Q&A: Emily Hagins and AJ Bowen, director and star of Grow Up, Tony Phillips

Emily Hagins is just 20 years old, but she’s already written and directed four feature films (the first, Pathogen, she made when she was 12), all shot in Austin. Her latest feature, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, had its world premiere tonight at the SXSW film festival. We sat down with Hagins and Tony Phillips star AJ Bowen (who plays Pete) to talk about collaborating with the Austin film community to make the movie, how the music itself is a character, and why this movie is different from everything else Hagins has done so far.

mental_floss: In your other films, you’ve tackled everything from zombies to vampires to ghosts. But Grow Up, Tony Phillips is a totally different kind of movie. What made you want to put aside genre?
Emily Hagins: My last two features, they were both…[The Retelling] is very dark and depressing and it made me kind of depressed to be working on it. And then my last movie [My Sucky Teen Romance] has some comedic elements to it, but teenagers are still dying, and it’s kind of sad. So I really wanted to make a movie that had no genre at all—but I really loved this Halloween aesthetic. I thought it to would be interesting to use something that may [make it] inherently feel like a genre film but to use it for a sweet, coming-of-age movie.

m_f: The Austin film community is extremely close-knit. You got notes from your star’s brother, Eric Vespe, who is a film writer for Ain’t It Cool News, and a few Austin-based writers and filmmakers appear in this movie and in your other movies. Can you talk a little bit about the collaborative process that went into making the film?
EH: I’m a really big fan of getting a lot of feedback on things. I’m very self-conscious when I’m writing and directing and editing. I’m afraid of this Emperor’s New Clothes thing when everyone just tells you it’s fine when it’s not. So when I know people are going to be very blunt and honest, I feel like I’m just going to make an even better movie. And I really trust Eric’s sensibilities, so he’s one of the people I like to [get notes from]. I usually go to the same few people for notes on the script along the way as we’re making the movie, and with people like AJ and Tony [Vespe], who knew their characters very well. And when, if there was a problem with the script when we were on set and we had to kind of adjust it, they had really, really good feedback on what their characters would do or say. Now I don’t even remember how those scenes were originally written, because they really made them better.

m_f: AJ, what was it like working with Emily as a director?
AJ Bowen: It was a terrible work experience for me, having to work for Emily Hagins. [Laughs] It was great, because I already knew Emily. And when one of the producers called me before the script was even written, and started trying to sell me, I stopped him mid-sentence and said, “Emily is writing a script, and she’s going to direct and she would like me to be involved? That’s a firm yes from this end.” Because I already knew that Tony was also going to work on it, and Tony is kind of like a little brother to me. In an independent film, there’s not a lot of money and not a lot of time, and people—there can kind of be a cynical outlook, and people can become jaded to the magic of the process. You’re getting to collaborate on a story with a group of people, and it’s only going to exist at that time—but then at the end of it you have a journal that will live forever, and people will hopefully be able to get some entertainment out of it. Because that’s ostensibly what the final product is. It’s our journal of us going away to camp together, and putting on a production.

m_f: How did Tony Phillips compare to some of the other movies you’ve made?
AJB: I’ve made 15 or 16 movies at this point, and of any of the movies that I’ve worked on, this is the most fully realized product. All of the elements that are in the movie that weren’t about the movie—like the heart—it was all there. I’ve worked on films where we’ve dramatically changed the story structure and did complete 180s on characters. And I didn’t want to do that on this movie. I wanted to advocate for Emily and be there to support Tony, who I knew was going to have a pretty large responsibility—the film, in terms of performers, is squarely on his shoulders. So I wanted to help out in whatever way I could. I felt bad for them that I was what they had to go to, in terms of work experience. [Laughs] But it was great—we had a lot of conversations before we would start shooting, and we’d have conversations after the day about what we were going to do next.

m_f: In the instances where you realized that a scene wasn’t working as it was written, how did you guys collaborate to make the changes happen?
AJB: My main mission was to try to not get in there and change things—it was to stay out of the way of what Emily had already written. So the few times that there were tweaks, it would be after we were shooting a scene—the energy’s always going to change, once we’re actually in the process of doing something. I was very reluctant to engage in that element of it. So when we did that it was conversations between Emily and I, or Emily and Tony and the people that were there in the scene, trying to get at the best answer to the creative storytelling problem. And it was great, because it was so collaborative. There was no sense of ego. It was just: We’re all trying to make the same movie.

m_f: What scene was the most difficult to shoot?
EH: There was one scene of just Tony picking up a box under his bed—I had nightmares about it the whole shoot. All we had to do was just get this box out from under his bed, and we had to do 14 takes of it. The bed wouldn’t be right, and then the box wouldn’t be right, and it was like everything was going wrong. We moved the shot somewhere else in the finished movie, so now he’s wearing the wrong clothes for that one shot. It’s the only continuity error. When I asked them to go back and re-shoot it, they were like “You’re kidding, right?” [Laughs] That stupid shot. But that’s the most takes we did, really. Everyone was very on top of what they were doing and on the same page.

m_f: When it came time to shoot, how did you pick your locations?
EH: Our whole team looked for locations. We had this color palette that our production designer, Griffon Ramsey, was working from. We were really trying to find things that fit within that scheme, and make sure the locations weren’t too old-fashioned or too modern. We wanted everything to feel very timeless. There are no cell phones or computers in the movie, really. We shot in a high school, and there was a whole section of that had been remodeled—it looked like the Jetsons. And they were like, “Do you want our new classrooms with our cool computers?” And we were like, “no, we want the old side.” So that’s kind of the way we approached technology in this movie, just to keep it about the relationships in a way that applied to the production design and finding locations that fit that same theme.

m_f: How did the production of this one differ from your other movies?
EH: We had a bigger crew and more time to shoot, which was nice. We shot My Sucky Teen Romance in like about two weeks, 15 hours a day, and we were running on enthusiasm and it was very difficult—we didn’t even know if we were getting good takes sometimes. On this movie, all of the problems were mostly “Oh I wish we could’ve gotten another angle, but everything we have is what we planned for.” So it was like a very easy process in a way.

m_f: Why did you make the decision not to edit this movie?
EH: I guess I really wanted some distance from it, because I wrote and directed it. I’m a big fan of editing, and I think more like an editor sometimes. I cut the trailer, and I guess I had very specific editing notes for the movie, but because of the timeline, we had to split up the work between several people, so that we could get it all done. We met every couple of days to go over all the cuts, so I was very, very involved in the editing process. But we were working with editors who were good and understood what we were trying to do.

m_f: My Sucky Teen Romance had an incredibly catchy song that was written by one of the stars of the film. Tony Phillips has great music, too. Did you do something similar and go to a friend?
EH: Yes! It’s the same guy—Santiago Dietche! [It’s a totally different sound], because he’s a prodigy. He has 12 songs in the movie, and they’re all him. Even the rock songs—that’s his rock band—and then all the sweet guitar songs, that’s just him. He’s younger than me; he can do anything. He wrote the opening credits song in like 12 hours, and had a solid recording of it, and he was like “Does this work? Is this what you guys want?” And we were like, “yes!”

AJB: It’s great because it’s an iconic character of the movie. And in independent and small-budget films, people miss how important specific departments are. When it comes to this movie, [the music is] an integral character of the film. It’s the gateway into the vibe of the film. And without that there, it would strip the film of a substantial part of its identity. So, it’s awesome.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Pop Culture
Stanley Kubrick Photography Exhibition Opening at the Museum of the City of New York
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Stanley Kubrick will forever be known as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century, but he started his career in the 1940s as a photojournalist for Look magazine. Now, the Museum of the City of New York will host a photographic exhibition of Kubrick’s early work, featuring 120 pictures from his time as a staff photographer at Look from 1945 to 1950.

Much of Kubrick’s work at the time revolved around daily life in New York City—the clubs, the commutes, and the sports. Some of his most notable pieces while at Look were his photo features on boxers Rocky Graziano and Walter Cartier, the latter of which became the subject of Kubrick’s first film, a 1951 documentary called Day of the Fight.

“Turning his camera on his native city, Kubrick found inspiration in New York's characters and settings, sometimes glamorous, sometimes gritty,” the museum wrote in a press release. “He produced work that was far ahead of his time and focused on themes that would inspire him through his creative life. Most importantly, his photography laid the technical and aesthetic foundations for his cinematography: he learned through the camera's lens to be an acute observer of human interactions and to tell stories through images in dynamic narrative sequences.”

Titled "Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs," the exhibition will detail the different themes that inspired Kubrick’s work, as well as guide patrons through his Look tenure, including both published and unpublished work. One of the exhibit’s goals is to provide an “examination of the direct connection between Kubrick the photographer and Kubrick the director.”

"Through a Different Lens" runs from Thursday, May 3 through October 28, 2018 at the Museum of the City of New York.


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