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Directing on a Dime: “Zombie Girl” Emily Hagins Spills Her Guts on My Sucky Teen Romance

Directing on a Dime: “Zombie Girl” Emily Hagins Spills Her Guts on My Sucky Teen Romance

Blog - Directing on a Dime

Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away at .

If you ever want to feel lazy, take a look at the career of Emily Hagins. She already has three feature films as a writer/director under her belt, the latest of which, My Sucky Teen Romance, premiered last year at SXSW and has been picked up for theatrical distribution by Dark Sky Films. Not only has she made films, she’s also been the subject of one: The 2009 documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie. Oh, and did I mention? She’s not even 20 yet.

Hagins’ first film, Pathogen, was finished by the time she was only 12 years old, and though she’s still technically a “teen filmmaker” (at least for a few more months), she has already become a staple in the Austin film scene and is quickly turning into a force to be reckoned with. I sat down with Emily to talk about the state of teen filmmaking, My Sucky Teen Romance, her opinion on going to film school or and whether she’d ever make the move from Austin to Los Angles.

Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out you wanted to be a moviemaker?

Emily Hagins (EH): I always watched a lot of movies, and I had a very vivid imagination [growing up], so I was drawn to storytelling. My dad had a little camera because he worked in advertising, and one day when I was home sick we made a little movie together. I was eight years old.

MM: Were there any films in particular that influenced you?

EH: I saw the first The Lord of the Rings movie every weekend when it was in theaters. I love how Peter Jackson was able to create this world that was so immersive and tell this timeless story.

MM: So was Pathogen your first project?

EH: I made a lot of short films first, and it was all very much what you’d expect from an 8- or 9-year-old. But I met Harry Knowles [of Ain’t It Cool News] and he got me work as a PA on some independent features. I would do behind-the-scenes work or make fake blood. I was so used to making short films in the span of a few days, it was interesting to see how different the actual process was.

MM: How did the crew for Zombie Girl pick up on your story once you started Pathogen?

EH: I had been trying to make Pathogen for six or eight months, and I was having a lot of trouble. [Directors Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck] were doing a behind-the-scenes show on a lot of local productions; they discovered us from a casting call we put out, and they thought [our story] sounded interesting.

MM: Do you get sick of getting typecast as “the teen filmmaker”?

EH: I think around the age I finished Pathogen I had as many adult friends as I did kid friends, and my adult friends never talked down to me. I feel like it’s something that can’t be ignored, because the public will always think it’s interesting. You can totally embrace the kid card, but as I get older I just want people to watch my movies and not just think of me as a teen or woman filmmaker.

MM: Do you feel like the “teen filmmaker” genre has become a commodity or a publicity stunt that doesn’t get taken seriously?

EH: I think adults will always just see it as a necessary process to becoming a filmmaker. There’s a general perception that kids don’t fully grasp storytelling, [that they’ll just] take something like the style of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino and just mock [it]. Adults will generally brush it off, but I think it’s great that, thanks to technology, anyone can pick up filmmaking. But since anyone can pick up filmmaking, it’s harder to get your stuff seen at festivals.

MM: What did you do after Pathogen?

EH: I made some more shorts and music videos before making my second feature film, The Retelling. That movie was definitely another stepping stone for me as a filmmaker, because I was faced with the most challenges I’ve ever had on making a movie. I think a huge difference between my first two features and My Sucky Teen Romance is that, for the first two, I just wanted to make a feature. I would get an idea and go straight into writing it as a movie. I started writing Sucky Teen for fun, thinking it was too much for me. I first wrote it as a short film, but I started telling people about it and they’d get excited, so I jumped into it.

MM: One thing I really liked about My Sucky Teen Romance was that you used real, natural teens instead of being like, “Here’s a sexy 30-year-old guy who we’re saying is 15.” Did you write with friends in mind, or was there a casting process?

EH: Most of them were cast. Everyone had acted before, but some only had theater experience, or short films or student films. I tried to cast kids who kind of knew each other. We’d all hang out and I had them make Facebook profiles for their characters.

MM: What is your directing process like, especially when it comes to working with actors with different types of experience?

EH: There are definitely behavioral patterns with certain types of actors, or some were better at improv and some weren’t. One of our main actors, Patrick Delgado, was great with listening in a scene instead of just waiting for the next line, so I told the other kids to watch him and do that, even if they weren’t speaking or in the frame. With nervous kids, I always tell them to go way over the top the first time and then tone it down to get them comfortable. To be an effective team leader, you have to know the people you’re working with and know their strengths and weaknesses. And weaknesses aren’t a bad thing, as long as you can work towards the strengths.

MM: Congratulations on getting picked up for a wide release! How did Sucky Teen get picked up, and when’s it coming out?

EH: Dark Sky Films saw it at SXSW last year. The only thing I know right now is it’ll be out late spring/early summer.

MM: Do you plan on going to film school?

EH: It’s funny, because I applied to one school, and I got rejected the same day the Wall Street Journal was interviewing me.

MM: Do you think film school is worth it?

EH: There’s definitely an advantage [to attending] film school, not just from having the equipment and learning [the techniques], but also from making friends your age and getting experience. There’s merit to film school for sure but, for me, I think you just have to follow your gut. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with film school, but it’s just not for me.

MM: Could you see yourself ever leaving Austin to live in L.A.?

EH: I love Austin, and I feel lucky to have grown up here. I do like L.A., it’s just different. I think it’s important for any filmmaker to get outside their bubble, so I’m not opposed to going new places, because I know Austin is my home. But I also don’t feel obligated to move to L.A.. I guess it just depends on the project.

MM: What will your next project be?

EH: I’m hopefully going to start shooting something this fall, if everything goes according to plan. It has to do with Halloween, and there are definitely nods to horror elements, but it isn’t a genre film.

MM: Any advice for young, aspiring moviemakers?

EH:I actually had a conversation earlier about “quantity vs quality,” but I think what’s really important is to get your work out there. You’re never going to have all the time and resources and money that you need, so you might as well start with simple things. The simpler your story is, the easier it is to do more things, stylistically. Just persevere. Start simple, and build on your experiences.

Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of twenty, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.

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