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Limited Engagement: Zombie Girl

August 13th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Most kids have a defining moment when they realize what they truly want to be when they grow up. As for Emily Hagins, her mind was set at the age of 8, when she first saw Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: She wanted to be a filmmaker. Hagins even went so far as to write a letter to the director, and his encouraging response set her on her course. Inspired by an Australian zombie import called Undead, she set about her first full-length feature film, Pathogen, when she was just 12 years old.

Enter filmmakers Aaron Marshall, Erik Mauck and Justin Johnson. Having worked on numerous short films and television themselves, they were looking for a bigger project. And then they stumbled upon Hagins and her project. “We all used to live in Austin, where Emily lives,” says Marshall, who spoke to Hulu by phone last week. “And we came across a casting call for her movie on the Internet. She was looking for 12- to 15-year-old kids to act out a zombie movie directed by a 12-year-old girl. We contacted her family, and within a week we were filming.”

The result is Zombie Girl: The Movie, which streams for free on Hulu and SnagFilms this week. The three stood by as Hagins shot her own film, documenting all of the behind-the-scenes moments on camera. “We decided from the very beginning that since we had knowledge that Emily does not, we would stay back as far as possible,” says Marshall. “We shot like we were flies on the wall. Emily was going be making decisions and making mistakes, and if we intervened at all, we knew we would stunt her learning process. We didn’t want ourselves to be part of the story.”

That meant there were times when Marshall and his partners didn’t say a word as they watched Hagins commit a blunder, even, when Hagins neglected to turn off the music in the back of the scene, for instance. The budding filmmaker had to reshoot the footage. “There was only one moment that any of us had direct contact with the film. Emily was messing with a tripod for 10 or 15 minutes,” says Marshall, who, inspired by Hagins, recently wrote his own horror script, and is also working on a comedy. “She couldn’t find the button, and finally she said, ‘If you have enough footage of me struggling, can you help?’ And so Justin went over and gave her a hand.”

As for financing Hagins’ project, most of the support came from her mother, Megan, who was very much a part of Pathogen. “She realized pretty early on how Emily passionate was about this,” Marshall says. “She decided to help her any way she could, so she drove the car, she wrangled all the kids, took care of food, did all the makeup. We caught some high-pressure moments between the two on film. Their relationship strained because of the project but overall, when everything was done, it made their relationship much stronger.”

So how does the young auteur feel about the “running vs. shuffling” zombies debate? “I know that [Emily] does not like a running zombie. She is a walking, shuffling zombie fan,” Marshall tells us. “She mentions this in the film at one point. She is a George Romero zombie purist.” (Marshall himself is a little more lax, saying that it really depends on the nature of the film.)

After its run on Hulu and SnagFilms, Zombie Girl: The Movie will be playing in festivals (it won the Spirit Award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival). As for Hagins, she funded her second film, a ghost story called The Retelling, with proceeds from Pathogen (DVDs are available through her website). She’s entering her films into festivals, Marshall says, and is currently working on another screenplay, this time a comedy. We’re sure we’ll be seeing more of Hagins in the future.

Rebecca Harper (rebecca.harper@hulu.com)
Editor, Hulu