Hannah Marks has been on sets for most of her life.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, the Southern California native started acting at age 6. By the time she was a teenager, she was already a veteran of the network and cable television show circuit, having done the rounds on all manner of sitcoms, procedurals and prestige-y dramas, including a multi-season arc on Weeds.
But directing was always on her mind. Now at 29, with several features under her belt, including the father-daughter road trip dramedy Don’t Make Me Go, filmed in New Zealand and streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and an adaptation of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down recently wrapped, she is making a name for herself behind the camera.
“I’m so lucky that I was basically born knowing what I wanted to do,” Marks said. “It’s hard to have drive and passion and motivation if you’re unsure. I’m just very sure about what I should be doing. This is really all I’m interested in.”
While other kids were off being kids, at 11, she and her mother were studying Paper Moon and A Patch of Blue, while going on auditions alongside other child actors living in the Oakwood Toluca Hills apartment complex, which the New York Times Magazine dubbed Hollywood Elementary in a 2006 article.
By her early 20s, Marks was pouring over films like Catch Me If You Can and The Social Network, with scripts in hand, pausing, rewinding and figuring out just what went into making something pop on the screen. She was, essentially, giving herself her own private film school education. As a director, Marks brings with her not just a passion for film, but the perspective of someone who has been on the other side and seen the good and the bad of the industry.
“I can’t imagine how some directors go on a set and it’s their first time to direct and they actually haven’t seen how the rest of it works,” Marks said.
In Don’t Make Me Go, her biggest project to date, she directs John Cho as a single father, Max, to a teenage daughter, Wally, who learns that he has terminal cancer. He decides to withhold this information from her as they embark on a cross country road trip. While tears are likely, it is not by any means a maudlin affair.
“I wish there was a way to describe the movie without using the word dying or terminal sickness,” Marks said. "There’s a lot of heart and humor. I didn’t want it to be sad and depressing. Each day on set we would really try to find the humor where we could in their relationship.”
Peter Saraf, the co-founder of Big Beach and producer behind Adaptation and Little Miss Sunshine, thought of Marks for the project. She read the script, by This is Us veteran Vera Herbert, and found herself bawling on a plane.
“I just loved the father-daughter story at the center of it. Their relationship felt really beautiful and pure,” she said. “And I feel lucky to be telling a story about a man in his 40s. Not everyone would think of me for that."
It would take several years after reading the script for the movie to become a reality, and in that time, Marks found more in common with Max than she did at 25. But Wally held a special place for Marks, whose own father is a cancer survivor. To play Wally, Marks cast newcomer Mia Isaac.
“I don’t think I realised at the time how special it was because she was pretty much the first director I ever worked with,” Isaac said. “I think I got a little spoiled with her because I thought that it was the way it was always going to be. I just assumed all directors paid that much attention to their actors.”
Marks helped Isaac feel at home in front of the camera and also to embrace her self-described “nervous energy.” She also coached her through what was essentially her first kiss.
“It was really, really awkward for me and I was super nervous,” Isaac said. “Hannah helped me so much that day. I don’t think I would have been able to do that scene without her.”
Marks has her share of child actor horror stories like vomiting in the middle of an audition for Malcolm in the Middle, but also good memories, like playing Justin Long’s little sister in the comedy Accepted and the joy of improvising on a comedy set at a young age. And she’s made a point to try to make things better for her actors than they were for her.
Next up, she’ll start editing Turtles All the Way Down, starring Isabela Merced as a teenager dealing with mental illness and a search for a missing billionaire. And she’s figuring out what’s next in her ever-evolving industry. Steven Soderbergh, she said, is one she looks up to for his ability to tackle big, small, arthouse and television.
“That’s really inspiring to me: Someone who is surprising and takes risks and constantly mixes it up,” Marks said. “I have to see where the pieces fall, but I know I want to keep going bigger and bigger.”