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

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SXSW.com

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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15 Must-Watch Facts About The Ring
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DreamWorks

An urban legend about a videotape that kills its viewers seven days after they see it turns out to be true. To her increasing horror, reporter Rachel Keller (then-newcomer Naomi Watts) discovers this after her niece is one of four teenage victims, and is in a race against the clock to uncover the mystery behind the girl in the video before her and her son’s time is up.

Released 15 years ago, on October 18, 2002, The Ring began a trend of both remaking Japanese horror films in a big way, and giving you nightmares about creepy creatures crawling out of your television. Here are some facts about the film that you can feel free to pass along to anybody, guilt-free.

1. DREAMWORKS BOUGHT THE AMERICAN RIGHTS TO RINGU FOR $1 MILLION.

There were conflicting stories over how executive producer Roy Lee came to see the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, Hideo Nakata's adaptation of the 1991 novel Ring by Kôji Suzuki. Lee said two different friends gave him a copy of Ringu in January 2001, which he loved and immediately gave to DreamWorks executive Mark Sourian, who agreed to purchase the rights. But Lee’s close friend Mike Macari worked at Fine Line Features, which had an American remake of Ringu in development before January 2001. Macari said he showed Lee Ringu much earlier. Macari and Lee were both listed as executive producers for The Ring.

2. THE DIRECTOR FIRST SAW RINGU ON A POOR QUALITY VHS TAPE, WHICH ADDED TO ITS CREEPINESS.

Gore Verbinski had previously directed MouseHunt. He said the first time he "watched the original Ringu was on a VHS tape that was probably seven generations down. It was really poor quality, but actually that added to the mystique, especially when I realized that this was a movie about a videotape." Naomi Watts struggled to find a VHS copy of Ringu while shooting in the south of Wales. When she finally got a hold of one she watched it on a very small TV alone in her hotel room. "I remember being pretty freaked out," Watts said. "I just saw it the once, and that was enough to get me excited about doing it."

3. THE RING AND RINGU ARE ABOUT 50 PERCENT DIFFERENT.

Naomi Watts in 'The Ring'
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

Verbinski estimated that, for the American version, they "changed up to 50 percent of it. The basic premise is intact, the story is intact, the ghost story, the story of Samara, the child." Storylines involving the characters having ESP, a volcano, “dream logic,” and references to “brine and goblins” were taken out.

4. IT RAINED ALMOST EVERY DAY WHEN THEY FILMED IN THE STATE OF WASHINGTON.

The weather added to the “atmosphere of dread,” according to the film's production notes. Verbinski said the setting allowed them to create an “overcast mood” of dampness and isolation.

5. THE PRODUCTION DESIGNER WAS INFLUENCED BY ANDREW WYETH.

Artist Andrew Wyeth tended to use muted, somber earth tones in his work. "In Wyeth's work, the trees are always dormant, and the colors are muted earth tones," explained production designer Tom Duffield. "It's greys, it's browns, it's somber colors; it's ripped fabrics in the windows. His work has a haunting flavor that I felt would add to the mystique of this movie, so I latched on to it."

6. THERE WERE RINGS EVERYWHERE.

The carpeting and wallpaper patterns, the circular kitchen knobs, the doctor’s sweater design, Rachel’s apartment number, and more were purposely designed with the film's title in mind.

7. WATTS AND MARTIN HENDERSON HAD A FRIENDLY INTERNATIONAL RIVALRY.

Martin Henderson and Naomi Watts star in 'The Ring' (1992)
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

The New Zealand-born Henderson played Noah, Rachel’s ex-husband. Since Watts is from Australia, Henderson said that, "Between takes, we'd joke around with each other's accents and play into the whole New Zealand-Australia rivalry."

8. THE TWO WEREN’T SURE IF THE MOVIE WAS GOING TO BE SCARY ENOUGH.

After shooting some of the scenes, and not having the benefit of seeing what they'd look like once any special effects were added, Henderson and Watts worried that the final result would not be scary enough. "There were moments when Naomi and I would look at each other and say, 'This is embarrassing, people are going to laugh,'" Henderson told the BBC." You just hope that somebody makes it scary or you're going to look like an idiot!"

9. CHRIS COOPER WAS CUT FROM THE MOVIE.

Cooper played a child murderer in two scenes which were initially meant to bookend the film. He unconvincingly claimed to Rachel that he found God in the beginning, and in the end she gave him the cursed tape. Audiences at test screenings were distracted that an actor they recognized disappears for most of the film, so he was cut out entirely.

10. THEY TRIED TO GET RID OF ALL OF THE SHADOWS.

Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli used the lack of sunlight in Washington to remove the characters’ shadows. The two wanted to keep the characters feeling as if “they’re floating a little bit, in space.”

11. THE TREE WAS NICKNAMED "LUCILLE."

The red Japanese maple tree in the cursed video was named after the famous redheaded actress Lucille Ball. The tree was fake, built out of steel tubing and plaster. The Washington wind blew it over three different times. The night they put up the tree in Los Angeles, the wind blew at 60 miles per hour and knocked Lucille over yet again. "It was very strange," said Duffield.

12. MOESKO ISLAND IS A FUNCTIONING LIGHTHOUSE.

Moesko Island Lighthouse is Yaquina Head Lighthouse, at the mouth of the Yaquina River, a mile west of Agate Beach, Oregon. The website Rachel checks, MoeskoIslandLighthouse.com, used to actually exist as a one-page website, which gave general information on the fictional place. You can read it here.

13. A WEBSITE WAS CREATED BY DREAMWORKS TO PROMOTE THE MOVIE AND ADD TO ITS MYTHOLOGY.

Before and during the theatrical release, if you logged into AnOpenLetter.com, you could read a message in white lettering against a black background warning about what happens if you watch the cursed video (you can read it here). By November 24, 2002, it was a standard official website made for the movie, set up by DreamWorks.

14. VERBINSKI DIDN’T HAVE FUN DIRECTING THE MOVIE.

“It’s no fun making a horror film," admitted Verbinski. "You get into some darker areas of the brain and after a while everything becomes a bit depressing.”

15. DAVEIGH CHASE SCARED HERSELF.

Daveigh Chase in 'The Ring'
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

When Daveigh Chase, who played Samara, saw The Ring in theaters, she had to cover her eyes out of fear—of herself. Some people she met after the movie came out were also afraid of her.

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12 Facts About Disney's The Jungle Book
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Walt Disney Studios

It may not have followed Rudyard Kipling's book exactly—in fact, Walt Disney preferred that scriptwriters not read the book—but The Jungle Book was a toe-tapping box office success. Here are a few "bare necessities" you should know about the 1967 animated classic, which was released in theaters across America 50 years ago.

1. WALT DISNEY THOUGHT THE FIRST VERSION OF THE SCRIPT WAS TOO DARK.

Writer Bill Peet was brought on to script the first version of the movie, but Disney believed it was too dark. It’s not clear whether Peet left or was booted from the project; either way, a new team was brought in for rewrites. Floyd Norman, one of the new writers, said Walt wanted the film to have more laughs and more personality, and—true to Disney form—he also wanted sign off on every little detail.

2. MOST OF THE SONGS WERE DEEMED TOO DARK AS WELL.

Composer Terry Gilkyson was hired to write songs for the movie, but as with the script, Disney felt they lacked a sense of fun. Though the Sherman brothers (Richard and Robert) were brought in to write a new soundtrack, one of Gilkyson’s songs did remain in the movie: "The Bare Necessities." We'd say he got the last laugh: Not only is “The Bare Necessities” one of the best tunes in Disney history, it was also nominated for an Oscar (the film's sole nomination).

3. IT WAS THE LAST ANIMATED FEATURE WALT DISNEY OVERSAW.

When Disney died on December 15, 1966, the studio closed for a single day. Then they got back to business working on the last animated feature Disney had a hand in. It was released on October 18, 1967.

4. A RHINOCEROS CHARACTER GOT CUT.

Rocky the Rhino was intended to be a dim-witted, bumbling, near-blind character that would provide some comic relief. His scenes were completely storyboarded before he got the boot: He was supposed to appear after King Louie’s scene, but Walt didn’t want to put the funny sequences back-to-back.

5. THEY WANTED THE BEATLES TO VOICE THE VULTURES.

The Sherman brothers wrote the vultures’ song “That’s What Friends Are For” with The Beatles in mind, even giving the characters similar accents. But the Fab Four turned them down. “John was running the show at the time, and he said [dismissively] ‘I don’t wanna do an animated film.’ Three years later they did Yellow Submarine, so you can see how things change,” Richard Sherman said.

Here’s what the version of “That’s What Friends Are For” would have sounded like, as well as a glimpse of Rocky the Rhino:

6. THERE ARE MAJOR MISPRONUNCIATIONS IN THE MOVIE.

According to a guide written by Kipling, the main character’s name is pronounced "Mowglee" (accent on the 'Mow,' which rhymes with 'cow'), not “Moe-glee,” which is how Disney chose to say it. In addition, Kaa the snake is supposed to be “Kar,” Baloo the Bear should have been “Barloo,” and Colonel Hathi is really “Huttee.”

7. KING LOUIE WAS BASED ON LOUIS ARMSTRONG.

Although jazz singer and bandleader Louis Prima voiced the fire-obsessed orangutan, he’s not the Louis who the Shermans originally had in mind when they began writing “I Wan’na Be Like You” for the character. "We were thinking about Louis Armstrong when we wrote it, and that's where we got the name, King Louie," Richard Sherman told The New York Times. "Then in a meeting one day, they said, ‘Do you realize what the N.A.A.C.P. would do to us if we had a black man as an ape? They'd say we're making fun of him.' I said: ‘Come on, what are you talking about? I adore Louis Armstrong, I wouldn't hurt him in any way.'” In the end, Louis Prima stepped in.

8. A JUNGLE BOOK DANCE SEQUENCE WAS LATER BORROWED FOR ROBIN HOOD.

King Louie and Baloo’s “I Wan’na Be Like You” dance was later repeated, frame for frame, in Robin Hood, which also borrowed dances from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Aristocats. This was achieved through an animation technique called “rotoscoping,” where animators trace over the frames of old footage to use it in a different environment.

9. THE SONG "TRUST IN ME" WAS ALSO RECYCLED.

Originally written for Mary Poppins as “Land of Sand,” “Trust In Me” was recycled with new lyrics for Kaa to sing while hypnotizing poor Mowgli. Here’s what it would have sounded like:

10. THE YOUNG ELEPHANT WAS VOICED BY CLINT HOWARD.

Ron Howard’s younger brother also voiced another Disney youngster: Roo in the Winnie the Pooh movies.

11. PHIL HARRIS BROUGHT NEW LIFE TO BALOO.

Allegedly, Walt Disney chose Harris to voice Baloo after meeting him at a party. At the time, Harris was retired and nearly forgotten in Hollywood. His first day of recording didn’t go so well at first: Harris found Baloo’s tone wooden and boring, so asked if he could try a little improvisation. Once given the go-ahead, "I came out with something like, 'You keep foolin' around in the jungle like this, man, you gonna run across some cats that'll knock the roof in,'" Harris recalled. Disney loved Baloo’s new personality and rewrote lines to suit the style.

12. THERE WAS A SEQUEL.

It came out in 2003 (not direct-to-video, surprisingly) and featured Haley Joel Osment as Mowgli and John Goodman as Baloo. By most accounts, you shouldn’t bother seeing it; it currently has a 19 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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