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Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock & Oona Yaffe – On the Big Screen Before They Know It

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Judith Light, Oona Yaffe, Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock in “Before You Know It.”

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.

Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock in “Before You Know It.”

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.

Arica Himmel and Oona Yaffe in “Before You Know 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 Pearl Utt in “Before You Know It.”

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.

Jen Tullock in “Before You Know It.”

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.

Mike Colter and Oona Yaffe in “Before You Know It.”

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.