer for every project,” she says. “You can not be doing this for money.”
For many, that sounds harsh and exploitative. But at the beginning of a film career, you will be working for very little—for exposure—to build partnerships and connections. Multiple times she points out that there are other ways to make money, especially if you’re passionate about your projects. “Low-budget music videos are not going to make the same as a commercial and I try to make that clear,” but at the end of the day, it’s up to young artists to decide how they are going to further their careers in an industry that doesn’t care about the individual. Baig guarantees that the outcome of each of her projects will be quality work, and she promises to put each team member on the roster of people she will work with on upcoming endeavors—ones where she does have more money.
“People have a hard time knowing what it means to do 100% of their job,” she says. “Especially if little money is involved.” But Baig isn’t just using her cast and crew, in fact, she’s pushing them to see what it’s like to put their all into something that will be good. She is inspiring them to become just as passionate about the project as her and she is encouraging the notion of collaboration.
She has been told over and over again that $5,000 as a budget for a music video won’t work or that she’ll have to steal locations. In these situations, she has no other answer but, “It’ll take more time and more phone calls, but that’s work I’m willing to do for something I care about. If I can’t hire someone to do something, then I learn the job.” Baig has the much needed confidence and determination that pushes her to the top. She knows that no one else is going to be doing it for her.
While money is a constant difficulty in art, especially when artists are trying to make inspiring work, Baig was originally told by her playwriting professor to enter the screenwriting field because there would be more money there. She thought that when she graduated, she’d be a producer. As a graduate, she was on track to being financially successful, impressing her parents and peers when she landed a job at an agency in L.A. fresh out of college. She worked in the mailroom, and then became an assistant to a TV agent at United Talent Agency. In the eyes of everyone else, she was living the dream. Her job was prestigious and impressive, especially for a recent grad, but Baig says, “I realized that I [didn’t] want to work on that side of the business. I think it takes a particular kind of person. I don’t think I’m that person.”
So what kind of person is she? She has the work ethic and the talent to be anyone or do anything, but it is the world of production that steals her heart. She wants to be the person making the art, not the one distributing it.
Her least favorite part about filmmaking is the writing, which is slightly bizarre, since she is a brilliant writer, so she elaborates by saying, “writing is lonely. You sit in front of a computer screen and you type, but there is no fun to it. I do it because I have to.” To her, when she is directing, she gets to work with other people and with editing, you work with the footage and it’s visual and exciting. With writing, you are working with words and yourself, and oftentimes, it is an isolating and long process.
Despite these challenges, writing her own screenplays has helped Baig be taken seriously on film sets. Since she didn’t go to the American Film Institute like many of the people she works with, these skills help her earn trust because her colleagues know that she knows what she wants out of the film. Baig doesn’t simply hand her script over and begin working—each project requires a much more extensive process of dissecting the script and making sure everyone understands it. She asks questions like, “what’s best for this story?” and, “what will it make it the most emotionally impactful?” While her colleagues are immensely talented technicians, she has to make sure the emotional creativity is there as well.
“I want to make sure the script feels alive,” she says. “What makes projects true and special is when the artists and the people who are making it lived it. They lived in the space and made the writing into a living breathing thing.”
Baig doesn’t hide her desire for success. Her short film Hala was Vimeo’s “Short of the Week” and was published on NYLON Magazine. Hala was her first large project that required a lot of planning, time, and cooperation from her team. Money was raised through supportive friends, family, and other filmmakers who liked what she and her crew were doing. By squeezing the good out of social media, the film raised enough to become the successful project she had hoped it to be.
The film itself is a coming-of-age story, one that features a 16-year-old girl trying to figure herself out, while still respecting her parents and religion. It is honest and relatable, but also attempts to show a reality that mainstream media normally tries to hide or misrepresent: a Muslim girl doing everyday teenage things and thinking everyday teenage thoughts.
Baig’s main approach when writing characters has less to do with a political ideology and is more about telling an honest story about the character. “One of my biggest pet peeves in movies is when a marginalized person is a main character and it suddenly has to be political,” she says. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to explore stories that haven’t been told—she naturally wants her characters to be interesting, not just typical cliches seen in popular media.
She says that Hala isn’t autobiographical, but being a Pakistani Muslim-American that is a daughter of immigrants, the film was personal. In the film, the main character is Iranian-American. Baig whole-heartedly believes in casting people that are true to what their characters are. Not only did she cast Iranians, but she also had an Iranian-American on set to confirm that everything Minhal set up was accurate. The consultant on set also made sure the Farsi the parent characters were speaking was correct in order to make the acting authentic, not a poor portrayal of real people, but a genuine one.
“When a movie is about a white person, the movie isn’t about the whiteness,” she says. For her, the same should go for any non-white character. In the film, the character Hala is like anyone else. She skateboards, listens to music, and is interested in dating. Baig makes movies to tell stories, to show a world that might not exist in the mind of the viewer.
Baig is passionate and determined and her work reflects that. She is prepared to show the world of film that she is capable of telling hundreds of different stories. She is an artist and artists exist to create, to expand their minds and learn about anything and everything. Minhal creates because it’s in her blood—because she can’t stop. The world needs people like her: people willing to invest themselves entirely into something they believe in while also maintaining a sense of modesty.
Minhal creates because she has to, because for her, there is no other option.