Interview: Youngest U.S. Director Emily Hagins Helms ‘My Sucky Teen Romance’

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CHICAGO – At age 12, Emily Hagins was literally surrounded by cameras. She was in the midst of directing her first feature, a zombie thriller entitled “Pathogen,” while a film crew chronicled her every move for their own documentary, “Zombie Girl: The Movie.” By the time production wrapped, Hagins was considered a budding sensation on the indie film circuit.

As the youngest director in the U.S., Hagins has displayed an enthusiasm, invention and craftsmanship that far exceeds that of many filmmakers three times her age. On the heels of her sophomore effort, a spooky mystery called “The Retelling,” Hagins has delved into the realm of comedy with a teen romance that deconstructs the “Twilight” phenomenon, while offering its own distinctive twist on the vampire genre. “My Sucky Teen Romance” stars Elaine Hurt as a girl looking to have a fling at the sci-fi/horror convention, SpaceCON, and ends up getting far more than she bargained for. Turns out actual bloodsuckers have infiltrated the festivities and have less-than-romantic plans for their human targets.

Hagins was 18 when she landed a distribution deal for her third feature, which screened at SXSW last year. On August 27th, Ain’t It Cool News and Dark Sky Films will present a screening of the film at Chicago’s AMC River East 21, followed by a live Q&A with Hagins. Hollywood Chicago spoke with the filmmaker about her evolution as an artist, her personal opinions regarding “Twilight,” and the subtle yet clever homage that her film pays to a beloved cult favorite. Had the film community in Austin inspired you to make movies at such an early age?

Emily Hagins: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a very different film community because it’s very enthusiastic and nurturing of filmmakers and just film in general. There’s a really great theater called the Alamo Drafthouse that finds prints of obscure films and screens them on a weekly basis. I grew up watching a lot of classic films on the big screen, and there’s another theater called the Paramount in Austin that shows a lot of classic films too. So I feel very lucky to have had that film education while growing up. Everyone’s just really happy in Austin whenever someone is making a movie. A couple filmmakers have started to use the city as their home base, such as Robert Rodriguez. He did “Sin City” here, and Richard Linklater shot “Dazed and Confused” here too. It’s a very supportive film community. It’s not rare for films to be made, and yet they still [inspire] the same level of enthusiasm from the public. It’s really cool to share in that excitement.

Emily Hagins (center) directs the cast and crew of her third feature, My Sucky Teen Romance.
Emily Hagins (center) directs the cast and crew of her third feature, My Sucky Teen Romance.
Photo credit: Cheesy Nuggets Productions What attracted you to exploring the horror genre in your work?

Hagins: It was a very strange shift for me because I grew up with a very overactive imagination and I was scared of everything, even Halloween and Chuck E. Cheese—anything that wasn’t normal [laughs]. I love Halloween now, though I still don’t like Chuck E. Cheese. Just the idea of horror movies scared me so much. Then I saw “Undead,” and it was so goofy and absurd but it also had its scary parts. It crossed the threshold for me from being scary to being fun. Not necessarily funny, because I was still pretty freaked out, but I think that was a really important moment for me. The audience was having so much fun with the film, and it struck a chord with me. I wanted to make a movie that was really fun.

I liked the idea of zombies and I liked that you could do a lot of cool things with the effects. It was also helping me get over my fear of scary things in general. With zombies, you can have any kind of liquid coming out of their bodies, and you didn’t have to explain it. It was fun for me to explore cool visual styles without a lot of resources. That’s a good thing about horror. You have to rely on your technique, and you don’t necessarily need a big fancy camera to do something scary. When I made “Pathogen,” found footage wasn’t the same as it is now. “Blair Witch” had already been made, but there was a resurgence with “Paranormal Activity.” Even now, horror is a very accessible genre for filmmakers who are trying to get out there. You can make a found footage movie and have it be really terrifying for no money, just because it’s all about the technique and what you decide to show and not show. So as I did more research into it, horror became very appealing. “Sucky Teen Romance” has a lot of comedy mixed in, and my second feature [“The Retelling”] was very, very dark, to the point where I thought, “I don’t really want to do anything this dark anymore.” I really want to explore more comedy, and maybe go back to horror sometime down the road. It just depends on the story. How did you get your film education?

Hagins: I felt really lucky because both of my parents had a little bit of film experience on some level. The first time I made a movie was with my dad. I was homesick from school—not terribly sick, but just bummed out because I was missing something fun and I just wasn’t well enough to go. He had worked at an advertising agency, and had all this stuff left over from the ’70s. He had these old storyboards and templates that he would use to make a film, and he was like, “I’ll walk you through the general process of how to make a commercial.” So I made this little commercial, and he told me, “Before you make it, you need a script. Then you do the storyboards and the shot list.” He also taught me the basics of angles and he made me go through the tutorials on how to do editing, so he basically guided me through it as a fun, one-day activity. It wasn’t strenuous [laughs]. Instantly, I picked up on where to go from there, and I felt very lucky to know—from the start—that there was a process to it and that it wasn’t just “grab your camera and go film something.” “Pathogen” was such a long process, and I was impatient and 12 years old [laughs], but that foundation was good to start from. What has your casting process been like?

Hagins: There’s a really great online resource for getting in touch with actors in Austin specifically, so that was always a huge part of my audition process. For “Sucky Teen Romance,” I really wanted to use kids that I knew had the acting experience and enthusiasm for the project because it was going to be a lot of work. I did get in touch with the theatre programs when I knew I was going to make “Sucky Teen.” A couple of the kids have a lot of theatre experience, a couple of them have short film and student film experience, and it was interesting to bridge those techniques with the film. But most importantly, I wanted the kids to feel real and genuine and awkward. I wanted them to feel like teenagers, not actors. But they are actors, they weren’t just some kids that I knew and had never acted before. They all have varying levels of experience. Was it awkward to have camera crews follow you around while you were initially navigating your way through the filmmaking process on the “Pathogen” set?

Hagins: That’s a good point [laughs]. I think being 12 played into it because when you’re in middle school, you think that everyone’s watching you all the time and you’re really self-conscious. In this case, there really was that camera that was watching me doing things that weren’t socially acceptable that you secretly hope no one sees. Their cameras were bigger and they were a lot older than me. I felt a little—not necessarily intimidated, but they knew that I was making mistakes and they weren’t telling me. But I also understood where they were coming from as filmmakers because they had a story that they wanted to tell.

One time that best describes our relationship was when I was trying to get something off of the tripod and I was really struggling with it. I asked my dad to help me and he couldn’t do it. And the guy was just right in my face with the camera. It was very stressful, but I knew that he had to get the shot, so I didn’t say anything. But after a couple of minutes, I asked, “Do you think that you have enough footage of me struggling? Can you help me with this?” and he was like, “Yeah, sure, I got it.” That was kind of the way things were. It’s a 90-minute movie about three years of my life, so there are things that are overdramatized and [abridged]. When you have filmmakers making a movie about other filmmakers, you have an understanding of what you want from each other. The most overtly dramatized aspects of the film centered on the tensions between you and your mother.

Hagins: It’s funny because my mom and I talk about that all the time. She’s worried that she comes off really mean in that scene where she’s telling me to focus, and I’m like, “No mom, you’re just being a mom and we were goofing off.” My mom and I have such a great relationship. As I’ve gotten older, she’s been doing her own thing and comes around to say “hi” or help with something every once in a while. It’s a very different process than it was back in the “Pathogen” days. That’s cool that you picked up on that. They definitely play up the drama between me and my mom.

Lauren Lee and Elaine Hurt star in Emily Hagins’s My Sucky Teen Romance.
Lauren Lee and Elaine Hurt star in Emily Hagins’s My Sucky Teen Romance.
Photo credit: Cheesy Nuggets Productions What had you learned on your previous two features that you brought to this film?

Hagins: I knew this film was going to have to be very stylistic in the filmmaking. I wanted those quick cuts and whip pans and a really fun, fast-paced vibe to it. That wasn’t really something I had done with my previous two films. I did learn a lot of production value techniques, and I think that it’s really important when you’re making low-budget films to not let the budget become a distraction. If there are sound problems or lighting problems, you want to minimize them as much as you can so [the audience] can have fun and enjoy the film for what it is. I’m sure they know that it wasn’t made for $7 million, but you have to tell a story that fits what you have. By comparing the budget of “Sucky Teen” to those previous two films, I figured out what new things we were able to do stylistically and what things I could mimic or enhance with the production value that we had available to us. What attracted you to making a film about teen vampires?

Hagins: At the time, I was playing with the idea of doing a coming-of-age story that took place at a science-fiction convention. I go to a lot of them, and I used a particular one of them as a model. I didn’t have a specific story that I wanted to tell in that setting yet, and then I really was fascinated by anything that I thought would be news about “Twilight.” It’s an interesting phenomenon unlike “Harry Potter” where the source material is [pause] really good. “Twilight” is not so critically acclaimed [laughs]. I was interested in what was so appealing to girls my age. I openly admit that I read “Twilight” when I was 14 and I was like, “Oh, boy! This is so wonderful!” But of course, as I got older and was reading different books, I was like, “What was it about this thing?”

I really wanted to tell a teen vampire story from a real teenager’s perspective. As I took a more objective look at “Twilight,” I realized that there were all these life-or-death issues that weren’t being taken into account. They’re dealing with really serious things and they’re being trivialized over this romance. There’s a lot of awkwardness that comes with teen romance that’s often overlooked in films because they want to focus on the drugs and sex and everything that’s over the top. I wanted to make a film that didn’t trivialize those life-or-death aspects and was also more about the “crush” side of romance. I feel like all the crushes that you have is such a big part of being a teenager, especially for teenage girls. I was combining a bunch of ideas that I hadn’t seen since John Hughes films. One of the biggest criticisms that people have with “Twilight” is that Bella Swan is a weak female who lets herself become defined by her man without worrying about the consequences. Were you attempting to subvert this premise?

Hagins: I didn’t actually finish the “Twilight” books. I got halfway through the last book and was getting distracted by how inconsequential the decisions were. It was like, “Okay, I’ll be a vampire now. I’ll just leave my parents and go away forever. No problem.” Of course, it’s not that simple. I was like, “Man, this is such a huge life decision and it’s not being taken into account at all.” One of the biggest lessons about growing up is that you have to deal with the consequences of your actions, as well as the actions of other people that you care about. You’re all learning how to be adults, and in this case, we just used vampires as a catalyst for that. So I really wanted there to be consequences even though they weren’t all deserved. The film is taking into account the idea of learning things the hard way and how to move on from that. I didn’t want to trivialize the danger but I also wanted to balance it with the little cutesy things in the film [laughs]. Were there any vampire films that influenced your approach?

Hagins: Definitely. I’m a huge fan of “The Lost Boys,” and I used a lot of [elements] from that for my vampires. One of my favorite things about horror films is, whatever subgenre you pick, you get these rules and you can pick and choose from them. It’s like you’re shopping. I like purple zombies, I like slow zombies and I like the ones that ooze liquids. For vampires, I like the sunlight rule and I like the cross rule. The sparkly vampires are a big no-no [laughs]. So you find the best things that fit your story and then you do enough research to see which things should be respected and which shouldn’t.

“The Lost Boys” really fit the “teens against vampires” vibe that I was going for. As for my main vampire villain, the film “Near Dark” was a big influence. I like the rogue cowboy vampire idea. That’s what real vampires would be like. They just make up their own rules, and they’re really scary in that film. “Let the Right One In” was amazing. I’m not a huge “Buffy” fan, but I like the idea of that strong female lead in a vampire film. I respect “Buffy,” it’s just a personal taste thing. I didn’t know a lot about vampires before I made “Sucky Teen Romance,” and I got really excited once I started researching them.

Emily Hagins directs Patrick Delgado and Santiago Dietche on the set of My Sucky Teen Romance.
Emily Hagins directs Patrick Delgado and Santiago Dietche on the set of My Sucky Teen Romance.
Photo credit: Cheesy Nuggets Productions What was your collaboration like with producer Paul Gandersman?

Hagins: He was really great because we were so much on the same page creatively. He knew what I wanted, and I’m kind of soft-spoken—not to the point where I don’t get what I want as a director, but I’m kind of quiet about it. He’s very loud and gets the point across to everybody. So it’s a nice balance for me to have somebody who’s very forceful onset and is making sure that people are listening to me and making sure that the flow onset is good. He always says, “I can be the bad guy for you.” He’s a wonderful producer and really values my vision on everything that we’ve collaborated on, and really just values me as a person. To what extent was improv utilized in the film? There’s a deleted scene of improv on the DVD from the very funny panel discussion with Harry Knowles.

Hagins: It’s important to me for people to say things in their own words, and there were instances in the script where two characters would say something in almost the same way, and onset we were like, “Actually, he would probably add a curse word to this.” So there were areas where I let the kids improv. I tried to gauge beforehand which kids were more comfortable with improv and which ones would prefer sticking to the script, and that helped me coordinate between the two. I’m really open to it in general, but I always get a safe take of what’s in the script. The script was very tight because the movie is very tight—it’s like 78 minutes. So there are very few instances of improv. Harry’s scene is completely improvised. He didn’t say a single thing that I wrote. Pretty much anything that’s vulgar in the film had been improvised.

I told Tony [Vespe], “You’re one of the most hilarious cursers I’ve ever met, so you can just go to town. We’ll get a safe take just in case we need it for the final cut, but you just say whatever feels right to you.” He also made up his little robot dance. My next film is actually about him and is based on something that happened to him. It’s a Halloween coming-of-age story about Tony, who’s 18 and doesn’t realize that he’s too old to be trick-or-treating. It’s a quiet, funny teen comedy in the vein of John Hughes. Your film is the first one I can think of that pays homage to “The Room” with the now iconic line, “Oh hai, Mark.”

Hagins: Oh my gosh, you are the first person to recognize that. That’s awesome! [laughs] I named Tony’s character Mark just so [Elaine] could say, “Oh hai, Mark.” I had my actors create Facebook pages for their characters before we filmed the movie so they could figure out their character’s lives and interests and friends. Some of them were asking me, “What should my last name be?” Tony’s name turned out to be Mark O’Hai, which you can see on his badge if you zoomed in on it. When I interviewed Tommy Wiseau a couple years ago, he started calling me “Mark” halfway through the interview.

Hagins: [laughs] Oh man. Keep that story. Thanks for your time, Emily!

Hagins: Great, thanks so much…Mark.

‘My Sucky Teen Romance’ stars Elaine Hurt, Patrick Delgado, Santiago Dietche, Lauren Lee, Tony Vespe, Lauren Vunderink, Devin Bonnée, Sam Eidson, Tina Rodriguez and Harry Knowles. It was written and directed by Emily Hagins. It will screen at 7:30pm August 27th at AMC River East 21 and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 4th. It is not rated. For tickets, visit staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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