Sun. May 26th, 2024

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down

Hannah Marks discusses the extensive journey to adapt John Green’s ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ into a screen adaptation.

Sela Shiloni

Hannah Marks delved into acting at the age of 6 after being inspired by her mother’s acting reel. Since then, she has maintained a relentless pace in the industry, appearing in various films such as “Accepted” and “The Runaways,” as well as landing a role in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.” Remarkably, she took her first vacation only last year, albeit still managing to squeeze in several self-tape auditions.

In recent times, Marks has also made significant strides behind the camera as a filmmaker. She made her directorial debut with “After Everything,” a poignant indie film starring Jeremy Allen White as a young man grappling with a bone cancer diagnosis while navigating a new relationship. The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2018, marking a noteworthy milestone in Marks’ burgeoning career.

In the same year, Marks achieved a significant milestone by securing the highly sought-after directing role for the film adaptation of John Green’s beloved novel “Turtles All the Way Down.” The narrative centers around a teenage girl named Aza, portrayed by Isabela Merced, who grapples with debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. Alongside her best friend Daisy, played by Cree Cicchino, Aza embarks on an investigation into the disappearance of a local billionaire, all while navigating a tentative romantic connection with his son, David, portrayed by Felix Mallard.

Popular on Variety

Sela Shiloni

After enduring years of delays attributable to COVID, logistical challenges, and the unpredictability of life, “Turtles All the Way Down” finally makes its debut today on Max, serving as a testament to the notion that certain endeavors are indeed worth the wait. In this film, characterized by its candidness and sensitivity, Hannah Marks has skillfully depicted Aza’s obsessive mindset while simultaneously embracing the euphoria of young romance and extolling the virtues of female camaraderie. It’s a delicate balancing act, executed with both sincerity and an unexpected dose of humor. In a conversation with Variety, Marks reflects on the protracted journey of bringing the story to fruition and offers insights into what lies ahead.

She expresses profound gratitude to Saoirse Ronan and Ariana Grande for their unwitting contributions to her journey. Landing the directorial role for “Turtles” proved to be a rigorous six-month process for Marks, who candidly acknowledges the uphill battle she faced at the outset of her filmmaking career. To make her case, Marks meticulously crafted a speech, a look book, and even a mock trailer using footage she sourced from YouTube. “I leaned heavily on Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet sharing intimate gazes,” she recounts, referring to the romantic elements of the film. Additionally, Marks vividly conveyed her vision for portraying Aza’s obsessive thought patterns: “I incorporated a lot of microscopic imagery accompanied by static sounds.” However, she aimed to counterbalance the intense themes with upbeat pop music, drawing inspiration from Ariana Grande’s newly released track, “Breathin,” which served as the foundation for the trailer.

Reflecting on the trailer created in 2018, Marks remarks that it remarkably mirrors the final product. “While the specific shots and music differ, the essence remains unchanged,” she observes.

 

Marks’ films consistently feature outstanding performances, a trend that continues with “Turtles All the Way Down.” From Jeremy Allen White and Maika Monroe’s compelling portrayals in “After Everything” to the dynamic duo of John Cho and newcomer Mia Isaac as a father-daughter pair embarking on a road trip in 2022’s “Don’t Make Me Go,” the quality of acting remains stellar. In “Turtles,” this tradition persists, with a trio of lead performances poised to propel their stars into the spotlight.

Despite the film not being shot until 2022, all three lead actors were cast at the project’s inception and remained committed throughout its delays. “Ironically, they seemed a bit too young at the time,” Marks reflects. “But we were so enamored with them that we decided to proceed.” The extended timeline afforded the cast more opportunities to bond, although Isabela Merced and Cree Cicchino had already been acquainted for years. “The chemistry between the best friends is just as crucial as the romantic chemistry,” Marks emphasizes. “And they just clicked instantly.”

Given the pandemic restrictions, all rehearsals took place over Zoom. “It’s every actor’s nightmare, trying to build chemistry over a computer screen,” Marks concedes. Taking a gamble on Felix Mallard, an Australian actor known for his roles in “Ginny & Georgia” and “Neighbours,” proved to be a wise decision. “He has quite a challenging role in this film,” Marks acknowledges. “Playing a billionaire’s son isn’t inherently sympathetic. He deserves immense credit for his charm, supportiveness, and flawless American accent. As someone who struggles with accents myself, I was thoroughly impressed.”

Marks, like many others, is an avid fan of “Succession.”

The film also boasts performances from seasoned actors, including J. Smith-Cameron, a two-time Emmy nominee for her portrayal of Gerri Kellman on “Succession.” Cameron portrays a professor admired by Aza, who in one scene, delves into the significance of the film’s title. “I’m a die-hard ‘Succession’ fan, and I knew I wanted Gerri from the get-go for this role,” Marks admits with a chuckle. “So I penned her a letter, expressing my admiration and inviting her to speak the title. She exuded intelligence, warmth, humor, and depth — everything you could hope for.”

Judy Reyes also features as Aza’s mother. While Reyes had previously appeared on “Succession,” Marks clarifies that her casting wasn’t directly linked to that. “Judy has an impressive reel and possesses a remarkable range across genres and mediums — I was thrilled to have her on board,” Marks asserts. “But, I won’t deny it; her past work on ‘Succession’ certainly didn’t hurt.”

Given her background as an actor, Marks empathizes with the challenges actors face.

Drawing from her own experiences, Marks emphasizes that there are numerous factors influencing casting decisions beyond an actor’s talent alone. “We encountered thousands of talented individuals during the casting process for ‘Turtles,'” she explains. “While it may sound straightforward, only one person can ultimately land the role, and it hinges on how well they fit into the overall picture.” Marks encourages actors to remain authentic to themselves when auditioning. “No two individuals interpret a role in the same way. I spent a considerable amount of time as an actor pondering how to distinguish myself. However, it turns out, simply being myself sets me apart. My facial features are distinct. I bring my own unique baggage and life experiences. Just embrace who you are.”As both an actor and filmmaker, Marks is eager for a resurgence of in-person auditions. While she acknowledges the benefits of Zoom, such as the ability to connect with individuals worldwide, she acknowledges the toll it can take on an actor’s morale to submit an audition tape without knowing if it has been viewed.

Marks, like many others, is an avid fan of John Green.

Renowned for his novels such as “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns,” Green has been candid about the profound significance of “Turtles All the Way Down” to him, given his own mental health struggles. Serving as a producer on the film, he was a constant presence on set. However, Marks found the most challenging aspect to be restraining her excitement and not “fangirling out” over the author. “He was incredibly generous and receptive to my ideas, allowing me to take the lead,” Marks reflects. “He was an absolute dream collaborator.”

Their collaboration has since evolved into a friendship. “On the day the film premieres, we plan to celebrate together,” Marks reveals. “This movie has given me so much, but one thing I’ll always treasure is the opportunity to share moments with John Green. It’s still surreal to me.”

 

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