It’s not often that a 19-year-old girl is profiled on E! News, Filmmaker Magazine, and teenaged periodic staple Seventeen Magazine – especially one who’s a filmmaker with a penchant for telling stories dealing with zombies, ghosts, and most recently vampires. Emily Hagins caught our attention when she was the subject of the 2009 documentary “Zombie Girl” (which currently can be seen on Netflix Instant Play), that chronicled the making of her bloody feature-length zombie film “Pathogen,” that helped put this Austin, Texas resident on the map of many cinephiles, all while she was at the very tender age of 12.
Since, she has become sort of a festival darling at her local South by Southwest, with the now 19-year old Hagins having three feature films under her belt, with her most recent “My Sucky Teen Romance” picking up a significant amount of buzz. It's a tale set amid a sci-fi convention where four geeky friends look to take part in their final days of fandom before they all head their separate ways for college. The girls of the group look to find a little romance of the Sookie Stackhouse and Bella Swan variety, only to discover the vampires they’re dying to take a bite out of are actually real – and looking for some young flesh. Hagins employs a John Hughes sensibility and knack for horror-comedy, showing her skills continuing to thrive and grow as both a storyteller and filmmaker in general.
“My Sucky Teen Romance” was picked up for distribution by Dark Sky Films and she’s recently been touring the film across major markets, and we caught up with her as the as the movie screened in Los Angeles in advance of its rollout on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD this week. Here are some highlights from the conversation.
With only a handful of female directors you could name off the top of your head working today – with greats like Lynne Ramsay, Kathryn Bigelow, and Sofia Coppola being in that bunch – Hagins explains that she doesn’t necessarily blow on the feminist trumpet. “I guess, I have a weird response to this, and I always hope it never comes across negative. I think to me, I really feel like it’s important to take advantage of your perspective, and right now I like telling stories about teenagers and particularly female protagonists, but at the same time I don’t want people to look at my films like ‘Oh, it’s made by a woman,' or 'Oh, it’s made by a 19-year old,' " she said. "I know it’s kind of inevitable, but I really don’t want that to be a hindrance or like a major factor in the way people watch my films In the future. I think as I get older that will sort of fix itself, but I’m not a huge feminist, like 'Go women in film!’ I think, if you’ve got a story to tell and you’re passionate about film, you should make a movie, whether you’re a little boy, a little girl, or an alien.”
As for being a teenager making films about teenagers, Hagins believes it lends a unique perspective to her storytelling.
She was 17 when she directed “My Sucky Teen Romance,” and was only 19 when the film played at SXSW – coincidentally the same day she received a rejection letter from a film school she applied to – but despite a slight aversion to being labeled the youngest filmmaker in America, Hagins believes there is some benefit that comes from her age. “I think there’s value to being distant from that perspective, and it works for some stories,” says Hagins. “But I think there may be some people trying to access that, and there doing these TV shows with teenagers played by 30-year olds, and it’s all about the drugs and the sex. And there’s good elements that are like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of like being a teenager,” but overall it doesn’t feel like being teenagers, but rather they’re using them as a catalyst for their story.”
“Right now, even at 19 if I made 'Pathogen,' I would make a completely different movie based on the way I view middle school now – as opposed to the way I viewed middle school when I was in middle school,” she continued. Though the most important insight into the teenage experience are the smaller details. “What I like about teenagers is the genuine awkwardness, and kind of taking advantage of those little moments, but in hindsight, like 'I wish I didn’t look away when that guy was looking at me,' just those little things that are really trivial to adults, but teenagers are so self conscious, I think that’s really overlooked in a lot of teen films,” Hagins explalined. Applying that sensibility to “My Sucky Teen Romance,” she wanted “real kids, that felt real and looked real and behaved really awkwardly.”
Hagins cites Edgar Wright as a great influence, and says there are admirable qualities to the way the crew on the hit series “The Big Bang Theory” are portrayed, but leans more towards Wright’s depiction of these types with “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World." “You have to strike that balance between something for you and something for other people with your film, and that’s who I want appeal to, geeks, people who have had crushes on other people – which is hopefully everybody – and even people who love vampires. I want to be respectful of everything," Hagins said.
Her next film is going to feature Tony Vespe (younger brother of Ain’t Cool News writer Eric Vespe), a familiar face in all of Hagins’ films including “My Sucky Teen Romance,” in a sort of coming-of-age story set on one Halloween night. Only no supernatural hijinks will ensue, but rather the film will be a “Kenny & Company"-style look at a day in the life of someone who’s growing up. Ultimately, Hagins seems to want to fill the void of grounded teenage films available today, with a bit of genre flavor mixed in. “I’ve gotten some criticisms about how there wasn’t enough sex, and it wasn’t played up enough, but that wasn’t what the movie was about,” said Hagins. “It was about the beginnings of that, but also dealing with real-life consequences that happened to be supernatural in the story. I think to me, an issue with 'Twilight,' you don’t really deal with consequences it’s just ‘I’m going to drop my whole life and go be a vampire now,' which is a huge step – and it’s very trivialized for the sake of teen romance. And I think consequences are something that teenagers have to figure out – whether it’s life or death like it is in the movie, – and I think a lot of teenagers usually end up learning the hard way.”
“My Sucky Teen Romance” is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD.