High School Heist: Emily Hagins’ Coin Heist Taps Social Media Stars For a Coming-of-Age Caper

Over her last five feature films, 24-year-old writer-director Emily Hagins’ work has largely revolved around teenagers facing adolescence, and growing up.

Her latest film, Coin Heist, is no exception. It’s a fun teen-heist comedy by Netflix that stars a strong mix of professional actors and social media stars, and while the film’s story may seem like familiar territory for Hagins, she faced several new challenges getting it on screen. Coin Heist marks her first produced adaptation, her first production outside of Austin Texas, her first budget that wasn’t shoestring and her first time working with internet celebrities.

Hagins spoke with MovieMaker about the unorthodox origin of the film, working with internet celebrities and the importance of following your voice.

Benny (Jay Walker), Jason (Alex Saxon), Alice (Alexis Zall), and Dakota (Sasha Pieterse) plan the perfect heist. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): So, the Coin Heist novel was actually initially a script itself. Talk about this story’s journey from script-to-book-to-script-again.

Emily Hagins (EH): Adaptive Studios—which also has Adaptive Books—acquired all these old screenplays that had been shelved in the ’90s, including this one (which I think was initially called “A Hole in the Mint”) by William Osborne (Scorpion King, Twins). Elisa [Ludwig, author of the book adaptation] and I actually never read it, but Adaptive hired Elisa to pen an adaptation and put more of a young adult spin on it. I was sent the book and thought it would be really fun to make a heist film.

MM: This was your first produced adaptation. Did you collaborate with the author at all or did she give you free reign to shape the material?

EH: She’s actually a big film buff, so luckily she was familiar with the process and gave us her blessing to make changes. I read the book once, wrote down my general thoughts, highlighted things that jumped out to me on my second read-through (lines, plot points…), and the plot evolved several times, especially when it came to the heist. In a lot of heist films the criminals are already professionals, so this kind’ve became the structure of a heist movie with the plot points of a teen film.

MM: What were some heist films you watched for research?

EH: For heist films, definitely Rififi’s long, silent heist. And Gambit, which is actually in the movie! Michael Caine is in our movie [laughs].

Benny (Jay Walker) and Dakota (Sasha Pieterse) drive and chat.

MM: I imagine you’re familiar enough with the teen genre that you didn’t need to go back for reference.

EH: The research element always gives me an excuse to watch and rewatch films, so I definitely did re-evaluate big films in the teen genre because our film falls more in line with that than a heist film (there’s no teen angst in Rififi. I think a lot of teen movies today just aren’t respectful anymore, like the people who make them don’t think teens want real movies and that they just watch YouTube videos on their phones. I just don’t think that’s true. There’s something special about capturing that feeling, and I don’t think it’s gonna go away.

MM: This is your first time working with social media stars in main roles, and despite having millions of followers online I believe this was their first major production. Was it always part of the casting process to have internet stars, and how was it working with them as a filmmaker?

EH: The two that came from that background actually did come through the traditional casting process—my only hesitation was if the producers wanted, like, a “YouTube movie” with all internet celebrities I wasn’t really interested in that. But we found Alexis G. Zall and Jay Walker and I just loved them both. Alex Saxon and Sasha Pieterse definitely have more production experience, but the two groups learned a lot from each other and that balance worked great. Alexis and Jay had some very natural instincts, especially when it came to their reactions and being in the moment. They just each brought out the strengths in each other.

MM: What were the big challenges you faced here that you didn’t have on your shoestring-budget work?

EH: From a logic standpoint, this movie literally has a lot of mechanical pieces and I was one of the only people on set that knew how it worked—I did a lot of research on how coins are actually made—so in addition to answering the usual director questions I also had to discuss that when it came to what you can-and-can’t afford.

But you know what’s funny, we actually had less time on this than we had on my last film (Grow Up, Tony Phillips) and we had to shoot the heist first, which was really difficult. It can be really stressful shooting these pieces of a heist scene without knowing the full picture with the character stuff. Also, with the exception of a couple of crew members, I didn’t know anyone on the crew and I felt like I had a big weight on my shoulders since I was younger and had made smaller movies. But I definitely had more confidence in myself by the time we got to the character scenes.

Dakota (Sasha Pieterse) takes center stage at the winter formal.

MM: Talk about working with your editor, and the challenges of balancing the tone of the film.

EH: My editor is the best. We have very similar sensibilities and he brought out the best of the story. He was great at balancing the angst of the film—specifically with Alex’s performance—and giving moments the right amount of weight from the character’s perspective so It doesn’t feel melodramatic or condescending, Music and pacing of his performance absolutely pointed us in the right direction.

MM: What advice would you give to directors that came from a low-budget world and are being hired onto their first big film?

EH: I definitely felt the need to over-impress at first, but you have to remember there’s a reason they hired you – your voice, your vision, your personality… You don’t have to change just because you’re at another level, they didn’t hire you to mold you (and if they did you should quit!). And while Coin Heist didn’t 100% come from my brain, the places characters start and end up do. When you pitch on a project, remember that’s why they hire you and that you make movies to tell stories that are important to you. MM

Coin Heist is now streaming on Netflix. Follow Emily Hagins on Twitter @CheesyNuggets. All images courtesy of Netflix.

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