I saw GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS at SXSW and loved it. I thought it showed expoential growth for director and writer Emily Hagins, and it's full of her voice and her outlook. This weekend at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS will be playing on Friday and Saturday night, and you can get your tickets here if you're interested in going. Capone will be introducing the film and doing the Q&A, and I think it will be well received.
During SXSW I was able to sit down with Emily and AJ Bowen, who plays Tony Phillips' loving but troubled cousin. He's great in it as well. Since this interview, I've seen YOU'RE NEXT, and let me tell you, Bowen has a monologue in it that if it's not in acting schools by the end of the year, there's a cinematic crime happening. It floored me when I heard it. I'm so happy for Emily that AJ was cast in her movie, and his performance is funny, earnest, and true.
As for Emily, listening tell her stories about the making of GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS, it really struck me that for all the years I've known her and her family, that she has completely made that transition from child filmmaker to simply filmmaker. GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS deserves to be taken seriously as a true film, and Emily deserves to be taken seriously as a genuine voice in filmmaking. So here's Emily and AJ:
Nordling: The one thing I really wanted to ask about first is the soundtrack. The score was fantastic, and the songs, especially the one at the end, are so catchy, and I’d love to see a release of that.
Emily Hagins: A really good friend of mine, who I’ve known for ten years, who’s a little bit younger than me which is scary… he’s written songs for all my movies, he wrote “The Kids” for MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE, and for this movie we approached him to do the whole soundtrack, so we ended up with 12 songs in the movie, and I think 6 of those were written for the movie, so he did those in a very short amount of time, including the one at the end-
AJ Bowen: That’s the one in the trailer, right?
Nordling: Yeah, I’ve been playing the trailer over and over so I can hear that snippet of the song again.
Emily Hagins: Oh good! We’re hoping to release that song at the festival, and Santi (Santiago Dietche), he’s going to be releasing the whole album this month in March. He’s just a young, very talented musician that I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of.
AJ Bowen: The songs work really well in the movie, too, they set the tone really well. Tony (Vespe)’s fantastic. I know you worked with him with MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE, and he kind of steals the movie from everyone in that, so you cast him in the lead for this. Basically the part was written for him, right?
Emily Hagins: It was, yeah, and I wouldn’t have made the movie without him. If he didn’t want to do it for some reason, it just wouldn’t have happened. I think he’s just so charismatic and such an interesting person in real life, that I just wanted to make a movie where Tony could be Tony, and he added so much to his character. Of course, Tony Phillips is not Tony Vespe, but he really added so much to the character.
AJ Bowen: It’s a tricky thing to ask an actor to play themselves, because you want to switch it up. Definitively, it’s like I want to be an actor, I want to play other people; I don’t want to play myself. Myself is very boring to me. Tony did a great job with that. He’s got so much heart, he’s got such a good heart, and that translated so cleanly, cinematically. It’s tricky asking a young guy, can you play an entire picture, and also be you? So basically if people don’t like it, it’s because they don’t like you? It’s a challenge but he’s so good. He worked so hard on it.
Emily: And he looked up to AJ so much.
AJ: What a mistake, huh? (laughter)
Nordling: (To AJ) How did you get involved? Basically they just asked you…
AJ: I think I was attached before the script was written, right?
Emily: I think so; I think we only had a short script.
AJ: I think that I got attached a week or a few weeks after YOU’RE NEXT was at Fantastic Fest, so I was involved with it from the beginning. And it seems pretty obvious why I would be involved, because of course I wanted to work with Emily. And I knew from the beginning, I knew what the concept was, and knew that it was Tony carrying the picture, and I wanted to work with Tony, and I really wanted to work with Emily, and wanted to… I feel bad for them, because I had to be sort of the old man on the picture, that I was the one with the most experience. It’s a tricky spot for them to be in. But I wanted to do that. And also, I had gotten exhausted – my background’s comedy but the past few years I’ve been playing guys that are not very funny.
Nordling: I haven’t seen YOU’RE NEXT yet, I’m seeing that a couple of nights from now, but I know that’s a rough movie.
AJ: It was fortunate timing, because I wanted to work on something that was more of family film, and not only that but people would feel good after they watched, because that was another thing that I hadn’t experienced as a filmmaker before, so it was kind of a no-brainer. I remember that one of the producers got on the phone with me and started trying to sell me on it, and I was, “Shut up, Paul. Emily’s writing the script and she’s going to direct the movie, I’m in. We don’t need to have this conversation. I’ll just talk to Emily from here on out.” (laughs)
Nordling: To me, TONY PHILLIPS is a deep movie. It got really deep at moments. I love the aspect of the character that he wants to be essentially him, but at the same time, he knows things can’t stay the same forever; he’s got to move on eventually. Was that a personal message from you? “I want to explore the world more, but I want to stay intrinsically me as well?”
Emily: Yeah. When I graduated high school, it was a very weird transition for me. I think there’s this idea, that a coming of age story has to be about some kid who finds a dead body, and suddenly he can grasp death, and it’s this definitive moment and “suddenly you are a man” or something like that. For me and a lot of my friends, it’s this long transition and “what do I do with my life?” and I love these things that some people are telling can’t be a career and my future, but it’s what I love to do, so I have to figure out a way to do that in the most professional way possible. For me that’s making movies, and I have a lot of creative friends, like Santi, who wrote all the songs in the movie, he’s a very talented musician, but he’s like “What do I do with that? I have to make money and do other things” so it comes a lot from my friends from me, from Tony, and hopefully it’s something that people can relate to, it’s a natural transition kind of movie and not like something supernatural happens, even though it has this Halloween aesthetic, I just wanted to make something genuine to my teen experience.
Nordling: I liked the aspect of Tony’s friendship with Devin Bonnee’s character and how they just grow apart, and that just happens. People don’t always get closure in their relationships.
Emily: Exactly. I have friends that I just grew apart from, and that’s not something… I think people look over teen awkwardness in Hollywood movies, people look over relationships that just fizzle out, because it’s not dramatic but you focus on the right parts and it can still be interesting.
AJ: There’s a formula to those that often comes at a cost of the integrity of the reality of the moment. For me, one of the things that I loved about Devin’s character, when Emily went back to him at the end of the movie, because a studio picture would have them resolving their differences and being “best friends forever!” when you knew the second that movie was over, six months after that they wouldn’t be talking to each other anymore because it’s a transitional time in their lives. I loved that Emily went back to him at his own party, and that the resolution for him was engaging with those people that he was becoming more like, that he had more common interests with. So that in a bigger picture sense of the word all the characters of the movie were sort of finding their own sense of family and community and what worked for them on an honest level. Sometimes we talked about, when we approached making it… some people think, “Oh, there’s got to be a ton of conflict.” Well that’s just not how human stories always go. There’s a subtler – seismic, still, but a subtler thing that you look back on as a big moment. I was really interested in that in the script, and Emily seemed to capture those sorts of things. Of any movie I’ve worked on – I think this was my 15th, 16th movie – the final product most accurately represents the ambition of the script and the story. It was exactly what Emily wanted to do, what we got out of it, so it was really cool to see that and for there not to be arbitrary external conflict going on, other than just the natural, these people at this age, and the guy that I played also being a child and being a grown man at the same time, going through the things that he has to go through. Everybody has their moment of figuring out where they’re supposed to be, and finding that their identity sometimes just changes, especially as you get older.
Nordling: Another aspect of the movie that I also really liked was that Tony Phillips – he hangs on to Halloween, he builds it up in his mind because of his relationships with his cousin, his family and friends. I don’t want to say he has abandonment issues – but, well, he does. He has to hold on to things.
Emily: It’s the theme of the movie, and it’s where the character that AJ plays came from – he wanted to hold on to these things that he loves so much for as long as he can but feeling like that has to change to move forward.
Nordling: You don’t have to let go, but you do have to move forward. They say movies don’t get released, they escape. Was this a fast shoot for you?
Emily: Oh my gosh, yes. I’d written the script for a couple of months and we did several drafts, and then I had to go shoot a movie for a TV network in October, so I had to spend a lot of October focusing on that, and didn’t always have internet access there, so I didn’t know about our Kickstarter campaign, if it was making money, and if in two weeks if we were making a movie or we weren’t making a movie. I just didn’t know until I got back from Connecticut, and like, “Yes! In two weeks we start shooting!” “Okay!” and then I started shooting, wrapped December 16th, and picture locked in January 13th, and then we are here! It was really great. Our post team, our crew, everyone involved, they really wanted to make the best movie we could make and having that enthusiasm really helped us with such a short turnaround.
Nordling: It’s a really funny movie but the humor comes from the characters, I like that about it. Getting that out, making it funny, and making the characters breathe, how long were you working the script for a while?
Emily: It was originally a short film that I wrote in a day, and then I spent maybe three or four months writing script and revisions? I don’t really remember.
AJ: There was an early version, and you had the outline, for it at the beginning, and then there were a few tweaks here and there but the main elements of the story were in place. There was some finessing here and there, and then there’s a little of that that happened once you’re on a set that’s always going to happen as the story starts revealing itself to you. I had the script very close to the form that it was for a bit of time.
Emily: And of course these guys added so much to their characters like what AJ was saying when they were there. And before we’d start shooting, sometimes, we’d sit down and - I remember a day where every scene got rewritten that we were shooting that day. And it was so great that these guys knew their characters so well because we could all work together on how the dialogue would change, and now I look at those scenes in the final product and I can’t imagine – I can’t even think on what the original dialogue was. Once we were so comfortable with what the world of these characters was, it was easy to go in and do that when we knew we had to change something. I’m all about “killing your babies” – you can’t see on the tape recorder but I’m using hand quotes (everyone laughs) – I love editing, and a big fan of doing that. It’s hard to edit your own stuff, but immediately when something doesn’t work, I say, “Change it! Cut it! Whatever you need to do,” because I’m already self-conscious of everything coming from my brain. I love it when people like AJ, or Tony, or Devin, or whoever, adds so much more to their characters.
AJ: Emily had to convince me to do that. I didn’t want to, because, you know, I loved the heart of the script, because in the movie, that heart, that genuine… it was in the script, it existed already in the script, and I didn’t want to change the dialogue. I’ve worked for a few years on types of films where we get to the location and it was no longer the script that I read, we’d disregard it entirely. And I don’t like doing that unless it’s necessary to fix the problem, and there were no problems that needed to be addressed or fixed with this script. So I was very reluctant to tweak dialogue. I was very reluctant to switch anything up. And it took a couple of days – I think there were three days into shooting the stuff that I was shooting before I was, “Okay, alright, we’ll just have some fun and try it a little bit.”
Nordling: What was your most difficult time in shooting it?
Emily: I have a very specific answer to that. (everyone laughs)
AJ: I think I know the answer to this one, too.
Emily: Was it your first day of shooting?
AJ: (pause) Man, what a bummer, I didn’t know that’s what it was!
Emily: It wasn’t your fault at all!
AJ: Right, right. (laughs)
Emily: No, no! Here’s the story. We usually would shoot five pages a day, or about and that was comfortable but we were in the last day of shooting at the school, and we were doing the school dance stuff, and it was AJ’s first day. We had like a hundred extras, or something, and we had to shoot nine pages. And if we didn’t finish on time, or if we were running over, which we didn’t want to do for the crew, and the cast and everybody, but not only that, but alarms would go off in the building and the police would come. We couldn’t stay any later, and we were also shooting a very emotional scene that day. It was incredible, and we all went in knowing that this day was going to be very rough. Everyone really pulled together, to make sure if somebody had to go grab something, someone else would run in and grab the camera and make sure we got the shot. Everyone was just working together, because they knew how tough it was. Everyone was so excited because AJ had just come too-
AJ: This is not the true story; this is part of the story that’s fabricated. (laughs)
Emily: Well, I was excited. But he did great; he did this scene with he and Katie (Bolger) arguing, and then we shot the scene where Tony comes out of the bathroom, and she’s crying. And that was a very emotional scene, and we only had 45 minutes to set it up, shoot it, and leave, and get everything out of the building. And we just cleared everybody out, because I could tell that she was getting really stressed about everything, and then on the first take, she made everyone on the crew cry. She was so convincing. Without all that added stress of shooting nine pages, I don’t know if we would have gotten all that.
AJ: When you’re talking about dealing with a hundred extras, the other thing that I think that some people who don’t make movies, when they’re watching scenes don’t realize, the geography, the logistical geography of shooting a scene visually, cinematically in a gymnasium, and Griffin did an amazing job with the production design in there, but still, when you’re thinking about the geography, even with a hundred extras inside a gymnasium, trying to make that read and work in a visually interesting way in a big giant vacuous box. It’s crazy, because even though you have a hundred people, trying to get those angles that you need to still logically tell a story—
Nordling: And there’s so much ambient noise in a gym, too.
AJ: It’s much easier to shoot in a tight space, because it’s so much easier to pad that out or just remove things, but in a gym, it’s crazy. And we were shooting near the airport too, if I recall.
Emily: Yes, and there was crazy sound issues, but our sound guys – I could just talk about our crew forever – but they did an amazing job. We were shooting in a Jeep, with all three of them with no roof, no windshield-
Nordling: I was really impressed with that, because, AJ, were you driving?
AJ: Yes I was. I’ve had a lot of practice with that, specifically, between the stuff I’ve done with (Adam) Wingard and Simon (Barrett), they had me driving – Tom Holland had me doing a thing where I was driving on Ventura Boulevard at 10 P.M. on a Saturday night with the camera mounted and a light in my face to try to read. So I have a lot of experience driving a picture car. This was pretty easy by comparison. I just had to worry about there being a minor that I was driving around. We’d wave bye to his mom, “I promise, we’ll get him back!”
Emily: “We’ll be back!” But we couldn’t really hear what was going on, but the sound guys could hear, and they were saying, “Oh, this sounds terrible, sounds terrible.” And that’s all the source audio from the scene. We just had an amazing crew, and a production designer, she had this color palette that turned Austin, which doesn’t really look like fall, into fall.
Nordling: That was what I was going to ask, where did you find those falling leaves this year? Because this year was so dry.
Emily: (laughs) Well, she picked them up, and moved them to where we were shooting! (everyone laughs)
Nordling: That’s great. So what’s next for you, do you think?
Emily: I’m working on a couple of things. I really want to do another comedy, but I really want to do another horror film too. I’m trying to get this book adaptation going, but it’s really up in the air right now.
Nordling: Well, take your time, you’re doing great. It was a fantastic movie. I came into it kind of nervous, because I know everybody in this movie, I don’t want to not like it, but at the end of it, you won me over. It was fantastic. Very well done.
Emily: I’m so glad. And it would have been okay if you didn’t like it, it’s cool.
AJ: No it would not have been. Don’t tell people that it would be okay for people to not like it! No, it would have been the worst thing ever if you didn’t like this movie!
Emily and AJ don't need to worry. GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS is a sweet teen movie that has a unique voice. Again, GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS is playing at the Chicago Critics Film Festival this weekend. You should go.