Before You Know It Filmmakers On How To Get Your Passion Project Made
February 7, 2019
It’s a rare and difficult thing to write, direct, and star in your own film. But that is exactly what Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock did with their Sundance feature film debut, the comedy Before You Know It. The pair also knows what a tremendous feat it is to have their project debut at one of the largest and most acclaimed film festivals. “It feels surreal, thrilling, terrifying and I am brimming with gratitude. I once chastised my boyfriend for using a term he made up, ‘anxitement,’ to describe how he was feeling,” says Utt — who co-wrote, stars in, and directed the film. “I thought he was just trying to put a positive spin on anxiety, rather than addressing real discomfort. I get it now. I’m anxited.”
Tullock — who co-wrote and stars in the film — agrees. She describes the moment the news finally sunk in: “I thought I was playing it cool until a Neil Young song came on in the CVS the other day, and I stood still and cried next to the shampoo. It was that sort of quiet, happy-cry I imagine people experience when they finish a marathon.”
But, like a marathon, the road was long and paved with hurdles. “Before You Know It is the first thing Jen and I started working on together and the first feature either of us ever attempted to write,” Utt says. After the initial writing experience, the women rewrote the script over and over again with the help of the Sundance Creative Producing Lab & Fellowship and the Sundance Director’s Lab, all the while looking for financing.
During the year that Utt and Tullock were part of Sundance’s Feature Film Creative Producing Lab, they worked with an industry mentor. The writing duo also received ongoing support from the Sundance Institute designed to cultivate emerging producers’ creative instincts and production skills. Then the film moved into the hands-on Sundance Director’s Lab, where parts of the script were workshopped with industry pros. Once the script “felt cooked,” they pushed to find the remaining funding needed with the help of their producers and were at last able to make their film.
“I’ve tried not to focus on the hurdles, but my advice to others trying to get their movie made is: be persistent, patient, and uncompromising in the quality of people with whom you partner,” Utt says.
The film follows Rachel Gurner, a stage manager living in her childhood apartment with her various family members — an actress sister, a playwright father, and a preteen niece. But Rachel and her sister’s lives are uprooted when they find out the mother they thought was deceased, is actually alive and well — and a soap opera star.
“I grew up with an older sister who defined me more than any other person or thing in my life, so I’ve always been fascinated by the unique bond between sisters,” Utt says. “This movie is an examination of what we owe to others versus what we owe ourselves — and in particular, how that debate pertains to women and family.”
Tullock was also drawn to the sisters’ dynamic relationship: “One thing Hannah and I found we had in common early in our friendship was the belief that we are responsible for facing and emancipating ourselves from the parts of our history that don’t serve us; that no one is going to do that work for you. While the Gurner family is mostly fictional, the way the sisters, particularly Rachel, have to face their responsibility to themselves within and without their family — that’s very real for both of us.”
As both women have now been writing together on more than one project, their process for collaboration has evolved. “I think both the greatest and most difficult part of writing in a pair has been finding and owning the dynamic that works best for us,” Utt says. “The other best part is having someone to commiserate, bang your head against the wall, celebrate and laugh with. Some of the best times of my life have been spent trapped in a room with Jen trying to figure out this script. It’s basically framed our entire friendship, as well as our shared and individual careers.”
Tullock adds, “For a long stretch of our collaboration we were so broke that we would bake and share a single yam for dinner. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.”
But, no longer splitting single yams for dinner, the women have advice for those writers who struggle to get their work seen or produced.
“Support others in the same boat,” Tullock says. “See, read, give notes on things even if they’re not your particular taste. Something I wish I had been kinder and more open-minded around when we started writing was letting that work be part of a community. I kept myself in a vacuum of insecurity — and subsequent envy and bitterness — for far too long before realizing that I couldn’t expect others to support my work if I wasn’t supporting and celebrating theirs.”
Utt stresses the need to take charge in getting your work made. “Don’t wait for someone else to give you an opportunity,” she says. “If you’re not a filmmaker, partner with friends who are. Make things you believe in, make things you can get behind. If you have to compromise your artistic integrity for money jobs — we all do, and we should all be so lucky — keep those jobs as separate from your passion projects as possible.”
“Also,” Tullock adds, “tell the truth. Tell the stories only you can tell.”
Before You Know It premiered at Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, January 27
Written by: Anna KlassenAnna Klassen is a screenwriter and journalist living in Los Angeles. She can be found on twitter and Instagram at @annajklassen.