SXSW Director's Cut: Emily Hagins ('Grow Up, Tony Phillips')

At SXSW this week, 20-year-old Austinite Emily Hagins celebrated the premiere of her fourth movie (and her second feature to debut at SXSW), the sweet coming of age story "Grow Up, Tony Phillips". Hagins has been a known and beloved presence in the Austin scene for years, nurtured and embraced by the local film community and festival circuit. Her fourth effort shows a significant jump in maturity behind the camera. We sat down with Hagins to discuss the film and how she has grown over the years.

FILM.COM: How has your process changed from your first film to now?

Emily Hagins: When I was 12 making my first feature I was wearing a lot of hats, doing a lot of jobs that were taking away from my directing, and anything I wasn't doing, my mom was, like holding the boom mic or something. I couldn't do everything but I was trying and the movie suffered from it -- I was also 12. I didn't know I couldn't do it, or that that was a possibility. I was like, okay I'm gonna start this so I'm gonna finish it. Even though it took years, I just did it. and I just didn't think it was weird that that's how it worked it, it didn't really occur to me until towards the end of the process when someone said to me, well you could just stop, if this is hard for you you don't have to keep doing this, but I was like, why would I stop? That's not what happens with movies, you see them, they have to be finished!

So my second film, I had even more troubles and those two experiences combined is when I really learned that I loved making movies because the crews were really small, people didn't really know how serious I was about it, so going through those experiences from the time I was 10/11ish when I wrote my first feature and the time I finished by second when I was 14/15, I felt like I just gone through this crazy war experience of battling actors and locations and finishing scenes and it just felt like I knew this was it, this is what I wanted to do. So by the time I made "My Sucky Teen Romance", people knew I was doing features and even though I was young, I was completing them. So I was able to find a crew that wanted to work with me in a very serious way and we kind of finessed that for this movie.

They always talk about paying your dues as a filmmaker and I think people confuse paying your dues with your age. I think there are still lessons to be learned, always, cause technology is always changing and the people you're working with will change, every project will be so different, but at the same time if you've already been working at it, you're gonna learn lessons no matter how old you are.

So this is by far your biggest film, production-wise. How different was the vibe on set?

On "My Sucky Teen Romance", I don't know how legal we were ... we were working many hours with kids, cause again I'm a big fan of awkward kids feeling real not 25-year-olds pretending to be in high school, I love teen awkwardness and humor. But we felt very rushed cause we had to think about these vampire rules, we had to shoot at night cause they couldn't be in the daylight, it was just crazy, it was a mad rush to make that movie, we shot it in two weeks, and I just remember a lady who worked in the hotel we were shooting just walking onto our set and everything was piled in this big room and she was like, I have to clean this up?! And we were like, no no it's our film, don't worry about it! That kind of identified that whole experience, everything being in one room, taking it all out every day then putting it all back in.

This movie we shot in five weeks, and it's very simple and character-driven so I got to focus on the directors and actors while the producers were taking care of my problems. I even got stomach flu for two days and I couldn't be on set so I was Skype directing, and I would show up for the four hours I could contain food in my body and then I would be like, ok got to go home again. But luckily, everyone knew the movie we were making, the crew was so incredible and understood, so respectful of each other.

What was the Skype direction like?

The laptop was facing the monitor and in the lap of the script supervisor who tracks continuity and which takes I like. When I couldn't be on set they only filmed scenes where someone is like, looking and someone else is looking back, and I would be like ::thumbs up:: so they weren't filming any huge emotional I would be watching the laptop and they would have to mute me cause of the sound so everything I was doing would be like ::thumbs up, thumbs down, so-so:: but when I showed up on set I would be crying cause I was like "I let everyone down!" and they were like no, you're throwing up!

Is this the first time you went after actors instead of using people you already knew?

It was a combination of the two. I wrote Tony in mind for Tony Vespe and also had AJ Bowen in mind. We kind of knew each other through friends, so I contacted him before there was even a script and he was excited, so luckily that worked out okay. Once I had met Caleb, who plays Mikey, I started writing for him. He was so professional on the other sets I worked with him on, so natural and amazing. Devin, who plays Craig, he refused to do Halloween costumes with me as my friend and it really made me mad so I wrote that character for him, and then he got mad at me cause I told him about the character and he was like, if you're gonna do that to me, you have to cast me. Katie, who plays Elle, came on board in the casting process, and Tony's mom came on board the last week of shooting cause we had trouble casting that part.

Can you talk about relationship and character building you had your actors do?

One thing we did is have them make Facebook profiles for each character and they had to upload photos that define their character and enter a certain amount of information: Their likes, interests, movies, music, and post on each others walls. It was like real homework, I got on their butts if they didn't do it cause they're actors and didn't do it, but they did eventually! And also because Tony Vespe had pre-existing relationships with everyone except Caleb and Katie, I got Caleb and Tony together and they were hanging out at my house for a while and we did script read throughs but also they'd be eating lunch and getting to know each other. With Katie, I sent them to go find an item that belonged to their characters and they had to explain to me how they defined who that character was, and they carried those items with them the whole movie. I loved that, I'm gonna do that with all my movies from now on, its such an important part of how the actors interpret the movie. Tony would get really mad if he forgot his little totem, which was a Frankenstein hand puppet. Katie wears hers everywhere, its a little ring with googly eyes.

What inspired you to make this shift into simple coming of age story with no genre element?

I guess I enjoyed the comedic parts of "My Sucky Teen Romance" more than the genre parts, and at a certain point when I was thinking about making more horror movies, I kind of got depressed and wanted to make something really sweet and real at the same time. To me, Tony embodies those qualities, he's honest with you but also a really sweet person and I thought he could carry a movie, so all of that wrapped into wanting to use Halloween aesthetic without being a genre movie created some elements I could work with and the story kind of emerged from that.

Grow Up Tony Phillips - Tony Vespe Still

The costumes in the movie were so elaborate, who made them and what was the thought process behind them?

Allison Murphy built the Halloween costumes, and she was very thorough cause one thing we talked about was that Tony wants them to be amazing cause of his enthusiasm, but also he is a teenage boy sewing, so it couldn't be - like he didn't' have a million dollars and he didn't have all the skills, so we wanted to make them still feel homemade. She was so elaborate to the point where the binary code on his robot costume spelled Tony Phillips. Our other costume person was Misty Tavares,® and even though she was doing the normal costumes, she was very conscious of the fall color palette that made the movie feel like it wasn't shot in Austin, and also having characters mirror each other and what they are wearing. Certain characters only wear a color for a scene cause in that scene they are not being themselves, so it's very subtle, but everyone -- including costume designers -- was very intentional with every decision they made.

I love the little throwaway things, "Pimps v Vampires", space hipsters, even the zombie Marty McFly costume, so many visual treasures, what's the story behind those?

I think it showed how much people enjoyed being there cause they knew what their job was and knew it was gonna take a long time regardless, so they could have taken a smaller long amount of time to do production design, just this and this and whatever, but people were working really hard to make fun clever things to go in the background cause they were having fun being there. Pimps v Vampires is actually a real game apparently, an independent game, but we got permission to use it, we had some support through our arcade resource, this thing called Fantastic Arcade. I haven't played it, its probably great, no way it cant be!

How do you feel Austin has impacted you and this movie? Are you interested in making a movie somewhere else?

I love people, I love working with teams and meeting new people who love movies as much as I do and Austin is just a great supportive town where everyone tries to help each other out and be at each others movie screenings and clap and everyone just embraces every movie that is filmed here, which is incredible because there aren't wonderful film incentives in Texas compared to Louisiana and New Mexico, but the fact that people still film in Austin says something about how influential the community is. I feel the same way, I mean I don't know what I can do, I have baby arms and I can't lift things but I'll do anything else you need! I'll be a PA on anybody's movie if they need help! There's no "I'll do this for you if you do this for me", none of that. Austin is great in that way. but I  would love to make movies elsewhere cause I think its important as a filmmaker to understand what else is out there.


Are there are genres or stories in mind you are hoping to get together soon?

There are a couple projects I'm trying to get together, some are genre films,but I'm trying to do more comedies. I wanna keep them separate, comedies that are reality-based and genre films that are scary, that's kind of what I'm thinking for the next couple of projects, but I love blending the genres as well. There's nothing too specific yet, but one thing I'm kind of working on is adapting a book.

Were there any scenes you had to cut that you didn't want to but it just didn't fit?

Yeah, two things got cut. One thing will be on the DVD, the other probably not. The first is a flashback scene that originally went at the beginning, of all of the characters when they are like ten. So the footage in the opening with the kids treat or treating, that actually from the flashback scene that got cut, that's young Tony, young Craig, young Elle, so they were all cast as those characters! In it, Tony is trick-or-treating and getting money instead of candy and then they find out he was set up by young Pete to do that, but with good intentions, and he kind of tricks tony into giving him all the money, but still cares about him. You also see where his friendship with Craig and Elle came from, they're like, should we invite her to watch movies with us? but decide no girls don't like monster movies forget about her. I'm a big fan of book-ending things or lines that are significant and repeated later, so the later lines are still in the movie, you just don't know that they were references to the flashback. So that'll definitely be on the DVD. The other scene is Tony finds Mikey in the arcade when he is looking for him and Mikey is beat up and peed his pants and so Tony realizes the magnitude of what he did, but a better way of showing that was that Tony never found him. It had more weight to it, it didn't feel like an after school special, it felt like, uh oh, he really screwed up. We never imagined cutting that scene would add so much more weight to the moment. It kind of changed some of the lines in ADR.

The soundtrack was incredible. What made you want to try for original songs by Santiago Dietche?

We've known each other since we were little kids and he kind of knows my style and had read the first draft of the script so he had been involved in the very early stages and we would meet about, well this scene needs this kind of song, this part feels like way, this part is less angsty, this is more angsty, etc... When he would show up on set, cause he plays one of the popular kids in the movies, he would see how things are going and send me recordings so that would help me as I was filming. Santi's perspective of what the story was, I think he calls himself the narrator, I think it really defines the type of movie we are making. This movie would definitely be like 50 levels worse if Santi did not do the soundtrack. It's such a huge part of this movie. I hope that he has many more successes to come!

"Grow Up, Tony Phillips" will next play in the Chicago Critics Film Festival.