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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Zombie Girl: The Movie (2009)

Directors: Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck
In August 2005 the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund granted $1,000 to a filmmaker making a zombie movie in order to aid with the post production work. That's not too surprising, given that everyone and their dog are making zombie movies nowadays, but this particular filmmaker was only twelve years old at the time. She's Emily Hagins, a sixth grade middle school student in Austin, TX, so hardly your average film buff, let alone your average writer/director/editor. The only thing not surprising is that when she progressed at the age of ten from a set of short films to her zombie feature, Pathogen, a team of documentarians made their own film about her. This is that film and it does a reasonably good job of explaining who Emily is and what she's like as both a person and a filmmaker. It succeeds best in capturing the change between the ten year old girl who has the crazy idea of shooting a feature and the thirteen year old premiéring it.

Emily is obviously a bright kid. Between ten and thirteen during this film, she seems older, both physically and mentally. It's reasonably obvious that for her to succeed at something, she needs only to want to succeed and to avoid all the blue fish and keep on track. She does benefit from her environment. Her family moved to Austin, a town of creativity and culture, before she could walk, and she became a regular at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of the legendary cinemas in the US today. Her parents are creative sorts themselves, her mother Meghan being a graphic artist and her father Jerry having obvious musical talent. She has their support too, open support that doesn't require her to be a little version of her parents. It's very apparent that the drive here is Emily's but Meghan is the glue. I get the impression that however gifted and driven Emily is, this film would not have been finished without her mother running herself ragged.

There's a textbook example here of not holding back, something that many of us regret. Many kids are talented and able to achieve but have a mental block keeping them from getting out there and doing. Emily does not have that problem and that fact really paid off. After getting seriously into the first Lord of the Rings film, perhaps because she looks rather like Orlando Bloom as a young girl, she wrote to its director, Peter Jackson. Jackson put her in touch with 'his buddy in Austin', Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. She showed up to his annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival and saw the Aussie zombie movie Undead. At ten years of age. Fortunately she has parents who are willing to provide context because her immediate reaction wasn't to hide behind the sofa but to make her own zombie feature. Knowles put her in touch with Rebecca Elliott, who produces indie films, and next thing we know she's written a fifty page script. Pathogen is born.

This documentary initially seems to focus on Emily's failures rather a lot, but the reason for that is soon made clear: she has a lot of learning to do. Most of the things that she has absolutely no clue about at the beginning of production have become second nature by the end. She doesn't understand basic technical questions asked of her at the outset, she doesn't say cut, she can't wield a clapperboard. These issues are quickly solved but there are other points where she's utterly out of her depth, as if she's, well, a ten year old girl making a movie. Towards the end of the film, there's a heartbreaking moment where she realises that she's accidentally wiped over some of her final day's footage. Now I've met and talked with a lot of low budget filmmakers whose early films detail just how quickly they get over the learning curve. Until now I haven't actually seen that process documented but we watch Emily learn here, big time.

By the time Pathogen is finished, which takes two years and so is far from the quick shoot Emily expects, she's become a filmmaker. Perhaps this is the cinematic equivalent of Jerry Pournelle's idea that to become a writer you have to write a million words. You start and finish pieces and once you've racked up a million words, you're a writer. You can throw away what you've written because most of it will be crap, but you're a writer nonetheless. I've been through that process and vouch for it absolutely. Here Emily makes a feature film with all the bits that go right and all the bits that go horribly wrong. She deals with writing a script and shooting it, with lighting and sound, with props and make up, with reshoots when footage isn't good enough. She spends as much time editing the film as making it. And she admits at the end, when she introduces the film's premiére at the Alamo Drafthouse, that the continuity sucks. But now she's a filmmaker.
This transition from ten year old girl to filmmaker is this documentary's key success but there are a few others worthy of note. In particular it ably captures the energy levels involved, from hyper periods of creativity to complete grinding halt. There are points where everything stops for months at a time, partly because Emily's parents did not allow her homework to suffer and partly because the energy just went away. Emily bounces through it but Meghan noticably deteriorates over two years. Juggling a full time job with being a wife and mother is tough on its own but this movie adds a huge commitment. She's there constantly, not just because Emily can't drive but because she handles the boom mike, does the special effects and goes searching for costumes and props. Late on Emily explains that her mom has been invaluable but she doesn't think she should be involved with her future films. She's outgrown her and that's heartbreaking.

What this means is that film is almost the McGuffin here because the real story has as much to do with a couple of parents dealing with the fact that they have an incredibly precocious child who they love and cherish but who is rapidly leaving them behind. While Meghan gradually got drawn more and more into the film herself, I get the impression that it really isn't their cup of tea and that they were there only to help their child reach her potential. Perhaps the hardest part is the realisation that they give so much to help Emily only to find that by the end of the film, they have nothing left to give that she needs. Meghan offers technical advice during editing but Emily doesn't need it because by then she knows what she wants and how to get it. I hope the creative process hasn't ended up as a divisive one in the Hagins household. I don't know what it means but it was noticable that Meghan and Jerry were never on screen together.

Where the film falls apart is when it tries to look beyond Emily and Meghan. There is a little insight into film production generally and into the Austin scene, one of the most dynamic in the country, but this is less successful because these things aren't the real focus of the film and there isn't enough time to do either justice. I'm sure Harry Knowles and Tim League and others could make a great documentary on the Alamo Drafthouse and the Austin film scene but this isn't it. There are also a few valid interviews that touch on the progressively decreasing cost of entry into filmmaking and how this is going to change the future of cinema but again this is skimmed over quickly, perhaps because it isn't the primary reason that Emily made Pathogen, merely something that helped her do so. Most of these comments really speak more to YouTube than the discovery of the next Stanley Kubrick, or even the next George Romero.

At the end of the day, this documentary made me eager to watch Pathogen, included on the DVD, even though, as Emily herself warns her premiére audience, it really isn't very good. One local critic wonders about its quality: is it going to be a good film, is it going to be a good film for a twelve year old or is it going to no good at all? Well, it doesn't matter too much because having watched this documentary, it's going to be impossible to separate it from the age of its writer/director. However it's more than just a single film, as Emily has gone on to make two more features, a 2009 ghost story called The Retelling and a vampire comedy due next year called My Sucky Teen Romance, which looks interesting for being perhaps the first teen comedy to be entirely made by teenagers. The span between the release of these three films is only five years but that's over a quarter of her life. It pays to start early and this is an able marker for that start.

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