As one can tell simply from looking around the Gurners’ labyrinthine New York apartment in “Before You Know It,” things have a habit of piling up under the roof of the family home, where the patriarch Mel (Mandy Patinkin) has been working on and off on a play called “The Way I See It” for the past few years while daughters Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt) and Jackie (Jen Tullock), along with the latter’s daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe), need not see the final product, having experienced it firsthand under his roof. Physically, the loft sits above a stage that Mel owns, meaning that he never needs to worry about a theater being available when “The Way I See It” is eventually produced, but it also means he never needs to leave home, happy to fool around with his script while deadlines pass, tormenting Mel, who has been frustrated in her capacity as the theater’s stage manager to watch potential grants come and go and even more so as a daughter when the constant anxiety of keeping their place prevents her from considering bringing someone she makes a connection with during her rare trips outside the home upstairs.
“I just need you to have a life, so I can finally have one,” Rachel eventually snaps at Mel, an admonition that backfires unexpectedly when she and Jackie have to replace “The Way I See It” on the marquee with “In Loving Memory Of…” yet soon discover that while they have lost one parent, they actually have another when a will reveals that the lease to the building is co-signed by Sherrell (Judith Light), a mother they thought had died long ago.
The revelation causes Rachel and Jackie to sift through everything that accumulated under their father’s roof, including the many lies that were told, but for as many layers cause pain and resentment, there’s the underlying and exciting realization that the actresses playing the siblings have given themselves a new lease on their creative lives with “Before You Know It,” which may have originated as a showcase of their range as actresses, but unveils Utt and Tullock as formidable filmmakers. From a script they penned together with Utt behind the camera as director, they create a compelling dramedy about the ways in which familial obligations have held back individual growth for Rachel and Jackie, but how they have also weaponized it against themselves as an excuse for not stepping out of their comfort zone. While starting a new relationship with the vivacious Sherell (Judith Light), the grand dame of a long-running soap opera, offers an opportunity to seemingly start fresh, it also exposes how Rachel and Jackie can put others’ needs ahead of their own, often not realizing they’re helping no one by doing so.
It’s thorny territory, but Utt and Tullock traverse it with gracefully with a natural eloquence emerging from uncomfortable conversations and their dialogue punctuated by frequent dips into unbroken takes that convey the mania of the Gurners’ world in which reality often can’t be separated from the theatrical, but the ability to keep moving through it all. Besides the clearly personal touches that the duo brought to the film that give it such authenticity, that ability to roll with the punches is something that Utt and Tullock maintained both onscreen and off as they experienced a number of false starts and spent years refining the script, all the while creating smaller projects to prove their mettle. All that investment paid off when “Before You Know It” premiered at Sundance earlier this year and on the eve of the film’s release in theaters, the friends and filmmakers spoke about their collaboration, how the film evolved from its initial incarnation and finding the all the right locations in New York to film in.
How did this come about?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Well, I give most credit to our shared therapist…
Jen Tullock: For most things.
Hannah Pearl Utt: So I’d like to start there. [laughs] But it evolved in tandem with our friendship and our individual creative paths. We started working on the script when we were both acting and we wanted to write roles for ourselves. Neither of us had written a [feature] before — I’d written a short film before and Jen was only doing plays, but I started experimenting with directing. Jen was doing more acting work in New York and I ended up moving to L.A.
Jen Tullock: It was like a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle that we just kind of assumed we’d do every Thanksgiving when we saw each other and it became real.
Hannah Pearl Utt: Every time we were on the same coast, we would revisit this script with new perspectives and after a couple years of workshopping it and telling people we were making it, having no idea what that actually meant, we made a short film over a weekend called “Partners” that our friend Joey Ally directed and it ended up going to Sundance, so that introduced us to the Institute. Then I directed a series [“Disengaged”] that we were both in, inspired by the chemistry that we found in that short and then we had an hour-plus worth of content in which we were doing what we were proposing to do in the movie, which was both act in something that I’d direct. it was easier to take us seriously, And we had the practice and our body of work for people to trust us enough to give us money, and we kept on the track with the Institute and harassed them to put us into all their programs…
Jen Tullock: They respond really well to blackmail. [laughs]
As your relationship develops, does that push you to become more ambitious with what you can achieve narratively or technically?
Hannah Pearl Utt: Oh yeah, it’s all in there. [laughs]
Jen Tullock: All of it because we were learning spiritually who we wanted to be in the world as we were writing it and we were also learning technically how to write and how to accurately put those things we were learning about the world in the writing because it turns out it’s easier said than done. So [“Before You Know It”] did feel like it grew up with us and had we made it at any of the points we said we were in those earlier years, “We’re just going to make it on our own,” I think it would’ve been a much different story.
Hannah Pearl Utt: I also think if we knew a little bit more [about what a feature would entail], we never would’ve picked such an insane premise. Given what we now know about financing a movie with two unknown leads, I don’t think we would’ve chosen something with so many locations and set-pieces…
Jen Tullock: Yeah, and at the end, that was Hannah’s job directing it because we were like, “We’re going to stick with this one premise that these two sisters thought their mother was dead and now she’s alive” and everything around that had to move like Tetris game to figure out how to make that believable and truthful.
Hannah Pearl Utt: Yeah, to give it the emotional reality that we thought that experience deserved while still keeping it fun.
One of the most beautiful ways you do that is during the scene right after your characters meet their mother Sherrell for the first time and walk off-set with her and it’s elegant because of this feeling of exhilaration, but there’s also obviously an uncertainty that’s conveyed in how you gingerly step around each other on the way out of a building to the craft services table. How did you figure out the choreography of that scene?
Hannah Pearl Utt: The long walk? The long walk unlocked the draft of the script that ended up being the movie for me tonally, realizing that’s what would happen when they finally met this woman – that it would be incredibly uncomfortable and no one would have anything to say, but everyone would try to be polite. That was really exciting to me, showing how anticlimatic that meeting was and just letting the audience sit in it. And finding ABC Studios was a big part of allowing that journey [to unfold]. And that was Mallory [Schwartz, our producer]. And then figuring out how to shoot it so it felt claustrophobic, but also too long with my DP [Jon Keng], we tried different things and that’s what ended up making the most sense.
Jen Tullock: That was also brilliantly Hannah’s idea. We were talking about something else in a rewrite and she’s like, “I think [this scene is] going to be almost a oner [an unbroken take]. We’re just going to follow and track them after.” I thought it was amazing, but I didn’t even realize until this last time I watched it over the weekend at a festival that the greatest punchline of the whole thing is that they get all the way there [to the craft services table] and Sherrill says, “Let’s take it back to my dressing room.” I’ve always been so preoccupied with the rest of the scene, it struck me as very funny this time.
Hannah Pearl Utt: My favorite part is at the end when our bodies get so close that you can’t really see our hands, but when they separate again, we’re holding hands…
Jen Tullock: It’s very sweet.
Hannah Pearl Utt: And it’s when you see Jackie walking with Sherrill and then Sherrill steps ahead in line to walk with Rachel and so Jackie’s been trotting behind the whole time and then you realize she’s taken Jackie’s hand and kind of pulled her back. [laughs]
Jen Tullock: That’s kind of the whole [relationship].
And Judith Light comes into your lives through the Sundance workshop – did it change the character of Sherill, seeing what she was bringing to the role at that time?
Jen Tullock: That piece in particular was the last vestige of us in our spiritual union as co-parents of the movie making a decision because at that point, I kind of faded into the background so Hannah could take the movie [as a director]. So that was like the last part that [Hannah] generously let me be a part of [behind the scenes], figuring that out because we knew that acting-wise, it had to be somebody that we both felt connected to. She’s brilliant, obviously, and also she’s just so kind and generous that we didn’t not want to be without her. [laughs]
Hannah Pearl Utt: Ever.
Jen Tullock: Ever. [laughs] We were texting with her this morning. I’ve heard the cast of “Transparent” talk about her this way [as well], where how she works, she connects really quickly and deeply…
Hannah Pearl Utt: And she just had really good story notes. She understood her character really well and did develop that part of the script with us quite a bit. It wasn’t totally random because they give you a casting director and lists, so we made an offer to her for the [Sundance] Labs and someone just brought up the Labs to her, so it was the right timing. But it wasn’t until we met her and started working with her that we were like, “We have to have her. We have to keep her.”
You also find this amazing apartment for the family to live in. How did you locate it?
Hannah Pearl Utt: We had such an amazing location scout.
Jen Tullock: Lauren Taylor.
Hannah Pearl Utt: She got it immediately. From the first phone call, she saw the spaces the same way that they were intended to be seen and felt. She got the idea of texture that I was looking for – every space needed to feel like it had layers and layers of life lived in it and she knows where those places are in New York. She’s a New Yorker. She’s an incredible negotiator. And she got us those places against all odds basically. And the [apartment] was the only place I could find that hadn’t been renovated in the right part of New York with as many bedrooms that we needed. The layout we were looking for was too dangerous. The hallways were so narrow and it was actually like an artist’s loft and functioning theater in the living room.
At the last second, Lauren showed me the place we ended up using, which was actually an empty rectory that was falling apart, [with] holes in the ceiling and our production designer was so excited by the prospect of having a place to dress head to toe rather than this other place where she would’ve had time only to remove things. That was her playground. And then for lighting [so it could be filmed 360], Jon Keng sent his crew a day early to start lighting the entire apartment and it was lit like a theater so we could do all of those oners. Great crew.
Jen Tullock: We hired a bunch of winners.
When you’re living with something this long, were there ways it came alive in ways you were excited about?
Hannah Pearl Utt: There were so many wonderful, surprising moments. Finding Mandy [Patinkin] was huge because Mel was a late addition to the script. He was dead for a long time. And that first day he was on set, it was so clear that he was the Mel we had been writing for all of these years, so was really cool getting to meet this man that we felt we knew really well already. And then my collaboration with Jon Keng really surprised me — what came out of the combination of our eyes.
Jen Tullock: Mine was Oona [Yaffe, who plays Jackie’s daughter] because the character of Dodge inevitably had so much of our childhood selves in her and was, as such, a composite of our weirder and favorite things of our very strange childhoods. Seeing Oona saying some of those lines and to me [as her mother] in the scene was emotional and really special and surreal.
Hannah Pearl Utt: Yeah, also getting to watch Jen just go as Jackie and finally just be Jackie was very fun and say things like “Malarkey” without thinking.
Jen Tullock: Hannah let us all improvise quite a bit, so that was nice.
What’s it like bringing this out into the world?
Jen Tullock: Terrifying. [laughs] Even more so for [Hannah] because I feel like maybe being the person that just holds the tail up [of the dragon] in the parade. I feel like I’ve been experiencing my own anxiety, but also absorbing so much of hers because it’s our movie, but it’s also her movie and that has been stressful as her friend, just being like how does she feel about that? But the good news is people are loving the movie, so that’s been really gratifying selfishly and also gratifying as someone that loves the director.
Hannah Pearl Utt: It’s a real rollercoaster. The anticipation of sharing it is the hardest part for me. I have a lot of anxiety about people seeing the movie and then talking to people about the movie and then when it actually happens, it’s usually quite painless, if even nice. But it’s hard to do something difficult and personal that you don’t think is perfect, but you love a lot and then ask people to understand and also to love it…
Jen Tullock: And to also scrutinize it.
Hannah Pearl Utt: And feel that it’s worth an hour-and-a-half of their time. That’s a big ask. So it’s been all of the things. But sharing it with the people who helped us make it has been amazing and our family — our chosen family and biological family — seeing it and understanding it has been really gratifying.
“Before You Know It” opens on August 30th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and New York at the Landmark at 57 West and the Quad Cinema.