Last month’s Fantastic Fest, a horror genre festival at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, brought a fan favorite documentary in Zombie Girl: The Movie. Directors Aaron Marshall, Justin Johnson, and Erik Mauck talked to me before and after premiere, offering insight into what it was like to direct a film about … a young girl directing a zombie film.
Zombie Girl: The Movie is the story of Emily M. Hagins, who at the time was twelve years old when she set out to make a full-length zombie film, Pathogen. Marshall, Johnson, and Mauck filmed the process and the result is one of the best documentaries I have seen, as well as a film that movie enthusiasts everywhere are encouraged to check out.
This portion of the interview was conducted before the two screenings of Zombie Girl: The Movie, and Aaron Marshall and Justin Johnson were nice enough to take time to talk about the film. The fact that this part was conducted on a sidewalk near the hoopla that was taking place at the festival should say something about how helpful the directors were. You don’t often get to speak with talent that doesn’t come with an ego, and I can safely say that Marshall, Johnson, and Mauck’s level of humility is as great as their talent.
How did you come about Zombie Girl?
Aaron Marshall: At the time all three of us were living here in Austin just taking part in the local film scene making movies, things like that. We saw a posting of Emily’s auditions for her zombie film, Pathogen, and we saw a posting that said, ‘Need 12 to 15 year olds for zombie movie,’ and it’s something that makes you interested. So we checked it out and three years later here we are premiering a film at Fantastic Fest.
Justin Johnson: We met up with Aaron and it’s been sort of a three year project. Three and a half years. But yeah, it started out like what we thought would be a shorter kind of thing, and I think so did Emily and her mom, Megan. But it turned into this longer piece and stretched out over many years.
A documentary about the zombie genre is something new. Can you talk about the story and the genre itself?
AM: The story is about Emily Hagins, a 12 year old girl who wrote and directed a feature-length zombie movie herself. So we were just trying very much to be flies on the wall documenting the process of this little girl making this movie in a genre you wouldn’t expect to find a 12 year old girl making a movie, and you wouldn’t expect to find a 12 year old period making a feature-length film. So being that it’s a zombie movie it’s even more unique. We just wanted to take a step back and watch it all unfold, just see what she would go through, what kind of struggles she would have, and how she would overcome. So that’s what we did and we discovered a story about a motivated and talented girl and, you know, her family. Her and her mother in particular worked very hard to get her film off the ground.
Awesome. Emily will be here tomorrow for the premiere?
AM: Yeah, she will be.
Very cool. In your observation of Emily, being that she’s 12 years old, it’s going to be a little bit different. She doesn’t have a film degree from UT or USC. DId you find that there was a purity to her filmmaking that wasn’t deluded by the filter you go through when taking film classes?
JJ: Yeah, absolutely. I went through a pretty intense program and during the shooting process there were a lot of times where Emily was shooting, and you see the mistakes maybe that she’s making. But we agreed early on that we were going to be a fly on the wall unless they specifically asked us for something technical. We were going to keep our mouths shut.
AM: And we told them that, too, so that they knew we weren’t there to help out, we were there to watch.
JJ: Yeah, it’s in its purest form. You see that you can get in over your head but Emily just really wanted to make a good movie. That was sort of the driving force. She wanted to finish and I think everybody that she got to help her along the way saw her passion. I think it was like we were, you know, when you enter a film program. Someone comes in and says, “You can’t do this or you can’t do this.” There was really no one there saying that to her so I think that was a great thing. It was a fresh take on it.
AM: She didn’t know what she couldn’t do, so she did it. That was pretty inspirational. It was one of the things that attracted us to the story.
Will we get to see Emily’s film in the documentary?
AM: Her film is finished and you can buy it on her website, as a matter of fact. It’s Cheesynuggets.com.
That’s a great website name.
AM: Yeah, and I think it is good to watch her movie after you see the documentary because we avoided putting clips of her movie in our movie, because our film is just from an outsider’s perspective of her making the film. So we don’t include clips. We have scenes of her movie shot from our cameras watching it all unfold, but we wanted to stay as objective as possible.
JJ: The film is sort of outside of the zombie genre but there is a story of how it relates. Her and her mom love the sci-fi genre and horror genre so it fits.
AM: Yeah, our film isn’t a genre film, but it is about a girl making a genre film.
Exactly. I mean every person here at the festival appreciates the genre, so it makes sense to watch a film that is paying tribute to the genre itself.
JJ: Yeah, actually a lot of people think it’s a mock documentary.
AM: Yeah, it sounds almost absurd, a 12 year old girl making a zombie movie. But it did happen.
What do you plan on doing with the film once it gets out of Fantastic Fest? Are you looking to land with anyone?
AM: We don’t have distribution yet. Ultimately we want as many people to see it that can. So we’re trying to find the best route we can get.
What was Emily and her family’s reaction to you three wanting to do a documentary about her film?
AM: They were pretty excited, right?
JJ: Yeah, I mean Emily being 12, she was extraordinarily shy but I think she was excited about the whole idea. You know, there’s these guys, you’re 12, and these guys are taking you seriously enough to say, “Hey, we wanna make this thing.” So I think that was an enticing thing for them as well. So we did an initial interview.
AM: Little did they know they’d still be interviewed two years later.
JJ: But we did the interview in April 2005, and from there we interviewed them dozens and dozens of times afterwards. No matter if you know you’re being interviewed I think it’s sort of awkward, especially for us because we were trying to do an honest story where we aren’t flashy. So I think that was strange at first. So they kept shooting, we kept shooting, they kept shooting, we kept shooting, and on and on until she was done.
Do you want to go outside the documentary genre?
AM: I’d like to do a narrative film. All the short films I have done before have been narrative so this is my first documentary that I’ve worked on.
JJ: Yeah, I used to only want to do narrative. I would like to do other documentaries but the idea of doing a narrative seems more appealing because you can say, “we’re done.” You know what you need. With a documentary it can stretch out forever. Maybe something isn’t interesting, maybe the story takes a weird turn, and with narratives the access you have to control it, at least with a story, is easier. By no means am I saying narratives are easy, they’re not. But the minute a person gets mad in a documentary they can say, “I don’t want you to film this.” You can’t force people to shoot.
AS: I agree. There’s definitely something comforting about holding a script in hand that says, “Scene one. Scene Two. The End.”
AM: That being said, I wasn’t really planning on doing a documentary when this came up, but it was such an amazing story. Maybe tomorrow another great story comes along that begs to be told in documentary fashion.
Well, it seems like Zombie Girl is a great story.
AM: If you want to talk after the film we can do that too. We’ll be around tomorrow.
After seeing both screenings of the film (it’s that good) I took Aaron up on his offer and spoke to the three directors after their second screening. The film received probably the most applause of any film I sat in on and there was a definite buzz in the crowd. The Q&A sessions were filled with audience members that were impressed by all four directing efforts, Emily Hagin’s included. Afterwards, I caught up with Marshall, Johnson, and Mauck to discuss their reaction to the screenings.
And you can check out what they had to say in the forthcoming Part II of the Interview.