Zombie Girl: The Movie - A conversation with Aaron Marshall and Justin Johnson.
Following up the world premiere of their documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie at Fantastic Fest 2008 I caught up with 66% of the directing team of the film I called a 'candy store Heart of Darkness'. Aaron Marshall, Justin Johnson and the absent Eric Mauck followed young filmmaker Emily Hagins as she set out to make her first feature film, a zombie film, at the tender age of 12! They did so for two years and came up with a very fun and inspiring documentary as the end result. What follows is the conversation I had with Aaron and Justin... first starting with a bit of background from each filmmaker.
Justin – Eric and I went to southern Illinois university in Carbonale in the film school program, there we both graduated in 2000. Mostly we shot on 16mm. That time I was very into the narrative and then I came out to Austin immediately after graduating. I started doing shows on cable access and got into documentaries. In Austin a lot of documentaries are being made and shown, so I started watching a lot of documentaries. Eric and I did a couple of short documentaries and eventually in 2005 this whole Zombie Girl thing started.
Aaron – I went through the film school program here at University of Texas here in Austin. I lived in Austin for a while making short films, narrative shorts, writing scripts and Zombie Girl was the first documentary that I’ve ever worked on. The story was too good to pass up, just kind of appeared. I decided to take on documentary for the first time. Other than that it’s been all narrative stuff.
Mack – How you guys came upon Zombie Girl is pretty unique, care to comment on that for those who haven’t seen the film yet; how you found Emily and how this documentary started in the first place.
Justin – Eric and I saw this posting on a web-site, AustinActors.net, and that site lists productions people are doing. It said: auditions 12 to 15 years old kids for zombie movies. We found out that Emily was this twelve year old girl and we all decided this would be a good project to do so we met with the family, talked to them, see how they felt about it. Emily at the time was twelve she was this pretty typical nervous awkward teenager. But she seemed excited about the idea of us filming them. At the time they had only filmed a little bit but they were getting ready to audition to start this whole process. After one dinner they agreed to it. That was the initial steps to starting production. Three weeks later we met with them and conducted the very first interviews.
Aaron – It was too good to pass up as far as a documentary subject goes. 12 year old girl makes feature length zombie movie. It begged to have the story told.
Mack – Did you have any questions about that? I hear 12 yr old girl making a zombie movie and I thought what does a 12 yr old girl know about zombie films? Should they know about zombie films?
Aaron – That was one of the early questions we had. We go over that in the film. How did she get to this point? How does a 12 yr old get to the point where she has not only seen tones of zombie movies but is herself making one. We’re interested in stuff like that. That is a compelling part of her movie, at least the genesis of her story.
Justin – I really didn’t know anything about aintitcoolnews. I didn’t know anything about this rabid genre fan base here in Austin so we’re learning about that while we got to know Emily. One of the interesting aspects early on was that her mom let her go see these movies. Certainly, when I was growing up, when I was ten or eleven, it was sneaking in and watching stuff late at night, my mom certainly would not have taken me to these hard R horror films.
Aaron – Emily was interning on a horror film that was being shot in town when she was ten. She had already gotten into that whole genre and stuff by that age because her mom was going with her to see these movies because she wanted to see them.
Justin – That was the other story that grabbed me. Her mom, instead of saying I don’t want you to watch this stuff, it is very violent, she let Emily see what she wanted to see. Her parents are very open with her and discuss things. I went to an all night horror-thon with Emily and Meagan during the process.
Mack – Do you remember any of them?
Justin – One of them was 3 Extremes. That to me was pretty- this is when Emily was thirteen. I know if my mom caught me –
Mack – Dumplings? The one with the babies in the-
Together – Yeah [nodding making chopstick gestures]
Justin – So she saw that when she was thirteen.
Aaron – And of course the zombie movie Undead was the one she saw when she was ten. Which really got her into the whole thing in the first place. I think she was freshly ten when she saw that.
Mack – Did you guys watch that to get an idea of what gave her influence.
Aaron – Yeah, we watched it a few times.
Mack – It’s a wonderful little hybrid there.
Aaron – You can see in the script where she drew her inspiration from. It’s pretty interesting to see.
Mack – Even at fifteen now she’s coming across as all together. Even back then when you’re showing her filming she seemed to grasp everything that was going on around her. Not that I didn’t sense that anything was out of her control but she seemed to have everything in grasp. She came across as, I don’t know if mature, but just really all together and could handle anything that was handed to her.
Aaron – Well she also seemed to adapt throughout the process, the two years it took to make the film; some of the scenes early on where she is learning how to direct people and what to do. You see the contrast by the end, you see her growing. I mean, she just finished her second feature this summer.
Justin – In the beginning I wouldn’t think that she was twelve just by the level where she was speaking and interacting with us. But there are times when we got out when she was shooting you can kind of sense the naïve things that kids think. But, I did notice a huge difference when she did some re-shoots a year after we started shooting. I went out to cover the re-shoots, it was something I don’t think we even used, maybe like a split second in the documentary. I covered it for two days. By this point in time she had already been through the editing process, she had figured out what she actually needed. At that point when she was directing this big zombie scene she was blocking stuff out. I went to film school for four years and we never once discussed blocking. Never. She’s talking to the actors about how they need to block this out and she has this scene where there are three things going on at once. She’s doing everything hand held and still having a hard time figuring out how to edit things but when she was discussing blocking I was thinking that’s bizarre cause I was a year out of college and sat down and started talking about how important blocking is. I started watching it in movies and thought this is insane.
Mack – You’ve paid this much [tuition] and you haven’t learned it.
Justin – She does pick on things. She does listen to people.
Aaron – And she seems to roll with the punches really well. She stays pretty calm even if something is going wrong which helps her. It’s a huge learning process with tones of thing going wrong and lots of thing going right as well. She is kind in control a little bit. She is very calm.
Mack – I’m watching her last night during her own Q&A and then at the Fantastic Feud and she’s just holding her own. She seems just sharp as a whip.
Jutin – Yeah.
Aaron – She is.
Mack – was there at any point during the filming when you, as filmmakers, thought, boy I should really step in, or, were you just completely hands off? Did they ever come to you, or, were there points when you wanted to step in and say, may I make a suggestion?
Aaron – We told them at the very beginning that we just wanted to be fly on the wall, hands off, kind of objectively, cause if we were to step in it would taint what she was doing. We didn’t our influence to disturb her process. We just wanted to watch. There were many times throughout the process when she was doing things that obviously were mistakes. Not getting the manager to turn the music off in the store. Or, not breaking the 180 degree rule. Or, not getting the right amount of coverage. If we were to say something not only would it effect her outcome and we would not be objective but it would also be damaging to her learning process. You can see like Justin said, when she went back to do her re-shoots, she had learned from her own mistakes. If we had sat there and just said something she probably wouldn’t have learned it. By having done it and seeing what happened, what went wrong, then she grew. That was the approach we took, fly on the wall.
Justin – Eric and I discussed this several times early, early on in the shooting process. Both of us had become really big fans of documentaries that were as ethical as possible. And that was a big thing with us. Now, after this whole process, I understand that there are things that you have to do, I wouldn’t consider them unethical but you want to say truthful. You don’t want to bend things. You don’t want to set things up. So early on Eric and I said unless they come to us and specifically ask, hey, this or that, we shouldn’t interfere. I felt really bad, you’ve seen the scene where she [Emily’s mom] is wrapping the tape [around a makeshift mic boom pole], Eric and I had a professional boom pole for the whole production in our trunk. We tried to boom a couple times during the beginning of the documentary and it just got in the way so we said we’re just going to do wireless mics. Instead of trying to have a boom person. It was distracting the kids. I could tell it was distracting Emily’s production. So we stopped doing that but we always had it with us in case we did need it. But the problem with it is if we weren’t there she wouldn’t have that boom pole and we didn’t want to do anything, we didn’t want the documentary to, we wanted here production to go the same as if we had never said we were going to do the documentary. Unless they asked us and we would have said yes. That was kind of hard at times. You feel guilty but at the same time we felt there was some ethical line that you don’t want to cross cause it would damage our story and turn it a certain way, which I guess now it sounds kind of terrible. At the time it made perfect sense. I see documentaries all the time. Especially documentary filmmakers that are covering someone who has fallen on hard times and this filmmaker could reach out to them and say, here’s a hundred bucks, let’s get you out of this situation. But they never do they may follow this guy, they may easily help him out, but at the same time when you’re doing this you want honesty and if something bad was going to happen that’s how it was going to happen if you were there or not. But you want to capture it.
Mack – We’re talking about learning curves. We’re talking about Emily learning something between principle shoots and re-shoots. We’re talking about learning blocking. After you’ve made this film and you’re looking back at it is there anything that changed for you guys as far as the filmmaking process, as filmmakers, something you changed yourself, while you were making the film, or something new that you’re going to do differently after making this film.
Aaron – Yeah. For one, since this was the first documentary that I worked I’ve gained a new appreciation of what it takes to make a documentary; particularly to edit a documentary. I’ve directed and cut a bunch of narrative stuff before. With a documentary we have 146 hours of footage that we cut down to 91 minutes, with one take of everything. It’s not like narrative. I learned that the editing process is more akin to writing a script. It’s almost like writing a screenplay where all the words have been picked out for you to choose from. You pluck them and create the story from them. I gained a new appreciation for that and realized you have to tap into a slightly different part of your brain cutting a documentary than you do when cutting a narrative. I also learned a lot about how we can tell a different kind of story with a documentary but a very powerful story. It’s a format that is very conducive to the kind of stories that I like to tell. That we all like to tell.
Mack – Documentary filmmaking is like that big massive fridge magnet you get where you can pop the words out and leave messages for your roommates- ‘pick up milk’.
Aaron – Exactly. That is the perfect analogy cause it’s all there on the tapes and you can’t add anything to it so you just have to move it around and that was a big part of the process that takes a while to find. The story was obviously there and if you watched all 146 hours you would probably get the same story but we had to convey that in only 90 minutes. Finding the selections that get that across to show Emily, and more importantly to show the relationship between Emily and her mother, who is obviously a very key part Emily’s life and a of our film. Her film most definitely would not have happened without the support of her mother.
Justin – The biggest thing from this process that I have learned as far as tackling another one. I think if I was going to tackle another huge, shooting for a year and a half, before this all started, when we started with Emily and Megan the first time we sat down we went to a Chinese restaurant and ate a couple egg rolls. This will be cool. We’re all excited. We never discussed long term filming or how much we’d actually need to film cause we thought we’d maybe shoot three months and cut the movie in a couple weeks.
Aaron – Of course if we had told them how long it was going to take at the beginning they may have never agreed to actually do it. It could be a good thing that we didn’t say, ‘you know what. We’re going to follow you for two years of your life. Intimately. And we’re going to be there all the time. They may have just closed the door in our faces.
Justin – But I do feel that tension does rise for the filmmaker and the subject because you want to be truthful and you want to follow the good and the bad. I know like you saw in the film Emily’s arguing with her mom, obviously that stuff that was kind of hard, at the end of the day they know that you got that, that sucks that it happened but it is a part of the process. If early on, with another project, I would sit down with the subject and say the good with the bad. This could take a long process really kind of drill it in to their head before they make a full decision to let you follow along. It’s almost like if you’ve never had a roommate before and you’re like come on it’ll be fun it’ll be great and you become roommates with somebody and three months later you’re saying wow, there is a lot to roommates that I didn’t know. There is a lot of sharing. There is a lot of intimacy. It very much reminded me of that. Now I have the experience I would present something differently to the subjects at the beginning. Make sure this is something that you want to jump into.
Mack – Do you guys remember the first movie you ever made?
Aaron – The first movie I made was a horror film. It was a short film about a little cute stuffed dog that murdered everyone it came in contact with.
Justin – My first, what I would consider my first, my thinking about what I am doing, was the first film I made in film school call Vac-doomed. And it was about this zany used vacuum cleaner salesman who goes door to door and just can’t get anything sold and he can’t sell these used vacuum cleaners. At the end of the movie this used vacuum cleaner salesman shows up at his door and tries to sell him one. He just slams the door in this guy’s face. And that was my first shot on Super-8 and hand cut it and put sound on it and that was my first experience.