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Hannah Marks' road trip film follows a familiar path — with a few unexpected exits

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The new movie "Don't Make Me Go" opens with this line.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T MAKE ME GO")

MIA ISAAC: (As Wally Park) You're not going to like the way this story ends, but I think you're going to like this story.

SHAPIRO: That's Wally, a teenager played by Mia Isaac. She's on a cross-country road trip with her dad, Max, played by John Cho. Max is a single father, and he's keeping a secret about his debilitating headaches. The movie has some familiar set pieces from other road trip films - big font letters announcing each state as the old clunker crosses borders. And there are also some moments that are not typical road trip stuff.

HANNAH MARKS: I love that this movie opened on a nude beach scene. I don't think I've ever seen that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T MAKE ME GO")

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) What is wrong with you? You brought us to a freaking nude beach.

JOHN CHO: (As Max Park) I didn't know it was a nude beach.

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) Jesus.

CHO: (As Max Park) I just GPSed the nearest one.

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) No, no. I actually needed to be further scarred by this day.

CHO: (As Max Park) Listen. You can't tell anyone I brought you here, all right? OK?

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) I would die before I tell anyone about this.

MARKS: And I knew that I really wanted to show the nudity and not avoid it because I wanted the audience and Wally to feel the shock that would actually happen.

SHAPIRO: Hannah Marks is the director of "Don't Make Me Go." She's 29 with a history as a child actor herself. This is a movie where the father learns from his daughter as much as the other way around. So I asked Hannah Marks why she wanted to make this road trip movie - pardon the pun - a two-way street.

MARKS: I haven't heard that pun yet.

SHAPIRO: Wait, really?

MARKS: I love - yeah, I love that. That's great. I loved that aspect of this movie - that it's not just a father teaching his daughter about life but a daughter teaching her father. And that, to me, is the more empowering take on this story - that it's a true two-hander. And I think that's true to life. I think parents can learn from their kids, but I don't know yet as I don't have children. I just have dogs so far.

SHAPIRO: Can we talk about the casting? I don't know if you've seen the hashtag #StarringJohnCho.

MARKS: I have not, but I've heard he's, like - he's internet boyfriend or internet daddy.

SHAPIRO: Totally. So this is a meme where people Photoshopped John Cho into roles where we haven't often seen Asian American men to make a point about representation in Hollywood. And I thought about that as I was watching this movie in which John Cho is kind of, like, carrying 50% of the weight of this father-daughter film, where we haven't often seen people who look like John Cho. So tell us about the casting here.

MARKS: So the movie was originally written with white characters in mind, but to me, there was nothing about the movie that signified that they had to be a certain race. And to me, John Cho was just perfect for the role. And at the end of the day, race didn't matter. He was the right man for the role, and that led us to Mia Isaac. We did a big casting search, and she was just so special. We couldn't deny it. And that obviously took on, like, a mixed-race and biracial component to the story.

SHAPIRO: So were there any changes at all that you made once you knew that those were the two actors who would be playing these characters who had been written in a race-blind way?

MARKS: We had a lot of conversations about how we wanted to handle it, and we realized that it's not realistic that they would never bring up their race. So we found areas to just infuse that realism.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T MAKE ME GO")

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) I want to see the world.

CHO: (As Max Park) I could barely get you on this trip.

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) I want more culture, OK? And you enrolling me in traditional African dance classes when I was 4 doesn't count, either.

CHO: (As Max Park) I thought I was doing the right thing. I was trying to teach you both sides of yourself.

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) No, that did not work.

MARKS: And that is a story from Mia's real life. Her mother is Chinese, and she wanted Mia to be in touch with the Black side of her family. And Mia was so embarrassed and didn't want to do dance classes. So things like that we put it in the movie and just, you know, tried to make it feel real where possible so their relationship was more lived in.

SHAPIRO: That's so great. The climactic scene in the movie takes place in a karaoke bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T MAKE ME GO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK. Up next, we have Maxwell Park. Come on up, man.

CHO: (As Max Park) No, you didn't.

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) Don't be a weenie.

CHO: (As Max Park) Don't be a weenie.

ISAAC: (As Wally Park) Did you not hear their Bon Jovi? This is not Broadway.

CHO: (As Max Park) All right, Wally Park. You better have picked something good.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about choosing the tune.

MARKS: So originally, it was Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down."

SHAPIRO: OK.

MARKS: But I had always secretly hoped we could make it "The Passenger" by Iggy Pop, which is one of my all-time favorite songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PASSENGER")

IGGY POP: (Singing) I am a passenger, and I ride, and I ride. I ride through the city backsides.

MARKS: And thankfully/not thankfully, we could not afford the Tom Petty song. It was - that one song - just the karaoke rendition of it was more than double our entire music budget. So I was lucky enough to get my way with the Iggy Pop song.

SHAPIRO: I'm actually surprised to hear that it's always been one of your favorite songs because it seems so perfectly tailored for that scene.

MARKS: Yeah. I hate things being on the nose, but in this case, it felt so perfectly on the nose that I loved it. And it's just so rock 'n' roll and upbeat. I didn't want some sad or sappy song. I wanted it to be a moment of joy and rebellion.

SHAPIRO: You've now directed a few films. Earlier in your career, you were often described as one of the youngest female directors of a studio film. Did that make you feel an added pressure to prove yourself? And I wonder at this point whether that pressure has gone away since you've been at it for a while.

MARKS: To be honest, it just made me feel great. It made me feel awesome. It gave me confidence. I wish I could tell you, oh, it made me so vulnerable, but it really made me feel good about myself. And after a lifetime of rejection as an actor, it felt really nice to be recognized or validated in some way.

SHAPIRO: I want to give you credit where credit is due. You say a lifetime of rejection as an actor. And while I'm sure you were rejected for many roles, you got some plum ones along the way, too. You were not exactly...

MARKS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Waiting tables, waiting for your break.

MARKS: That's true. I mean, I've been so lucky to always be a working actor. But with that comes along a lot of roles that you lose out to with - you know, sometimes it's a model, or sometimes it could be even an Oscar nominee. And you're like, oh, how could I compete with that? And that becomes - I don't know. Just - it messes with your head, especially when you're a kid. And when you're a kid, also, if you're - you know, if you're 17, it means you're auditioning for roles of 14-year-olds. So then you're told you're too old, and you're still a teenager. And that really messes with your head, too.

SHAPIRO: And so when you're directing somebody like Mia Isaac, who's only 18, there must be a kind of connection that a lot of actor-directors don't have with each other.

MARKS: I saw so much of myself in her. She's been auditioning since she was 11, and same with me. I started doing theater at 5 and then auditioning for professional productions at 11. So that's a very unique experience. And when you meet others that pursue kind of an adult profession at a child's age, you immediately connect with each other.

SHAPIRO: Is there a moment on set that you remember where you were like, oh, I know exactly what Mia's going through right now; I have been in that exact spot myself when I was on the other side of the camera?

MARKS: Absolutely, definitely when we were doing one of the make-out scenes with Wally and her sort of boyfriend. I've been there a million times where you're kissing or doing something really vulnerable in front of a crew. So I just tried to make it a closed set and as safe and intimate and quiet as possible because I know that can feel so awkward and just make sure, you know, she feels pretty and cared for and like she could watch the monitor if she wanted to - that sort of thing.

SHAPIRO: Wow. That must be such a gift when you are a teenager in a vulnerable situation to have a director who has literally had exactly that experience.

MARKS: Yeah, I wouldn't ask an actor to do anything that I wouldn't do myself. However, it's been funny watching actors be really, like, too hot or too cold on set based on their wardrobe. And I will say it is nice to be able to dress the way I want and be like, sorry, it's your turn.

SHAPIRO: Although sweating is a plot point in the movie, so, you know...

MARKS: True, true. I like that you brought that full circle. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Hannah Marks is director of the new film "Don't Make Me Go," out on Amazon Prime Video. Thank you so much.

MARKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA'S "RIOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.