13 year old Emily Hagins looks like a normal young girl. One who happens to be making a feature length zombie movie. Zombie Girl: The Movie, the documentary that follows Emily through the two year process of writing, directing and editing her film, Pathogen, makes you wonder just what a normal young girl is and what she should be doing with her free time. Should Emily be cutting pages out of Teen Beat, or out of Fangoria? This is real hardcore girl power.
Emily fell in love with the movies when she and her mother went to see The Lord of the Rings films dozens of times. The magic of the trilogy got her interested in what goes on behind the scenes of a movie, and she wrote a letter to Peter Jackson, who in turn directed her to Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles (Emily lives in Austin). Harry got Emily into that year’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon, since he knew that Jackson would be a surprise guest, but what really blew her mind over that 24 hour period was an Aussie zombie film called Undead. And so Emily’s path was set.
I used to make horror movies when I was Emily’s age, but they were little short weird things. None of them had scripts, and all of them were excuses for my friend Joel and I to create horrible wounds on each other under the video tutelage of Tom Savini. We would talk about doing features all the time, but they never quite materialized because in those pre-high school days you just have no focus. You’re always moving on to other things. But Emily was done with shorts by the time she was entering the double digits, and while she obviously didn’t know what she was getting into when she started, it takes a special young person to stick with a project like Pathogen for two solid years.
A special young person with a very, very involved mom. Zombie Girl is a movie that seems to subscribe to the FUBU aesthetic – for us, by us – and it’s filled with the usual suspects in the Austin film community as well as the internet film community (there’s such an interrelation between Emily, the Austin film world and the internet film world that Ain’t It Cool’s Quint’s little brother is one of the stars of Pathogen), but that doesn’t stop the movie from honestly showing us the ups and downs of Emily’s relationship with her mother, and it doesn’t sugar coat who the mother is. As someone who, God and Trojans willing, will never be a parent, it’s fascinating to see Emily’s mom try to straddle being a mother and a producer, being helpful and supportive while also being something of a stage mom. There’s no question to me that Pathogen would never have gone anywhere without mom being very heavily involved.
And as a film fan it’s funny to see the director/producer relationship play out between this mom and daughter. While Emily has the vision, mom has the budget and schedule in mind, and they come to butt heads as time goes on. The drama and catastrophes of a big film set are played out in miniature on the set of Pathogen, and what’s hilarious is that Emily makes some of the same mistakes that I have seen name, big budget directors make on their sets. Except that on Pathogen, where everybody is working for free, every mistake is another step closer to the movie not happening.
I do wish that the film gave me a little more insight into Emily. As an interview subject she’s less than stellar, but then again she’s a 13 year old girl, not a group known for their tremendous insight or soul searching. Still, it’s fascinating to see that the cast and crew sticks with Emily throughout the two year process, which occurs during a time in young people’s lives when friendships come and go along with the rise and ebb of hormones; what is it about Emily that makes these kids keep coming back? I couldn’t get the same group to hang out in a secret clubhouse with a porn stash every Saturday at 13, let alone make a movie with them. There’s another side to Emily that we’re not quite privy to, and I think that’s the side that may inform the rest of her life. It won’t be her filmmaking talent (not actually on display in the film, which chooses to show us no finished Pathogen footage and ends at the world premiere of the film (at the Alamo Drafthouse) without showing us reactions) but the personal qualities that draw others to her that could make her a success if she chooses to keep making movies.
Wherever else her filmmaking career takes her, Emily is sure to be the new geek sweetheart (hopefully just for the younger set, although I did see adult journalists creepily macking on the now-15 year old at Fantastic Fest), but more importantly she could be the new filmmaker icon. In Zombie Girl someone repeats a quote from Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, where he says that the new media may allow some fat girl in Ohio to be the next Mozart. Emily’s not a fat girl but she’s the living embodiment of that quote, someone young and with ideas suddenly enabled and empowered to bring them to life.
If I had one major critique of Zombie Girl it’s an unfair one, since it’s about something the documentary never sets out to do – the movie only touches on the question of what that empowerment means. We live in a world where YouTube is choked with useless and unwatchable user generated content, where major movie sites are staffed by people who have never seen some of the most seminal works of cinema from the last forty years. I recently read a book called The Cult of the Amateur, and Emily is a perfect example of that Cult – someone whose passion and moxie seems to be more important than skill or talent (a point the film almost tacitly makes by never showing us any Pathogen footage). The book makes the argument, which I’m given to agree with, that this flood of amateur content is essentially destructive and that we need gate keepers and experts – not thumbs up and thumbs down voters on Digg – to find the good stuff amidst the crap. Having the ability to make a movie doesn’t mean that you have made a movie worth seeing.
So on the one hand I see Emily as the paragon of an exciting new world, where more people than ever have access to the tools to foster their own creativity. On the other hand I see her as the harbinger of an ugly future where we’re buried under a torrent of poorly made, exceptionally cheap junk. What sets Emily apart from me when I was her age is her passion and commitment… and her ability to burn DVDs of the stuff she films in her back yard.