Emily Hagins' journey from 12-year-old horror wunderkind to adult auteur

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Sep 14, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

At just 12 years old, Emily Hagins made her first feature film, the 2006 zombie flick Pathogen. She's amassed a five-feature oeuvre now, all at just 25 years old. Her latest effort, a six-part digital series called Hold to Your Best Self, debuted at SXSW and while it is a departure from her childhood horror roots, Hagins has no trouble finding the terror in everyday life. Zombies or not, adulthood is rough. 

SYFY FANGRRLS talked to Hagins about her journey from 12-year-old wunderkind to an established adult filmmaker, and how she hopes to inspire other young female auteurs in the making. 

You were a child, obviously, when you made Pathogen, and you had been into horror movies at that point. What do you remember about when you first fell in love with horror?

I actually remember that point well, because before I was really into horror I was really scared of everything, even things that weren't necessarily horror movies. Things like Halloween, I was pretty scared of. Just anything that was strange, I was pretty scared of. Then I saw this movie called Undead. It's like an Australian zombie movie that had some comedy elements. I saw it in a theater where people were laughing and the scares were fun. I was like, “Oh, OK. Horror can be fun. It doesn't have to just be there to make you feel bad, you can make fun horror movies.” I got really into watching a lot of different types of horror movies to see what I liked. Then I got into zombie movies and so I wrote Pathogen.

How old were you when you started that?

I think I was 11, about. There was a lot of start and stop. I knew I wanted to start making my own longer movie about zombies and then I kinda got the idea and started the process when I was 11. I think I finished it when I was about 13, I wanna say. So kinda just starting to enter the teen years, when I was like, "OK, movies are something I wanna be doing full time."

Was it horror that made you think that or did you love movies and then you loved horror as well? 

I loved movies first. I was a big ... I went to go see Spy Kids something like seven or eight times in the theater. I loved The Muppet Movie, that was my first true love with cinema, was the Muppets. Then I saw Lord of the Rings. I think I saw it over 20 times in the theater, the first one, The Fellowship of the Ring , and for me that movie was so fundamental to developing my love of film because it felt like it really transported you. I'd never seen a movie that really felt like I was kind of traveling to this other plane of storytelling. I think after that I just started to go deeper into different genres and learning more about storytelling. I was really into writing and then I got into horror right after that. It was nice to kind of start with just a general film love. It's nice to be able to pick things from other types of genre storytelling and put them into horror movies. 

Horror and comedy go well together. There's a lot of the same types of structure and how you write those genres. So I think it's just nice to have that base before getting into horror, because I learned a lot from all kinds of movies. 

When you were making this movie, was there some sense of people kind of laughing it off, just like, “Aww, that's a cute kid thing” or did you have good support? It seems like your dad was really invested and involved.

My parents were very supportive. I think that that movie and that project was a big trial for just how serious I was about film. It was always an interest, but it wasn't a serious passion until that point. I think at first, they were like, “OK, how big is this gonna be?” They always believed in me, but they also very much believed that I should be doing things for myself. We didn't have a lot of money. We were just running on pizza and passion. 

And nothing was really handed to us through the process and that's probably why it took so long. “OK, we can film this weekend and then we can film these several days in a row and we're gonna try to get these extras and we're gonna buy this makeup,” but none of us knew how to run a big production at the time. I was really lucky to have parents that believed in me and believed that I could learn to do it myself and weren't trying to be like, “I'll edit it for you. I'll shoot it for you.” They were just, “You can do it. We're here for you. We'll help when we can, but you can do it.”

Of course, there were a lot of people that were like, “Ah, you're a kid. You can't take on a project like that,” but I definitely ran on that as fuel. I was like, “I'll show you.” Cause to me I was like, “Of course I'm going to finish this.” It's what I love doing. Why would you want to stop a project that you love? And even when you're a kid you don't realize what kinda limitations are out there, 'cause you don't really have a lot of awareness. I think that that was a good thing in that case because I didn't really know what I couldn't do and that's something I always tell the kids now. Only you know what you can do, so believe in yourself because adults might try to bring you down a little bit. 

Do you think learning that so young has kept you into filmmaking or did you ever have to kind of learn that lesson of limitations along the way? 

Yeah. I think when I went about my second film I learned a lot more of the struggles because I was getting a little older. I was in kinda the height of the teen angst, so I was like 14, 15. We just had a lot of trouble with that movie, and trouble with money, trouble with locations, actors. Things weren't going right a lot of the time, but in a way, I felt even more passionate because this is still my number one passion. Even when everything's going wrong it's stressful; I feel like it's all a puzzle and there's a lot to learn. I think it was good that we got through that first project where I had that mindset of anything is possible because then when I got to the second film I was like, “I did it once, I can do it again.” So far that's been able to keep me going when the projects have gotten tough. 

Something I want to know about is you've literally grown up doing this. Basically, how has making movies informed your growing up, or vice versa, how has being a filmmaker and what goes into that informed who you are as a person? Have you as a person changed as you grew up doing this? 

That's one of the most interesting questions anyone's ever asked me. I definitely think that those things have influenced each other. I think that one of my top priorities is never being somebody who wrote about making movies or the film industry or writing. I don't want to write about writing. There are people who do it really well, but I just didn't want to get a very narrow vision of life. I wanted to write things that could translate to other people's experiences outside of people that work in film. 

Almost all of my key moments in my adolescence that I remember revolved around film and stuff. I think it's definitely influenced who I am as a person and my values as far as teamwork, friendship, and I guess perseverance. All of my values as a person have been influenced by my film experiences and my passion. It definitely translates to my social life when I'm trusting my intuition. In a way, especially growing up, I maybe seemed a little one-track minded cause I just loved this so much. I love going to the movies, making movies, and that was definitely who I was, and still am, but now I'm trying to be a little more well-rounded as an adult. Learn about how to manage my finances and pay my rent and stuff. Trying to be a real person. It definitely went both ways. Some influence me, and then how I would grow is [also] present in my writing, which is why I would never go back and remake Pathogen because I feel like it was an example of how I thought and felt at the time. I wouldn't want any new experiences, as I've gotten older and more mature. “Oh, I can make this better.” I don't think it needs to be better. I think it stands in time for what it was. 

In that same vein, as you've expanded beyond horror, did that way of writing and shooting affect Hold to Your Best Self. Did you bring anything in there or was that was active attempt to do something totally different?

I started to deviate around my fourth feature and just get into some coming of age stories. I made this Halloween movie about a kid who didn't wanna stop loving Halloween just because he was growing up. Then I made this teen heist movie and then I made the show Hold to Your Best Self. It's all about that line between being an adult and being a kid and the fear associated with crossing that line. I think that I always loved these young adult stories. I know my identity as being a young female filmmaker, learning about life and growing up and using young characters to express that. Now that I'm an adult, I'm not a teenager [anymore], I don't know what the teenagers talk about these days. I don't know what they're doing. I don't understand these memes. I very much feel out of touch sometimes and it's a reminder that it's kinda scary. I feel like I'm in an unknown territory because I can feel comfortable with my identity as is, as a teen filmmaker. I love that perspective of being young and learning about the world. I do want to transition more into stories about what I'm going through. Now, to keep it authentic, I think that that fear of growing up and being a grownup filmmaker is present in those last few projects. For sure.


How old are you now?

I'm 25. It's like part of that fear of growing and changing never goes away. It just feels like it becomes less something we talk about. I've talked with a lot of people, of all different ages and they say, “I don't feel like a grownup. I feel like I just stopped at a certain age as far as the maturity goes and then my body got older.” I'm such a big fan of always learning and always growing and being open to that and I guess that's part of why I still feel I'm in that stage. There's just so much I still don't know. 

Do you talk to and work with young filmmakers and young writers and provide that guidance to them or just be someone that they can look at and say, "This person did this"?

That's my favorite thing now, in hindsight, about starting so young, is that I get to talk to other young aspiring filmmakers about their hopes and dreams and what they want to be doing. Any time somebody says that they felt motivated by seeing a real movie, made by a real kid that didn't have a lot of money, didn't have a lot of resources in the world, they're like, “Oh I can do it. I can just grab my friends and my camera,” and I say, “Yes you can! You absolutely can.” I was motivated because I saw this, I don't know if you heard of it, it's like this Raiders of the Lost Ark adaptation, where these kids ... it took 'em like 10 years, they just remade it. Shot for shot. I went to a Q&A and I saw this project and I saw them do a Q&A. I think I was about 10 years old and I was like, “What advice do you have for a kid who wants to do this?” They were like, “You gotta go do it. Believe in yourself and persevere.” That's the advice I always pass on 'cause it was super inspiring to me, seeing these other kids do it, who had done it in the '80s, but with way less technology than what I had. These kids can just film on their cell phones. There are so many more resources these days. I think that's always gonna be changing. Hopefully, it allows young people to start earlier and earlier, getting their stories out there. I think that's really cool.

Do you see a lot of young female filmmakers who especially identify with you and are happy to know that your story exists?

Just this summer spoke at a teen girl filmmaking camp and which I thought was the coolest thing. We workshopped a scene together and talked about directing and really spent some time together. They were all so intelligent and had a lot of insight and halfway through the time I was there I was sitting back and thinking, “Oh I just realized these are all girls.” I didn't even think about it. They were a group of really intelligent, enthusiastic kids that I was learning from, and I hope that I was helping them. It just really cool that they have programs like this where the girls feel empowered and get to express themselves. I think that's what the camp was called. I think it was called Express Yourself. 

That’s awesome. 

I thought it was great. I was super jealous that I didn't have that. 

What do you think about the state of women and horror today, in terms of your career and beyond?

I didn't wanna be pigeonholed as a horror director. When I was about 19 I was like, “I gotta get outta this.” That's when I started going into more of the coming of age stories, which are very personal, and still very happy with those projects. 

More recently, I started to think more and more about how few women there are in horror and how I really wanna see more of that. It's just a genre I really love and it's one of my favorite things to be working in. Only more recently have I gotten back into the horror projects. I shot a couple things this summer that are small, but just kind of reminded me of the roots of Pathogen and what got me interested in being a director in the first place. I love it! I wanna be doing more horror. I wanna be doing things aside from horror too, as what I learned, but I really love horror and I'm hoping I can do more feature in that. I think it's really great to have more and more women doing horror films these days. 

This interview has been condensed for clarity. Photos provided by Emily Hagins.

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