Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock & Oona Yaffe
On the Big Screen Before They Know It
by Jay S. Jacobs
It makes sense that Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock’s first film looks at the downtown New York theater world, because that was where it all began for them. The two met years ago in the Village years ago as aspiring actresses and writers. Nearly a decade after they first started the screenplay for Before You Know It – about three generations of a highly dysfunctional family which runs a small theater in the Village – their efforts have reached fruition. Utt and Tullock not only star in the film and co-wrote it, but Utt directed as well.
Before You Know It tells the story of Rachel (Utt) and Jackie (Tullock), the daughters of a once-famous playwright named Mel (played by theatrical legend Mandy Patinkin). The film takes place in the early 1990s. Decades after Mel’s short-lived popular spurt, he is still running a small theater in the Village, which has been losing money for years. He keeps creating new plays, but almost no one sees them. His now-grown daughters work in the family business – Rachel produces the plays and Jackie acts in them – but both are starting to chafe in the confines of their small venue. All of them live above the theater, as does Jackie’s smarter-than-her-years young daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). Jackie is so wound up in her own ambitions and dramas that to a certain extent Dodge is raising herself.
Soon after Mel ruins Rachel’s hard-fought drive to get Mel recognition for his past work, the daughters find out that the theater is actually owned by their mother – who they had long thought was dead. It turns out that she is not only alive, she is a popular aging soap opera diva named Sherrell (Judith Light). The sisters decide to reach out to the woman, to save the theater and Mel’s final play, though they have their concerns on both fronts.
Beyond the strong support from Patinkin and Light, well-known actors like Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly and Mike Colter (Luke Cage) took small roles because they believed in the quirky and funny family drama.
About a week before the release of Before You Know It, we sat down to chat with Utt, Tullock and Yaffe about their labor of love.
What inspired you two to write this film?
Hannah Pearl Utt: It was mostly our friendship. It started with a desire – each of us wanted to create work for ourselves. We’ve been acting our whole lives. When we met, we realized we had similar plans to take over the world. Once we realized it was impossible to get with the CIA, we thought we’d make a film instead.
Jen Tullock: For a long time, it was an excuse to hang out and learn how to write. It was the first thing that we started writing together. We’ve made a lot of things together since then. But we because we were so young and so green at the time, we didn’t really know the ways it would have a future in our lives. We did it as an exercise. We thought it would be fun to try to write a movie. (laughs)
Oona, what was it about this screenplay that intrigued you?
Oona Yaffe: Part of it is the dimensionality of my character and actually Arica [Himmel]’s character Olivia. You see so many screenplays where the teenager or kid is really only there to support the adult characters. It was really refreshing and great to see one on screen that has got genuine motivation around all of it.
There is a very dysfunctional family dynamic going on here. What was it about these kind of missed communications in three different generations that intrigued you?
Jen Tullock: We’re both really inspired more so by the hiccups in our family than the perfection. We both come from really colorful backgrounds with people we love a lot. I think we agree that we have grown more from the pain and the difficulties in our familial relationships than the ease.
Oona Yaffe: The hugest missteps on the part of parents or grandparents have very little effect on anyone anymore. They’re just so deep – the not being able to trust their families – so it’s super-codependent. That’s kind of jarring, I think.
Hannah Pearl Utt: We also found we developed a template for how to approach relationships with each other…
Jen Tullock: Oh, that’s true…
Hannah Pearl Utt: It’s true! We had to figure out how to communicate more honestly than we had in any other relationship, outside of romantic relationships. How to address difficult things quickly, before they became bigger and more unmanageable.
Jen Tullock: As opposed to repressing them out of etiquette. I think we’re the last generation to have assumed that behavior. The reason – to answer your question more pointedly – we wanted to show the three generations. Part of that was for that very reason. You could just see Rachel and Jackie, who are millennials, who are wedged between this digital-analog emotional experience. Mandy and Judith’s characters, if you do come from that world, where you are encouraged to repress and perhaps even lie for the sake of saving yourself for someone else. Then you have Dodge’s character, who was really the only one who was willing to advocate for herself and tell the truth.
Even though she is a young girl, in many ways Dodge is the most grounded member in the extended family. It almost felt like she was Jackie’s mother, not the other way around.
Oona Yaffe: For sure, yeah. Plus, that has a huge effect on you if you’re a little kid and don’t have your mother to depend on. That affects you a lot. It makes the character really interesting and fleshed out.
Hannah Pearl Utt: We wanted to show that ultimately, she’s the most important character in the movie. While it is important for all these other people to figure out how to talk to each other and deal with their BS before someone else has to; Dodge is the future. Giving her a slightly larger tool kit was important to us.
Jen Tullock: Something that we’ve been noticing in the younger generation, that they are a little braver and a little more emotionally intelligent.
Hannah, I saw in a quote you did for the Sundance Festival that you said that the thing you were most proud of in the film was its sense of magic. How do you feel that to be the case?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Awww… That’s nice. That’s funny. Someone just asked me what I was most proud of and I was like… uhhhhh… Thank you for that reminder. The magic came out of… for me… how we made it. And the fact that we’d been working on it for so long, but I couldn’t have imagined making it sooner than we did. Or later than we did. The timing felt very right. The way we found our collaborators felt really right. Anything that didn’t go according to plan felt better than the plan.
Hannah and Jen, you both worked on two levels in this film – both as filmmakers and actresses. Was it difficult to balance those two roles?
Jen Tullock: No, because by the time we shot, we had established the dynamic of writing together, acting together and Hannah directing. We made this series called Disengaged, which was a great boot camp for us. And then went to the Sundance Labs. When Hannah went to the director labs, I came as an actor. It was a great opportunity to live inside of that dynamic a little bit. Give it a test run. But we had such an understanding and a trust, and we had such wonderful producers that by the time we got there Hannah was able to bob and weave really seamlessly between the two, which made it incredibly easy for me.
What were Hannah and Jen like to work with – both as actresses and filmmakers?
Oona Yaffe: They were great. They were fantastic. Hannah is incredibly, incredibly good at acting with actors and getting performances without giving line readings – saying, “I want you to do it exactly like this.” She asks good questions that provoke thought and keep us on our toes. She genuinely cares about every single part of it, which is great. And Jen is just such a great actress and such a great writer. Just watching her work and working with her was amazing to see. (chuckles) I’m pretty young as of now, so it’s great to see actresses who have been in this for a while, who have been working as writers as a profession for a bit. To see them be so passionate and so conscious about it is really fantastic.
How did you know that Oona was the right person to play Dodge?
Jen Tullock: Rori Bergman is our casting director. We hired her because we were so impressed by the work she did on The Get Down, discovering new talent. We knew that casting Dodge and Olivia would be our biggest challenge, as far as casting went. Oona was one of the first kids she brought in. It was like meeting Dodge. It was like meeting this person that we had already known for at that point almost eight years. Meeting her in person. It wasn’t even really a question. Immediately we knew she was our Dodge.
Obviously as writers Hannah and Jen have a deeper understanding of your characters than an actress just coming in cold. But as an actress, in what ways was your character like you, and what parts about her did you find harder to reach as an actress?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Hmm, that’s a cool question. Jen?
Jen Tullock: I love Jackie because she represents all of my worst fears about myself. So, I have to love her. She was inspired by a couple of people in my own family. The thing that is probably dissimilar from how I move through the world is that she is really hopeful. I’m probably a bit more sardonic and surlier. She’s even able in terrible circumstances to muster a sense of hope. But her mania and her need to perform everything, and the fact that she’s never able to be herself and quiet down and tell the truth, it’s something that I both had a lot of empathy for and also am terrified of. That’s probably something that I do as well. (laughs)
Hannah Pearl Utt: Yeah, basically the same answer. We crafted those characters after our worst fears about ourselves. It was easy in that we understood it, but difficult in that we didn’t want to accept that maybe those parts exist in our own personalities. It was Rachel’s inability to communicate in a kind and measured way before she got so angry that she said something mean – that was difficult for me.
Oona Yaffe: Dodge is very scared, very tense. Just in general she’s wound up and has a lot going on but doesn’t really deal with any of it. I really hope that I don’t relate to that. (laughs) But, she’s also very quick minded, even if she doesn’t actually have the – I wouldn’t say courage, but the composure – to speak out in the moment. She does always have something to say. I’d like to think that I share that with her, but honestly, I could just be projecting and be super narcissistic. I have no idea.
Dodge has a lot of growing to do in this film. Were there any scenes that were particularly fun or uncomfortable for you to do?
Oona Yaffe: The period scene was rough. We shot the chocolate shop that Mike [Colter] and I go into. Charles and Dodge. The bathroom there was where we shot the period scene. We shot me coming out of the bathroom crying first, and then went into the bathroom. So, I was sort of sitting there with my pants around my ankles – just like super uncomfortable. I mean, it made a really good scene. It worked. But it was a lot.
Before You Know It has a very New York vibe, from the downtown theatrical scene to the midtown TV industry. How important was the city to the story as far as you’re concerned?
Jen Tullock: It’s huge. It’s where we met and fell in love. (laughs) It represents all the things we love about New York. It is so layered. There are so many strange little microcosms.
Hannah Pearl Utt: Yeah, it’s a kind of contained subculture there. It felt like the only place that the Gurners could actually believably live.
Oona Yaffe: It was fun filming there. We were filming in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. In those great, comfortable neighborhoods. The way it’s played into the story is probably more around this image that Mel [Patinkin] and the Sherrell [Light] that we discover eventually have around themselves. They’re New York artists. New York writers. New York actors. They use that almost as a method of discounting other people’s thoughts and ideas. They are established New York actors and writers. They think they have this claim to theater and to television because they grew up here and they are established.
Maybe it was just me, but I thought it might in a weird way be fun to live in a theater. Do you think you could handle that kind of lifestyle?
Jen Tullock: Honey, I would love it. (laughs)
Hannah Pearl Utt: No. I could not. (both laugh)
Oona Yaffe: Yeah. Honestly, I doubt it. I like the idea that I would be a bohemian, hipster artist, living above a theater, wearing oversized t-shirts and drinking espresso. But I doubt I could actually go through with it. (laughs) I’m pretty wishy-washy about my lifestyle as is, playing into the whole bourgeoisie liberal elite thing. I’m not sure I could actually live in environments with artists above a working business.
Mandy Patinkin is such a theatrical legend, how important was it to get him in the film and what was he like to work with?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Oh, it was so important. He was our first pick. It was a miracle that we got a script to him in time, because Mel was such a late addition. He was dead [in the script] for a long time. He was absolutely wonderful to work with.
Jen Tullock: Marvelous.
Hannah Pearl Utt: He was so collaborative, generous and kind.
Oona Yaffe: He was great. He has a million ideas about every scene. He always talked through it with Hannah and Jen, who were of course very receptive to it. They were huge on improvising. They never forced you to stick to the script if you thought that it was a better direction.
Jen Tullock: Both he and Judith became parent figures through the movie. Everyone felt that way about them on set. Just brought such a sense of humility and genuine excitement about the script. When you’re working with people that are that successful, I don’t know that is always the case. We felt very lucky.
Oona Yaffe: Mandy always had these really interesting ideas that he came up with, sometimes just on the spot, that would work, or they wouldn’t, but then he would try to fix them. He was always working. It was very ingrained and – I wouldn’t say emotional but connected – way towards the character. Everything had a motivation. Everything was something a person would do.
Judith, on the other hand, is playing an aging actress, who is the star of a soap opera – which is sort of an aging TV genre. How do you feel that her re-connecting with her family and the theater can change her life for the better?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Aww, that’s such a sweet, optimistic question.
Jen Tullock: That’s a good question.
Hannah Pearl Utt: Our hope was that there would be a future for her and Dodge to have a relationship. Because we’ve found that when you skip a generation, you’re not bringing all that…
Jen Tullock: Baggage…
Hannah Pearl Utt: … baggage. It’s easier to have a healthy relationship. So, I think we imagined her collaborating with Dodge.
Jen Tullock: I think Dodge probably ends up being a fantastic director. There’s a moment in the end where Sherrell says, “I have some ideas for some plays for me.” I think that in a way that probably is an opportunity for her to revive her sense of wonder around what she does.
Oona Yaffe: I agree that there is a storyline in which Dodge begins to help Judith’s character expand on her acting and continue maybe more in theater. But I’m not sure that it’ll necessarily unite the family. Judith’s character is very set in her kind of narcissistic ways. As a result [she] might not be able to necessarily produce art with the family. However, I could see them maybe working together on a project that will be great for Judith’s character and tolerable for everyone else.
At Sundance, Judith Light said that she found it nice that at this point in her career she can work with strong female voices in film. While there are obviously lots of male characters here, the film does have a very strong female perspective. Was that something you were looking for, or did it just come naturally because you are two women writing a screenplay?
Hannah Pearl Utt: I think it’s both. We made a concerted effort to hire a wide range of people for below the line. Then as far as talent went, it was important to us that everyone approached the work with the same spirit of collaboration and…
Jen Tullock: … Warmth…
Hannah Pearl Utt: … respect. So, it was both intentional and something that we can’t help because we view the world from the female perspective.
A lot of terrific known actors – like Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly and Mike Colter – took supporting roles in the film. How nice was it that they had faith in a small independent film like this? What were they like to work with?
Jen Tullock: Really nice. All three of those men were all the same: incredibly kind and supportive. Mike Colter is incredible. [He] really brought that role to life in a way that we couldn’t have even imagined. The same with Tim and Alec. They were incredibly generous in their support of the film. Alec early on, in fact, he had been attached well before we started production. It was a special part of it. It was one thing to have Judith and Mandy in slightly bigger positions, but to have those other folks be working in service to the story, it was really special.
Oona Yaffe: I promised myself that I’d ask as few “What’s it like to be a famous person?” questions as possible. (laughs) I almost succeeded. I asked Alec Baldwin what Jerry Seinfeld was like. He said he was a prince, which was reassuring. I was so worried that he would be frightening. Everyone seemed really excited to… I guess to work with someone more green. They all seemed really excited to help support the movie, and also support the lack of experience of [some] people working on the movie. Be guides through the whole thing.
You mentioned earlier that you had done a Sundance workshop. Before You Know It played at Sundance earlier this year. What was that experience like – to jump from workshop to screening film?
Hannah Pearl Utt: It was awesome. It was so nice, already having experienced the Sundance culture and already having been to Park City. We also had a short that we wrote and produced in the festival in 2016. I can’t really imagine going there for a feature for the first time. It can be so overwhelming. But it did feel a bit like a homecoming. It felt like a way to give back in a way to the people that had mentored us. The cool thing about the Sundance labs is that you have the potential of going through that experience with your other alumni. Our friend Tayarisha Poe, for example, was premiering her film [Selah and the Spades] the same year that we did. We had gone to the last with her, so it was cool to have that almost campus feel. Seeing other people that you had that experience with.
Oona, did you go to Sundance for the movie’s screening there? What was that scene like?
Oona Yaffe: I did. It was awesome. There was snow everywhere. It was exactly what you expect a place to see movie premieres amongst movie producers to be like. We showed up. We got popcorn. Everyone was wearing their casual sweaters. Park City is just gorgeous. Sundance is gorgeous. It was something out of a movie, but that’s like super cliched, so… oh well.
How do you feel you have grown as filmmakers since Disengaged?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Gosh. I think for me it’s mostly about stamina and confidence. Yep. (laughs)
Jen Tullock: We’ve just both been on a lot more sets since then, in general. Technical knowledge, our writing has definitely grown. The way we both approach the work has changed. It felt a little bit younger then. I think we found a stronger footing across the board. We’re excited to continue to do that.
Oona, previously you’re probably best known for your role in Sleepy Hollow, which was obviously a very different kind of project. How did you get involved in that show and what was it like to be a part of?
Oona Yaffe: It was my first show. It was exciting. It was great to be thrown from not [working] to this big studio production. I’m still really close with Janina [Gavankar], who played my mother on the show. We do escape rooms. (laughs) It was a huge learning experience, but also a huge jolt, in a way, to be thrown into this very planned out, very set up production. Every day was squarely longer than eight hours. For any scene, they just blew through it very productively and moved on.
What do you have coming up next?
Oona Yaffe: That’s a good question. I’m auditioning and talking to my agent. We’re doing the whole struggling actor thing.
Hannah Pearl Utt: One of the cool things about working on it before you know it was that we were able to solidify both of our trajectories under slightly different [directions], with slight crossover. I’m writing a feature and just wrote another show that I’m acting in.
Jen Tullock: I’m mostly acting. I’m really excited because Hannah is writing and directing her next feature which I’ve tricked her into letting me be in.
Hannah Pearl Utt: I have written it for Jen. So, I’m working on the script for that and then I’m reading stuff. I’m looking for directing work mostly and writing my own stuff.
This is obviously a labor of love for you. How does it feel that it is finally getting released?
Jen Tullock: Incredible. It’s surreal.
Hannah Pearl Utt: So cool!
Jen Tullock: It’s really surreal. The coolest part has been sharing it with people who have been on this journey with us. It’s trippy for all of us, because it’s been such a part of our lives and our friendship. The fact that it’s actually a movie now is a bizarre thing, certainly for my family and our mutual friends, that you could get to see it in a theater after having been to ten readings in our living room. (laughs)
Oona Yaffe: God, it’s really amazing. We finished shooting this almost exactly a year ago. It’s strange to finish shooting this and then a year later see yourself on this giant screen. To know that people are going to see you. It’s totally surreal. Plus, I go to school. (laughs) I’m on social media like everyone else. It’s bizarre to see trailers and ads for the movie while your friends are texting you about your algebra homework.
Hannah Pearl Utt: We knew we were going to make the movie. (laughs) We thought that for a really long time. So, it’s nice to have a chuckle about that now. Like… see?
Jen Tullock: We did it! We said we would do it.
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 30, 2019.
Photos ©2019. Courtesy of PMK/BNC.