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

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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.

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11 Magical Facts About Willow
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Five years after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and four years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), George Lucas gave audiences the story for another film about an unlikely hero on an epic journey, but this time he had three Magic Acorns and a taller friend instead of a whip and gun to help him along. Willow (1988) was directed by Ron Howard and starred former Ewok and future Leprechaun, Warwick Davis.

Over the past few decades, Willow—which was released 30 years ago today—has become a cult classic that's been passed down from generation to generation. Before you sit down to explore that world again (or for the first time), here are 11 things you might not have know about Willow.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR WARWICK DAVIS.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Warwick Davis revealed that George Lucas first mentioned the idea for the film to Davis’s mother during the filming of one of the Ewok TV specials in 1983, in which he was reprising his role as Wicket. Lucas had been developing the idea for more than a decade at that point, but working with Davis on Return of the Jedi helped him realize the vision. “George just simply said that he had this idea, and he was writing this story, with me in mind,” Davis said. “He didn't say at that time that it was going to be called Willow. He said, 'It's not for quite yet; it's for a few years ahead, when Warwick is a bit older.'" The role was Davis’s first time not wearing a mask or costume on screen.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED MUNCHKINS.

Five years after he mentioned the idea, Lucas was ready to make his film with Ron Howard directing and a then-17-year-old Davis as the lead. The original title was presumably inspired by the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the subsequent Victor Fleming film.

3. IT WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING A COPY OF STAR WARS.

Having thought of the two worlds simultaneously, Lucas may have cribbed some of his own work and other well-known stories a little too much for Willow, and some critics noticed. “Without anything like [Star Wars’s] eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, Willow recapitulates images from Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Mad Max, Peter Pan, Star Wars itself, The Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950s, the Bible, and a million fairy tales," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times. "One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda, and the White Rock Girl.”

Later in her review, Maslin continued to point out the similarities between the two films: “When the sorcerer tells Willow to follow his heart, he becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi of a film that also has its Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Princess Leia stand-ins. Much energy has gone into the creation of their names, some of which (General Kael) have recognizable sources and others (Burglekutt, Cherlindrea, Airk) have only tongue-twisting in mind. Not even the names have anything like Star Wars-level staying power.”

4. IT WAS THE LARGEST CASTING CALL FOR LITTLE PEOPLE IN MOVIE HISTORY.

Lucas has previously cast several little people for roles in Return of the Jedi, and there were more than 100 actors hired to portray Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. But, according to Davis, the casting call for Willow was the largest ever at the time with between 225 and 240 actors hired for the film.

5. THE DEATH DOGS WERE REAL DOGS IN COSTUME.

The big bad in the film, Bavmorda, has demon dogs that terrorize Willow’s village. The dogs are more boar-like than canine, but they were portrayed by Rottweilers. The prop team outfitted the dogs with rubber masks and used animatronic heads for close-up scenes.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST USE OF MORPHING IN A FILM.

While trying to use magic to turn an animal back into a human, Willow fails several times before eventually getting it right, but he does succeed in turning the animal into another animal, which is shown in stages. To achieve this, the visual effects teamed used a technique known as "morphing."

The film’s visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, explained the technique to The Telegraph:

The way things had been up till that time, if a character had to change at some way from a dog into a person or something like that it could be done with a series of mechanical props. You would have to cut away to a person watching it, and then cut back to another prop which is pushing the ears out, for example, so it didn't look fake ... we shot five different pieces of film, of a goat, an ostrich, a tiger, a tortoise, and a woman and had one actually change into the shape of the other one without having to cut away. The technique is much more realistic because the cuts are done for dramatic reasons, rather than to stop it from looking bad.”

7. THE STORY WAS CONTINUED IN SEVERAL NOVELS.

Willow has yet to receive a sequel, but fans of the story can return to the world in a trilogy of books that author Chris Claremont wrote in collaboration with Lucas between 1995 and 2000. According to the Amazon synopsis of Shadow Moon, the first book picks up 13 years after the events of the film, and baby Elora Danan’s friendless upbringing has turned her into a “spoiled brat who seemingly takes joy in making miserable the lives around her. The fate of the Great Realms rests in her hands, and she couldn't care less. Only a stranger can lead her to her destiny.”

8. THERE IS A MISSING SCENE CONCERNING THE MAGIC ACORNS.

Hardcore fans of the film have noticed that there is a continuity error that involves the Magic Acorns Willow was given by the High Aldwin. During an interview with The Empire Podcast, Davis explained that in a scene near the end of the film, he throws a second acorn and is inexplicably out after having only used two of the three Magic Acorns he had been given earlier in the film. Included in the Blu-ray release is the cut scene, in which Willow uses an acorn (his second) in a boat during a storm and accidentally turns the boat to stone. Davis says that his hair is wet in the next scene that did make it into the original version of the film, but the acorn is never referenced.

9. JOHN CUSACK AUDITIONED FOR THE PART OF MADMARTIGAN.

Val Kilmer in 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Val Kilmer famously played the role of the reluctant hero two years after played Iceman in Top Gun (1986), but he was not the only big name to audition for the role. Davis revealed in a commentary track that he once read with John Cusack, who in 1987 had already starred in Sixteen Candles (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Hot Pursuit (1987).

10. THERE IS A NOD TO SISKEL AND EBERT.

During a battle scene later in the film, Willow and his compatriots have to fight a two-headed beast outside of the castle. The name of the stop motion beast is the Eborsisk, which is a combination of the names of famed film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

11. THE BABY NEVER ACTED AGAIN.

A scene from 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As is the case with most shows and films, the role of the baby Elora was played by twins, in this case Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The IMDb pages for both actresses only has the one credit. In 2007, Davis shared a picture of him posing with a woman named Laura Hopkirk, who said that she played the baby for the scenes shot in New Zealand, but she is not credited online.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
Getty Images

To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
Getty Images

David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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