Actress-writer-director Hannah Pearl Utt spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Before You Know It, which is now available on Digital and VOD.
Before You Know It premiered this year at Sundance prior to being acquired by 1091 Media.
Before You Know It comes out on digital this week after almost a year following the premiere at Sundance. How did you react when you heard the film was selected?
Hannah Pearl Utt: I fell over – sank to my knees? And burst into tears (little flare for the dramatic). I spent the rest of the day worried they were going to take it back.
How was it to be able to experience Sundance as a filmmaker?
Hannah Pearl Utt: I actually felt weirdly grounded after months of stressing out. It helped that I was staying in a house with Jen, my producers and a bunch of our department heads. Press was intense at first, then pretty fun. It was great to connect with some of my mentors from the Sundance Institute, celebrate or commiserate with other filmmakers, get to know the programmers, and talk to audiences – talking to audiences is the best. Mostly, however, I was focused on getting enough rest to accurately represent myself and the movie.
What were you most focused on during the premiere?
Hannah Pearl Utt: I was really worried about my intro – properly thanking people, setting the right tone, not shitting my pants (which I needed to return after the festival). Once that was done, and I sat down to watch the movie, I just started crying – exhausted, grateful, relieved tears. That lasted about two minutes before I started taking sound notes.
You co-wrote the film with Jen Tullock. When did this idea for the film start to form and what was the writing process like?
Hannah Pearl Utt:
Jen had the idea of sisters who find out their presumed dead mother is alive and on television, at the very beginning of our collaboration. Over the years, we maintained that initial idea while letting the themes and our understanding of the characters deepen and grow with us.
We used to write together, then we moved to swapping pages, but what we ultimately discovered worked the best for our dynamic (and we work differently with different collaborators), was for us to break story and develop characters together, then for me to take the lead on writing, with Jen coming in to edit and punch up (and improvise all of our favorite lines on set).
How similar are you to Rachel Gurner in real life?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Jen and I always say that Rachel and Jackie represent our worst fears about ourselves – particularly in how we show up for each other. I think in becoming more conscious of those behaviors through making this movie, however, we’ve been able to grow out of them – mostly.
Since the two of you have written scripts before, do you have some sort of short hand when writing together?
Hannah Pearl Utt: We have an entire vocabulary of inside jokes, shared history and friends to reference – like, I could say, “she’s a Maggie with a Kate rising, and a little Mr. Cutie when she’s drunk” and she would say, “So, Sarah.”
Can you talk about bringing Mandy Patinkin and Judith Light on board and working with them?
Hannah Pearl Utt: We met Judith through the Directors lab and immediately fell in love. She understood her character better than we did and was able to help us unlock that part of the story. Mandy joined the project late in the game (because his character was dead until pretty close to production), but instantly felt like a permanent part of the family. Both of them were a total joy and privilege to work with and to watch work. They are deep, collaborative, kind and very, very funny people.
Before You Know It had a run on the festival circuit after playing Sundance. What has the reception been like from the audience?
Hannah Pearl Utt: We’ve played in over twenty festivals and I went to… eighteen of them? The response has been amazing, and the diversity of audiences who connect to the film feels like its biggest accomplishment.
The first wave of films playing Sundance 2020 will be released this week. What advice would you give to a first-time filmmaker on the mountain?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Celebrate – with your loved-ones and collaborators if you can. Go to your SLC screening – all your screenings if you can. Take care of yourself – take naps if you need to. Remember that this is the first of many films you will make. Have fun!