One of the more pleasant surprised of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival is Austin, TX director Emily Hagins’ new feature film, My Sucky Teen Romance. It’s exactly that, though the film works as a teen, coming of age film, as a vampire movie and as a comedy that satirizes the Twilight craze. More impressively, that this is Hagins’ third feature film and she’s only eighteen years old. Her first film, Pathogen, she made when she was just twelve. It’s the subject of a documentary called Zombie Girl (which is available to stream through Netflix Instant).
The story revolves around two high schoolers, Kate and Paul, whose mutual awkwardness is keeping them apart, at least until he becames a vampire in a grocery store robbery that goes wrong. When they meet at a convention, a moment of tenderness turns her into a vampire, too, and her friends spend most of the rest of the movie to try to prevent Kate from becoming a vampire permanently. The film works because there’s a tenderness in the romance and the humor is somewhat subtle, making fun of Twilight and the older guys who show up at comic conventions. The jokes hit more often than they miss. The acting is also quite good for such a young cast.
While the movie played at SIFF and she was in town to attend those screenings, I sat down with Emily Hagins to talk about her film, funding it and being a young filmmaker. When we were done talking about the film, she asked me for local band recommendations.
Can you talk a little bit about the process for how you wrote My Sucky Teen Romance?
Yeah, I had gone to a lot of science fiction conventions, mostly this one in Minnesota I go to every summer. It’s not like a comic con with a lot of promotion and ads, more like a celebration of geekdom, with a lot of people making their own signs and their own rooms. I just really wanted to make a movie that took place in a setting like that. I was thinking of a coming of age story set in a convention that’s very homemade. I was also thinking of how prevalent Twilight is with my age group and how I wanted to make a teen film about teenagers and their real opinions on Twilight. I combined the two ideas because I thought a lot of people do cosplay at conventions, so we meshed them.
While making this film, you financed it through an Indie Go-Go campaign. How important was crowdsource funding? Would you do it again?
It was the first time we had done it. With my other films, it was a lot of garage sales and the little bit of fundraising I could get. But with this one, I think that website is really important to filmmakers and artists. In addition to getting money for your film, you’re also putting your idea out there and letting just anybody say, “I would see that movie, here’s twenty bucks.” That’s how much I would like to see that movie. Depending on the number of people who are donating and how much money you are getting, it’s really a testament to your idea. You also have to pitch how you’re going to make. It was a really good learning process for me, to pitch. I thought it’s also a way to get people involved, like a community involvement and people feel like they’re a part of the project because you send them postcards and t-shirts and buttons. They can see the process and how far along you are. It was really unique for this film, compared to my other films. I really encourage it.
Was that something you found was very important, to get your fans involved with the making of the movie?
Yeah, I think with making a teen vampire film at the height of vampire popularity, I thought it was a good way to fund the movie because you are getting fans of the genre involved. There are people who are aren’t necessarily happy with the success of Twilight because Stephenie Meyer kind of prides herself about not knowing a lot about vampires, but has been so successful with Twilight. I think it’s a really good way to get genre fans to say, “hey, I want to be involved in a movie that respects vampires.” I was happy to be involved with that fan base.
Are you going to use Kickstarter or Indie Go-Go for your next film?
We’re looking into it. Ideally, I’d like to fund it differently, just because the projects are a little different. I definitely encourage it, but I’m also looking into other things.
One thing I liked about the film was that there was an awareness of other vampire, and I suppose, horror films. You had one character who was the go-to person because he’s seen almost every vampire movie and knew how they would react. Were you always a fan of vampire movies, or horror movies in general? I know your first movie, Pathogen, was a zombie movie.
Horror films, altogether for sure. When I was younger, I used to be afraid of everything: Chuck E. Cheese’s or Halloween or anything. What I started to realize was that you could also be a little silly with the gore. I saw a movie called Undead, from Australia. It had zombie fish and crazy, stupid things, but it was really fun. I thought “wow, it can be fun, it doesn’t have to terrify you.” But I started to watch more horror films and I like the scary ones too.
There’s a scene early in Zombie Girl where you talk about Peter Jackson responding to your fan letter and putting you in touch with Harry Knowles (from aintitcoolnews.com). How important was that to your development as a filmmaker?
I always watched a lot of movies. I saw Spy Kids like seven times when I was little. When Lord of the Rings came out, I went to see it every weekend. It threw me over the edge with movie fandom. It was just that he created this amazing world. It blew my mind that there was a whole world of opportunity to tell a story that was so far beyond my camcorder. I wrote him the fan letter because I was eight and thought that’s what you do, if you love something, you write to the person who made it. The fact that he had written me back, it really showed that he was a real person and it came from someone very real who was willing to talk to a fan. He recommended that I talk to someone in my own town. I don’t think I would have met Harry that easily any other way. It was extremely valuable, so I try to talk to any young filmmaker. I’m not Peter Jackson, but if anybody ever asks me for anything… If the movies I make encourage other young filmmakers, then that means a lot to me, having been a young filmmaker.
…and still are. When you were casting Pathogen, were you mostly casting your friends? How has that changed through your more recent films, up to My Sucky Teen Romance?
It’s been different for each different. For my first movie, I learned very quickly that casting your friends is not always the best way to keep your friends. I ended up doing a casting process, even with Pathogen. Some of them were still my friends, some were other kids I ended up casting.
With this new movie, it was more about casting through a real casting process. They were all in high school, but they had done theater or acting in short films, very few had done features before. I had to sit down with all of them to gauge how comfortable they are with improv and how well they knew each other because some of them went to the same schools. They all worked very hard and a lot of people thought they were all my friends because it seemed very real, but they’re all actors.
How did you cast Kate, the lead character? The actress who played her, Elaine Hurt, was very good.
We actually did go to the same high school. She’s a little older than me. We took a film summer camp together outside of high school. I saw her acting in that. She had a small interest in acting in smaller things, like short films, but had never thought about acting in a feature. She was more into the behind-the-scenes, but wanted to experience both sides. I auditioned her with some of the kids I was thinking about, but she had really good chemistry with Patrick (Delgado), so I thought they had to play the two leads.
How have you gotten better as a filmmaker between Pathogen and My Sucky Teen Romance?
If you watch through Zombie Girl, you’ll see for Pathogen that it’s me and my mom for the behind-the-scenes work. I think it’s valuable to have that experience to learn what to ask from the camera operator or sound person or makeup artist. I learned a lot about working with a team, especially adults. With My Sucky Teen Romance, more than half the crew was over the age of twenty. There was also a good percentage that was younger, too. I learned a lot about production value and technical aspects and articulating what I would like, as well as just becoming a better writer and director.
How much is your mom still involved with helping you make your films?
She’s always been very encouraging of what I wanted to do. My dad always asked, “are you sure you don’t want to do sports? Are you sure you don’t want to do all of these other things?” He’s a musician. But with my mom, she was always the one taking me to movies, so she knew that was my thing. Both have been very supportive. On my second film, she did craft services. She likes to cook a lot. I didn’t ask her to do that, but she offered to. That was very nice.
On this film, she really stepped back a lot. Both of my parents were there at the beginning to help with organization because I really didn’t know how I was going to fund the movie. There was a point where I lost some funding. It was in a sort of purgatory stage because I wanted to make the movie in the summer, but at that point, it was already May. They helped me a lot by encouraging me to move forward. Mostly, she helped being a PA (production assistant) and helped with some craft services, but didn’t participate as much as she had. She has always been encouraging, but doesn’t want anyone to get the impression that she’s a ‘stage mom,’ especially as I get older. With Pathogen, a lot of people wondered if she was a stage mom because she was there so much, but really, she just wanted to encourage me.
I didn’t get that impression from watching Zombie Girl.
Good! I’ll pass that along because she’s always afraid of that. I don’t think it gives that idea. At one point in the movie, she gets mad at me, but it looks like a mom who is frustrated with her daughter. I was twelve and wasn’t behaving and she said, “everyone thinks I’m being bossy.” No, you’re being a mom.
Do you have a formal film education, or was what you learned mostly what you picked up along the way from directing three films?
I took a couple of summer courses, the one I met Elaine at, which was through (University of Texas). It was after Pathogen but before my second film. Aside from that, I took a film class in high school, it was very hands-on. It was just about checking out the equipment and making short films. I took one in middle school, too, but that was more about the study of film in an artistic sense. It wasn’t about making movies. It was a really good experience through my school, but my features felt totally different from those.
What’s the plan for My Sucky Teen Romance, after it plays at SIFF?
The company that owns it, Dark Sky/MPI, has a plan for it. What they asked me to pass along is that they will be making “an exciting announcement ‘soon.’”
Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.