Close-Up: An Interview With In Passing Director Hillia Aho

Writer, director, and producer Hillia Aho joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about her short film, In Passing.

The film follows the story of Rey, a burnt-out sous-chef working at a high-pressure New York City restaurant whilst her long-time partner Elle spends her days at home as a painter creating commissioned pet portraits.

What was the inspiration for the film? 

I wanted to tell a story about burnout and explore the complicated repercussions of the pressure to make money. The original script was simply two characters on opposite work schedules, who shared a living space and were in a relationship, but were barely able to be in each other’s lives. I tried out a couple of different professions but landed on the chef and the painter because I knew I would be able to authentically portray these roles. My partner is an ex-chef, and I have dabbled in painting for money so that took care of the research phase of the script.

The more dreamlike moments in the film were inspired by an image I’d had in my head for a couple of years: someone ripping their way out of a painting, covered in blue paint. I’d recently done a series of abstract paintings inspired by icebergs, so the color blue was a bit of an artistic obsession for me at the time, and I felt it would be fitting for it to symbolize the “true self” in the film.

What does it mean to you to have an LGBTQ+ film at Tribeca during Pride Month? 

It’s definitely special. I truly enjoyed the Tribeca films featuring queer characters and storylines this year. I found them nuanced and truthful, and to be one of them was surreal. My film features a queer relationship but thematically explores topics not necessarily related to the character’s queer identities. I think it’s significant that queer normalcy is being showcased in such a highly regarded festival, by mine and other films.

Has anyone from the LGBTQ+ community reached out to you? 

I’ve spoken to a few people from the LGBTQ+ community after the Tribeca screenings, who appreciated the film. It’s a special feeling when my work resonates with someone, because I know what it’s like to be on the other end of it, viewing something that I connect with. I’m so happy the film has had that impact, even on a few people.

Was there anything particularly difficult to film?

This was an NYU Grad film, made in collaboration with the Grad Design, and Grad Acting programs. The main challenge was the overall schedule, as we had to shoot in three, 8 hour days, because of the actors’ curriculum requirements. There was one particularly difficult afternoon on the last day, when we had to cut several scenes and rush to finish others. But the cast and crew were incredible, and we clearly managed to get everything we needed!

How has the audience received the film? 

I think it’s been well-received, judging by audience reaction, and the handful of conversations I’ve had after screenings. I think the subject matter is very relatable, as we’ve all experienced moments where we have to adjust our priorities based on work requirements, in ways that might negatively impact some aspect of our lives. 

Why is it important for you to tell this story? 

I think burnout is on a lot of our minds right now. I am coming to the end of my academic career, and therefore grappling with the practical challenges of trying to make money from something I’ve always done for personal fulfillment. I wanted to explore the pressure to overwork at the expense of what I believe is the greatest contributor to human happiness: human connection. Though resentment has deeply affected the relationship between the two characters in the film, I wanted to end the story on a hopeful note; that it’s still possible to seek and find compassion and appreciation for someone you’ve grown apart from, and that the loving bonds we form can pull us through hardship created by a toxic work environment. 

What is next for you? 

I shot my thesis film in early June, which is about two siblings (one of whom is a ghost) who unexpectedly reunite in their hometown. We filmed in Downeast Maine, my home state, and my younger siblings were featured in the lead roles. I plan to be done with post-production by the end of 2023, to hopefully premiere next year. Other than that, I’ll be working in various roles on several different shorts over the summer and into the fall.

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