Youngblood: Emily Hagins

Emily Hagins may not be old enough to drink, but with four feature films, screenings at South By Southwest and the Chicago Critics Film Festival, a distribution deal, and connections with some of Robert Rodriguez's technical crew, nobody's dismissing her as a kid. 


GROW UP, TONY PHILLIPS Trailer from Arcanum Pictures on Vimeo.

In 2006, Emily Hagins became the first teenage girl in the U.S. to write and direct a feature film. Seven years after the release of Pathogen, Hagins has gone from fresh-faced novice to respectable contender on the film festival circuit. And it’s a good thing since she doesn’t have a backup plan. Blowing her college savings to make her 2011 feature, My Sucky Teen Romance, Hagins’ film knowledge is primarily gained through asking the right questions and learning from her mistakes. Thus far, the strategy is working. Her latest coming of age film, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, premiered at this year’s South By Southwest film festival and its genuinely sweet storyline was guaranteed by film critics to “satisfy all film fans with any hint of a sweet tooth.” Now age 20, Hagins is still learning the ropes of film production, financing, storytelling, and distribution from those who do it everyday all while carving out her own niche among industry players with decades more experience.

Emily HaginsEmily HaginsGet In Media: You are growing up in the film business. Do you feel like your fourth film is more mature than your second or third?

Emily Hagins: Oh yeah, definitely. We had a really amazing cast and crew with this movie. The cast was very dedicated to learning their characters and making them feel real and genuine and our crew … technically it’s a huge step up from my other films and creatively as well.

It just felt like everyone was working hard to make the best movie possible and I think it really shows that we were all working really hard to raise this unified vision of what the movie was going to be, which can also be hard with a character piece. It almost seems so malleable … we could shape scenes in any way and it would just become a different movie because it was so simple and character-driven, but everyone really knew what we were trying to do and it really helped make the film as sophisticated as it could be for what it was because it’s still a simple movie. I felt very, very lucky to be working with everyone that was involved.

GIM: There are so many movies about and geared towards teenagers, but almost no films are written or made by teenagers. What is Hollywood missing about teens?

EH: The main thing I’ve always noticed about teenagers all through middle school and high school and even early college is this weird awkwardness that doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes it’s like “I don’t know. I don’t know why I did that.” I think that’s something very interesting about this age group that people often forget about or consciously overlook because it’s too weird or it’s not as, I guess, marketable. But I think there is something marketable about it that’s funny and relatable. I think genuine awkwardness is something that’s often not used in Hollywood movies.

GIM: You’ve written all or part of every film you’ve directed. Do you feel like there are any benefits to writing and directing?

EH: Definitely. There are two sides of it. When I’m directing something like Tony Phillips, I write very little in the action because I feel like it’s easier for the actors. Sometimes I’ll just write in my own cues as a director so that I’m like “Oh I wrote this, so this means I was trying to say this to the actors.” It’s kind of like looking over my own notes when I’m holding the sides and we’re working on filming it. That’s kind of a benefit to writing something that you’re going to direct.

I think that a con would be, I get really self-conscious about conflicts between [characters]. I’m worried that they’re all going to be the same character fighting with each other if they’re saying things in the same way. I’m a really big fan of actors contributing to their dialogue to their characters to make them all very different, and adding something of their own personal experience.

MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE trailer from Emily Hagins on Vimeo.

GIM: Where did you pick up your technical know-how?

EH: It’s definitely done by trial and error, which is a hard thing to do sometimes because when you learn your lessons the hard way with something technical, it feels like a real blow to the gut. You’re like “Ooh no, that camera looks horrible,” or something. I guess sometimes things have been learned from happy accidents technically. I ended up learning a lot about lenses through this app on iPhone called Artemis. You can test out different lens sizes for your phone through the app so you really got to see, before you even applied the lens, what it would look like. I’m a really big visual learner, so when I read in a book how to do sound design [it] doesn’t really connect. I think it’s really important to learn from everybody on the set, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it so you know what to ask for as a director because it’s all about creatively putting the pieces together.

GIM: How did you make the crew connections to get the film going?

EH: It’s been really different for every movie. My last two features had a lot of teenagers in the crew. Our assistant director on My Sucky Teen Romance was 15 years old but she was kicking butt. She was really great and everyone really respected her. Respect is a big thing for me. I think it’s so important to respect everyone on your set because they’re putting in so much time and energy and everyone’s really important to the product. I’m really glad that the teenagers on set were always respected.

In [Grow Up, Tony Phillips] there really weren’t any teenagers in crew positions. They were all adults, but a lot of really young people. Our sound guys, our lighting guys were kind of recent college grads but really, really talented. Our youngest person, we had somebody write a completely original soundtrack for the movie and I think he’s 19 or 20, but he wrote all the songs for the film. Everybody else is adult and they came through mutual friends. Now that we’ve reached a point where we’ve done several films and I’m working with producers, it’s become a little bit easier.

GIM: What were your budgets on My Sucky Teen Romance and Grow Up, Tony Phillips?

EH: I can’t say everything, but on Indiegogo we raised about $15,000 between two campaigns; one for production and one for post-production for My Sucky Teen Romance. For Grow Up, Tony Phillips, I believe our [Kickstarter] goal was $75,000 and I think we raised a little bit over that, but both of those were only a portion of the funds for the film. There was more money from other sources, but they were very important to the overall budget.

GIM: So many projects get put up on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and many of them don’t get funded. Did you take any steps to promote your campaigns?

EH: Yeah. We used a lot of social networking to promote the Kickstarter on Facebook and Twitter. We created a Twitter profile for the movie. I had the actors create Facebook profiles for their characters so they could really explore a little bit if their characters friended each other. They would write things on each other’s walls that they thought those characters would like. It was a really nice exercise for everybody to kind of get to know each other virtually. It’s just a good way to use social networking creatively. It was really fun. I would check in on them sometimes and see what their characters were saying. Also people on the Kickstarter could find the characters and see what they were up to.

GIM: What’s your process after a film is done?

EH: It’s been a little different for each film. Once we bring it to a festival, we just try and promote it as much as we can. It’s very important to me, especially because I cut the trailers for My Sucky Teen Romance and for Grow Up, Tony Phillips. I feel it’s important to show people what the movie is totally. I feel that both movies could be marketed differently. They could look a lot more wacky than they are or something like that, but both movies are very small and sweet and that’s what I wanted to communicate in our marketing and in the trailers. Of course if a movie like that gets picked up by a distributor, like My Sucky Teen Romance, they’ll have their own ideas on what they want to market. The distributor for My Sucky Teen Romance, they were more genre-based. They did a lot of horror movies and thrillers. I knew that someone like that might want to take a more genre-based marketing campaign, so when we’re doing festival marketing I just want to make sure that people go in with the right expectations. I don’t want to sell it like it’s a Hollywood film or like it’s anything other than what it is. For Grow Up, Tony Phillips, we’re just trying to tell people it’s a simple character movie and we hope that they’ll like it.

GIM: How did you negotiate your distribution deal [for My Sucky Teen Romance]?

EH: Dark Sky [Films] was interested in the film. We talked to them and they really seemed to have a good grasp of what the movie was, which is not something I was expecting from a distributor. We were just really happy with what they wanted to do with it. It took a few months, but through our lawyers and everything, we all just made sure we had a great deal. It’s important for both sides; for the distributor to know that we’re going to follow through with our deliverables because they’ll ask you to do a couple things for their DVD and promotion and stuff, and for you as filmmakers to feel that they’re handling the film properly. If you are a young filmmaker and you do get distribution, you want to make sure everyone is protected and getting what they want ultimately. This took several months, of course, to fine tune everything and then we distributed the film and they took us to a few cities around the country. I went and talked about the movie and then the DVD came out. It was very small theatrical and then straight to DVD.

GIM: What advice do you have for filmmakers who want to follow in your footsteps?

EH: Just persevere. When you start off with a project and you’re excited about it, you just have to understand that it’s not going turn out exactly as you thought it would. No filmmaker thinks they have enough money or time. Ultimately, if you go in at least thinking, “I’ll learn from this and hopefully people will like it,” then you won’t be disappointed. You’ll have made your movie and you can go make another movie and take everything you’ve learned and apply it. That’s the good thing about making movies, there’s always a future one. Just keep going and persevere.

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