Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock in “Before You Know It”
The role of the film producer is often obscured by the far-reaching definitions of the job—which are expansive to say the least. With the Feature Film Creative Producing Lab and Fellowship currently accepting applications for the 2019 program, we checked in with 2016 Fellow Mallory Schwartz—and her project Before You Know It (formerly known as Stupid Happy)—to shed light on her journey of producing an independent film. Before You Know It was directed by Hannah Utt and stars Judith Light and Mandy Patinkin alongside co-writers Utt and Jen Tullock. The film is currently in post-production and set to premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Dramatic Competition. We’ll be checking in with other Creative Producing Lab alumni and their projects through February.
Tell us about how you became involved with Before You Know It. What excited you about the material and instilled your belief in the director?
I came to the project really by meeting Hannah, the director, about seven years ago now. I had produced a short film that she was starring in. The director of that short told me that, from the little money we had, we were going to fly out this person to New York to act in it (Hannah was living in LA at the time.) At the time, we were out of school and broke, and [it] was beyond me that someone would be worth flying out. So, when we did, I was like wow, yeah, it was amazing. It was love at first sight creatively, and [in Hanna I saw] an incredible storyteller—so smart, so funny, and I just wanted to work with her.
Our relationship then evolved over the years. Because we were living on opposite coasts, it never really made sense to work on something together at the time. But it became a collaboration even then with running ideas by each other and who [would be] best to work on it and how to approach it. So I got to see her evolution from an actor to an actor/writer to an actor/writer/director, and each step of the way being more in awe of her approach and talent and wanting to work with her. She’d introduced me to Jen [Tullock] who, at the time, was working with her on a short and another project they had—this feature film script.
In the beginning, to me, it was about working with Hannah—and then I met Jen and was completely enamored with her, as well. Individually, they are such powerful creative forces. And the two of them together was something I hadn’t seen before in my own life but something I had really appreciated about some of the people I looked up to in the industry when I was young. I wanted to work with the Amy Poehlers and Tina Feys of the world… For me, it was finding people that I identified with … just their charisma. Just being completely impressed and in awe and in love with the work that they do separately and together.
And particular to this film, they asked me to produce it, and I came on board because the only things I care about making really are comedies that resonate with people. I want to be able to make people feel, and disguise it in a laugh. Because, as a young person, that was what gave me the space to feel things and process things. And I think, generally speaking, we tend towards drama, which is a reflection of the hard times in life.
But at least in my experience, and the way I want to portray it and tell stories in the world, it’s often… our lives are often funnier than not, because we have to cut the tension. It’s catharsis. This movie was two parts for me: it was the type of film I want to make and the type of story I want to tell and the vehicle in which I want to tell it. [Coupled] with creative collaborators that I had only dreamed of prior to that.
How did you choose your producing partners, and how did you build your dynamic (i.e.your sharing of duties and information) and build a collaboration?
I have two producing partners on this film, and my relationship to each of them, and the roles we all served, are fairly bifurcated in terms of the natural progression of what this project was. In its initial iteration, my first producing partner, James Brown, was someone I had worked with on a previous project—Still Alice. And he was older than me, more experienced than me, had worked in international distribution, seemed to understand the commercial viabilities of films and how best to get it into the world to be seen… So he had a wider world view of it all.
I’d come from the talent side and creative perspective—I always developed and cultivated these relationships, and then he came to it from the business side. So, when we first partnered, nearly four years ago, we had an agreement that I would [lead] talent and casting, and he would handle financing and distribution. We collaborated on the creative and both offered notes in the development process.
He doesn’t live in the U.S., and I had made the move to Los Angeles, so as time went on and I worked more closely with Jen and Hannah on the development process, we ended up finding different avenues and ways in which we could put the film together. As a result, his involvement lessened to a degree just simply by the ways that the elements he brought to the table weren’t sticking. The individuals and the financing and the pieces that we were able to do here on our own really continued to propel us forward, motivated by our relationship with Sundance.
So [the relationship] did not go away, and he’s still a partner on the film and still a great resource both for deep knowledge of our characters and the film and having an overview of the story we’ve intended to tell. He’s great for feedback, and his role is going to have a resurgence in the next life, as he does have a really good finger on the pulse for international distribution and is going to help us in foreign sales.
My other [producing partner], Josh Hetzler, is my right hand. What helped in both scenarios with my producing partners is a really clear expression and delineation of what our roles would be from the outset. It made it very easy and natural to let that develop, staying in that lane. With Josh, at the time that he came on, we were 2 ½ to 3 months out from our hopeful production. We weren’t quite finished with financing yet until he joined bringing with him the remaining gap in the budget.
As soon as we closed, we moved into preproduction. I had produced lots of shorts and digital projects throughout my time in New York, and I’d always had a good idea of what set is and who needs to be there. But what the grander scale and scope of a real indie feature is for the budget we had, which was less than $2M, and how best to utilize the unions, I didn’t know. We were shooting union, [which] was a terrain I had never really explored before. While I thought I knew how I might navigate it, I had no previous experience to feel confident in how I might do it.
So when I brought Josh on, he was a New York indie producer who had four or five features under his belt in similar budgetary constraints as ours, had done union, had done non-union, and ran a production company there before he moved out to LA. And [he] was a line producer for years, as well. His logistical understanding of how to do New York, how to shoot it, how to work with the unions, who to hire… he has a wealth of knowledge and information.
It became a very organic relationship of how it all worked. He distilled it very simply on set for me one day when he said, “Hannah’s yours, and Kristie’s mine.” Kristie’s our line producer. It was a really nice summary of the way our set ran… He and I would digest together and make a decision together. Though, ultimately he always respected that I was the lead producer and this was my film.
So we would both give our own opinion, and it would still be up to me to say, “This is what we’re going to do.” I’m eternally grateful for that because being a producer is a lonely job at times, and having somebody as a sounding board—even when you think you know what you want and how you’re going to do it— having another smart individual say, “Yeah, that sounds good” is one of the most validating things you can [have], especially your first time out.
What was your approach to finding financing, and what were the questions you had going through it? In addition to the script, did you share other materials that made a difference in pushing interest to commitment?
It changed… it changed a lot. When I first spoke to James, my question to him was, “How do you raise money for a movie outside of Kickstarter?” That was the only way I knew. I didn’t even know how you go about finding real money. I was sure there was a way. Obviously, people do it. So I asked. In those initial stages with him, one of the wonderful things he did for us and with us was introduce us to our sales agent at CAA, initially Tristen Tuckfield and now Maren Olsen. That was really our first corridor to finding financing—an agency is going to represent our film because they understand why it’s great, and they would help package it.
They would take our script and send it out to people they knew to see if there were any bites of interest from people wanting to invest in it. So it was a really big wait-and-see game. At this particular iteration, Hannah and Jen weren’t going to star in it. We were casting those roles because we didn’t think we could finance it on them alone. We had done that dance of going out to somebody, waiting for weeks, hearing a ‘no,’ moving on…that sort of thing. It felt very cyclical and without personal agency. We couldn’t get financing without cast attachments, and we couldn’t get cast attachments without financing. We stalled out at that stage where many, many people stall out at.
When we were introduced to the [Sundance] Labs and the Institute, after Hannah and Jen got their short into the Sundance [Film Festival] in 2016, we were reinvigorated and were like, “This is your movie, there’s no one else to make this movie, and to make this movie with somebody else isn’t making the movie.” Because the characters and the growth they have was so intensely personal, it needed to be played by them. [There are] no two people who have the charisma that Jen and Hannah do and the way they do.
We were fighting against ourselves by trying to adhere to what we thought was the “way things happened.” As soon as we decided to make it the way we want to make it, or not make it at all, that’s when people started being interested. Which is, I think, the greatest piece of advice I’d give to anybody—that people want to get on board a moving train. They don’t want to feel like they’re the reason you feel confident in what you’re doing, or that you’re their validation.
By that point, I had been introduced by [Sundance] to some really great resources and people telling me, “This is viable. What you guys are trying to do is viable, the budget level you’re talking about is possible.” Well, a little bit lower than [we] initially intended—originally, we had gotten a budget done from a line producer who typically works on much bigger films who couldn’t see our film being made for less than $4M. We ended up making it for just about $2M.
So it’s possible and can be done. For us, the thing that really conveyed to people our vision beyond directing samples or even the script—particularly when it was still in flux—was a lookbook Hannah and I put together. It essentially told the story and why we wanted to make it, all within the visual style we planned to utilize.
It’s a little bit of studio versus indie. In the studio world, you still need to find people to buy in, but it’s also more layers of waiting permission. When you finally get through it all you have a wealth of resources. With indies, you still have to find people to say yes, but it’s not asking for permission in the same kind of way. You set the table, as opposed to going to people and asking if you can sit at their table.
Yes! It was funny to me because this had been a battle I’d been fighting on the TV side for a long time because my experience had been in development for TV with large studios, and that is very much the case. You give them something, you ask for permission, then they give you the world. That was what I expected but not what I found, because I wasn’t coming at it with this ace in my pocket, which had been Alec Baldwin. Normally, it doesn’t always give you the answer you want, but it always opens many doors.
So then we pivoted—it was, “Okay, let’s do it ourselves; let’s set our own table.” And then when we finally found the people who wanted to do the thing we wanted to do, it became so much clearer to sort through the people who weren’t right. There are so many people who say, “Yeah, yeah, we like what you’re doing, but if you do it this way, we’ll give you this much money.” And it became really easy to say no. I couldn’t have fathomed turning down money at an earlier point in this project and in my career. And, at a certain point you go, “No, because your money is not worth all of the compromises you’re asking us to make.”
Going into production on the film, what difficulties had you not anticipated? Conversely, what worried you going into it but then turned out to be great?
So many directions I could take this one! There were many things that surprised me in both directions. An earlier iteration would have been a fear of trying make the movie we set out to make while pleasing the investors who gave us their finances to make it. For a long time in this process, [this] was a fear of mine, which was how to balance those two things, since oftentimes those are conflicting. In general, this industry is a weird one in that creative endeavors and business endeavors merge—and maybe shouldn’t. They are very often at odds, but they don’t have to be.
When we found the right kind of investors whose reason for doing it was the same reason we were doing it—[it]made it very easy. And our relationship with our investors is lovely. I enjoy talking to all of them. The things that excite me are the things that excite them. I don’t have to mince words or spin it to take what our priorities [are] and try to shoehorn them into what I think theirs are. We’re on the same page, and they trust us implicitly to make the movie we want to make.
And we are, of course, extremely lucky to have found that in all of our investors. But also, part of that luck is knowing what to ask for and to look for. We have six or seven different [investor] parties. We have a good number of people involved, but they check in with us. I send out—it was bi-weekly and now is monthly—updates to them outlining everything on where we are. And they’re all kept in the loop.
But the thing I wasn’t expecting to be difficult and it was…hmm. Honestly, I expected it to be difficult but not in the ways I thought it would be, was dealing with the unions. I thought it was going to be difficult, because I thought there were hard and fast rules we were trying to hide from [and that] they were going to be tough to work around. What I wasn’t prepared for is that it is much more about building relationships in the same way every other way of collaboration is. I have good relationships now with national IATSE at all different levels.
The other issue was as a result of our budget level. We were in that bucket of not having enough money to be interesting to many card-carrying members, especially in summertime when production is so high and there are so many job opportunities available to them at a higher pay grade. But the upside of that is that we ended up working with really hungry, really great, hard-working people who were applicants to the union—meaning they were trying to get work that would make them eligible to join.
I thought using applicants was something we got permission for or didn’t get permission for. And what I learned was that no one would give us an answer. In our case it was something we just did and then sorted later.So the nuance present in something I had assumed would be so rigid was surprising and challenging.
What was your most rewarding moment on set? What was your toughest moment on set?
A couple moments really stick out. I think a really rewarding moment was the day before we started production we had a giant calendar on our board in our production office with our entire crew. And Hannah crossed off the last day—it was a day before day one of shooting. That was pretty special: “Oh my god, we made it and these people are here to make our movie and we like them all, and they’re all very talented.” That was very exciting.
The most rewarding moment was Friday of week four of our five weeks of production. We were exhausted, we were wrapping huge set pieces at the soap studios, and we had to do two company moves from this location at the studios, downtown to a rooftop that was not extremely safe and where only 10 of our crew and cast were allowed. And we had to be wrapped out by 7:00 p.m. because two of our lead actors are child actors, and their hours are shortened.
So it was a really ambitious day, and a lot of tough decisions were made. We ended up cutting 5 or 6 shots out of our shot list that day (there were 12 in total), so it seemed really dramatic. But, making that decision, and doing it with my director and my DP and that being a group decision between this principal triad we had created felt good. We got the day and ended up shooting on the roof. It even started raining when we got on the roof, and we had to wait until it stopped raining, [but] we still got the shot and still got downstairs out on time.
To feel like we didn’t compromise creatively despite [what was] logistically a compromise on paper, and having that clarity of vision with my collaborators was really rewarding. To top it all off it was a Friday, we had one week left, and our entire crew who had busted their asses that week beyond all else, all went to get a drink together. And I was like, “Well, shit, if my crew who I killed this week still wants to go hang out for more hours beyond being allowed to go home, we’re probably doing something right.” I was very proud of that.
The toughest moment came, ironically, on the same day. The bummer of the day was that [I] went to drinks with the crew to decompress and celebrate only to have a call come in as soon as I sat down—it was an urgent issue that if not dealt with would have shut down production. [I had to] go deal with that for a few hours that night, from 9 to midnight. That was really difficult—the reality that despite being exhausted, that is the job of the producer. It is never really over, and it is a little bit lonely.
Lonely because, as much as I wanted to commiserate with my whole crew and say, “Can you believe this, this is crazy,” or even with my director for that matter, I knew they were tired and they needed to really let off steam and they needed to relax and come back refreshed for Monday if we were going to get done what we needed to get done. It wasn’t any of their problem to hear about or sort through. That was a bummer—the reminder that everyone’s job is your responsibility, but your responsibilities are no one else’s. Luckily I had my producing partner and co-producer right there with me.
You’re only in the picture edit, and there’s much more to do. So with that caveat, in looking back at development/prep/production, what is the one piece of advice you’d give yourself going into making this film?
I think I would just tell myself to trust my gut. That sounds so silly and staid of a comment, but I think a lot of people want you to make their thing, and not necessarily want to help you make your thing. Or they think their thing is your thing. And [listening to] your gut looking for resources and feedback from those you trust is the best advice I could have given myself along this process. I’ve learned so much and changed so much of my approach to nearly every facet of what making this movie was at different times.
I think we set out wanting to make a movie that we cared about and have the process be as enjoyable as the product. We were continuously laughed at when we would express that comment. But, we chose this career to work in tandem with our life—the work was never intended to overshadow or replace life. So it was just as important that the process was just as fulfilling as the film. And we were commonly told this isn’t possible. Often, the joke is that the worse the environment on set, the better the movie. I heard that plenty of times, too. I kind of secretly just kept thinking, ‘I think it’s possible to do it this way, and to make the thing you wanted to make and make it good.’
I just kept waiting to get proven wrong that no, that sentiment was just my naïveté speaking and everyone was right, and the process does have to suck for the movie to be good. Or alternatively, the process was good and we made something that sucked. That you just couldn’t have it both ways. I’m happy that that’s not the case.I think we’re making a really good movie, and we’ve liked all the people we’ve worked with. And I just want to keep doing it this way. So, when I say trust your gut, that’s what I mean. It is possible, and you can pull it off.
Mallory Schwartz recently served as director of development for Alec Baldwin’s El Dorado Pictures working alongside ABC Productions under their television first-look deal. Schwartz is an executive producer for ABC’s reboot of Match Game as well as The Alec Baldwin Show. Schwartz is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.