Hannah Pearl Utt‘s debut feature as writer-director, Before You Know It, starring Utt, her co-writer Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Mandy Patinkin and Alec Baldwin, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is being released on August 30 by 1091. Utt is also known for the digital series Disengaged, which she directed for Super Deluxe as co-creator, writer and star, alongside Jen Tullock. Their short film, Partners, premiered at Sundance in 2016. In 2017, Hannah was selected for the inaugural Catalyst Women Initiative, the 2017 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, and is a 2018 Adrienne Shelley Foundation Women Filmmakers Grant recipient. She is currently in development with Sundance Now for Sweet Relief, the half-hour dramedy she co-created.
*Note: I am making an effort to offset my carbon footprint.
The only place to sit in the handicapped bathroom on the seventh floor of the Tate Modern is the toilet, and I wasn’t in there to use the toilet. I weighed the filthy floor against the severity of my hopelessness and settled on a squat. Broke, and with no business being in Europe, but technically living my dream, I started to cry. As the tears moved from whimpering to guttural, worried that my doting boyfriend was waiting in the hall outside, I waved my hand in front of the automatic flusher before sob-screaming into my knees: “I don’t want to look at art!”
The existential breakdown that crescendoed inches from a handicap handrail in one of the most impressive art museums in the world began shortly after the acquisition of my film at Sundance. I’m a real treat, I know. I did not get into filmmaking for the money or the glory, because (despite the impression I may have already given) I am not insane. I did, however, think that after having made a feature that went to Sundance, things would start to shift financially, and my imposter syndrome would begin to dissipate a bit. In the meantime, I was fully prepared to take advantage of the festival life. I figured, “What better place to write my next film than on the road with my last?” I believe what I said when our distributor asked which festivals I would be willing to attend, was: “All of them! Isn’t free travel the whole point of making a movie?!”
As soon as the first leg of my festival journey had been booked, I traded in my clunky laptop for the smaller, lighter-weight version. I figured, what with all the independent cinema I would be ingesting, and all the elbow-rubbing I would be doing with filmmakers and film-lovers, inspiration could strike at any moment and I needed to be prepared. Plus, I needed the remaining money to resole my boots, and buy travel snacks.
Most of my snacks were confiscated at the airport (guacamole and hummus both count as liquids, FYI). Having already been forced to pay for not just my checked bag, but also my carry-on, I refused to buy food. The flight was two hours delayed, so by the time we took off, I was too hungry to get any work done. Once we got to Cleveland, finding something to eat took precedence over seeing a film. Luckily, they had some snacks in the filmmaker lounge. Plate piled high, I looked out over the tables full of filmmakers, and suddenly remembered the reason I’d avoided parties for the past year: the crippling social anxiety that had set in shortly after we wrapped.
Over the course of the next three months, I would travel to 16 different states, boarding around 30 different planes, meeting around 300 new people, and making almost no progress on my new script. To be clear, the festivals were great. Getting to talk to moviegoers and visit cities and towns I wouldn’t have otherwise seen was truly incredible. In fact, I became incapable of turning down a screening invitation because I felt so indebted to the programmers and volunteers working to get movies like mine to audiences. I did, however, decide that since Edinburgh wasn’t able to fully cover my travel, and it was sandwiched between two U.S. festivals, I could justify not going to that one.
Mid-pump-up affirmation (“You are allowed to say no,”) and with my finger ready to hit send on the email to Edinburgh, Victor, my eternally optimistic boyfriend, reminded me of my suggestion earlier in the summer that we use the festival as a way to meet his European family. “Are you asking me if I still want to pay a stranger to drive us in traffic for at least an hour to LAX, to wait in line at security for another hour, to get on a plane and wait on the tarmac for one to four more hours, to fly across the world to make a good impression on people I’ve never met, max out my credit card, and call it a vacation? Why would you even ask me that?! Of course I do!” “Great!” he said. “Let’s book it!”
I managed to convince myself that, in the end, the trip would pay for itself; I would finally get the inspiration and mental rest I needed to write my script. It would start with a festival in San Francisco, followed by one in Scotland, and end with one in Maine, but it was technically a vacation. I used my plane hours to study the classics: The Shawshank Redemption, All About Eve, Funny Girl. I devoured Hotel Du Lac, thinking that perhaps literature was the fuel my soul was seeking. By the time we got to Scotland, I was no more inspired than when we’d left, and could barely see through my sleep deprivation, but still, I dragged my shattered body to the nearest coffee shop to write: “fuck inspiration.”
As soon as I opened my computer, I received an email from my agent with “exciting news!” “Finally!” I thought. “See, you just have to give yourself over and trust the universe will provide!” I was being considered for a directing job and the creator wanted to get on the phone with me ASAP. I x-ed out of my own script, and desperately dove into the material. For the days leading up to my interview, every exquisite view, meal and request from Victor for a couples’ selfie was a reminder that I did not deserve to be on vacation, because I did not have a job, which was why I needed this job, which was why I likely would not get this job. (No one likes thirsty — no one.)
In London, Victor sweetly suggested I take a break and just enjoy some art at the Tate. “Art, yeah. Art will help,” I thought. But each piece became either something to compare my own impotent creativity to, or a cruel prank (“You’re gonna look for meaning in this because you’ve been taught to, but joke’s on you, loser!”). I excused myself to the bathroom to bawl. That night, exhausted and too embarrassed to express how I was feeling to Victor, I asked if we could just stay in and watch something at our hotel. Murder Mystery was the background advertisement on Netflix, and it seemed suitably mind-numbing.
As soon as we put it on, however, it became clear that the film would change me for the better. The premise alone is brilliant: Adam Sandler plays a New York City cop who’s failed his detective test multiple times, but hasn’t been honest about it with his crime-novel-junky wife, Jennifer Aniston. Driven by guilt, Sandler takes Aniston on the European vacation she’s been asking to go on for years, and they quickly wind up implicated in an international — you guessed it — murder mystery. You’d think this would be the perfect opportunity for Sandler to do what he loves (solve crimes) but he’s so plagued by professional insecurity that he can’t really seize the moment. It’s like the movie was made for me! As I watched Jen and Adam make the most of getting shot at and chased by the police, laughing in bed with my own partner in crime, I was finally able to be proud of the profession I’d chosen. A movie I directed, through much discomfort on the part of myself and my collaborators, had provided so many people with the feeling of comfort I was currently experiencing with Murder Mystery, and it had taken me to motherloving Europe.
The next day, thrilled by the possibility of getting to entertain more people, and armed with the knowledge that whether or not I got this job, I would struggle to create opportunities for myself and others to do so, I crushed my interview. I silently awarded myself a detective license; the case of my missing confidence had been solved: it was hiding out at the Tate with my gratitude.