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W+K Film Series: Hannah Utt

W+K Film Series in partnership with Epoch and Dexter Randazzo from Department of Sales recently hosted director Hannah Utt for a screening of her new film, Before You Know It.

+PDXJuly 1st 2019

Hannah’s Q&A was moderated by Wieden+Kennedy copywriter, Mike Egan.

Check out their conversation below.

Mike: What was the initial seed of an idea for this film? And could you talk a bit about moving from this initial thought to the script that you ended up shooting?

Hannah: Jen [Tullock] had the idea of sisters who find out the mother they thought died when they were young is alive and on TV. The challenge then became grounding that larger-than-life premise in an emotional reality we felt the characters deserved.

This is a project that in many ways framed both me and Jen’s friendship and our careers. It was the impetus for everything we made together and most of what we made apart, so a lot of our journey as two codependents seeking independence as a team wound up in the movie. (It makes sense; ask our therapist.) Then the Sundance labs gave us the final push toward figuring out the heart of our story. I realized there was this big sinkhole where Rachel should have been because I was terrified of owning the material and my role in it, which ultimately unlocked the secret to Rachel’s arc (and kind of the theme of the whole movie). We also met Judith [Light] at the labs, and her insight into Sherrell was instrumental in figuring out who that woman was and the effect her absence and then sudden reappearance had on everyone else in the movie.

Mike: Given that you cowrote, directed, and acted in this film, how did these different roles interact with each other and cause the film to evolve?

Hannah: It was helpful to be able to deliver rewrites for myself whenever I needed them, but on the other hand, I do think knowing that was an option cut into my prep time as a director. As far as directing myself, I found it hard to give myself the same care I gave the other actors—which was dumb, because I was still the lead, but maybe it was helpful because I was overlooking myself the same way my character overlooks herself in the movie? Maybe? The benefit of being an actor as well as the director was that I think it created a feeling of us all being in it together, which was helpful for telling a story about family.

Mike: The world you’ve created—the locations and production design, costumes, and the whole visual aesthetic of the film—feels so specific and grounds these characters. How did you work with the different departments on the film and how did you get everyone making the same movie?

Hannah: Thank you! As far as making the same movie, I have found that most of that happens in the selection of collaborators. I could tell if someone understood the movie we were trying to make, based on how they spoke about the script and look book and how they spoke about their own work. What me and my producers were looking for were storytellers—in every department. Once I had the best collaborators I could find, it was a matter of making sure we understood one another’s style of communication and then facilitating conversations between department heads. After doing some character work with the actors, I brought them in to weigh in on sets that pertained to them as well as their wardrobe—at that point they knew things about their characters I didn’t even know. And I made a Before You Know It playlist that I made everyone listen to. Maybe that helped?

Mike: When you’re not acting in a scene, where do you like to position yourself on set? And why?

Hannah: Crafty or lying down, jk, jk. By monitor. When we’re rehearsing, I’m annoyingly close to the actors, distracting them with gasps and manic smiles, but on set, I try to give them a little more space—at least until we call cut.

Mike: I watched a Q&A with you where you said that the movie was “ready to emerge” and that the whole experience was a sort of mystical experience for you. I think part of what is so amazing about this film is that it has a soul—some magical quality that makes it feel vital and alive. What were the magical and mystical parts of making this movie for you?

Hannah: You give such nice compliments, Mike! I think part of the “soul” comes from the fact that the movie grew up alongside me and Jen, so it’s infused with the fun we had and the pain we experienced during those years of evolving as people and evolving our story together. Also, I hope at some point during that interview I mentioned that a lot of what I chalked up to magic was actually the result of very good producing—although I’m not totally convinced my producers don’t do magic. I do try to leave some room for coincidence in my work—it’s like how the things you find on the side of the road always wind up being more special than what you buy in a store. For instance, I lost my DP (to an admittedly much fancier job) a week out from soft prep and didn’t have a backup. I had tons of recommendations for highly qualified and talented DPs, but none of them felt right. We decided to not pull the trigger on anyone until the right person emerged, and then all of a sudden, while checking a potential subletter’s reference, I discovered Jon Keng’s website. He’s someone I never would have found in time for this movie had that not happened, and now I can’t imagine what this movie would have been without him. All of my department heads were wizards. Finding them was its own kind of sorcery.

I also think any time big groups of people come together to achieve a common goal, something mystical happens.

MORE ABOUT W+K FILM SERIES

W+K Film Series was founded and is curated by Head of Production, Matt Hunnicutt. The series invites writers, directors, and others to share their stories through private, pre-release screenings at a local theater with the goal of enriching W+K’s creative culture and exploring future opportunities to collaborate on commercial projects.

The events are a collaboration between the Wieden+Kennedy production department’s industry partners and the talent they’ve discovered. The goal is to expose these artists to the agency as a source of inspiration, as well as introduce more diverse directors into the branded content space.

The director Q&A’s immediately following each screening feature a unique, hand-picked moderator from within W+K’s walls.

Screening highlights have included exclusive, pre-release events and Q&A’s featuring a cross-section of directors and films including from year’s past: Birdman, The Rider, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, The Sentence, Half the Picture, Icarus, Gleason, The Big Sick, The Revenant, Lemon, LA92, and many more.