Growing Pains

Emily Hagins became a household Austin name for her work as a teen director, but what happens when that novelty wears off?

Emily Hagins
Emily Hagins (Photo by John Anderson)

Emily Hagins will be 12 years old forever. Zombie Girl: The Movie, the documentary about her that won a Spirit of Slamdance award at the Slamdance Film Festival, captures the impassioned, pre-adolescent Hagins as she pursues her dream of directing a feature-length film from her own script. Hagins spends the documentary dreaming big, impressing grownups, and convincing her friends and neighbors in Austin to appear in Pathogen, the movie she's determined to complete shooting. She corrects herself with inspiring asides – "I want to be a director; I mean, I am a director, because I'm doing it right now!" – and cuts up her stuffed animals, covering their plush in red corn syrup. She argues with her parents about her vision, full of precocious energy as she pushes to make sure that she gets to make the movie that she wants to make. She gets her friends to stand outside the Crestview IGA grocery store, where she's convinced the owner to let her film inside, asking customers who enter, "Do you want to be in a zombie film?" in order to recruit extras. She wins the support of local film figures like Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles (who provides the voice of a radio newscaster), Sinister screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (who plays a janitor), and Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League (who premieres the film at the theatre when it's completed). She's awarded a grant from the Austin Film Society to complete post-production. At 12, she has kids and adults alike following her lead: Her mom holds the boom mic; her dad wrangles extras; adults in zombie makeup wait for her to yell "Action!"

In other words, most people will come away from watching Zombie Girl: The Movie convinced that Emily Hagins is the coolest 12-year-old in the world. You can immediately sense why the filmmakers – first-time feature documentarians Justin Johnson, Erik Mauck, and Aaron Marshall – were compelled to make a movie about her, and why the film was such a hit with the judges at Slamdance, HotDocs, San Diego Comic-Con, Fantastic Fest, and the other festivals it played. It's a hell of a calling card for 12-year-old Emily Hagins.

There's just one problem: The footage of Hagins making Pathogen is from 2004. The 12-year-old girl immortalized in the documentary is now a 21-year-old woman, and she wants the world to take her seriously.

The Kid Card

Pathogen was Hagins' first feature, but it wasn't her last. She followed it up with The Retelling, a ghost story that Hagins refuses to let anyone watch. The trailer is on YouTube, though, and while the film doesn't exactly look professional, it certainly falls into the "not bad for a teenager" category. The occasional recognizable name pops up in the credits for the 2009-released film (local filmmaker Kat Candler has a small part), but most of the crew has birthdates somewhere in the Nineties.

As a student at the Liberal Arts & Science Academy at LBJ High School, Hagins received a proper film education – and found resources – which benefited her third movie, the Twilight-influenced vampire horror/comedy My Sucky Teen Romance. Pathogen and The Retelling are the obvious work of a young girl learning how to pursue her dream, but My Sucky Teen Romance strives to be more than just a novelty act. The production value is high, the script is more complex, and the crew featured a mix of Hagins' friends and professional Austin film talent who signed on for the project. The film premiered at South by Southwest in 2011, and it lives on in the vast streaming catalog of Netflix Instant. That's a pretty impressive result for a film that was, essentially, a class project.

"They had a great film program at LASA, and it's so much like do-it-yourself," Hagins recalls of making the film. "Our teacher was just like, 'If you have a good idea, I'll get the whole class behind you and we'll make it.' ... I borrowed all of the equipment for My Sucky Teen Romance from my high school. They had two jibs, several light kits. My teacher was extremely supportive. There's a mural of My Sucky Teen Romance in the room — I think the kids are really into it, and they have the tools and the support from the teacher."

My Sucky Teen Romance is a sharp-looking movie. If you didn't know it was directed by a teenager, you probably wouldn't guess that it was – but Hagins and distributor Dark Sky Films hedge their bets with the trailer: The movie is billed as "the new film from teen director Emily Hagins," which both buys them a little credibility in the teen-comedy world and gives them an easy excuse for whatever lack of polish the movie may display.

Making easy excuses isn't really in Hagins' wheelhouse, though. She spent much of her career trying to avoid "playing the kid card," as she puts it, but it's also obvious that the novelty of her youth has afforded her some opportunities over the past several years. In between making her films, Hagins has spoken at schools and festivals, appeared on panels, and enjoyed a level of ... well, let's not call it "fame," but there's been interest in her career because of the appeal of her story.

There are broad strokes to Emily Hagins' story that appear in Zombie Girl that are included every time anyone profiles her. There's a part in the documentary in which her mother talks about being able to sit her down in front of the TV as a baby, for hours at a time, to watch The Muppet Movie. There's another part that deals with the fan letter that she wrote to Peter Jackson, and his subsequent response, in which he promised to put her in touch with Harry Knowles. It all serves to paint a picture of her as a little girl born with her hand in a bucket of popcorn, whose precociousness made the Oscar-winning director of some of the most beloved films of all time take notice. Hagins may have wanted to avoid playing the kid card, but her particular deck of kid cards made for some pretty compelling stuff. She's got a million of 'em, too – she can talk about the time she was scheduled to appear at the Fantastic Debates at Fantastic Fest but had school the next morning, and Tim League promised to write her a permission slip. She can gush about the time that she skipped school for a week when she and her mom were flown to Nicaragua to work on the crew of a film for Paramount. She can tell you about getting rejected from the UCLA film program – the only one that she applied to ("I picked that one because they had a very good ice cream store on campus") – the exact same day that My Sucky Teen Romance premiered at SXSW and sold to Dark Sky Films.

If you love movies, and love neat stories, and love the idea of really passionate and enthusiastic people getting the chance to make movies, how do you not fall in love with stories like those? A week after first meeting Hagins, while working on another story, I found myself on the phone with a producer at a film fund that works exclusively with female directors. I mentioned Hagins to her as an example of young female directing talent, and she immediately stopped me. "Oh, wow," she said. "How do you spell her name?"

The marketing appeal of a filmmaker who also has a great story is self-evident, and it's easy to see why a producer looking for young talent would be drawn to Hagins. But while there've obviously been some opportunities presented to her because of her novel circumstances over the past few years, there are good reasons for Hagins to want to have avoided the "kid card" throughout her teens. Not only does being branded as the kid director mean that her work is constantly being graded on a curve, but if being a teenage filmmaker is the thing that makes her special, what happens when she grows up? If you've built your whole career around being a novelty, what happens when there's nothing novel about you anymore?

Zombie Girl, All Grown Up

It's an early fall day a few weeks before Emily Hagins turns 21, and she's sitting at Dolce Vita in Hyde Park, studying. Not for class, though – there's a line in Zombie Girl where 12-year-old Hagins explains that she wishes she could quit school and work on the movie full-time, and after she graduated from high school, that's exactly the decision that she made. She's poring through a book on directing and seems intently focused. These days, Hagins splits her time between Austin and Los Angeles, and while the balance is tipped sharply in Austin's favor at the moment, she expects that might change at some point in the near future.

Growing Pains

"My managers and my agents are out there, so I go a couple times a year, when I can afford it. I go to some meetings and let them know that I'm still alive and I'm still making movies, and they say, 'Cool,' and I come back to Austin," she laughs. "I think it's important, if you're going to make movies – even if Austin's great and all the people are great – to learn how to navigate that. So I think I'll have to end up spending more time in L.A. It's important. I don't think you can ignore it and say, 'Austin's the greatest; I'll never leave.' Even if that's true, that's kind of where the business is."

Right now, though, Hagins is in Austin, soaking up as much knowledge about film – both the business and creative aspects of it – as she can. Anyone who wants to have a viable film career may need to spend some time in Los Angeles, but if you're looking to self-educate on the craft of filmmaking, Austin is a good place to be. "It's really easy to give yourself a film education here without being able to afford film school," she says.

Her self-guided curriculum is fairly rigorous. She reads books about filmmaking constantly, and she avails herself of the opportunities presented by the festivals in Austin. At Fantastic Fest in September, while battling a cold, she still managed to catch nearly two dozen movies. "And my roommate works at a video store," she says. "So I get to rent free movies. To keep myself from feeling lazy when I'm in between projects, I watch as many movies as I can, because I won't have any time for that when I'm making a movie. I know, even if I'm watching Big Momma's House, it makes the movies better. I try to learn from every single movie that I watch."

But mostly, Hagins' education comes from doing. Most recently, that meant shooting two films back-to-back: a short called "Touch" about a blind child who gets lost in dangerous woods that was part of the Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear anthology for the Chiller cable network, and then her fourth feature, which was assembled at a breakneck pace – the movie began filming in November 2012, and completed post-production in time for its premiere at SXSW in March.

That movie, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, is Hagins' most mature work to date. She financed the film via Kickstarter, raising $80,000 to produce the Halloween-set coming-of-age romantic comedy about a teenager who has to accept that he's too old for trick-or-treating and learn to embrace the adult life that's waiting for him. It's the first of Hagins' movies that doesn't have ghosts, zombies, or vampires in it – the scariest creature is a 10-year-old bully – and it was scheduled to be released this week. DVD production hit a snag earlier this month, though, and the distributor opted to stash the movie for a year, to give it a full push in time for next year's Halloween.

There's no easy parallel between Hagins, who'll be 22 when Grow Up, Tony Phillips is finally released, and the film's hero, even though "growing up" is a common theme for both of them. The character of Tony clings fiercely to his childish things, while Hagins is constantly excited at the thought of being taken for an adult – but both of those things involve the people around you seeing you as a child.

"Some people still think I'm 12," she sighs. "I look the same for some reason, and I'm worried that people won't take me seriously. It seems like [Zombie Girl] was just made, even though it came out several years ago. I don't like for people to see that now, because I like meeting people as an adult. Everything before My Sucky Teen Romance is just proof that I will follow through on projects, but people don't look at that. They say, 'Zombie Girl! You're still 12, aren't you?' I just keep hoping to make more movies and prove I'm just a filmmaker now."

Hagins' need to be taken seriously, and for people to look past the Zombie Girl novelty act, comes up over and over again. She worries that people she might work with in the future will see the documentary, notice the scene in which she tells the clerk at the Crestview IGA that it doesn't matter if he turns the music off or not, and think that she still doesn't know what she's doing. She has four movies under her belt now, plus her segment in the Chiller anthology, but she's not convinced that's enough to fully bury Zombie Girl. ("I'm trying to make more movies, so that people don't go back and look at the earlier ones. 'Oh, you directed 68 movies? Well, I'll see like six of those.'") She recognizes the complicated relationship she has with her "kid card" – "I want to keep getting work, so I guess I want people to know who I am" – but the way she talks about it, it sounds like at this point, she'd be willing to trade the attention she got from Zombie Girl for the chance to be judged on the merits of Grow Up, Tony Phillips or "Touch."

"My least favorite thing to hear – even if it's a compliment – is, 'What a great accomplishment for your age!'" she says. "Well, did you like the film? Or were you thinking about that the whole time? I would love to not be graded on a curve."

Hagins has been dealing with this stress since she was a young teenager, and if you think that'd be enough to push an adolescent to her limits ... well, you wouldn't be wrong. "I had a panic attack when I was 14," she admits. "All I wanted to do was finish [Pathogen] so I could make another one. ... I realized that I only want to make movies, because if I didn't, I would just give up."

All of that sounds exhausting, but at least teenagers have a lot of energy. Hagins turned 21 in late October, though, and she'd very much like to put her energy toward things like her next project instead. She never denies that she owes some of the opportunities she's had to the appeal of her own story, but she also had to actually do the work of making those four movies herself. At some point, shouldn't she have paid off her debt to the novelty that got her started?

Back at Dolce Vita, Hagins is talking again about her desire to be seen in a totally different light. We start talking about Sarah Polley, the former child star of Ramona and Avonlea who made her directorial feature debut in 2006 with the Alzheimer's drama Away From Her. Hagins brightens as she talks about what it'd be like to do something like that – something that people would never expect from a young filmmaker who made her name by directing a zombie movie when she was 12.

"I would love to do that," she says. "I'd love to have an idea like that, where I don't have that perspective, but I can talk to someone who does, or a lot of people, and integrate that into the storytelling." She gushes about working on "Touch" for the Chiller anthology, and taking her young actor to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to learn how to play the part properly – to feel for the sun when he gets lost to find which direction is north, instead of trying to count his steps – and her enthusiasm is palpable. "To talk to real kids that were excited about a movie with a blind protagonist made me really excited," she says. "I had to do this for them, and I didn't expect that when I wrote the script."

When Hagins talks about this side of filmmaking – the side of it that involves learning about the world, and using the camera as a lens through which to find out what excites her – she doesn't seem like the sort of ambitious young person who spent her adolescence pursuing a dream that, by any standards, is difficult at best to attain. She doesn't seem like someone who pushed herself into a panic attack while working on her no-budget horror feature at 14, or who has spent years worrying that people wouldn't take her seriously because she's too young. When she talks about the joy of movies, and of filmmaking as an avenue to grow and learn, to tell stories, and to make things for other people in the world, Hagins' youth is apparent, but in the best possible way.

Emily Hagins hasn't been 12 years old in a long time, but as long as she keeps the passion and enthusiasm that drove her to make her first movie back when she was, the 21-year-old filmmaker could have a long career ahead of her.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Emily Hagins
Emily Hagins' Unsucky Movie Career
Emily Hagins' Unsucky Movie Career
Austin's zombie girl taps into vamps for her third feature

Marc Savlov, Aug. 6, 2010

More by Dan Solomon
The Work Matters
The Work Matters
A look back at some of our most impactful reporting

Sept. 3, 2021

The Time of Their Lives
The Time of Their Lives
Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane reflect on the 12 years they spent making 'Boyhood'

July 18, 2014


Emily Hagins, Zombie Girl: The Movie, Pathogen, My Sucky Teen Romance, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, The Retelling

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle