SXSW 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.