The first I had ever heard of Emily Hagins was when I was recommend to check out a documentary called “Zombie Girl: The Movie” and not being given any background information. The films follows the trials and tribulations of a 12 year old filmmaker trying to make a feature length zombie film. Even though she has to pool the resources of virtually every family member and friend who is willing to help out, and even though it takes two years to do it, writer/director Emily is finally able to see the release of Pathogen. Without needing to see the completed film, it’s an incredibly inspiring film to see the passion and dedication in someone so young and how many people are supportive and willing to help her out. I took that message extremely close to my heart, considering all I really do is critique other people’s work while not really contributing much of anything. Emily is now 20 years old and just had the world premiere of her fourth feature length film, Grow Up, Tony Phillips. Wait, is that right? SHE’S MADE FOUR MOVIES ALREADY?! WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?! Anyways, while getting prepped for SXSW this year, I had the opportunity to see Grow Up, Tony Phillips so I could put some interview questions together. I had seen Emily’s previous film, My Sucky Teen Romance, which had plenty of quirk and charm, but I couldn’t have predicted just how much I would connect with Grow Up, Tony Phillips. The film follows Tony Phillips (Tony Vespe), who is a senior in high school and is OBSESSED with Halloween. Even though his best friend Elle (Katie Folger) and cousin Pete (AJ Bowen) love Tony, they know that it’s time he should grow up and start focusing on college. Tony’s convictions to Halloween are challenged and the film expresses themes of transition, adulthood, and being true to yourself. For a Wolfguy like myself, who’s familiar with having interests that can be considered juvenile and also absolutely loves the true spirit of Halloween, the film was able to ignite sparks in this cold, dead wolf heart. Dare I say that there were even moments where I got choked up, but if you bring it up again, I will deny it wholeheartedly. It’s great to see Emily growing as a filmmaker and testing out different genres of film, and did I mention she’s only 20? THERE’S SO MUCH LEFT FOR HER TO DO! Emily, if you’re reading this and you need a crotchety, tattooed old man in one of your upcoming films, I’ll be here on the internet waiting. In the meantime, everyone should read this conversation I had with Emily, AJ, Tony, and Katie.
WolfMan: Grow Up, Tony Phillips is a little bit different from your previous films. There’s less of a supernatural element to it. Do you think that’s something you’ll be pursuing further, these more emotionally driven stories without supernatural stuff, or was this just a one time thing where you really wanted to tell this story?
Emily Hagins: Well, both I think. I really love making horror films and genre films and I want to keep making those, but at the same time, different types of stories appeal to me. I love comedy. I’d like to make a movie that’s more, I don’t know, comedic than this one, because this one was very dramatic as well. I’d like to make a movie that’s just a straight drama. There’s a lot of different things that appeal to me, but I really love awkward humor so I think there will always be some of that in my movies, even if I’m making horror movies. I think that will kind of generally spread through everything I make. I love genre films and I’m really glad I came from that because they’re very supportive, and the audience for genre films is very supportive of indie films. It’s a great place to be coming from and it kind of allowed me to get to this point to make this movie but I hope this movie will show people that I want to make other types of films.
The whole movie spans six weeks in the lives of these characters, from the middle of September and climaxing on Halloween. Clearly Halloween wasn’t just a randomly chosen time of the year for the film to take place, there’s lots of symbolism and tradition built into that time of year, which Emily, AJ, and Tony spoke about why it was so important.
EH: I wish I had a really deep answer for this, but I love the look of Halloween and it was a big part of my childhood in two ways. One, I had an overactive imagination and I was scared of everything and I would just hide on Halloween or I’d go trick or treat during the daytime. I was like, “I don’t wanna see ANYBODY.” I was scared of Chuck E. Cheese. I was scared of anything that could set off my imagination. Coming from that, I wrote a lot of stories and I loved having an imagination. Then when I started watching horror movies, I LOVED Halloween! It was the greatest day in the world! It was such an influence on me in many different ways. I just love the look of it and it’s a nice time of year. It feels very different. People get excited in a different way for a whole season. The leaves start changing and you see the Spirit stores pop up. It’s an interesting time culturally for people. The fall and October and September. But then Christmas stuff pops up for some reason and it’s like, “Come on, it’s September.” Really it was just the aesthetic. I love the color palette and the theme and I thought by making a simple movie, we could do a lot with that.
AJ Bowen: There’s that other element to it. When you talk about holidays, and by holidays, specifically that time of year between Halloween and Christmas, it’s a really easy time, behaviorally and sociologically, to understand. Even if an alien race came down to see us as human beings, they could understand the different societal roles, as providers and as children. Again, one of the most consistent ideas or discussion points of the film, is the transition period that people are always going through, to some degree, but those specific times in your life where things start to change and you have to openly accept, “Oh, things are changing now. It’s time to move on.” Usually you look up and it’s happened, but Halloween specifically is very interesting. I would say that Christmas is the only other time that there’s very clearly a thing that kids do and very clearly a thing that adults do. Unfortunately, most people live in between those zones or maybe way beyond it, but in that netherworld of “Where do I fit into this? What am I supposed to do? I don’t know what I’m supposed to be now.” It makes it easier to discuss through that.
Tony Vespe: It really is the perfect time of year to set this movie. It’s all about things changing. The leaves are changing. That’s the thing, and I know it sounds silly, but it was a big part of my life for sure. It’s like AJ was saying, there’s a definite line of being too old or too young to do one or the other, and it’s something that everyone has to face. It’s not the biggest thing in the world, but it’s a perfect context for the movie, I think. The movie’s not about Halloween, but it certainly is the main focus. I think it’s the perfect setting.
Katie Folger and Tony Vespe
WM: From the music, the performances, the direction, I think you all really captured that feeling of Halloween. I’m from Massachusetts and that’s Halloween central. I was thinking about how this is in Austin and how it felt so much like Halloween.
TV: That’s what we wanted. As much as it is an Austin movie, and it’s very much about loving Austin, we wanted it to feel like this could be anywhere. This could be the midwest, this could be anywhere.
EH: We took the same approach with technology and the location. We wanted everyone to be able to identify and not be limited, because Austin’s a very weird place, in a great way. They’d be going to the Alamo Drafthouse and they’d be going to the Capitol and Barton Springs and getting Amy’s Ice Cream. It would’ve been a different movie had they been texting on their cell phones, but we wanted to make this something anyone from any part of the country could really understand.
AJ: That’s what’s so amazing about Austin, too, and I’m not even joking about this, but there are places that haven’t changed since the early 80’s. Where I come from, in Georgia, it’s very similar, specifically the suburbs I grew up in. There’s certain right turns you can take onto streets where it’s still 1984. I don’t mean culturally, but as a specific example to this movie, the first day I was shooting was the school and I walked in there and it was MY elementary school. I was instantly keyed into that. Everyone who goes to a church basement when they’re a kid knows what a church basement smells like and you remember that smell your whole life. There’s a lot of places in Austin that do that, and it’s great for cinema because it creates an alter-verse because it’s a language that everyone can speak and understand. It makes the story way less reductive.
EH: And what’s interesting is the other half of the school is all renovated and it looks like it’s from The Jetsons. They asked us to shoot in their nice wing, and we said, “No.”
AJ: No, we wanna shoot in the part that looks like Milius’s Red Dawn.
Katie Folger: Some of the locations cracked me up in the movie. Seeing the high school dance and the gym, and the party of awkward high schoolers that is NOT a cool party, but for some people it’s the time of their lives. Or looking in the dance scene and seeing parents sitting in the bleachers too. For me, the cafeteria in high school was a battle ground. It’s like, “Where the heck am I gonna sit? I feel like everyone’s looking at me!” I feel like in the movie, you captured these really awkward moments of being a kid.
TV: One line that, I don’t know if anyone catches, but I love, is when I walk in and my mom says, “Are you going to Craig’s party?” and I say, “Yeah, whatever,” and she says, “Say hi to his parents for me!” Like, she assumes that his parents will be there. I LOVE that. That’s such a true moment.
Emily and AJ also shared some of their memories of favorite Halloweens.
AJ: My most recent one was my favorite one. One of the things I’m eternally grateful about this movie for is that I didn’t get to have Halloween this year. I had a wonderful problem as an actor, which was that I was making a movie. The movie that we were making was set in the jungle during a hot time of year. So my hotel room in Savannah, GA, was done up like Halloween, but when you’re shooting 15 hour days on the film…I even tried to have people over. My friend Joe Swanberg, his son was in town and we had him come in to my room to trick or treat, even though he has no idea what it is. I didn’t get to really have Halloween, so I got done making that movie and was kind of bummed out. I didn’t expect to immediately go into this film, so instead, I had Thanksgiving, and when Thanksgiving got done, it was time to de-Christmas my life and de-solstice myself, and get back into Halloween. Getting to spend three weeks around Halloween, especially for those of us who watch scary movies. I hadn’t had time to watch any of them. So even though I was supposed to be watching A Christmas Story, I was like, “No, Halloween.”
EH: We bought like a million pumpkins the day after Halloween and now you can tell who in Austin worked on the movie because there’s a pumpkin outside their house because everyone’s afraid to touch them now. It’s been so long that it’s gotten to a point where if I touch it, it will explode. So every time you go to a production crew member’s house, you’ll see a pumpkin, and it looks okay, but it’s not. That’s a horrible thing that no one wants to touch. It kind of identifies who worked on the movie.
Tony Vespe, Caleb Barwick, and AJ Bowen
WM: Not to spend the ENTIRE time talking about Halloween, but the moment that really sold it for me was seeing Tony at home on Halloween night when there are so many fair-weather Halloween fans who use it as an excuse to go out and party. I spend every Halloween at home just watching movies, eating candy. To see Tony sitting there was really cool.
AJ: There’s a ritual. You have to turn the lights down and you save that extra candy for yourself.
EH: The movie that he’s watching is a movie with AJ in it and the screaming is AJ screaming.
AJ: A movie that I made with Tony’s older brother, it’s a short film, called “No Way Out”.
WM: A lot of the movie has to do with legacy and you guys have the running joke about Pete being a future version of Tony and there’s a scene where you two are sitting on the couch together eating popcorn and playing videogames where your head movements mimic one another.
TV: I’m really glad you noticed that because I did it on purpose.
WM: I really couldn’t tell who was leading and who was following, but your head movements were mimicking each other. Later in the film, Pete has the confrontation with Craig and Pete says, “I used to be like you,” so I was wondering if you guys could talk about if Pete is what happens if Tony went down the wrong path or…
TV: HE GETS IT. That’s exactly what we were going for
EH: That was 100,000% intentional. You’re supposed to think that Pete is future Tony, but Craig is–
AJ: Well I don’t like ANY of this.
EH: Because Craig wants to be cool! The people who Pete owes money to are thugs, who aren’t like Pete, but he’s trying to be cool. That’s who Pete has become because he’s followed this path. Craig is hanging out with people who beat up this person who he’s been friends with his whole life because he’s trying to be cool. That’s exactly what we were trying to do, but there are very subtle things where Craig and Pete mimic each other. In that scene, when all three of them are there, Pete and Craig are wearing these shirts with bright yellow sleeves. It was this subtle thing we could do to show this “cool fashion” that they’d, well, clearly I don’t know fashion, but it would identify them as being the cool kids. Initially it was the “I’m future you”, then there’s a shift once Pete says to Craig, “I used to be like you,” so I’m very glad you picked up on that. It’s very subtle and not important to understand the movie but hopefully it helps when you’re watching it.
WM: Well, this ain’t just a hat rack. [points at head] Even though it’s currently holding a hat.
EH: I’m sorry for upsetting AJ.
AJ Bowen and Tony Vespe
WM: In the film, Pete is theoretically a mentor for Tony, and Tony is a mentor for Mikey, so what was it like for YOU (AJ) to be incorporated with people who you could learn from and things that you could try to instill in them? Could you talk about the dynamic of how that worked out on set?
AJ: I learned a lot more on it than I’m assuming that they did. It was that time in life for me, where I felt really guilty that I was the one who had made the most movies out of the group, because they deserved better. They deserved someone who had more depth of experience. I was aware of that slot and it’s one of the reasons that I was really excited to do it. I’m not old enough to be any of their dads. All the high school kids in the movie, yeah, and that freaked me out. I was really excited that there was a group of people making movies. I was saying to someone else before that I’m not qualifying it with “These cool little Austin movies with friends.” I don’t see it that way. There is a lot of heart and a lot of people who believe in telling the story in Austin so a lot of people worked for free. The payment they get out of it is that sense of community and being able to watch something and, however large or small, they had a hand in it. They all have ownership of that movie. That makes everything a richer experience, that someone can own that forever. For us, for the rest of my life, when I watch this movie, I’ll remember everything that happened on set and the relationships with the people, but what was important to me on this one was making sure that I did my part. My job was to support Tony and Emily in structure and in performance. To advocate for everyone there. Fortunately, in this case, everyone was advocating for one another. We were always having conversations about what would work better and there was such a lack of selfishness in the whole experience of working on this. I had to force Kate to slap me. She didn’t want to do it.
KF: That’s not true, I whacked him really hard.
AJ: That’s how good of an actress she is, she acted like she didn’t want to do it. Then she smacked the shit out of me.
TV: It definitely wasn’t hard for me to fill that role, because, no b.s., I’ve watched AJ for years. I really kind of do see him as a mentor, so that part for me was easy…and really intimidating. I know him and we’re friends, but I couldn’t imagine acting with him. When Emily told me that AJ was in the movie, I thought, “Seriously?! Well, maybe not…are you sure? Maybe? Are you sure you want me to be with the good actor?”
AJ: THE AJ Bowen of Hatchet 2?!
TV: (laughs) Shut up. I didn’t really have to act in those parts. The trampoline scene was the one that changed my opinion on the whole thing because I think the first thing we shot was the Costume World stuff, and at that point, I was still thinking, “Oh man, I’m gonna screw this up. This guy’s experienced and, oh no, I look up to this guy, there’s no way I can have a presence with this guy.” Then, after the trampoline scene, I thought maybe this would work.
AJ: Don’t get ahead of yourself there, Tony. You’re doing great. (laughs)
Grow Up, Tony Phillips will be screening at The Chicago Critics Film Festival the weekend of April 12-14.