Based on a 2012 Black List script by Vera Herbert, Hannah Marks’ “Don’t Make Me Go” tells of a single father named Max (John Cho) who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Without informing his daughter Wally (newcomer Mia Isaac), he decides to take her on a road trip from California to New Orleans for his 20th college reunion, but also to seek out her estranged mother Nicole (Jen Van Epps).
Like her previous film “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” director Hannah Marks seeks stories that give her an opportunity to put her own twist on genre tropes. Part road trip, part father-daughter story, part coming-of-age, “Don’t Make Me Go” is mostly a two-hander between John Cho and Mia Isaac, in her first lead role. The easy chemistry between the two carries the film through its several tonal shifts, settling somewhere between “Paper Moon” and “Terms of Endearment.”
RogerEbert.com spoke to Marks and Isaac about working with John Cho, filming an American road trip movie in New Zealand, and the importance of cherishing your family.
This is your first film where you didn’t co-write or write the screenplay. How different was that process for you in making this film?
HANNAH MARKS: It’s very different. But it’s exciting and just a different way. I like having an outside perspective on the material and getting to collaborate with the team and also play around with improv. And that, you know, thankfully, we were lucky that everyone was game for that type of collaboration. Because otherwise it would be really hard to direct something that I didn’t write if I didn’t feel like a certain amount of ownership over it. But Vera Herbert is just so talented, and really was already writing in a style that I enjoyed. So that was nice.
You really feel the chemistry between the leads of your films. Mia, when you were cast, did you do a chemistry test with John Cho?
MIA ISAAC: When I auditioned I think there were like five rounds; five or six. The last one was a chemistry read with John. I’d never done a chemistry read before. That was the farthest I’ve ever gotten in an audition. So I was really, really nervous. But even through the Zoom read, I felt really close to John. I felt that there was something there, which I think was really great considering it was over the computer.
HM: You could tell just immediately between them that they had chemistry and an affection for each other in the reading of the scenes.
What do you look for as a storyteller? What kind of stories are you trying to tell?
HM: I don’t go out of my way to subvert tropes, but I think the stories I’m drawn to are the ones that feel like something’s classic that we’ve seen, but there’s a bit of a spin on it, or there’s a new perspective on it that isn’t usually tackled on film. So for “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” it was about exploring an open relationship that fails miserably. For this one, it was about telling a father-daughter story. While that could seem conventional, there’s not really a ton of father-daughter stories out there. It felt like a fresh opportunity to do something specific but still universal.
With John Cho’s character, I love that we get to see him sing. How much of that was scripted?
HM: It was always scripted that he wanted to be a musician and used to be a singer. When we were researching who we wanted to cast for Max, I was a big John Cho fan and I found out that he also had a daughter and was in a band. So it seemed like there were some parallels there. I listened to his singing on YouTube from his old band and it just felt perfect. But I didn’t know he could do the falsetto or like the kind of Justin Timberlake-esque style that he does in this movie. He was just terrific. It wasn’t always Iggy Pop. It was originally Tom Petty, which we could not afford.
Was it “Free Fallin’”?
HM: “I Won’t Back Down.”
That’s a great song.
HM: I always secretly wanted it to be “The Passenger.” so I ended up getting my way, but just because of budgetary restraints.
The last time we chatted, we talked about how you filmed “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” in LA right before lockdown and how you captured something that’s not there anymore. You made this film in the midst of the pandemic in New Zealand. Did you feel a big difference in filming this time around and were there any creative things that came out of the restrictions?
HM: Absolutely. We filmed in New Zealand because there were zero cases of COVID there and John Cho was also living there at the time. So we felt really safe and I was lucky with “Mark, Mary,” we felt really safe because the pandemic was still one month away, so we didn’t know. It was very, very safe. I was still masked up and in the whole PPE gear out of precaution. I didn’t want to bring COVID to an entire country.
But the limitations actually were helpful in some ways. For example, Max’s car in the movie is this vintage Wagoneer and originally it was supposed to be a modern Toyota: safe, exactly what you’d expect a lower middle class dad to drive. Then in New Zealand, left hand drive cars are illegal there. There’s a loophole if it’s from a certain year, then you can have a left hand drive car. So that was how we ended up with the vintage Wagoneer, which really became kind of a character in the movie.