a few weeks ago i posted the trailer for the documentary zombie girl. this documentary follows twelve-year-old writer/director emily hagins as she shoots her first feature, the zombie film pathogen. i have yet to see zombie girl because it is currently only playing at festivals, but i have seen pathogen. and i am here to say – it is good.
let’s back up for a second though. micro-budget films are not for everyone. audiences have become accustomed to hollywood films with nine digit budgets and awe-inspiring special effects. films made for 30 million dollars are now referred to as ‘low-budget.’ at the same time, miniDV, low-cost harddrives and high quality consumer video editing programs have put the basic language of film into almost anyone’s hands. more often than not, unskilled and untalented hands. thus the average quality of truly low-budget films is decreasing at the same time as our tolerance for lower quality filmmaking. countless $100,000 budget amateur horror films made by untalented hacks have made me gun shy of micro-budget films… the second i see that miniDV film quality, warning lights go off in my head and i jump to the usually logical conclusion that this film is going to be unwatchable. however, i usually stick with it as long as i can because, every once in a while, i get surprised. such is the case with pathogen.
pathogen is still a micro-budget film from a first-time director with very limited resources and a different set of criteria needs to be employed when watching micro-budget films than with typical hollywood fare. if you order a copy of pathogen on dvd from cheesynuggets.com (a steal at $8), you won’t find mind-blowingly realistic digital effects. you won’t find oscar-worthy performances or pulitzer prize winning dialogue. you won’t find a polished piece of film making from an artist at the height of her craft. you will find sound that is occasionally hard to hear, nano-science labs only identifiable by a cut-out paper sign that reads “nano-science lab,” readings on lines like ‘oh, god… why won’t he die?’ that will make you laugh out loud, and 4-year-olds in zombie make-up that can’t help but smile at the camera. however, there are two other important things you’ll find that are rare regardless of the financial resources a film has available to it — raw, unfocused directorial talent and more passion for filmmaking than could be found within a hundred miles of many big hollywood studios.
emily hagins may not have decades of experience, but it’s obvious from watching pathogen that she has an innate knowledge of how to tell a story visually. i love kevin smith’s films, but do you remember the car scene conversation in clerks between randall and dante? the camera whips between them, pulling you out of the film and leaving you with only a headache and the undeniable feeling that you are just watching a movie. emily’s chooses the right angles and camera moves to cover the action in her zombie epic. the sound may be a little hard to hear occasionally, but the scenes all flow together into a coherent whole. and, with a running time of less than 80 minutes, pathogen is just the right length, proving emily has a solid handle on objective editing and pacing.
far more important to one’s enjoyment of the film than talent, though, is the sense of joy permeating every frame of pathogen. you can tell every actor wants to be making this movie, whether the performance they turn in is perfect or not. you may not see the crew off-frame, but you can feel their presence and how much they care about what they’re doing. this is a film where the boom mic is a stick with a hand-cam taped to it (look for it occasionally dipping into frame). that sort of ingenuity, “do whatever it takes to get the shot” mentality, and utter lack of pretentiousness characterizes the entire film.
if viewed in the proper context, as a low-budget film with plenty of rough edges but even more heart and campy fun, most horror fans will find it hard not to enjoy pathogen. particularly those with an interest in what it takes to make a film, on both a technical level and in terms of personal determination and tenacity. pathogen is not going to earn millions or replace romero’s (increasingly inaccurately named) zombie trilogy. pathogen is not the future of horror. however, i wouldn’t at all be surprised if it turns out that emily hagins is.
q & a with emily hagins
i caught up with now 15-year-old emily hagins at the cannes film festival, where she had just signed her first studio deal to write and direct the 3d remake of joseph zito’s the prowler. over frappachinos at a local smoke-filled coffee bar, tom savini joined us while i asked emily a few questions about the making of pathogen. before leaving, tom gave me one of the original masks from friday the 13th part 4 and promised to stop by my house in october to make up my dogs as little schnauzer zombies to scare the neighborhood kids.
ok, yeah. that didn’t really happen. i was not at cannes. no one is remaking the prowler, which, frankly, is a damn shame. i’ve only talked to tom savini once, and i was so nervous i was only able to make a few vowel sounds. i do have two schnauzers though. oh, and i did get emily to tell me a little about making her first film. i contacted her shortly after watching pathogen, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions by email. so, without further ado, i give you the first eo2l interview, a q&a with pathogen director, emily hagins.
Corey: I know that Zombie Girl is currently playing at festivals in TX and Canada. Do you know if there are eventual plans for a wider theatrical release or DVD? [i.e., how soon and where can we see it?]
Emily: I know the documentary crew is still looking for distribution, and we’re hoping these festivals will help them reach it!
Corey: Pathogen features the classic Romero slow-moving/flesh-eating zombies. What influenced you in making that decision over the more modern 28 Days Later Speedy Gonzales/flying squirrel-type that are becoming more and more common?
Emily: I’m not a fan of running zombies (though I like 28 days later), mainly because of the logic. Even though the idea of zombies isn’t very logical, it doesn’t make sense to me to have people who were once dead to be running around. I know people would argue that it’s ‘scarier,’ but I think the fact that they’re slow yet still manage to conquer the living is more terrifying.
Corey: I read that you were heavily influenced by the quirky zombie film The Undead. What other zombie films (or other genre films) did you use as inspiration?
Emily: The original Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead trilogy were big inspirations. The zombies from Romero, and scare techniques from Evil Dead. Also The Faculty for their ‘group of kids banning together.’
Corey: One of the common mistakes early filmmakers usually make is blatantly stealing from their favorite films (I know I did in my student films). For example using character names, specific shots, situations, props, sound effects, etc. from other films. I noticed none of that in Pathogen. Was that a conscious decision and did you ever have to fight that urge? [as a bad example, using ‘Baggins’ as a character name since I know you were heavily influenced by the LotR trilogy]
Emily: I actually did do an homage to one of my favorite scare techniques from The Evil Dead — I called it “The Shower Curtain Effect.” It’s when a character hears a noise, and traces it down to a shower curtain. There’s no possible place left (after the character keeps going through doors), but when they reach the shower curtain the culprit isn’t there. It only appears after the suspense has been broken. I also liked how one of the last survivors in The Faculty who was presumably innocent was actually the cause of the problem, so there was an homage to that as well.
Corey: I have a question about lead actress Tiger Darrow. If that’s a nickname, does it have a cool origin story? If it’s her actual name — well, there must be a story behind that too. And why does Tiger appear to be wearing an engagement ring in the film?
Emily: I believe she chose her name when she was three, and her older sister’s name is Kitty (I think by the same process). The ring was supposed to be memorable because it’s on the hand that gets a glass of water (containing the nano) in the opening. It had a plastic eyeball on it, which would make a pretty sweet engagement ring if it was one! :P
Corey: Speaking of Tiger again – my favorite line in the film probably belongs to her. “You’re either going to die or… die.” Was that line scripted or improvised? What line or scene are you most proud of?
Emily: I’m about 95% sure that line was in the script, but (as you could probably tell) there was a lot of improvising. I think I’m most proud of the opening montage…
Corey: Water and water references play a huge part in the film, as it’s the primary way the contagion is transferred. What do you have against water?
Emily: Haha, nothing at all! I’m drinking some right now! I just thought it would be terrifying to have an infection spread through something we have to rely on.
Corey: For me, the strongest parts of the film are the opening credit sequence and the final freeze frame, both of which are accompanied by incredible music. How did you go about choosing those songs and deciding what visuals should accompany them?
Emily: Tiger showed me the first song one day on set, and I cut the sequence to it later on. I had cut the montage to another song at first, but it seemed more melodramatic than eerie. I love opening credits montages in general, they just help set the mood for the movie. The freeze frame was originally a technical glitch, but after watching it a few times I decided to keep it. The last song was by a local musician in Austin.
Corey: For a boom mic you used a paint roller with a camera taped to it and for a steady-cam, you used a chair. Were there any other MacGuyver-esque filmmaking tricks you invented due to resource limitations?
Emily: Not really, we did not have very much equipment.
Corey: Above all else, I was most impressed by your ability to visually tell a story. You consistently chose the proper camera angles and cuts to convey the scene. In particular you approached suspense scenes better than many major horror films manage to. Is that something you just had a ‘feel’ for or do you think you picked it up from studying?
Emily: It just came from all the movies I watched and the short films I made before Pathogen. At that point I hadn’t read any books or taken any classes.
Corey: I love the shot of Dannie’s reaction to first seeing a zombie in detention. Was that reaction something she came up with on her own?
Emily: I think I just told her to look scared, but that expression was very much Rose’s natural way of reacting. I told the cast to pretty much be themselves because the characters were just regular kids, so if something in the script wasn’t natural to them they should do it the way they would naturally.
Corey: Was there anything you really wanted to get into the movie that, for whatever reason, ended up being impossible or impractical?
Emily: In general, I wanted more zombies in a lot of scenes. I also wanted a location that looked more like a research center than my mom’s work, but it’s all good.
Corey: You make a Hitchcockian appearance in the film, but you chose a very interesting act to be in the middle of when shown [i.e., Hitchcock appears in most of his films, but I don’t think he was ever shown vomiting, which is a shame actually] Why did you choose to be shown this way?
Emily: For the vomiting scene — I was editing and decided the sequence needed more shots, so I asked my mom to film me throwing up (which was just chewed carrots, btw). Same thing happened with the face watching shot, which I think Tiger filmed.
Corey: The DVD menu of Pathogen displays two commentary tracks — but there is a hidden third one that can only be accessed manually. It’s a solo director’s commentary that runs only thirty minutes. What happened to the rest of it and was it intended as an Easter egg?
Emily: It is an Easter egg. I tried doing the commentary by myself, but it was difficult without anyone else. We decided to just use it as an Easter egg because we already had two commentaries.
Corey: Your second film appears to be a murder mystery/ghost story which sounds like it is still somewhat in the horror vein. Do you plan to stay within the genre and do you have any definite ideas for future projects?
Emily: It ended up being more of a mystery than a horror movie, but it’s a lot darker than Pathogen. I might do another horror movie at some point, but the next one is going to be a comedy.
Corey: And one last, very important question… Was that cream corn I saw shooting out of that zombie’s head when it was stabbed with the pointy stick?
Emily: It was actually jello mix — I love the oozy stuff that comes out of zombies. We had fun with that!