February 6, 2019
Sundance 2019

'Before You Know It': How Two Writers Found the Perfect Starring Vehicle For Themselves

Dying is easy. Comedy is....not.

Rachel (writer/director Hannah Pearl Utt) feels it's time to move on. As a thirtysomething living at home with her dad (Mandy Patinkin), sister Jackie (co-writer Jen Tullock), and niece, running a theater company downstairs as its defacto stage manager just doesn't seem so appealing. She can't bring girlfriends over and she's constantly bombarded by the craziness of her family. At least they own the building, a rarity in New York City. 

That is, they think they own the building. After a tragic family incident, Rachel and Jackie both discover that their long-assumed dead mother is actually alive and starring on a long-running soap opera in Manhattan. The property is listed in their mother's name.

After dealing with the fact that their mother is A.) alive and B.) a soap opera star, the two sisters work to warm her up to giving the property to them. Things get more emotionally complex from there, and in this dramedy that was an alum of the Sundance Labs, it's a fine, blurry line between accepting your family and accepting to let go of them, at least for a little while.

As the film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival Utt and Tullock spoke with No Film School about their religious upbringings, writing as a team, and their experience in the Sundance Labs.

No Film School: I wanted to ask about your backgrounds in filmmaking. Did you go to film school?

Jen Tullock: No film school for either one of us, no.

Hannah Pearl Utt: We both grew up acting. I got into UCLA for acting and quickly realized that I was not going to be happy in that department there, and that I had auditioned my way into a school that had the best history department in the country. I was like, “That's what I'll do.” I wound up double majoring in history and comparative religion because I had a very inspiring world religions professor. I got very into Jewish studies, and then wound up moving. All my friends were a couple years older than me and they were graduating, and I was suddenly alone in L.A., gearing up to be a Jewish studies professor. I was like, “I don't know what I'm going to do with this” in a city I didn't really want to be in. And so I left and moved to New York, because I thought that's where I would wind up wanting to live and work. I picked back up at Gallatin at NYU, which is like their Montessori school for adults. They let you create your own major, so I combined my original passion for performance, that never went away, and what I had recently become interested in. You want to tell him what...

Tullock: What your major was? I'd love to: The intersection between performance and religion, with an emphasis on metaphor.

Utt: It was a lot of reading and defending arguments, and a lot of theory and philosophy. What I came to was that storytelling was very important to me. I didn't like auditioning, so I started writing parts for myself. I had a friend direct the first short I wrote for myself, and though he did an incredible job, I realized I wanted to direct the next one. Our producer Mallory Schwartz was the first person who told me I should do that. Basically, as I started to progress as a director, it became clear that having me direct our shared work worked for us. We made Partners and Disengaged, and here we are with Before You Know It

Tullock: I was raised in a really repressive Evangelical community in the South, and as such wasn't allowed to watch most modern media. From the age of three, I took a real solace in old Danny Kaye and Bob Hope and Carmen Miranda films, all the old MGM flicks. That's what I was allowed to watch, and that became the first language I had. That's what I thought film was. That was my first exposure to filmmaking, to storytelling. It's still the closest to my heart. I tend to still romanticize it quite a bit.

By the time I graduated from high school, and was able to get out of that environment, I shot out like a canon, as most kids that are fleeing a repressive environment do. I went to theater school to be an actor, but also double majored in creative writing with a minor in art history, which has been incredibly useful. So I went to Chicago out of theater school and began acting in plays. The whole time I was writing. I was writing in school, writing play, and the first play I wrote I was able to workshop with the New York Stage and Film Festival, and that was when I met Hannah, writing a 1940s radio satire that had these bizarre Mickey Spillane esoterical pieces. Much to everyone's shock, it was not a huge success. I thought it was cool.

I met Hannah, who is not just an old soul in the sort of cliché sense of the term, but actually had, I think, a broader understanding of storytelling than what I was seeing in independent film by our peers, which was to say, I think, a lot of mostly white, straight, naval gazing, shot on handheld work Not all of it, but a lot of it...I knew that if I was going to make the transition into having anything to do with filmmaking, that that's not what I wanted to do, and I knew that's not what Hannah wanted to do. That's not to say that great art hasn't existed in that space, too, but it's not my personal taste.

Utt: Or your experience.

Tullock: Or my experience. I guess that brings us to when we met.

Utt: I just realized that we both came into institutional education as beginners, kind of.

Tullock: We did.

Utt: Because of religion for you...

Tullock: Yes, I went to Evangelical school, and you were homeschooled by hippies.

Utt: Homeschooled by pagans.

Tullock: Which actually has been really meaningful and helpful in our work.

Utt: We had to back into understanding the rules, but I think the freedom it gave us before we cared about the rules informed so much of what we make and how we make things.

Tullock: We were asked to live in somewhat fringe communities because of the beliefs of our parents. That's what we have in common. That's informed not just the stories we tell, but how we work together.

Utt: I was also one of the biggest proponents of not going to school. I was one of those, i.e. “Nah, it's not going to happen. School's not gonna happen.” I'm just an asshole.

"I think the primary qualifier that's important is when we realized Hannah was the director, that it made the most sense for her to really be at the helm of the storytelling, and to let me jump in and help build out the world, etc., which is true of our dynamic."

NFS: When it comes to working together at the screenwriting stage, how are you divvying up responsibilities? Is one person more focused on plot, one on dialogue, etc.?

Tullock: In the earlier years before we had a concrete understanding of what we wanted to make, we would volley the work back and forth. This was before we really knew anything about screenwriting. I mean, we grew up with a script. It was the first thing we started writing years ago. As we evolved, as creators and as people and as friends, we realized that the easiest and most beneficial dynamic was that Hannah typically takes the bulk of the structure, when we're building something. We'll build up the world together, we'll break the story together and get to know the characters.

Utt: We do our work as actors together and it informs our writing.

Tullock: Then, sometimes I'll punch things up, or she'll punch things up. But I think the primary qualifier that's important is when we realized Hannah was the director, that it made the most sense for her to really be at the helm of the storytelling, and to let me jump in and help build out the world, etc., which is true of our dynamic. We work differently with different people. So that's what worked for us. 

Hannah Pearl Utt's 'Before You Know It.'

NFS: You participated in the 2017 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Lab. How did these programs help to shape your film? And what did you learn by working alongside your peers? 

Utt: Well, just having a group of peers as a director is really special, and not something I think a lot of us get to have, because it can be a very lonely job. You're a lot of people's boss, in a lot of ways, when it comes to actually making the thing. So that was awesome, as was just sharing challenges and tricks and tips and watching other people's process. Beyond the first week, we didn't actually have a ton of time to interact with each other beyond getting drinks at the end of our very long days because we were so immersed in workshopping our own scenes. The big thing that the Labs did for me was create a space in which creators are invited to address their greatest fears surrounding their work. For me, with this particular project, it was owning the material, because it was something we had shared for so long, and our dynamic had shifted. I had a lot of guilt and fear about taking the lead. My character was a really hard one to figure out for a long time. We realized she'd been neglected in the same way that I had neglected to own the material and bring myself to the story, despite the fact that the logline is actually deeply tied to some of my most deep seeded issues. It took the Labs to realize that, after years of working on it, and so that was incredible. You then get mentors. You get a community of mentors who have done this before, and are there to say, “You can't fuck this up as long as you keep showing up.”

NFS: The film features a number of sequences where one event is cross-cut with another, i.e. when Jackie forgets about her daughter and leaves her with an accountant. In this sequence and throughout, how are you editing for comedic beats and timing?

Tullock: I want to say one quick thing about that with regards to the script, and then I'll let Hannah talk about the actual editing. I don't actually consider it a comedy, I consider it just a story. I think maybe you could call it a dark comedy. Something that's specific to the stories that we create together (and more indicative of what we believe about the world) is that there is levity to be found in deep pain and in deep human hubris. I think once you admit that to yourself, and that's the lens through which you're looking at the world, it shouldn't be difficult to volley between the darker and the lighter elements that we live in every day. So we were never trying to write a funny scene versus, “Okay, this scene should emotionally manipulate you.” It was like we were just tracking where the characters were in this typography of the story, and then that would happen organically. 

Utt: The edit went similarly to all other aspects of the process. The process was this fractal thing, where it was all of these self-similar shapes, starting with our relationship and spirit of exploration and community with the movie. We were grabbing our collaborators as we went along and as we grew into the story and retrofitted the story to line up with who we were becoming and what we wanted to say. There's no actor in the movie who couldn't tell you where their character is from and if they had siblings and why they're in that scene on that day, or whatever. A big part of that is it's just something I have to do because I'm in front of the camera, as well. I have to trust that there is an ecosystem that everyone could behave within. As long as we're capturing it, I can then shape it the way it needs to be shaped after the fact. There was an embarrassment of riches, really. There was a level of specificity and depth to each element. That went for the department heads too, as each object on our set needed to tell a story about the characters...the clothing as well. We had to know that it had been worn for however many years, or whatever. That made for a challenging editing process in the beginning because there was so much I wanted to show in this world. Ultimately though, it gave us options, and that was really nice.

Utt: One of the best pieces of advice I got at the Lab was to give yourself options, give yourself different versions of this movie and the takes, because there will come a time where you want to try a version of this movie that is not at all how you imagined it, and you'll discover things about it through that. So at times, it was really more of a drama, and at times it was more of a comedy. What we found served these people and our point of view the best was really straddling that line and bifurcating between the two.

Tullock: I've also learned a lot from Hannah in that regard, because while we do have a lot of shared sensibility, and we found a shared voice, I think for my personal shortcomings and where I struggle in the writing is that I found myself, at times, trying to push the scene. I knew I wanted a button, but Hannah would be like, "Nope, that's not real. That's not what's actually happening in this scene." It really made me, personally, a better writer, because now I go back and look at the scenes that we shot, as written, and I think about what they would've looked like if I had stuck with my original imagining of them. I'm like, “Oh, I see why...” The bullshit shows up so easily. It's harder to see on the page for me, and then you see it on the screen, and you're like, “That would've made absolutely no sense.”

Utt: It evolved as we evolved, as we started to address our own bullshit and be upfront with ourselves about when we were not being honest in our own lives. Suddenly, that's what the movie became about. We were just like, “Fuck it. It can be a comedy, it can be a drama, but we're going to tell the truth and we're going to be true to this character.”

"We wanted the house to be warm because we wanted to show the pull of this house and justify why these two adult women haven't left the nest yet, and the stakes of losing that place."

NFS: Do you find shot-reverse shot to be an effective way of shooting? I'm thinking of the scenes at the therapist's home where reaction shots are crucially important. What have you discovered about the best way to shoot for comedic effect? 

Utt: A lot of the blocking was written into the script, into how I imagined it, which made finding locations a total miracle when we found a place that had four bedrooms that Rachel could weave in and out of in one continuous shot, with a bathroom. My big thing with tone, visually, was that I wanted it to look like a classic, beautiful film. I didn't want it to have comedy lighting. I wanted it to be true to the environment and true to the tone of the scene. The tone of a lot of those scenes was already there in the script. It would then shift depending on how an actor was interpreting it within their character's timeline, and, if it lined up where I thought their character was, we would go with it. There is a settling in and a kind of adjustment period of like, “Okay, you're not going to tell me when I should laugh or when I should not, or whatever, and I'm okay with that.” I think Disengaged, our series, was a really different experience. The writing was varied, because it was such a short thing. The writing was super tight, and there were jokes that needed to be shot. We still brought everything we know about characters and behavior, but I was much more limited in covering the beat that needed to be cut in to tell the joke. This was more fluid and more collaborative, for the sake of the experience, and I felt like how this movie wanted to exist.

NFS: How did you find the home where Rachel and her family live? It feels like it was very tight quarters on set. How did you and your DP, Jon Keng, work on specific ways to shoot within such a confined space?

Utt: That was one of the criteria for the location that we were looking for, that it needed to have three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs (or downstairs) on one of the floors, so that we could see Rachel go from her room to look for something of hers. She doesn't find it, and then we see her go into her sister's room. It's in there, one piece of it, but the other piece is in her niece's room. You get this sense of her role in this family and how this family operates in that one scene, while at the same time getting all this information about the play and their relationship, because Jackie's literally chasing her. We wanted the house to be warm because we wanted to show the pull of this house and justify why these two adult women haven't left the nest yet, and the stakes of losing that place.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.           

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