Before You Know It is Hannah Pearl Utt’s directorial debut. It’s a refreshing comedy that looks at family revelations, co-dependency and dysfunctional relationships. Utt co-wrote the film with writing partner Jen Tullock and stars in the film too.
The film plot revolves around stage manager Rachel Gurner still lives in her childhood apartment—along with her off-kilter actress sister, Jackie; eccentric playwright father Mel; and deadpan preteen niece Dodge—above the tiny theatre they own and operate. Level-headed and turtleneck-wearing Rachel is the only thing standing between her family and utter chaos. Then, in the wake of a sudden family tragedy, Rachel and Jackie learn their presumed-deceased mother is actually alive and thriving as a soap-opera star. Now the sisters’ already-precarious balance turns upside down, and Rachel must figure out how to liberate herself from this surreal imbroglio.
I caught up with Utt and Tullock to talk about first meeting, finding the perfect location and how Judith Light helped craft the role of Sherrell.
Let’s go back and learn about when you met and how did this journey begin for you both?
Jen: We met at a party at a mutual friend’s house. We were very young and living in Brooklyn and working in restaurants. We fused a friendship after a bit of a comedy of errors where we thought we didn’t like each other for about one day.
Then we connected, as you often do in your 20s, and we went to another party two days later. We realized that after speaking to each other a little bit more, we had similar sensibilities and had similar ambitions.
Hannah: Jen got me a job at Cheryl’s Global Soul where she was working in Prospect Heights. I think it was during that time that we first started talking about writing something together because we were both writing things on our own for ourselves to act in.
Jen had the idea for a movie about sisters who find their mom is alive and on TV. I thought, “that’s great.”
Jen: As you can see I’m a really ideas guy.
Hannah: I thought, “I’m good at screenwriting.”
Jen: I basically bought her a papyrus scroll that I had written with a quill saying, “This could be a movie, right?”
Hannah: I said, “Give me a couple of weeks to write eight pages, and we can get it up on its feet.”
Jen: Thirty American dollars and Oscars here we come.
Judith Light is superb. I can not imagine anyone else in that role.
Jen: We felt the same way.
We don’t see many women on the screen where women and ageism aren’t mocked. So, it was really refreshing to see Judith and this woman on screen.
Jen: She really helps a lot. We’ve been talking about this a lot. We met Judith at the Sundance Labs. Hannah was at the Director labs, and Eyde Belasco who was the casting director from Transparent, was also casting The Labs and that’s how Hannah was able to get Judith.
It became quickly apparent, that not only was she brilliant and kind, but that she had a much richer understanding of that character than we had in that moment, and we couldn’t say no to that.
Hannah: There were two big question marks when we got to the labs and they were Sherrell and Rachel. Judith unlocked Sherrell for us. She brought so much empathy and understanding to that character that we wound up doing a lot of the script work with her.
We can relate to many of the topics from dysfunctional to boundaries. What was the journey in writing the script and covering the themes and balancing them?
Jen: It was a process. It was a real process. The original premise of sisters finding out their mom was on TV was a constant, and then the challenge because about grounding that in an emotional reality that both fit the way we see and experience the world and said something about that experience that we thought was important. Also, how to take something that doesn’t happen to many people and make it universal. Also to do that through two diametrical opposed members of the same family.
Hannah : I think a big part of that was our friendship and learning how to communicate through changing and growing up together, but still having a lot of shared work.
Jen: And a shared therapist.
Hannah: And a shared therapist, and communicating our way through friendship and a business relationship. We learned a lot about our family from our shared therapist. She’s really good.
Jen: I had an argument once with someone who I was dating, and I actually said, “I don’t have to do any more work because I’ve done it all with Hannah.”
Mallory, our producer was a big part of that. Everyone in the creative team just seemed to deepen the story and make it more both specific and more universal because we were pooling from everyone’s experience.
I love the claustrophobia of the hallways and the long shots you use to shoot the opening scene. Talk about the production design of the film because that’s my favorite topic.
Hannah: Katie Hickman was one of the first people we hired. I think I hired her two years before we shot. There’s a texture to her work that I found to be unique and lived in. The first time I got on the phone with her; she gave me a look book that looked exactly how I wanted the movie to look. She’s an artist and was able to do a lot with the limited resources that we had. She really understood how to layer space and how to make it as rich as the characters who lived in it. Lauren Taylor, the location manager was the same.
Jen: I think we really had great department heads.
Hannah: They were all storytellers in their own right. Brooke was our costume designer and made sure none of the clothes were new, so we made sure to wash everything on hot unless it was supposed to be a new thing. A lot of care was put into the details by the crew. Jon Keng is incredible. He was my DP. He and his crew were able to light that space so that we could really treat a lot of those scenes like they were scenes from a play.
I like to do long takes when I have good actors because I like to show off the acting. The crew was able to create that same feeling you have when you’re in a theatre and you wonder if you’re going to pull it off. Can you do that whole tracking shot without someone missing a line, a light falling or tripping? I liked the spirit of all of us holding our breath.
Now that you mentioned it as a play, I can envision that happening.
Hannah: If you know anyone…
Jen: Funny you should mention it…
How on earth did you find that house? And what were the challenges of shooting in New York City?
Hannah: The house was hard. That was our greatest casting challenge. Finding an apartment in that part of town, in Manhattan that hadn’t been renovated with the number of bedrooms we needed. It was almost impossible. We did find a place in Chelsea. It was Rip Torn and Geraldine Page’s old building. There’s a company that operates out of the living room and they have a rotating roster of artists who live there. Scheduling around the goings-on in that apartment was going to be really difficult and it wasn’t going to be a safe place to shoot because it was so old and the hallways were so narrow.
Everyone was freaking out, but it was the only thing that had the texture and character that that apartment needed. My production designer was really bummed because she was going to have to spend so much time taking things out of the apartment but wasn’t going to get to dress much of it.
And then we found, at the last minute, a few days before our first day of production, we found this rectory that was completely empty. The wall colors were what you saw in the movie and just so happened to correspond with the colors we had already picked out for the characters. It was such a magical find. My production designer was so excited to have a blank canvas and she just pulled out all the stops.
Jen: There are holes in the ceiling. It’s not livable. [laughs].
You wore so many hats for this; writing, directing and acting.
Hannah: I had such a strong team of collaborators. It required Mallory Schwartz who is one of our producers and has been working on the movie for the longest with us, and knew it as well as anyone could, she knew to be at the monitor the whole time so I didn’t have to watch playback on every take.
The woman who was my assistant on the movie was my best friend from birth. She was also Jen’s ex.
Jen: I always recommend working with an ex. She’s a dear friend to both of us. She’s a phenomenal human being, and Hannah very wisely realized she’d be great energy to have on set.
Hannah: Having the two of them there every time I was on camera, was super helpful. I’d watch playback after I got the cue from them.
I think part of the challenge was the energy some of the scenes took. I was sick the first week. Getting through the day was exhausting enough. Getting in front of the camera and having a big emotional scene was just physically taxing. What was the most challenging part for you, Jen?
Jen: I didn’t have any challenges. The reason we had made a handful of other things with the same dynamic. We made a series and that dynamic was so lived in at that point. I don’t have to think about acting with Hannah. We knew any two scenes between the two sisters would be organic.
Before You Know It is released on August 30.