[The Week in Geek is a weekly Tuesday column that plunges headfirst into a deep pool of genre geekiness without ever coming up for air.]
Inspired by both the 'Twilight' craze and her own personal experiences at Minnesota's annual geekfest CONvergence, writer-director Emily Hagins has created one of the most anticipated features of SXSW 2011, 'My Sucky Teen Romance.' It's Emily's third feature film, a rom-com with a vampiric horror slant, and her most ambitious project yet. If your only exposure to Hagins is as the soft-spoken subject of the documentary 'Zombie Girl,' you might be surprised to see that the little girl has grown up into a confident adult director.
I've seen the transformation first-hand; 'My Sucky Teen Romance' is my third film as an actor for Emily. It's a one-line part this time out, but our working relationship made it easy to nab a relaxed interview with her, away from the craziness of downtown Austin during its busiest week of the year.
It was almost an all-new crew right? There wasn't anybody, really, from your previous shoots.
There were, but not from my two features. Lina Green worked on 'The Retelling.' She had a smaller job on that movie. She was the assistant director (on 'MSTR'), and she just kicked butt and made sure everybody was doing what they were supposed to be doing. And our cinematographer and sound designer, I'd worked with them on short films but not features.
Was that transition seamless? Working with all-new people? I know on 'Pathogen,' because it was no-budget, everybody involved filled the various roles of the crew, and on 'The Retelling' it was more organized, but still mostly teenagers. What was the shift like, working with an older, more experience crew?
We did have some kid crew members, like production design and costume design. Having adults on set helped maintain a professional atmosphere, for the most part. Of course, when it's kids, and it's late, they goof off and all that, but it did help us keep things professional and keep things moving. All of our producing team were hard on people to keep things moving all of the time. They were really good for us, because it didn't have to be me being the bad guy. I could just focus on directing.
This has your biggest cast. You kept calling for extras...
Part of it is set at a sci-fi convention, so we had to call for extras all the time. We're lucky that it's ok at a sci-fi convention that you see a lot of the same people. People came by on different days, and we'd have to tell them to wear the same outfits. We had a big box of costumes for everyone to dig into.
How many people ended up being in the movie?
Extras included, on our biggest day -- over a hundred people. Then, when it got really, really late, it's our crew that's the extras. I think everyone behind the camera is in front of it at some point, just walking by in their funny hat or something. At first, well....that's not important...
What's not important?
Well, thinking back on the original version of the script, your character in the movie was a main character and there were five vampires instead of three, and the main guy who turns everybody, Vince, was only in one scene. Looking back at the movie, it changed so much. There's also a musical number in the original script.
Wait! What happened to the musical number? Was it only in the first draft?
It didn't really fit in with where the script was going, because it was heading to this really dark place in the script and then, "Hey! Let's break into a musical!"
Who was going to write the music?
I wrote the song! It was going to be, like, a 'Schoolhouse Rock' instructional video about vampire rules. It was your character telling Paul (Patrick Delgado). It's goofy!
It sounds kind of awesome, actually.
I just want to go film it right now and slide it into the movie.
When did you finish the film?
Last week. There was a period when we were up for thirty-six hours. But we were going from sound design, we drove straight to color, we drove straight to the tape place, then from there, we dropped it off at SXSW.
And lots of visual effects in this one too, right?
Yeah, there are a lot. It's hard to tell based on our list, because some things repeat, but somewhere between 70 and 90 visual effects shots.
How did you handle directing the vsfx?
Mostly with references to other vampire movies. Like, for red eyes and stuff like that. Sometimes Brian Behm would come up with something and show me a rough concept, then I would say, "Maybe we should go more in this direction with it?" Sometimes it was all him and I had no idea how it would look, and he came up with something awesome. It was a really collaborative effort, but he was our main guy. Without him, I don't know what I would've done.
I know a lot of times, in screenwriting for things that you can shoot quickly by yourself, you write for the resources you have on hand, so you end up cutting out a lot of those kinds of things. It seems like with this script, that wasn't so big of a concern.
I know what you mean, and I try to avoid that, so my first draft of a script will be a lot bigger in concept. At different points in pre-production, I thought I'd have a bigger budget to work with so it didn't really change that much. Closer to the time I wanted to film, I was getting a better sense of what our budget would actually be, and because the script was always so close to my heart, I didn't want to compromise anything. With what you're saying, I don't want to put a lot of effort into something and film something, if it's not worth that time staying up for thirty-six hours.
This is the biggest festival for any of your films. I know 'Zombie Girl' was a big deal, but you were off the hook, even though you were the centerpiece.
Yeah! "I didn't make this!"
You weren't responsible for whether people liked it or not...
That's what makes this so much more nerve-wracking for me.
In what way?
So much of it comes from things in my life, not the romance necessarily, but the convention is based on this convention I go to every Summer (CONvergence), and my friends from that convention are flying down to see the movie. Some of the kids I based characters in the script on are going to come. I don't know. I want all of those people to like it and feel like I respected their convention. But then, I want other people that know nothing about the convention to get a sense of what it's like. It's not like Comic Con. It's a bunch of geeks celebrating geekdom for a weekend. It's not people always trying to sell you things.
More of a community than a trade show?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of kids in the movie are kids that go to my school and are very pasionate about acting and being a part of films, and I really want the best for them as well. That's kind of scary for me too. I'm very protective of them, and I think they did a really great job and worked really hard.
What's going through your head when you sit in an audience with one of your movies?
I'm kind of, like, thinking about the next scene, like, how people might react to the next scene if they're laughing or not in the scene I'm currently watching. With this move, I don't think I've ever been as nervous in my entire life. Just going into the Paramount for other movies at this festival, my heart goes into my stomach just thinking about it.
Is it the sheer number of seats, the number of people that can see it? They're about to see your baby. That's a lot of people to see and judge your baby.
"No! My baby!" Partially that, but the Paramount is also the biggest deal for me in Austin. I can't think of anything bigger, grander, for a premiere here in town. It didn't even occur to me, after we submitted it to SXSW. I thought we'd get the Alamo.
Are you "red carpet"-ing it?
I have a $30 dollar dress I'm going to wear with this ratty jacket, so it's not like a red carpet premiere.
Earlier this week, you were rejected from UCLA...
Yeah. That was fun.
Over Twitter, I don't think I saw anyone anyone tell you, "Film school's really important." What I saw was a bunch of people go, "You don't even need film school! Film school's a sham! You just go out there and make your movies and tell your stories!" Do you believe that?
To some extent. I appreciate higher education, and I've always wanted to maintain my grades so I could potentially go to college, but school isn't something that excites me as much as making movies. It hasn't been for the past five years, when I was going into high school. When I got the rejection, I was upset for maybe ten minutes, then I thought, "Oh, well. I'm going to make another movie now."
Is there any part of you at all that when you get that rejection letter, you're like "Dammit! I've got a movie premiering at the Paramount during SXSW! What are your incoming freshmen doing right now?"
I guess, sort of, but in more of a (raises eyebrows) "That's surprising!" kind of a way.
Not in a "DON'T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" kind of a way?
(laughs) I just figured they didn't.
Are you going to try for another film program or just jump into your next film?
I think I'm going to go on to my next film. I looked into NYU, USC, UT, and...nothing felt quite worth the debt I'd go into. I can't afford college.
If anything comes out of 'My Sucky Teen Romance' -- distribution or whatever life the movie has beyond the festival -- that's all great, but I'd like to see somebody give you a full ride.
I just want to be able to keep making movies. Whatever way it will take. It's what I want to do.
Are you moving away from horror for your next one?
I'd like to move away from the supernatural for at least one movie and then come back to it. I mean, I love horror movies. It's always a big appeal to me. I really like comedies and light-hearted movies too, but I've got to balance it out, because when I'm making a horror movie or doing horror scenes, I just want to paint my nails or do something really girly to balance it all out. For the next one, I just want to try it -- no monsters, just humans!
'My Sucky Teen Romance' premieres this week as part of SXSW, at Paramount Theatre on March 15 at 9:30PM and again at Rollins Theatre, March 19 at 8:30PM.