Entertaining, unique, and ultimately inspiring, the documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie is the behind-the-scenes story of the independent horror film Pathogen, and of its writer-director, Emily Hagins. Pathogen is Emily’s first feature-length film – an ambitious undertaking for anyone, let alone a sixth-grader. I truly enjoyed Zombie Girl: The Movie – read my review here – and I was fortunate to meet with one of the film’s directors, Aaron Marshall, who will personally introduce his film at its Los Angeles premiere this weekend at the Downtown Independent.
How did you and your co-directors – Justin Johnson and Erik Mauck – come across Emily’s story?
The three of us all used to live in Austin – Erik still lives there, I’m in L.A., and Justin’s in St. Louis. We were all filmmakers with our ears to the scene, and I believe it was Justin who saw the casting call she posted online on a local website, saying that she was looking for kids to act in a zombie movie that she was directing.
Did the casting call reference that she was twelve?
I believe so! So it was very intriguing. We contacted the parents to see if it’d be all right to come shoot some interviews, and come shoot the auditions a couple of days later, and two years after that, we were still shooting.
How early into the shooting of “Pathogen” did you become associated with Emily and her production?
I think technically she’d already shot a couple of scenes, and it wasn’t working out very well because she just had all of her friends in it. So then she decided, okay, I have to do this for real, I’m going to hold auditions and cast these roles, and that’s when we heard of her. So we were there the following week shooting all the auditions, and within a couple of more weeks she started shooting the “real” shoot, and she scrapped all but just a couple of the original things that she’d done.
The concepts of casting calls, shooting schedules, boom mikes – do you know where she picked up those elements of film production? Did she read any books, or get guidance?
I’m not sure if she read any books, but she worked as an intern P.A. on this one low-budget horror film that was shot in Austin, so she absorbed a lot of that from that experience. Plus she’s watched the behind the scenes features from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy a bunch of times. She also made a few short films before. With her Barbies, stuff like that.
I love the moment in your film where Megan (Emily’s mother) references that she and her daughter bonded over their shared experience of watching the “Lord of the Rings” movies.
They watched those a bunch of times.
It’s great watching Megan’s character take more and more stock into the production of “Pathogen” as the film goes on. It’s clear that it goes from simply a mother helping her daughter out, to a collaborator getting very personally excited and invested in the finished product. It was an interesting encapsulation of a producer-director dynamic, in this domestic setting.
And you have this mother-daughter dynamic as well. It’s great because it’s an important time between a mother and daughter – Emily is becoming a teenager while they’re making the movie. The fact that they have this project that they’re focusing on as a team while she is going through this period in her life, I think, is cool for them, and strengthened their bond.
Do you think Megan may also follow in Emily’s footsteps and move on exclusively to film production as well?
She was involved in Emily’s second film as well. But according to Emily, she was scaled back to craft services.
Do you still keep in touch with Emily? Is Emily working on another project?
She’s actually finished her second feature! It’s a ghost story. She’s got two different scripts she’s toying with right now. One is another sort of a genre deal, and the other is a comedy.
I think of that filmmaker from Uruguay (Fede Alvarez) who made a five minute sci-fi film (Ataque de Panico!), or (“District 9″ director) Neill Blomkamp – these independent filmmakers whose films fell under the right eyes and ended up opening up doors. Is that happening for Emily yet? Did people pick up on either “Pathogen” or “Zombie Girl” and step up in any way to help build up her career? Or is she still too young and focusing more on these smaller types of productions?
Well she’s still a junior in high school. She still has another year and a half of high school to go. I know she held a couple of fundraisers to help fund her second movie, and they were able to pull off making a little bit of money to finish the film.
This is the first documentary you’ve directed. Were you actively looking to make a documentary when you discovered this story?
Not really. I love documentaries – some of my favorite movies are documentaries – but I’ve always been more interested in narrative films. Fiction.
What are some documentaries you love?
Have you seen “Capturing the Friedmans”?
Beyond its subject matter, what’s fascinating is the evolution of that story, that film – you set out to make one kind of movie, and the next think you know you’re making something completely different and you’re privy to some very deep and dark secrets of this family. David Lynch calls these “happy accidents,” when you allow things to sort of evolve, or devolve, and you go with it and see where it takes you and you end up with something fantastic that wasn’t part of the original plan. In your case I think it’s great you went ahead and made this documentary even though it wasn’t what you set out as a filmmaker to do.
The story was just too good to pass up. Twelve-year-old girl makes zombie movie. I wanted to be a part of that.
Having edited, done shorts, worked sound editing, directed a documentary – are you still focused on directing fiction features, or has that changed at all?
I enjoy doing features – shorts are fun, and it’s a good exercise, but I enjoy features. And while I enjoyed making my first documentary, I think my next product will be fiction, narrative. It doesn’t take as long, and it’s a little bit more of a controlled environment. I like directing, and I like writing. The interesting thing about editing a documentary – specifically a documentary – is that it’s sort of like writing. It’s more like using writing skills than using editing skills – someone gives you millions of pre-written sentences, and you have to rearrange them to form a structure. It definitely draws on that part of the brain.
Was there a conversation early on about whether or not the filmmakers would have a presence in the film?
There was. We talked about that, about not wanting to. Especially because we are filmmakers, and she is this young filmmaker – we didn’t want to pollute her process. It would have been very easy for us to get involved, and mix it up. We wanted to let it all unfold as closely to what it would have if we were not there. It was really important to keep a hands-off point of view. Justin wanted to shoot mini-interviews every day, which is what we did. Quick little interviews where they’d tell us what they’re doing every day. And then in post-production, we introduced those as voice overs, as we watched the story unfold. Just cut to them to explain things. If we interject our voices into it, it takes you out of it a little bit. You see that a lot in documentaries – directors come in and start telling you what happened. We chose not to do that.
Even something as simple as fading to black and allowing for titles to advance the story always seems less invasive.
We decided to spiff up our titles with those bloody stuffed animals. Our title designer, Deborah Allison, put that together.
How many hours of rough footage was there?
About 150 hours. Cut down into 89 minutes.
And you edited the film yourself.
How long was the editing process?
Oh man… It took a while. A couple of years. We were following her for about two years to begin with, and about half way through that process, I started doing the cutting. The serious editing work couldn’t begin until we were done shooting. So it was another year of serious editing at that point, and then another 8-10 months of scoring, color correction, etc.
Did you approach the story with the intent to make a feature-length documentary?
I think that initially, it didn’t know what it was going to be. I think it quickly became apparent after a couple of months, that this was going to become a feature length movie. At first, they (Emily’s family) were confident that it was going to be done in a couple of months. We naively thought the same.
Did Emily edit “Pathogen” herself?
She did most of the editing. Her mom stepped in on some of the more complicated sequences. And they had friends step in from time to time who knew the software pretty well.
Do you know what software she used to edit?
She started using iMovie. She cut the film initially on that. Then they transferred it over to Final Cut Express. I’m not sure Apple even makes that version anymore. Now she uses Final Cut for everything.
What did you edit “Zombie Girl: The Movie” on?
I hear Emily also distributes “Pathogen” herself, and that she personally writes and signs a little note along with every order.
This weekend is the Los Angeles premiere of “Zombie Girl: The Movie,” with a couple of rare double-features with “Pathogen.” Will you be at any of the screenings?
I will be there Friday and Saturday. Friday the film starts at 7:00pm, and Saturday it’s at 7:40pm. I’ll be at both of those, and after each there’ll be a Q&A – some of the other crew will be there, and Emily will be appearing live via Skype. I think my co-director Erik will be popping in on the Skype as well. After each Q&A, then Emily will intro a screening of “Pathogen” – and I think this is only the second time there’s been a double-feature of “Zombie Girl: The Movie” and “Pathogen.” We did a double-feature in Chicago; at Slamdance they screened “Pathogen,” but on a different night than “Zombie Girl: The Movie.”
Congratulations on winning the Spirit Award at Slamdance. Are you still actively showing “Zombie Girl: The Movie” at festivals?
It’s slowed down a little. It’s been over a year now in the festival circuit. We got to screen at some really cool places. We screened at Comic Con in San Diego, which was great because there were a lot of horror fans at that convention. We played Hot Docs in Canada, which is the biggest documentary festival in North America. We’ve transitioned now towards playing it theatrically, like this weekend at Downtown Independent, or our recent run at Alamo Drafthouse.
Is the film available on DVD yet?
Not yet. It’s playing on TV. In the US, it’s playing on the Documentary Channel. Different parts of Europe are playing it on the Sundance Channel.
Prior to working on “Zombie Girl: The Movie,” did you have a working relationship or friendship with either (Ain’t It Cool News founder) Harry Knowles or (Alamo Drafthouse owner) Tim League, or were those great surprises that popped up while making the film?
I’d never met either of them! Like I said I’d always gone to the Alamo Drafthouse, for years, but no I’d never met him. Harry’s also in “Pathogen” – there’s a scene where somebody’s listening to a radio broadcast, and he’s the radio announcer. And he’s talking about how the zombie apocalypse is spreading across the country. That was his cameo.
It seems like she was going for a straight horror movie, and not camp.
Oh yeah! No, she’s going all the way. There are funny moments – you know, horror movies have their funny moments – but she’s definitely going for horror. “Pathogen” has some genuine scares in it. Especially being made by a 12-year-old girl and her mom.
Do you know what kind of camera she used?
Yeah, like a Sony Handycam. Digi8. It was their family camcorder.
People like (Troma Entertainment founder) Lloyd Kaufman and Quentin Tarantino are constantly deriding the concept of film school, structured study, etc., and just saying, “Just go out and make your movie.” Emily’s story certainly seems to support this approach. It’s very inspirational, to watch someone just chase down their vision despite limitations that others may have interpreted as deal-breakers.
I definitely found it very inspiring. And not just to movie people – I think it’s really a very universal story that applies to any person pursuing anything. There’s a certain aspect of this movie that appeals to genre folks, certainly. But I think for any person who ever had a dream of doing anything, this is a story you can find some inspiration in.
February 21, 2010
The Silver Spoon, West Hollywood, CA
- Zombie Girl: The Movie is celebrating its Los Angeles premiere this weekend -
See it at Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main Street, Los Angeles CA 90012
February 26 – March 4
Friday, February 26 and Saturday, February 27, catch a rare
Zombie Girl: The Movie + Pathogen
Zombie Girl: The Movie at 7pm, followed by Pathogen at 9:40
**Q&A with the Zombie Girl: The Movie directors, and via Skype, Emily Hagins herself!**