‘Before You Know It’ collaborators on making a small movie seem big

Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock have been professional actresses for years. But with their new film Before You Know It, they step into the spotlight as two very different sisters stunned to learn their long-dead mother…isn’t. This project isn’t their first time acting opposite one another, having co-starred in the series Disengaged which Utt and Tullock also co-wrote. Like their series, they not only wrote and star in the Before You Know It, but Utt also stepped behind the camera as a director. What they created, with the help of their costars Mandy Patinkin and Judith Light, is a delightful, quirky, family dramedy about all things sisterhood.

Lesley Coffin: Do you remember who originated the concept for the film?

Jen Tullock: The seed of the idea was one that originated for us years ago, but the only concept we kept was the idea of two sisters who thought their mother died but find out she’s alive. I can’t even say for sure who came up with what ideas because we were so fused during the writing process and worked on it for so long.

Hannah Pearl Utt: When I stepped into the directing role, I finally took the lead on writing the first draft but then we went back and forth just shaping it and remained very flexible on set. It was a pretty fluid give-and-take process.

Lesley Coffin: Was it always clear who would take which role? Did you write the characters with yourselves in mind?

Hannah: I feel like there was one day when we thought of having me play Jackie but pretty quickly realized that wouldn’t be right. I wasn’t going to be in the movie for a long time. We were going out to actresses for the role of Rachel. But we enjoyed working together on screen, first in a short and then a series. So after doing all that work, I felt I could direct and be in it, and that’s when we both committed to being in it together. And in that series, I played a character more like Jackie, so our roles on this were essentially swapped.

Lesley Coffin: Once you essentially cast yourselves in the film, you then had to find actors who could believably play both your parents. How did you select and approach Judith Light for the role of your mother? Were you at all intimated about approaching her about being in the film?

Hannah Pearl Utt: I think we were more excited than intimated by them. We invited Judith to workshop the scenes at the Sundance Film Lab. For the directing lab, you get a casting director to find actors who can workshop your movie. And Judith was on the list, so we jumped at that chance because she’s someone we both admired and wanted to work with. And she accepted, and once she started working on the character, it became clear how perfect she was for the role. She brought so much more to the role than we could have imagined and taught us so much about who her character was. 

Lesley Coffin: And I’m assuming you had to take the same approach casting Mandy Patinkin, although he has much less time on screen to establish that character?

Jen Tullock: Yeah, we needed someone who would have a potent and nuanced take on the performance to explain why his pull over the women was so strong. 

Hannah: That’s Mandy, he’s got personality to spare. And he understood the character immediately, and it felt like we were meeting the real-life version of a character we’d only imagined. 

Jen Tullock: He was also really collaborative. I think Judith and Mandy both coming from theater backgrounds was a big help and they were never too rigid with their characters.

Lesley Coffin: The New York Theater life plays a significant role in the sisters’ upbringing and just how they approach life. What did you feel was unique to that world that you wanted to explore with those characters.

Jen Tullock: Hannah and I were raised differently, but one of the things we shared was not being integrated into society the way our peers were. And we wanted to explore characters who’d gone through the same thing. They’d grown up with a man, Mel, who wanted to protect them but ultimately kept them from so much of the life they could be leading. And the New York theater world feels like a place that can be this microcosm. You’re in a major metropolis, but it can be very easy never to see the light of contemporary day. 

Lesley Coffin: Did you base the characters on real-life relationships you have with your siblings? 

Hannah Pearl Utt: I have a sister I’m very close with. Our relationship is very different from the relationship Rachel and Jackie have. And Jen has a brother she’s very close to. But I think we realized during the writing process that the basis for Rachel and Jackie’s relationship was based on our relationship and how we’ve grown as collaborators. 

Lesley Coffin: Hannah, there was a decision I noticed where when the characters we in a fight or bickering, you used the camera to follow the characters all around the house without cutting essentially. What motivated that visual choice?

Hannah Pearl Utt: It was a few things. I wanted to make sure the apartment was a part of their fights because that apartment is such a massive part of their life and disfunction. Their commitment to all live there together has created their little microcosm. And I wanted it to feel like theater, where actors could move around the stage without me having to cut. My DP was skilled enough with lighting to allow us to move throughout the space without a lot of cutting. And also it showed the chaotic quality of their fights. No one is communicating calmly or clearly, and people are rarely facing one another.

Lesley Coffin: When you have a small budget, filming in New York can be a significant challenge. What were some of the elements of the city you felt were important to capture and worth the hassle?

Hannah Pearl Utt: The exteriors were tricky, but we didn’t want it to look like a small movie, so we needed to find ways to capture the scope of the city. We wanted to represent the city and never wanted to film in an empty city. And that meant driving our sound guy nuts because it was a real struggle to hear the dialogue when filming on the streets.

Lesley Coffin: In terms of performing, do you feel it was ultimately helpful to have written your characters and developed the story from the ground up?

Jen Tullock: I think we would answer those questions differently because Hannah was also directing and had to have a more macro vision at all times, her character including. And fortunately she’s an incredibly nuanced and skilled actress, so she had the ability. But it was bonkers to watch her do that. I’m primarily an actress, so when I show up, I’m just trying to stay focused on playing my character. But seeing her playing that character while running around, working with the crew and getting all her shots, I was so impressed. And she definitely made it hard to complain about anything on set.

Hannah Pearl Utt: Jen doesn’t need much to give a very specific and alive performance. She can take anything and make it interesting. I, on the other hand, do need a lot of context. So working on the script for so long actually was helpful, because when it came time to film my scenes, I felt like I’d already done all the work to understand who she is.

Lesley Coffin: I’ve spoken with a couple of people who did the Sundance Lab, and they all talk about how helpful the process is. What was your experience using that to develop the film?

Hannah Pearl Utt: It was huge in terms of helping us, especially me, close that gap between us and the material. I had put a distance between myself and the movie, which was effecting how I played the character of Rachel. We had a tough time figuring her character arc. And then when we realized that she wasn’t taking responsibility for herself but trying to take responsibility for everyone else, and I realized I was doing the same thing as a director, and that completely revealed the character to us. And having Judith with us, that also helps us figure out her character.

Lesley Coffin: Jen, there is a scene with your daughter, out on the street eating an ice cream cone, and that feels like a big scene because you have to mix the comedy and drama within the scene, sometimes without dialogue breaks. Was that a scene which felt important to developing your character?

Jen Tullock: Absolutely. That scene felt like it could have ended up with several different tones, and I love the decision Hannah made regarding where it would fit into the film. Jackie’s kind of based on a couple of women I know, and love very much, but their primary problem is listening. Jackie is so afraid of quiet that they can’t stop moving and acting, creating this sense of mania around them. And that scene was important because you feel like it’s the first time Jackie was asked to really just listen to her daughter, and she has to fight herself to do that. Jackie hasn’t learned yet that sometimes good parenting is just about listening.

Lesley Coffin: And Hannah, you have a scene in the theater with Mandy, but you don’t have much in terms of dialogue and the audience is really just watching your character react. What was your experience filming that, especially directing yourself, and was that a case where Mandy came in to act off-screen with you?

Hannah Pearl Utt: I did have Mandy there. I didn’t ask him to stay for my sides, but he offered because that’s the kind of actor he is. And it was his last day on set, so the scene felt like a tender goodbye for us. And additionally, that was the hardest day I had on set. I feel like I tend to bring a very calm presence to set, but I’d just been maxed out, and I had also been sick the week before. So I had a little meltdown, and I tried to keep that private. But no one noticed because they thought I was preparing for that scene. So I just used it, and it proved to be this wonderful release and cathartic scene. 

Lesley Coffin: Judith plays a soap opera actress, and that seems to be such a rich element to play with regarding character development. What appealed to you about making her that kind of actress, rather than a theater actress like Mandy’s character?

Hannah Pear Utt: The whole film we’re playing with the difference between honest and clear communication and dramatic communication. And we both think soap operas can be so funny because they take these absurd situations and only deal with the emotions of them. 

Jen Tullock: And yet no one is ever dealing with or justifying the ridiculous situations are. So what a wonderful treat for a writer and actor to get to live in the emotional truths of absurd situations. And it allowed us to create a meta-narrative by having Judith’s character come from that world. We were allowed to comment on that world without being too didactic. 

© Lesley Coffin (9/3/19) FF2 Media

Read FF2 Media’s review of Before You Know It HERE.

Photo Credits: 1091 Films

Tags: Before You Know It, Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Sundance Film Lab

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