Long before the release of “Booksmart,” actress Hannah Marks set out to make a movie that would be the female bookend to “Superbad.” She started writing the script eight years ago, at 18, based on a real-life story about how, in high school, she befriended the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend.
Many drafts followed for “Banana Split.” Over time, Marks partnered with a co-writer (Joey Power), found a director (in the form of longtime cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke) and played a version of her former self onscreen who falls in love with her classmate Nick (Dylan Sprouse). They shot the movie in the winter of 2018 in Syracuse, N.Y. Later that year, “Banana Split” was enthusiastically received on the film festival circuit. Then, came one of the weirdest delays in the history of romantic comedies.
The producers realized that they didn’t have the rights to an article of clothing that Marks’ character April wears throughout the film. “I had Bart Simpson on my T-shirt for like 40 minutes of the movie, and I guess it didn’t get cleared,” Marks says. “I feel terrible because it was my own personal shirt.”
What did it look like? “It was a shirt that has Bart Simpson dressed as Batman, so it’s Bartman,” Marks says, with a laugh. “For whatever reason, it slipped through the cracks. I don’t really know how that stuff works, but I guess it wasn’t kosher. So we had to CGI it out, and that delayed our release.”
Now, “Banana Split” is finally being released (it’s available on VOD this weekend). The movie, which has a 92 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, can finally claim its place in the category of smarter-than-average high school comedies along with “Easy A” or “The Edge of Seventeen.” The strong reviews have applauded the film’s depiction of April’s friendship with Clara (Liana Liberato), who dates Nick. Rather than fall into the traditional tropes of teenage girls fighting with each other for the same boy, “Banana Split” subtly focuses on their unexpected closeness.
“At the time, there wasn’t a ‘Booksmart,’” Marks says about her writing process. “It felt like something was missing in this genre. It felt like an opportunity. It was exciting to be able to subvert all of those expectations, but I’d say the main inspiration was probably ‘Frances Ha,’” she says about the 2012 movie with Greta Gerwig.
“Banana Split” is one of the first grown-up film roles for Dylan Sprouse, who starred in the Disney Channel 2000s sitcom “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” with his twin brother Cole. Marks had grown up watching Dylan as a fan of the show. “He was always so funny and thoughtful, and he seemed like someone I would relate to, because I was a child actor,” she says. “Just to make sure, I Skyped with him, and we really got along.”
After blowing up as a child star, Sprouse had wanted some time out of the spotlight, and he enrolled at NYU to take a few years off from Hollywood. “I knew I had to kind of get away from it for a while and explore other artistic mediums and understand what I thought it was to act and how that would change as I was an adult now,” he says.
Sprouse, who is 27, only came back to acting gradually, when he made sure it was the career he really wanted. “A lot of my team had been recommending that I go for leading roles coming back to the game, but it was of no interest to me,” says Sprouse, who turned down TV pilots because he didn’t want to commit to a single role for years. “This was definitely one of the projects that I was kind of greasing my wheels and getting back into the industry with. I thought it was a nice spin on a classic genre design. And I thought it was effortlessly funny. My interest in acting at the time, and still to a degree today, was really just to participate on good projects, regardless of the character size or depth.”
During his break from Hollywood, Sprouse co-founded All-Wise Meadery, a brewery that’s located in Brooklyn. “And so when I did come back,” he says. “it was because I felt like I was ready and I wanted to start doing projects that were diverse and could push the boundaries of what I thought was acting.”
Sprouse has a few other movies in the pipeline — including the independent films “Tyger Tyger” and “After We Collided,” which are scheduled to open later this year. As both an actor and a boss, he’s noticed how quickly things have changed in New York as a result of the coronavirus.
“Because I’m a business owner, I’ve seen the toll that it’s taken on a lot of workers,” Sprouse says. “So much of our economy is built on the back of workers who are getting their paychecks and immediately going to the grocery store to feed themselves and families. It’s been hard talking to our contractors and builders who want to work very much, but they can’t right now. I know other business owners and friends who are suffering. It’s a major economic disaster. So I’m hoping that something gets handled efficiently and safely and soon, and that we can all get back to work and be fine.”
Until then, if audiences are looking for a movie to watch from their own homes, they can stream “Banana Split.”