Hannah Marks just wants to work. Acting as early as age 11, and appearing in shows like Weeds and Necessary Roughness while still a teenager, Marks started as an actor, like her mother, Nova Ball. In the last five years, though, she’s gone from relative anonymity into writing and starring in Banana Split, working her way towards her solo directorial feature, Mark, Mary & Some Other People, which premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival and is now in theaters and on VOD.
When The Film Stage chatted with Marks she was shooting her newest film in New Zealand, an Amazon-backed drama-comedy starring John Cho titled Don’t Make Me Go. Also attached to the adaptation of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down, she’s making waves, writing scripts, and directing high-profile actors as she hurtles toward her 29th birthday. Her scripts often tend toward the talkative, depicting friendships and relationships with a sense of wit, humanity, and realness.
Her latest feature stars Ben Rosenfield and Hayley Law as Mark and Mary, respectively, and charts their relationship over the course of an experiment, one brought up by Mary. The couple attempts to have an open relationship to varying degrees of success. Featuring an indie surf rock soundtrack and loose, more improvised dialogue, the comedy finds laughter and, more often than not, sadness in these two young people who are simply just trying to figure it all out.
We talked with Marks about the pressures of her career, trusting her gut, making playlists, and taking on multiple projects at once.
The Film Stage: You started acting quite early, why did you get involved in film while you were still so young?
Hannah Marks: I started acting around five or six. And my mom was an actress starting at five or six as well. So just with kind of how I grew up and what we both loved, and we did a little bit of theater together. I always loved the arts and loved movies. So for me, being in the business wasn’t so much about acting, but it was about being around moviemaking, because that’s really my passion. And as I got older, and more frustrated with the business… like in this business, when you’re a teenager, you’re told you’re too old for things. So you get really bitter and jaded. I wanted to like myself and love myself. And that was getting increasingly harder as just an actor. And I hate the term “just an actor,” because I think actors are amazing. But I just needed to do something else in order to stay sane.
Was there a specific moment where you realized you wanted to do this as a career? Instead of just something that your mom was already involved in, since most people often push against what their parents do for a living.
Yeah, my mom definitely never pushed me into it. She, if anything, didn’t want me to become an actor, because she knew how hard it was and how competitive it was. So for me, I’m very lucky. And one of the things I’m most grateful for in my life is that I have always known what I wanted to do. So this just kind of always felt like my calling in some weird, pretentious way. But I’m really grateful. Because I know it can be hard not knowing what you want to do. You know, there’s pros and cons to both. On one hand, it’s kind of exciting to not know what you want to do. It’s exploratory and makes life really interesting. And then on the other hand, it’s a challenge. So I think there’s pros and cons to both paths, that I feel very grateful. But I’ve always known that this is what I love.
I mean, that’s incredible. What was the first script that you wrote? How old were you?
The first script was Banana Split. It was called Eskimo Sisters. But then we didn’t want to offend the Inuit community. So the title changed. You know, you live, you learn, you grow. As time goes on, you realize things that you maybe weren’t aware of as a teenager. That was the first thing that I wrote. I wrote a first draft of that when I was a teenager. 17 or 18. And then I met my future writing partner, and he helped me rewrite it and kind of craft it in a way that was outside of my own perspective. And that ended up actually being the second thing that we did that got made but it was the first thing that I ever started on.
So that was the first thing you ever wrote and it ended up becoming a real thing in the world?
It is crazy. I don’t think it got made until I was 23 at 24. So the clock was ticking.
That feels like an anomaly, that the first thing you wrote was made, instead of lots of random drafts never seeing the light of day.
Well, I was really inspired because I had started writing it around the time when I did the Sundance Lab, when I was just there as an actor. But I had been surrounded by a lot of young filmmakers that were really exciting and inspiring. And so that really gave me motivation to think, “Oh, I can maybe do this. I can try this.”
I was looking at your Wikipedia page for some background and saw—
I guess I am probably more concerned about whatever pictures up there.
Have you ever looked at it?
I have, but I don’t remember what it was. But it’s just always awkward for me. Because since I started acting professionally at 11, most pictures online of me are during puberty. So it’s so embarrassing. So that’s the main thing I would have looked at on my own Wikipedia.
You were named as one of Rolling Stone’s 25 Under 25 Artists Changing the World a few years ago. Does something like that put a lot of pressure on you? Do you feel like now you have to achieve a threshold of success?
You know, not really actually. To me, it was just really exciting and made me feel so good. And it kind of helps you get jobs. So for me, I was just really thrilled because all I want to do is work and do the best that I can and if something like that list enabled me to get more jobs that are fulfilling and maybe can help other people, then I’m excited by it. A lot of things make me nervous and give me anxiety but I guess that wouldn’t be one of them. It just really made me feel good.
What are those things then?
Oh, just, the ups and downs of daily life. I tend to be a worrywart. Even just on this current shoot, or on any shoot, I’m worrying about how the day is gonna go and I’m worried about the things that are out of my control. Like whether you screw up your whole shoot day. Just the things that are not controllable stress me out.
There are a few similarities between Banana Split and Mary, Mark & Some Other People. First of all, the use of title cards/chapter cards, why do you include those?
I’ve always found title design to be one of my favorite art forms. It’s something I admire in most movies that I watch, and I love working with graphic designers and artists on those elements because I think it’s fun to collaborate and infuse other art forms in filmmaking. So really, it comes just from being a personal fan of different title designers’ work. Like in Mark, Mary & Some Other People, I used this guy named Tom Kan who I was a huge fan of since I was probably 16 and I first saw Enter the Void which is that Gaspar Noé film. Yeah, those title cards, which I thought were some of the best I’ve ever seen. So I just wrote him a fan letter and he said yes, which was so exciting for me. So It obviously comes from my own fandom. But with Banana Split, there weren’t originally title cards, and I didn’t actually direct. So that was actually my friend Ben Kasulke, who directed the film. That was his creative choice. But I love that he did that because it fits with my whole ethos.
Both of these stories have relationships that are actually bound by rules, bound by these constrictions of how the relationship can either grow or can ultimately falter. Why have these boundaries within these relationships you’re writing?
I think for me, making movies about friendship, or relationships, or two-handers with characters that are mainly talking and sitting in rooms––essentially, most low-budget movies––it’s a fun way to amp the stakes in a movie that is very talky. I enjoy setting rules for the characters and creating these boundaries. And they’re really all invisible rules, like they’re societal constructs and they’re rules in our own head in terms of how relationships should go. So I also think that it’s just interesting making movies about things that are not tangible, and it’s incredibly challenging. So it’s kind of just embracing that and leaning into it.
What do you think keeps relationships together? What can break them apart? How can relationships survive, even if the ones in your movies don’t always end perfectly?
I would not profess to be an expert on that. I just have to write from my own perspective, which a lot of times, in the case of Banana Split, and in Mark & Mary, I’m just kind of writing from both sides of my brain. There’s a part of me that’s much more reserved and traditional, just like Mark is. And then there’s a part of me that’s really kind of free-spirited and aggressive, like Mary is, and so it’s really just me writing my own internal monologue. And then there’s been other scripts that I’ve written that don’t have to do with friendships, or rules or boundaries, or any of these things that we’ve discussed, but those aren’t the movies that get made, or haven’t gotten made so far. So it’s really interesting to see the parallels in the movies because you write so many things, and then you never know what is going to get financing or transcend. And I’m grateful though. I’m really grateful that these relationship movies have made it out there, but I definitely am not the expert. I’m just kind of making what interests me and I’m hoping it resonates with other people.
And have you found that it does resonate?
I think so. I mean, I’m getting to talk to you right now. So I feel like we’re getting somewhere.
In Mark & Mary, there are both Frankie Cosmos and Mac Demarco songs, on the edges of the relationship. How do you make music choices, especially with this indie rock throughline?
I make a playlist at the beginning of every movie. And I use a lot of artists from one of our financiers, this company called Crush Music. A they have an indie company called Crush Pictures. And they manage a lot of great artists. So I made a playlist in the beginning with a lot of their artists, as well as just some artists I was already a fan of, like I’ve been a fan of Mac Demarco for a very long time. And I love that song “My Kind of Woman.” So I’ve always just wanted to use it in a movie. And I just got really lucky that a lot of the choices that I loved from the beginning got to actually make it in because of Crush’s connections and artists that they work with, and also having very supportive producers and financiers who understood the power of music and a movie about a young couple. So it really just came from being a fan. I guess I’m approaching a lot of my movies like a fan girl.
Do you think that Mary and Mark would be listening to those songs?
Yeah, that’s typically how I go about it, I make a playlist for each character. And just let that inform the music of the movie, because I like music and movies to be really eclectic, and not be all just one thing. So it feels like a really organic way to do that, just by kind of creating the character’s playlist.
How did you come up with Mary’s band names? There are a few that are shot off. And I’m a huge fan of fake bands in movies. It’s something I absolutely can not get enough of.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always just been writing down fun band names. Just because people say things in conversation and you think, “Oh, that’d be a great band name.” And that it’s been something that’s been in my books, in my notes folder for years. And it felt like a shame to not use it. And when I met with Hayley Law who plays Mary, the first thing she said to me was, “Oh my God, I do the same thing. I love coming up with band names.” So we just kind of had a shared love for that same thing with the fictional band concept in movies. But I’m not actually in a band, whereas Haley is actually a musical being.
How did you land on Hayley and Ben during the casting process?
I was a fan of both of their work. In previous things. Hayley was in a friend of mine’s movie called Spontaneous. And I remember thinking she was terrific. She was playing the friend role and I thought it was so impressive how much she elevated it and made that character three-dimensional and Brian Duffield, my friend, did a fantastic job. His writing and directing were so great. But I was just so impressed at how much Hayley did with a smaller role. So I really wanted to work with her. And I also just stalked her on Instagram and saw she was a musician and a singer. And it just felt right. And then, Ben Rosenfield, I have seen a bunch on Boardwalk Empire, and I thought he was terrific. And then I watched him in 6 Years, which was an improvised movie. And I knew I wanted to have a lot of improv in this movie. So just cast them honestly, without even having to meet or audition or anything, we just kind of went for it.
How much improv ended up being in the movie?
We improved every day. We had a full script, but each day we would kind of just throw it out. Because that was one of the goals of the movie was to try to improvise almost the whole thing. So there was always the shape there and a lot of dialogue, of course, from the script that made it in but every single scene has some kind of moment of improvisation.
And how did you try to build chemistry between those two people? How do you go about that process?
Well, in this case, you hope and you pray. Normally, you know, you’d get rehearsals in time together or an audition process. This was a low-budget, run and gun, on the fly. So it was a lot of just praying that it was going to work. And I was so grateful that they got along so well and had such a fun time together because it would have been a nightmare if they had not gotten along.
At that Halloween party during the film, how did you come up with the costumes that both of them would be wearing?
I kind of knew going into the movie that you can’t really clear Halloween costumes for famous characters. Yeah, just from a legal perspective. So I just took that as my own personal challenge to come up with a costume that didn’t require any legal players, but also suited the characters and what they were going through. So it actually kind of came from just more of a logistical standpoint. So I’m glad they resonated.
I mean, a mustache over a mustache.
Yeah, like a guy with a better mustache. It’s so funny, because that joke was in the script back because Mark was supposed to have a very wispy, like barely-there mustache, but Ben is so good at growing a mustache that it was just, it was just really hardcore, double mustache. I wasn’t expecting it.
They abandon each other so quickly at the party. It feels like they jeopardize their relationship in a matter of minutes?
To me, it was because he was so hurt. He was so hurt by the fact that she wanted to open up the relationship. And then on top of that, she was, you know, pressing him on it relentlessly and not giving him the time he needed to process it. And it wasn’t something he ever wanted to do. So I think to me, it was a reaction to that and lashing out at her and feeling jealous and feeling insecure and saying, “Oh, you want to try this? I’ll show you.” And while it’s not the most mature response, it’s way more fun to watch immature characters. So that was where it came from. It was never about him hooking up with someone else. It was about his own reaction to what Mary wanted. And as far as it happening fast, I mean, I think when you’re drunk at a Halloween party, and everyone’s young and hot, I think that can happen.
I know this is your first solo directorial feature. How do you establish a feeling or vibe on set? How do you know what kind of director you’re going to be?
Oh, you don’t know. I went into it just wanting to have a great time with my friends and have a really good experience where we could all learn and grow and become closer. So the outcome was never about, like getting a distributor or getting into film festivals, or any of that. The concept behind making this movie was always to just grow as human beings and have meaning, have a great experience. And thankfully, the financiers and producers were all friends. And were all really supportive of that idea. So the environment was really loving and warm every single day. And once it was, it was a joy to get to make something without a ton of fear.
How do you think you grew during this experience?
Oh, I grew so much just in terms of the different filmmaking techniques we tried. Like, for example, we use that technique of SnorriCam and the beginning of the movie, which I had always wanted to test out, which is when the camera is mounted to their bodies, and they’re doing mushrooms. I also always wanted to try improv, because I’ve obviously never directed something with improv before. So that was always on my bucket list, just in terms of experimenting. So there were a lot of things like that. And then just learned also to try to not micromanage as much, to try to let go and trust people to do their jobs, which was a huge reason why, again, I didn’t audition Mark or Mary. I just gave them the roles and wanted to see what would happen. It was kind of a lesson in following your gut. So there were a ton of things, I’m probably still unaware of half of the things I learned. I’ll probably be more aware in five years I think.
How does each project impact you? Are you someone who holds onto each story?
I definitely don’t let go, I hold on to things because I care so much. I think that’s the only way you can be in this business and make movies. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be able to get through the process. So I definitely hang on to things. But that being said, I’m a multitasker and a juggler. So even if I’m really obsessed with one project, there are probably five other projects I’m equally obsessed with. Because I’m just always a busy bee trying to work and work and work. It’s just what makes me happy and keeps me sane. So so it is a little bit of both. You have to have multiple things going on. Otherwise, you’ll live and die on one project.
Mark, Mary & Some Other People is now in theaters and on VOD.