On a secluded beach in New Zealand, director Hannah Marks prepared to shoot one of the emotional climaxes of Don't Make Me Go. The dramedy stars John Cho as Max, a single father who discovers that he has a terminal disease and, although there is a surgery that could remove his malignant tumor, the operation could very likely end his life. Without surgery, he has only about a year to live.
And so, Max opts instead to take his teenage daughter, Wally (Mia Isaac), on a road trip from Southern California to New Orleans for his college reunion, and then, to Florida, where — unbeknownst to Wally — Max hopes to reunite Wally with her mother, who left them years ago. With filming relocated from the U.S. to New Zealand in the middle of the pandemic, the New Zealand beach is standing in for a beach in Florida, where Max has taken Wally for an overdue father-daughter talk.
"I had never done very emotional scenes before. I think I was really nervous about those," Isaac tells A.frame. "Me and John would do this thing where we would look at each other for a really long time before we started the scene. That vulnerability and that openness, of stripping back these layers and looking into each other's eyes, was really uncomfortable at first, and feels awkward, but embracing that awkwardness made us feel really close."
As Cho and Isaac prepared, the nudists arrived on set. The scene in question comes during the third act of the movie but is used in prolepsis as the opening scene: Max has unwittingly taken his daughter to a nude beach, requiring the production to cast actual nudists ready for their — ahem — close-ups.
"I think it would be a weird request of normal background actors. You have to find the nude communities. I was not in charge of that casting process!" Marks laughs. An unanticipated side effect of shooting in the Southern Hemisphere is that the seasons are flipped, making July actually the middle of New Zealand's winter. "I felt bad for the naked people, but they liked it. They don't discriminate against the seasons, these nudists."
"Technically, I was not surrounded by naked extras because I was a minor.I could not legally be around them," Isaac points out. "They put tape on the parts that mattered. But, for the most part, they were naked enough that it was still uncomfortable for me. I'm very grateful for John because I was able to just look into his eyes and not look anywhere else, and just focus on him."
That scene doesn't just serve as an example of what Don't Make Me Go is aiming for tonally — pairing heartbreak with humor — but it was also inspired by something that actually happened to screenwriter Vera Herbert (a four-time Emmy nominee for This Is Us) and her late father.
"My dad died suddenly when I was 18. That became a driving force in my life, obviously, and a core part of the kind of stories that I wanted to tell," Herbert explains. This movie is not true to her life, but she says, "I did mine my own brain, and past, and memories to find things that did actually happen to me or us. Like, the nude beach scene. We literally accidentally went to a nude beach together when I was 16, not knowing that that's the kind of beach we were walking onto."
Herbert remembers she and her father were attending a college tour at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, which happens to be located near the clothing-optional Wreck Beach. Following the tour, the Herberts were told to check out the beach. "And you walk down this winding path with all these trees and stuff. And then, it turned out to be a nude beach that we had not been fully warned about."
Unlike the fictionalized retelling of this anecdote that is featured in the movie, the moment in real life was not the catalyst for a teary exchange between father and daughter. Instead, Herbert explains, "It was more of us both realizing it, and then, not wanting to fully acknowledge it. So, we sat on the beach for a couple minutes and stared straight ahead at the clouds, like, 'Great water out there today.' 'Yeah, it looks really nice,'" she recalls. "And then, a naked man ran up and tried to sell us weed. And my dad was like, 'Oh no, we're good. Thank you.' And then, we got up and left. And never really spoke of it again."
Before the flashforward to the nude beach, Don't Make Me Go begins with a warning: "You're not going to like the way this story ends," Wally's voice-over declares, "but I think you're going to like the story." It's how Herbert's screenplay always began, she explains, "To tell the audience something's going to happen. They're definitely not going to expect what's going to happen. But they've been warned."
Revealing how the story ends would spoil the movie, but it is safe to say some have indeed not liked the twist. Reviews out of the movie's premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Festival called the ending "misguided to the point of being perplexing rather than upsetting" (Variety) and "a Hail Mary conclusion that's almost ridiculous enough to be campy fun" (The Wrap). Both writer and director were prepared for a polarized response.
"In the last 10 years of trying to get the movie made, people have been like, 'We'd be interested in making this movie' or 'I'd be interested in directing this movie, but you've got to change the ending.' And I was always like, 'I can't. That's a different movie,'" Herbert says. "I think I always knew it would be a divisive ending, but I also think, if it had a different ending, it probably never would've gotten made because people would've been like, 'This is a really nice script, but it's a little bit safe.' I think the ending had to be what it is."
Marks, who was not warned about the ending before reading the script for the first time and "got to have a classic audience experience reading it," says, "I do understand that the reaction will be divisive to that, but that's really the point. Life isn't always happy, and sometimes tragedies do happen. And that's what makes us appreciate the small things."