Zombie documentary puts new spin on genre
Austin-based filmmakers Justin Johnstone, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck were trolling the Internet when they read a post that asked for teenagers to star in a zombie movie written and directed by a 12-year-old girl.
The logline alone was enough to make the young filmmakers interested in capturing the experience. Their documentary, "Zombie Girl: The Movie," spans more than two years and has become one of the breakout hits of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, thanks to its postmodern movie-within-a-movie approach and the everyday girl at the center of the film.
Inspired by the midnight fare she would see at local theaters with her mom, Emily Hagins, now 16, began writing her zombie flick "Pathogen" when she was 11. She amassed a cast of friends, enlisted her parents as lackeys, sound editors, grips and cameramen, and started shooting.
She wasn’t a genius or a film geek, just a girl who loved movies. (The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is among her favorites.)
Emily started the project timidly. Ensconced behind her dad’s handheld camera, she would forget to yell cut at the end of takes and offered her actors little direction. Besides the tough lessons of editing sound, taping over shots, fabricating special effects and keeping talent happy, Emily also has to contend with her mom, Megan, a devoted, if insistent, booster for the film.
Megan throws herself into the project wholeheartedly, shuttling kids to different locations, assisting on night shoots, purchasing fake blood and painting effigies. Her daughter, meanwhile, has to work around school and extracurricular activities to get her movie made.
The mother-daughter pair don’t always see eye-to-eye and tensions bubble to the surface in scuttlebutts not at all unique to movie making or zombies. After a number of hiatuses and delays, the film’s driving question takes a form familiar to some fledgling filmmakers on the festival circuit: Will the movie ever get made?
"Our film could have been the feel-good, inspiring movie that it is, or it could have been a tragedy," reflected Marshall. "We knew that if Emily didn’t screen her movie, if she decided she didn’t want to make movies anymore, that would be a pretty depressing end to the whole thing."
Marshall, a graduate of the film school at the University of Texas at Austin, and his co-directors had to keep quiet when Emily made mistakes. They abstained from offering advice, interfering with Emily’s creative process, or doing anything that could alter the course of the movie.
"Zombie Girl" offers a brief exploration of young filmmakers and technology, but focus remains fixed on Emily and her project.
"I don’t consider myself a professional filmmaker," Mauck said. "I’m still learning. But we all have much more experience than Emily did. When she made mistakes, the important thing was to let her learn." As filming continued, Mauck witnessed Emily correct mistakes in sound and camera work. She also gained swagger as a director. "She started to realize what it’s like to be a director," said Mauck, who was, himself, directing his first feature-length film. "As the years progressed, Emily realized she had leadership skills."
Emily and Megan provide most of the narrative for the coming-of-age story through a series of interviews that left the makers of "Zombie Girl" with 150 hours of footage to catalog and edit.
"We tried to keep the God narrator out as much as possible," Marshall explained. "We wanted them to tell their own story."
"Zombie Girl" took determination and patience to finish, and so did Emily movie "Pathogen." "People were saying, ‘good job’ or ‘You tried really hard,’ and that made me really want to finish the movie,’" Emily explained Saturday at the Kimball Art Center. "I wanted to be a director, and you’re not a director until you finish your first film."
Emily started making movies around the house when she spent a day home sick from school. Her dad pulled out the camera. Before he knew it, Emily was racing around the house filming shorts.
Megan encouraged her daughter from an early age. "Aim for the highest you can," she told her. "And have a plan B and even a plan C."
Both Megan and Emily said they are happy with how "Zombie Girl turned out, with a caveat. "I think they did a great job," Megan said. "I’m a little embarrassed by how grumpy I got."
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