Grow Up, Tony Phillips is director Emily Hagins' fourth film and her second film to play at SXSW. Not too shabby for a 20-year-old filmmaker fresh out of high school.
The story of a high school senior who refuses to abandon his love of Halloween, Hagins' latest is a cute, funny and sweet coming-of-age movie that showcases her continued growth as one of Austin's most promising young talents.
We sat down with Hagins and Tony Vespe, the lead actor in Grow Up, Tony Phillips, to discuss the Austin film scene, the beauty of Halloween and making a movie about growing up when you're still growing up.
CultureMap: Grow Up, Tony Phillips is a significantly different film than your last few. Was it a conscious decision to not make a genre movie?
Emily Hagins: Yeah, it was a combination of my last films, especially the second movie, which no one has really seen because I'm not very proud of it. That movie was so dark and depressing that I decided that I wanted to make a comedy.
[My Sucky Teen Romance] still has a lot of those genre elements and kids still die and it's sad and it has vampires. But after that, I wanted nothing! None of that. Just a straight up character piece. And I always like to work with Tony. He's a great screen presence. It all came together from there.
I wanted to make a movie where Tony could be Tony and play with a character that we had created for him. Every part was written for a certain person, so it became a very easy process at a certain point because everyone felt so comfortable with the voice of their character. It was really nice just to have to focus on these characters and not on, "Vampires can't appear in that reflection! We have to change the set-up!" So yeah, it was very conscious!
CM: Tony, how do you end up getting roped into all of Emily's movies? Were you friends before this?
Tony Vespe: We first met through movies, but not filmmaking. I met her at a Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow screening when she was… 11?
EH: Yeah. You were 13.
TV: We were really young. I heard that she was making a zombie movie and I thought that was so cool. I've always wanted to be an actor, but I wanted to help out in any way. So I went up to her and said that I could make fake blood or do whatever you need. And she asked "Do you act?" And I said "As a matter of fact…"
EH: I was really mad at this kid who was in Pathogen because he was just showing up and eating all of the food and not doing any acting, so I had just fired him when I met Tony. So I was like "Do you want to play this part?!"
TV: Yeah! Hell, yeah!
EH: It was this little kid from my fifth grade class or something.
TV: So I told her that if she ever needed someone who would work for peanuts…That'll be me! Just remember! And I guess she did because she keeps on shoehorning me into her movies. In her movie, The Retelling, I'm barely in it. I haven't seen it. She still won't show it to me. I have one line in it!
EH: Tony is very charismatic and people remember him. A lot of the reviews of My Sucky Teen Romance really point him out. He was the comedic relief in that movie, the funny friend, but people remember him and I just wanted to make a movie where—
TV: —I'm just glad that you remembered me.
CM: The movie is all about the painful process of leaving childhood behind and becoming an adult. You're both very young and are still getting used to this whole adulthood thing yourself. How personal was this project? How much of it comes directly from your experiences?
EH: When I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to go into making movies. It was a point of tension between me and some of the adults in my life. Some people thought I needed to go right into college, but I could afford it and it just wasn't want my heart was telling me to do.
I wanted to make a movie about how only you know what is best for you. You know, that transition point. I think there's this idea about coming of age stories that they have to be about a kid finding a dead body so he can finally grasp death. A very definite moment.
TV: A very weighty theme.
EH: But everyone grows up. This is more like a "this is how everyone grows up" story. But with a Halloween twist to it.
CM: Halloween being your way of keeping a little genre in it?
EH: Yeah. It's the same with My Sucky Teen Romance, I love the aesthetics of conventions, I love the aesthetics of Halloween, and we were working with a really fun Fall color palette and decorations.
TV: It's just a really interesting holiday, too. It's a very theatrical holiday.
EH: And thematically it fits with the whole with the whole idea of masks on people.
TV: And if you want to go even deeper, it's set during the Fall, which is all about changes. It's really perfect.
EH: Look at our artsy film!
CM: You seem to love handmade things.
EH: I really do! Handmade things have a lot of heart. Someone spent a lot of time creating it.
TV: It's just so pure. Halloween is such a pure holiday. It's pure innocence. It's pure imagination. Whatever you can come up with, you can be.
CM: AJ Bowen [who plays Tony's long-absent cousin] is great in the movie.
EH: Oh, yay!
What was it like getting him on board? And Tony, what was it like working alongside him?
TV: Oh, god. I learned so much. I learn so much with everything I do. I've never taken acting classes. I've done some improv stuff, I took theater, but I never took acting courses. So there's still so much for me to learn. With AJ…he carries himself so well. I want to be like him. That's the kind of actor I want to be. He's not full of himself…he's not super-shy or humble, either. He's AJ.
CM: He's an actor!
TV: Yeah. I was super-excited about working with AJ. I'm a huge AJ fan. The Signal…everything he's done. I was nervous at first. When you first meet him, he's an intimidating guy. He screws with you. He'll take the piss out of you.
EH: Not to me.
TV: Not you you! He'll make you think he's angry, but it's just his sense of humor. He's messing with you. At first it seemed like I was too much of an amateur for this guy! He's talk about doing eleven page monologues. I can't compete with that! He taught me so much. I want him to be my mentor. I'm going to be following him around like a puppy. I love AJ. Everything he does is gold.
EH: You guys have such great chemistry. They knew each other prior to filming and that helped with their character dynamic since Tony only sees AJ every so often. Even though AJ is so sweet-
TV: And nothing like his character.
EH: Nothing like his character, who's stealing money.
TV: But he's the same kind of person to both me and my character. It's like, "Oh hi, AJ! Hi!"
EH: As a director, he was just a great person to work with. He knew his character and every day, we'd talk about dialogue and I'm always open to letting actors change dialogue—
TV: He had so many good ideas. He certainly helped my performance.
CM: Right now, you're in the strange position of haven to shake you past as a "child filmmaker" who made a zombie movie and prove to people that you're an artist whose movies are worth seeing. What's that experience been like?
EH: With horror movies, there's a community that will love your movie whether you made it for a hundred dollars or a hundred million dollars. I wanted to make more than genre movies. I still have the option to make more, but this story was very important to me. It was hard to convince people that this would be good because it's hard to pitch something that's so much of a character piece.
I think of great films, classic films and I imagine what it would be like if Steven Spielberg had to pitch them on Kickstarter, and what he would say about them and try to convince you that the characters are good. I'm not saying that my movie is anything like those, but it's really hard to pitch character and story without having some kind of genre hook. But you know what's best with you.
That's how I felt as I transitioned out of high school, and that's how I felt with this. I felt like this was the right movie to make at this point because it encompassed everything that I was feeling and thinking about. This was the time to make it. It was fresh. I was right out of high school.
I don't want to be making high school movies when I was 30! This isn't the movie to make in 10 years. This is the movie to make now. But if Tony had said that he didn't want to make a movie right now, I wouldn't have made the movie. No one else could have played Tony. I wouldn't have made the movie for $20 million at a studio if they wouldn't let me have Tony.
CM: Were you surprised by the amount of support you got from the Austin community and from Kickstarter?
TV: Yeah, but it was still an uphill battle for the bulk of it.
EH: Even now it's hard to convince people…it's about a guy who loves Halloween! That's really all you can say about it. But there's so much more going on with the story and it's not very long and it's fun. I think there will be people who will connect with it and people who won't.
TV: And that's fine.
EH: There are people who hate my favorite movies. I just want people to enjoy it.
CM: Do you see yourself continuing your career in Austin or do you plan to move on to other places?
EH: I love Austin and it'll always be home for me, but I think it's important for filmmakers and anyone with creative endeavors to explore and see what's out there and know what the film scenes are in different places so you can have a more worldly sense of what you're doing.
You have to value real life over making movies or you're not going to have anything to make movies about. I'm all about trying other places, but right now I'm living in Austin and making movies in Austin, but I'm definitely open.
TV: If I had my way, I'd stay here forever. I love this place. But it's close-minded to say "this is the only place I want to be!" There's an awesome film community here-
EH: Very supportive. Everyone loves each other and every time we see each other at film festivals like this we always have to say "I'm going to go see your movie!"
TV: It's not competitive.
EH: It's supporting and loving and nurturing of budding filmmakers. I feel very lucky to have started making movies in Austin.
Grow Up, Tony Phillips premieres on Tuesday, March 12th. Additional screenings will be held on March 13th and March 14th.