Once Bitten: 19-year-old filmmaker Emily Hagins finds success with My Sucky TeenRomance
An SUV rolls up outside the coffee shop; Emily Hagins climbs out of the passenger seat. At 19 she’s still riding shotgun to her mom, but doesn’t seem to mind. “I spent my life savings on My Sucky Teen Romance,” she explains later, with a mouthful of breakfast burrito. “That could have been college, or a car, I guess. I don’t really think about that.”
I probably wouldn’t have cared much either. That is, if at 19 I had done like Hagins and put my savings towards my third feature film — a feature film that eventually would earn a DVD distribution deal and theatrical release.
The film, which will hit theaters in summer 2012, has been meeting positive acclaim at film festivals around the world since premiering last March at SXSW. And unlike her past films, MSTR is getting nods for its story — and not just because a high school girl directed it.
“I spent my life savings on My Sucky Teen Romance.. That could have been college, or a car, I guess. I don’t really think about that.”
For her, it’s important that audiences enjoy films despite their source. “Just because you’re a minority, whether you’re young or female or whatever, it doesn’t mean that what you’re making is going to be good,” Hagins said. Especially in Austin, where so many indie films are nurtured for their crew rather than their content.
Part of MSTR’s success is its timely cocktail of themes that appeal to a wide demographic: it’s part teen vampire romance, part comedic bildungsroman, part geeky testament of a childhood less ordinary. It’s sprinkled with hints of irony, satire and wholesome teen angst.
The elevator pitch would go something like: a group of teenage geeks at a sci-fi convention accidentally gets mixed up with real vampires, who are using the Twilight phenomenon to their advantage. When her awkward teen romance goes awry, the protagonist, Kate, gets bitten. Now, she and her friends must use their vampire knowledge gleaned from pop-culture to save themselves.
While Hagins acknowledges there are some advantages to being a young filmmaker (like avalanches of press by age 11), perspective is the one she values most. There are a lot of coming-of-age films riddled with drugs, trauma, confusion or depression, but not all kids consider these to be landmarks of teen years.
“I really wanted to make a coming of age story that takes place in a scifi convention, because I go to one every year,” she explains. “At the same time, I was so distracted by Twilight, because it started hitting our high school and everyone around me was getting so involved with it. And I thought, ‘There are so many teen filmmakers out there. Why aren’t any of them making movies about vampires?’ It’s a genre that’s supposed to be appealing to us, and we’re not the ones exploring it.”
I thought, ‘There are so many teen filmmakers out there. Why aren’t any of them making movies about vampires?’ It’s a genre that’s supposed to be appealing to us, and we’re not the ones exploring it.”
In Hagins’ eyes, Stephanie Meyer’s depiction of adolescence, which became a paradigm for teen girls to follow, couldn’t be further from reality.
“It doesn’t explore consequences at all,” she says. “So many times, something bad will happen, and they just sort of turn it into something good that doesn’t have to be dealt with…[In MSTR], things go wrong. And then, they go more wrong, before they can go right.”
Hagins, a self-taught filmmaker, knows all about consequences. I’d spent the previous night re-watching Zombie Girl: The Movie, which follows an 12-year-old version of Hagins as she creates her first film, Pathogen. Though the version in front of me doesn’t look much different than the one I saw on screen (she’s a little taller, a little more polished) she’s clearly learned scores through experience.
In Zombie Girl, Hagins squirms uncomfortably as she argues that films should be purely entertainment, she blankly stares at the crew when they ask to see her storyboard (which doesn’t exist), she accidentally deletes her film’s climax. “But still, I never thought that Pathogen wouldn’t be made,” she said. “Since then, each of my films — whether shorts or features — has been a step up, technically and process wise.”
Teens once comprised her entire crew, but now Hagins has subbed many out with passionate professionals. They give the film a polished look that’s hard to achieve with a microbudget. Jeffrey Buras, her cinematographer, often shared Hagins’ vision and helped her communicate her ideas on film. Doug Field and Susan Benson, who also worked on Machete, brought their talents for FX makeup.
Most importantly, her producer Paul Gandersman (of Arcanum Pictures) has helped her navigate the process, from the initial pitch to the current contract negotiations. About 30% of her crew remained teens, including her 15-year-old assistant director.
Hagins can’t reveal just how much her film sold for, but she hints that it was enough to cover deferred payment for everyone involved. She shrugs, nonplussed, as if selling a movie in a crippled economy was just the next logical step to working in film. Unlike a lot of directors, she’s skipping the part where she attends film school.
There are others out there like her: Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, James Cameron and Peter Jackson. It’s not suggesting that Hagins belongs in that group, but it is proof that determination will take you further than grades — especially in a creative industry.
For now, Hagins is interning with Rooter Teeth Productions while co-writing her next feature. “So this is it? Is film your career?” I ask, remembering how her parents expressed concern in Zombie Girl about film being a temporary passion.
“Movies have always been such a part of my life; I just can’t imagine them not being what I do,” she says. She dials her mother for a ride home.