There is an old adage in Hollywood that says ‘write what you know’. Rising filmmaker Hannah Marks has obviously heard it. The writer-star of new film Banana Split – a fresh, female-centred comedy that’s been hailed as this year’s Booksmart – based its protagonist April on her own experience as an anxious, lip-chewing high schooler struggling to cope with her first major breakup.
“I definitely have all of the same anxieties as my character,” Marks tells NME from lockdown at her family home in sunny California. “I can be very neurotic. As I’ve gotten older, that anxiety has inspired me to work harder, whereas when I was younger, I found it hard to have anxiety, hormones and puberty all at the same time.”
The daughter of actor Nova Ball and Robin Marks, Hannah has appeared in film and TV shows since childhood, with early credits on music biopic The Runaways (with Kristen Stewart) and The Amazing Spider-Man (the Andrew Garfield one). Then business picked up, and Marks won a recurring role in supernatural show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency opposite Elijah Wood, who she still regards as “a wonderful friend and supporter.”
For the role of Amanda, Wood’s reclusive younger sister, Marks learned to drum (“I have so much respect for drummers, it’s insanely hard!”) and took up boxing, a pastime that she still enjoys despite admitting that she’s not especially athletic.
“Dirk Gently was a show that challenged me because there were some real physical elements to that role,” she says. “But we had a really great time filming it. And Amanda is a badass; she goes from being really frail and agoraphobic to having superpowers.”
Although content with her lot, Marks still wasn’t satisfied with the lack of decent scripts that were coming her way. So she started writing them herself. “There are plenty of great scripts out there, they just go to famous people,” she says matter-of-factly. “Writing my own was about trying to take control of my own life. I really don’t like waiting for the phone to ring.”
The actress – who Interview magazine recently called “Nora Ephron for the Instagram generation” – was just 21 when she co-wrote, and later co-directed, her debut feature film After Everything. An unconventional love story about a new relationship tested by a cancer diagnosis, it starred It Follows heroine Maika Monroe and Marisa Tomei, and premiered at SXSW to warm reviews that praised the film’s authentic account of young love.
Banana Split maintains the same spirit of youthful energy, but takes a radically different, more personal form. Working with her co-writer Joey Power, Marks has created a new brand of high school movie that turns the teen romance formula on its head. Starting life as a by-the-book break-up movie, the film evolves into a sensitive, sophisticatedly written film about April’s unexpected yet impassioned new friendship with her ex’s new girlfriend Clara, played by To The Stars‘ Liana Liberato.
“We’ve been friends since we were really little; we met when she was nine and I was 11,” says Marks of her co-star and real-life friend. “There are a lot of things that we drew on from our friendship for the film.”
The pair’s first day on set involved shooting one of Marks’ favourite scenes, in which their characters, meeting for the first time and fuelled by alcohol at a house party, sing a word-perfect rendition of Junglepussy’s ‘Bling Bling’. “Liana and I have always loved singing and rapping together,” remembers Marks. “So that scene was super fun because we got to pick the song.”
If you hadn’t noticed, Banana Split arrives at the crest of a new wave of comedies that promote female relationships while keeping boys firmly on the periphery, from acclaimed films like Booksmart, Blockers and Lady Bird to small screen hits like Insecure and Broad City. “I was inspired by people like James L. Brooks growing up, but nowadays it’s more like Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig,” says the filmmaker, who first wrote its screeplay aged 19. “Frances Ha has a totally different tone, but the friendship element is the same.”
Marks’ next film as writer-director (she’s also producing) is Mark, Mary & Some Other People, an improvised comedy about an open relationship that stars Community stalwart Gillian Jacobs and Riverdale’s Hayley Law, that luckily wrapped just before lockdown. “I’m actually editing it now via Zoom,” she says.
It seems that even in lockdown Marks is the master of creating her own opportunities; on top of managing this film in post production, she’s also in the process of directing a film adaptation of John Green’s bestselling Young Adult novel Turtles All the Way Down. “I read that book the most,” she says of the story, which centres on Aza, a high school student who suffers from OCD. “It’s such a beautiful portrayal of young teenagers and mental illness. It really helped me through some hard times.”
In front of the camera, Marks will most likely be seen reunited with Jacobs for I Used To Go Here, an indie comedy that was due to premiere at this year’s SXSW festival (a renewed release date is yet to be announced). As well as forming a strong bond with Jacobs, Marks found a friend in their co-star Jemaine Clement, who kept everyone laughing in between takes and even helped her to rehearse lines for an upcoming audition.
“He’s brilliant. I love What We Do in the Shadows and Flight of the Conchords so much,” she says happily. “The pilot episode with that song, ‘Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)’, oh my god it’s so funny.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that this self-deprecating brand of humour is so appealing to Marks, who has no issue in playing characters like April, a girl who at one point in Banana Split finds herself face down in a toilet at a house party. “I think embarrassment is one of the strongest emotions; it’s something that sticks out for all of us,” she says. “I’m always drawn to a project that isn’t afraid to take that risk and make someone look like a fool.”
Through not just shying away from her insecurities, but using them as her filmmaking currency, Marks is making herself known as an important new voice in romantic comedy – and shaking up the genre for a new generation. If high school Hannah could see herself now, we reckon she’d be quite pleased.
‘Banana Split’ is available to stream online now