Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock play siblings in the indie dramedy Before You Know It, but their collaboration began well before the camera rolled.
The longtime friends had worked together at a restaurant, read each other’s projects, and even shared a therapist. Each provided a foundation that helped shape Utt’s idea of siblings trying to navigate a dysfunctional showbiz family in contemporary New York.
Tullock’s constant support helped ease Utt’s anxiety while directing her first major feature film. The two co-wrote the screenplay.
“It’s been so many things over the years,” Utt said during the recent Dallas International Film Festival. “We really tried to retrofit it to where we were at in our working relationship, and in our friendship, and where we were individually with our own work.”
Utt stars as Rachel, the stage manager at a fledgling New York theater belonging to her overbearing actor father (Mandy Patinkin). When dad passes away suddenly, she and her sister, Jackie (Tullock), must navigate their grief while dealing with personal issues and confronting some family secrets involving a washed-up soap-opera star (Judith Light).
One of Utt’s friends was on a soap opera for several years, and she would occasionally visit the set.
“I always loved watching these actors go through the worst traumas you could imagine every single day,” Utt said. “I always found that so funny and I think so relevant to the experience of family. We just put each other through these little traumas every day, and it becomes such a part of our language for a lot of families. I wanted to take a soap premise and ground it in an emotional reality.”
The story also provides a matter-of-fact perspective on lesbian romance through Rachel’s character. It’s familiar territory for Utt (“Disengaged”) in her acting career.
“My boyfriend is not worried,” she said. “It’s something that I just keep gravitating toward. Somehow, the last three things I’ve written I’ve been in a queer relationship. Half, if not more, of my friend group is queer, so that’s just the world I inhabit. I find that perspective often more dynamic.
“There’s a fine line between honoring the specificity of that experience and just treating it like part of our everyday,” Utt said.
Before You Know It attracted some major names for its supporting cast. Patinkin (The Princess Bride) responded favorably to the material, while Utt met television veteran and LGBTQ advocate Light (“Who’s the Boss?”) in the directing program at the Sundance Labs. Meanwhile, producer Mallory Schwartz runs a production company with Alec Baldwin, who agreed to an extended cameo.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the crew was diverse, given the film’s subject matter. But Schwartz said jobs behind the camera weren’t given to women simply to make a statement.
“It happened to be that a lot of the good people we worked with were women,” Schwartz said. “You can do it consciously or unconsciously. Good work is good work. But as much as you can, craft it so that you’re giving as many people as you can an opportunity to do the work they do. It was important for us to have a balance.”