Interview: Filmmaker Hannah Mark and Star Mia Isaac on Making the Father-Daughter Road Movie Don’t Make Me Go

Director Hannah Marks entered into directing in the midst of what most would consider a thriving acting career (one that she still enjoys), with regular roles on series like “Weeds,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Awkward.,” and “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” as well as countless film roles in indie movies, including the recent I Used To Go Here from director Kris Rey. But it’s her directing career that is occupying a great deal of her time of late. In addition to Don’t Make Me Go (now streaming on Prime Video) starring John Cho, she recently wrapped shooting on her next feature, the John Green adaptation Turtles All the Way Down (in which Marks also co-stars). Since 2016, Marks has been directing shorts, and it wasn’t long before she tackled her first feature, the excellent 2018 drama After Everything (co-written/directed by Joey Power), followed in 2021 by Mark, Mary & Some Other People (which she also wrote). 

Based on a screenplay by Vera Herbert (“This Is Us”), Don’t Make Me Go stars Cho and newcomer Mia Isaac (in her film debut, who also stars in the recent Hulu release Not Okay) as single father Max and daughter Wally, respectively, navigating her getting older and him attempting to move on with a new girlfriend (Kaya Scodelario), and all the pitfalls and conflicts of everyday life. But when Max discovers he has a terminal disease, he decides to try and cram all the years of love and support he will miss with Wally into the time he has left with her. With the promise of long-awaited driving lessons, he convinces Wally to accompany him on a road trip from California to New Orleans for his 20-year college reunion, where he secretly hopes to reunite her with her mother who left them long ago. It’s a funny, moving story with a few twists toward the end I was not anticipating, and gives a unique and different take on the road movie genre.

I had the chance to sit down with Marks and Isaac recently about the balance of power between father and daughter in the film, how the relationship between Cho and Isaac mirrored that of their characters, and subverting expectations in a family road trip drama.

This particular father-daughter adventure, was there something unique enough about the screenplay that made you think you could do something with this that hadn’t been done before?

Hannah Marks: Definitely. First of all, the opening scene was set on a nude beach, which was not how I thought a father-daughter movie would start, with a bunch of dicks.

Mia Issac: I loved that you actually showed the naked people. There was probably pressure put on you to take that out to open up your audience, but I love the shock of it.

Well, you’re opening it up to different audience by including it.

HM: [laughs] Totally, that was my argument. I loved that it was bold and had male, full-frontal nudity at the very beginning. And I thought, that in itself was something you hadn’t seen in a parent-child relationship movie. Beside that, there aren’t too many father-daughter movies out there in general. While it’s a relationship that so many of us have and it’s so important, it’s seldom been shown on screen.

Were there parts of the story you wanted to add onto with things from your own life or maybe even Mia’s life?

HM: For sure. I wanted to draw from real life and collaborate with others, so we wrote in that Wally had a pet lizard, which didn’t exist before, because Mia has a lizard. The car came out of the fact we were shooting in New Zealand, and this vintage Wagoneer was the only left-hand-drive car we could get. The dad rap, the karaoke song, things like that all shifted over the course of production in ways that allowed me to feel a bit of ownership over the material.

MI: That line about Wally going to African dance classes when she was a kid, that was something from my actual life that we talked about, which wasn’t something that was in the script before because it was written for white people [Isaac is of mixed-race ethnicity].

HM: Exactly. Or the moment when you’re Facebook stalking, trying to find your mom, and they were all white people. Moments like that, we tried to make more specific and human throughout the process, but we started with a great screenplay already.

Since this was your first film, were you looking for things about Wally that were the most like you, so you could lean on them as a foundation to the other parts of her that weren’t like you?

MI: Oh, I just remembered the eyebrow scar. That was also something true to my life, but the eyebrow scar story was something that came from Hannah’s life.

HM: I also have one that I cover up.

MI: Yeah, but your story was the same as Wally’s story. So I have a scar too, but a different story. Race-wise, it was something we talked about, wondering if it was something that needed to be explained. For me, I’ve always been biracial, obviously, but it’s always been something that’s normalized in my life. Even from the trailer, people seemed surprised to see an Asian dad and mixed daughter. We talked a lot about whether that was something that needed to be explained, and I love that we came to the conclusion that it didn’t need to be. I shouldn’t have to explain why I am the way that I am, and we added little bits and pieces, but for the most part, there’s no explanation given.

HM: Our intention that, even in those specific moments, was to make it feel real but not to make a commentary on it, because it’s not a movie about race and early on, we talked about not making it a film about oppression. It’s just about those relationship, and these were the two actors best for their roles.

It says something that I spent about half the movie waiting for it to come up, and it never does. We were talking before about the bold choices you make with this story, and that is a bold choice.

MI: And an important one. People of color are allowed to have problems that have nothing to do with race [laughs].

I love road trip movies. There’s so much you can accomplish using that as a storytelling framework, aside from just going from point A to point B. What elements of the road trip movie were you eager to explore and take advantage of with your story?

HM: It’s a nice way to force your two characters together, especially since the biggest thing Max and Wally need to work on is communication with each other and learning to be honest with each other. Forcing them together is the best way to do that, and they’re both at the point in their lives where they’re coming of age in a sense, not just Wally. It was nice to put them on the road together in this transitional period of their lives.

How much rehearsal time did you have, if any?

HM: We got to rehearse maybe two or three scenes in person.

MI: I got out of quarantine and was able to roam free in the country for four days before we started shooting.

HM: But we had to do costume fittings.

MI: Yeah, we had a lot of other things to do, so we had maybe two meetings. But Hannah loves being prepared and doing things beforehand, so months before we started shooting, we were doing rehearsals over Zoom.

HM: Yeah, my boyfriend was playing Max.

The reason I ask, again, has to do with the road trip idea. If there wasn’t a lot of time for your leads to get to know each other beforehand, they certainly got a chance to in that car.

MI: If it had been anyone else, I think it would have been hard to form that relationship quickly. But because it was John, we were able to form that bond right away and fall into that naturally. Weirdly enough, we had almost the same parent-child dynamic off-screen as we did on-screen. When I got to New Zealand, he had been there for a while already, so he showed me around, and he’s way more experienced on set than I am, so I learned a lot in the way a child would learn from their parent. I think that really helped.

HM: We actually did shoot the car scenes at the very end of the movie, so it wasn’t like we threw them in together immediately.

What were some of the things you picked up from John as an actor and as a person?

MI: I learned a lot. Going into it, I was really nervous because about the emotional scenes. I am a perfectionist, so I loved the script and loved Wally so much that I put a lot of pressure on myself in those scenes. I wanted to do justice to the character, and there were times when I would be so nervous that I wouldn’t give the performance that I wanted to give, and there were times that I’d be upset by that. I remember one time when I had a lot of anxiety when we were doing the scene where Wally’s mom doesn’t want to meet her, and I had this moment where I felt like I didn’t do a good job. John and I went to the side, and he reminded me that it isn’t about one single scene or single line or moment; it’s about the journey as a character as a whole. And these two or three months we were spending together were more important than that single moment.

HM: And by the way, she did a fantastic job in that scene. I think in her head, I would have had the same feeling. But from my perspective, she was crushing it.

You said before, Mia was your choice from the first time you saw her tape early in the first round of auditions. What was it about what you saw that made you so sure?

MI: Should I go? [laughs]

HM: She hears me compliment her profusely every second of every day. I really loved the thoughtfulness she brought to it. It didn’t feel like a cookie-cutter, stereotypical teen. It’s so easy to fall into the box that’s expected of you, like what a teen girl character should be. She felt like herself, and whenever she wasn’t speaking, you could really watch her think. I could see her listening, and that’s so important, especially in a movie about the unspoken. So she was magnetic in that way.

You’re a working actor on top of the occasional directing gig. So I feel like when you decide you’re going to direct something, that’s a bigger decision for you. Why was this one of the ones you wanted to commit to as a filmmaker?

HM: It seemed like a great opportunity because the producers are all quite prolific and have great taste, and I was flattered that they wanted me for it. I really connected to the story on a personal level; I was very close to my dad, who was also a cancer survivor. There were several other parallels to my own life, and it just felt like I would be silly not to take it on and try. I also saw that it was a great piece for actors, even if it wasn’t a great piece for myself as an actor, and that gives me a lot of joy.

One of the most difficult things for children of any age to accept about life is that their parents are flawed. This film is all about that. Even though Wally disrespects and disobeys her dad from the beginning, I don’t think she sees him as a flawed human until their trip. What were the steps you took to illustrate that transition and realization?

HM: It’s all about planting seeds and then paying them off. Also, just drawing from your own life. I remember from a few years ago, reading some of my mom’s journals from when she was 16, and it’s mind-blowing—I can’t believe she was 16; that’s so weird.

MI: I had the same thing happen. I read my mom’s journals, and it’s crazy to see their life before you.

HM: Absolutely. Just drawing from our own experiences, making thing feel as specific as possible, that will make that feel honest. Something that I loved about Wally discovering that her father is a real person is the fact that Max cheated on her mother. Her whole life, she’s wondered why her mom left her and feeling like maybe it was her fault, and the truth is it was way more complicated than that. That’s so important for Wally to process that not everything is black or white, everyone is kind of a shade of grey.

Was this always an Amazon film or was it sold to them?

HM: There were different iterations of this movie before I came on—different studios, different directors. As an independent film, it had a different cast at various points, and this movie had a long history before me. Vera wrote the script when she was in college, back in 2012, so it’s been in process since then. Since I’ve come along, it was always Amazon. First it was an independent film with no one involved by myself and the producers, and then we cast John, and then we took it out to studios, and Amazon really loved John in the story.

The reason I ask is that it’s hard to imagine that an indie film got to go to New Zealand to shoot during a pandemic.

HM: Well that actually happened because Amazon was already set up there for their Lord of the Rings series, so they already had an infrastructure in place and they were also very into the idea of shooting in a place with zero cases of COVID, at the time.

When playing Wally, did you latch onto the parts of her that were most like you, so that you could get through the parts of her that weren’t like you?

MI: Yeah, what I loved the most about Wally from the moment I ready the script is that we were going through the same things at the same time, and we were both at the same stage of our lives. I was going on 16 when I read it, and I felt like we were coming of age together, and there were times when she would realize things and I would realize things. Like we were talking about, realizing your parents were human. I was going through those same exact things with her. Playing Wally has been my coming-of-age experience, and this is a coming-of-age story for Wally, so I feel very, very close to her.

What do you think Max learns from Wally on this journey?

HM: Definitely, he learns to follow his heart, to take risks. Even if he’s not pursuing music as a career, he going to do it again as a hobby and passion. It’s okay to do the things that make you happy, and it’s not all about work and it is about valuing your relationships, and I think those are all things Wally teaches him.

You’ve already shot your next movie. Tell me what you loved about Turtles All the Way Down.

HM: I loved that it really focused on a teenage girl with severe OCD, because I’d never seen that portrayed in a film, where the entire conflict is the character’s brain. It felt like such a big challenge as a filmmaker to make an entire story around something that’s invisible. We all can’t see it, but it impact so many of us.

Everyone I know who has read it has said to me “I don’t know how they’re going to film this.”

HM: Everyone said it to me too: “How are you going to make that a movie?” So, I’m hoping I did it right. I feel good about it.

I can’t wait it check it out. Thank you both so much. It was really great to meet you.

HM: Thank you.

MI: Great meeting you.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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