Director Hannah Marks knows you’ll be surprised by the ending of her new film, Don’t make me go, which started streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video today. It’s one of the things she loves about film, despite many studios trying to get screenwriter Vera Herbert to drop the plot over the years.
“No one was willing to back down, and that’s exactly how I felt when I came on board,” Marks told Decider in a phone interview. “I liked it [the ending] was jarring and bold and took you by surprise.
As a filmmaker, you might be familiar with Marks’ work in indie comedies like 2018’s. After all and last year’s Mark, Mary and a few other people. As an actress, you might know her as Amanda in the short-lived BBC adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. At 29, she’s already done a bit of everything, with big things to come, like directing the upcoming film adaptation of John Green’s YA novel, Turtles all the way.
Don’t make me go– which stars John Cho as a single father struggling with a terminal tumor diagnosis, and newcomer Mia Isaac as his loving 16-year-old daughter who agrees to take a road trip with her father – is the first feature Marks has realized that she didn’t also write or co-write. But it still carries the same mix of humor and emotion that Marks becomes known for, thanks in part to his own script contributions. Marks spoke to Decider about this collaboration, finding out about Mia Isaac, this shocking ending and why John Green fans should be excited for Turtles all the way.
Decider: This is the first feature film you’ve made that isn’t written or co-written by you. What prompted you to choose this screenplay and how does the experience of making it compare to your previous films?
Hannah Marks: I was lucky that the producers and the writer were open to collaboration. I had to bring a lot of ideas to it – specific memories and stories that could be incorporated that came from my own life or the lives of our actors. If there hadn’t been the openness to collaborate like that, I don’t think I would have been able to do it, because it’s hard to direct something without feeling a deep connection to it or appropriate it. I was grateful for this collaboration. But also, Vera wrote a great script that suited me very well.
What specifically did you bring to the script when you had these conversations with your writer and your producers?
It’s a lot of little things that add up. For example, Wally’s pet lizard did not exist before. I was really inspired by the fact that Mia Isaac had a pet lizard. Dumb dad’s rap. The eyebrow scar story she tells Rusty? It was my own eyebrow scar story. And Mia also has a scar on her eyebrow – it’s really become a metaphor for trust and love, and loving yourself. Home videos from childhood were something I originally had for Mia to show John, to help build their relationship – so John could see Mia as a little girl and, you know, feel more close to her, feeling more like a father figure to her. But then they were so special that they ended up in the movie. They were real videos [of Mia] with his father, and we replaced his father’s voice with John’s voice. So many happy accidents and happy surprises happened along the way.
Mia Isaac is so good in film, and this is her first film! How did you find it?
We did a great research. We probably received registrations from close to 400 girls, and Mia was amazing right away. From her very first tape, there is something so special about her. She had never really acted before, and so we did several callbacks and a chemistry read zoom between John and Mia. They had chemistry even on Zoom. It was a very good sign.
Being an actor yourself from a young age, how has this experience affected your work as a director with your actors, especially a young newcomer like Mia?
I identify so much with Mia, because I was also a child actor. She also started auditioning when she was 10 or 11 years old. I understand his experience. I try to show her as much respect and trust as possible and be really communicative with her when she needs to. And also giving her the space when she needs it – just trying to listen and be in tune, because I know how vulnerable that can be. But also, I think it’s important to be really direct when it comes to giving ratings, because, personally, I hate trying to decipher what the director wants. I just want to know the truth. So I think just being honest and direct goes a long way.
The scene where I was most struck by her performance is when she breaks in and asks her dad to bet on herself. How did you lead her and John through this big emotional scene, which is at the heart of the film?
We had very few scenes that we could rehearse before filming because we were filming in New Zealand. We were all in quarantine, then we got out of quarantine and had to film. We only had a very short time to rehearse, and that [scene] was one of those we repeated. I purposely didn’t give it to Mia for her audition, because I thought it was too intense a scene to give to young actresses. I wanted to keep it for the girl who had the role, to make her feel comfortable and confident. We just started by reading the words, and it really grew from there. We saved filming the scene for last, that way they really built a real-life relationship by the time we got there. And then something that I think really helped the scene was the fact that [the characters had] just crashed the car and started running. They come running into the scene, with all that adrenaline and energy that was natural. These factors contributed to their good work, but they are also brilliant actors, to begin with.
I was shocked when I heard it was filmed in New Zealand because the locations looked like a quintessential road trip through the American West. How did you do?
Thanks! I’m so glad you felt that because it was a huge challenge, in that we had to be incredibly strategic with our scouting, our pre-selection and our angles. A lot of times you would come to a place and maybe one angle could pass for America, but all the other angles couldn’t. So you just have to be incredibly prepared and know the blockage in your head ahead of time, because you’re very, very limited in what you can do once you’re on set. Preparation was key. But, we also had a fantastic local cast and crew who were so collaborative and helpful.
[Spoiler warning: Stop reading now if you haven’t yet seen the movie! Major spoilers will be discussed from here forward.]
I admit I was very surprised by the ending. Was that always the plan, or was there ever a version of the movie where Wally lived?
There was never a version of the script where Wally survived. It was something that was really important to me, to the writer, and to all of our producers. There had been many iterations of this film before I came on board because Vera wrote it when she was in college – in 2012, I believe. And over the years, of course, people said, “What if you had a happier ending?” What if you didn’t do it this way? A lot of studios would say that to make the movie, but no one was willing to back down. That’s exactly how I felt when I got on board. For me, that made the story more engaging. It made it more Wally’s story, and it made Wally’s influence on Max more by showing him how to live his best life. For me, it was empowering, even if it was a sad ending. I liked that it was jarring and bold and that it took you by surprise. Many young people also face undiagnosed health issues, so I loved that what she thought was teenage anxiety or panic was actually a symptom of something a lot larger, which unfortunately can happen in the real world.
How did you approach the prefiguration of this end without revealing it?
It was a really delicate balance. We set it up at the very beginning, with Wally’s voiceover. She warns everyone, but hopefully you’ll get sucked into the movie enough to forget that warning. It was just about planting those seeds – again, things that could be teenage anxiety or panic or could be a disease. It’s something I connected to as someone who grew up with anxiety. Plant the seeds so they are subtle, but not too subtle. You don’t want to give it away, but you don’t want them not to exist either. Something I added to ensure more seeds were planted was stress sweating. It was something that was important for me to include, so it wasn’t just those two cases – with his passing out on the football field and his passing out with the kegstand.
Is it the kind of thing where if people come back and watch it a second time, they might see it in a different light or catch more stuff?
I think so. I hope. It’s hard for me to say because I’ve seen the movie about 500 times.
What do you hope people take away from this twisted ending?
I hope people get a lot out of it. I hope, of course, that people will take risks and want to live their lives to the fullest, stay present, appreciate their loved ones, and respect their relationships – all of these important themes. But also just to remind teenagers to remember that their parents are full human beings. I think that’s something Mia and I learned while making this movie. For example, our parents are three-dimensional humans who have flaws, but we love them all the more for that. So yes, hug your loved ones tightly.
Coming soon, you’re directing an adaptation of John Green’s novel, Turtles all the way. What can you tell us? Where are you in the process?
We just finished filming, so I’m in a few days for editing. So everything is really, really, really fresh and recent, and I’m super excited about it. But for now, because we just started, the movie is still a million hours long. I can’t wait to shape the ball of clay that will become this story. And I can tease that John Green is in it as an actor. We really had fun doing it.
Oh, exciting. My next question was going to be if he was involved in the movie a lot – does that sound like yes?
Yeah, he was on set for probably 75% of the shoot. We collaborated a lot with him on the script and the casting, and he is the producer of the film, and now also an actor! He is the absolute best.