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Arrow Video Frightfest 2022: An Interview With Emily Hagins, Director of Sorry About the Demon

It was only when I was preparing to talk to Emily Hagins about her new supernatural horror comedy, Sorry About the Demon, that I realised I had seen Emily herself on screen before: this was in Zombie Girl, a documentary about the making of her film Pathogen (recently rereleased on BluRay, with Zombie Girl as a bonus feature) when she hadn’t even reached her teenage years. I had to ask how Emily had made that journey from DIY films as an adolescent to making V/H/S episodes and having her own content on Shudder.

“I really liked writing as a kid,” Emily said, “and using my imagination, but I wasn’t very good at drawing or other art forms. I loved watching movies, so I combined those interests of writing with movies; and then having got onto film sets at a young age, making my own movies just became the only thing I really wanted to do. At 16, I made another movie, then at 18, another; but it was still kind of a novelty to make movies as a kid. I remember a friend telling me ‘you’ll be at least 30 before anyone will start seeing you as an adult, having started so young,’ but I still looked a little bit similar that entire time! I always kind of presented as an older kid, I never changed my hair or anything, and I do worry sometimes do I look ‘old enough’ now. But hopefully, people will enjoy the film for what it is, and I’m 29 now, so maybe that’s close enough,” she mused with a laugh.

“Each film got me closer to learning more,” Emily continued. “I decided to make it into a career and be taken seriously as a filmmaker, not just a novelty; but I did appreciate starting so young. I connected with young filmmakers all over the world, sharing their journeys, and not everyone in the industry gets that experience.”

Now, less than three weeks after our conversation, Sorry About the Demon has its world premiere; presumably a milestone in any filmmaker’s career. “I’m really excited about that,” said Emily. “The last time I was at FrightFest, was about ten years ago, with a movie I made when I was at high school [My Sucky Teen Romance], and it was an incredible experience: I loved meeting the filmmakers, I loved the festival. I guess that movie is about being a nerdy teenager and sometimes when people saw the film they said ‘where’s all the sex and drugs of the teenage experience?’ but that wasn’t my teenage experience; then when it played at FrightFest, it was kind of seen for what it was, and people appreciated it and its perspective: that was one of the first times I really felt that with that movie. I was so excited when we came back to the United States and we had another screening, but I don’t think it went down so well, but hey that’s the journey of a filmmaker. So I’m glad to return, and I really hope people will enjoy the film for what it is, still an independent movie, but with its heart on its sleeve. If one person enjoys it, I’m happy.”

Emily Hagins, writer and director of Sorry About the Demon
Photo courtesy of Emily Hagins

I certainly enjoyed it! I agree with Emily it’s interesting how every festival and festival experience can be unique, with their own character and their own audience. There are nearly eighty feature films in this season’s FrightFest programme, though only about a dozen female names are listed amongst the directors. I asked Emily if she had any advice to encourage other women to create films or submit them to film festivals. “Yes,” she answered. “You know when I started making movies, I didn’t think about being different from my male colleagues, and I think part of that was because of being both young and a girl. I always felt a bit like an outsider, and as I got a little older, I recognised the different type of uphill battle I was facing. I know every filmmaker has their challenges getting their movies made, and nobody has it easy, but it is a difficult experience to push yourself in the genre world and get out there in the same way. I don’t want to diminish anyone else’s struggles, but I guess my advice for other women is that we just have to keep making things, big and small. Sometimes we’ll get the dream job, and the dream budget, sometimes we won’t; but the more we create, it adds to what we can put out into the world. I hope film festivals are seeking out diverse voices for their programming: I have no doubt it’s a combined effort of us making lots and lots of movies and the world inviting that too.

“I know my movie has a male lead, and I have several projects with female leads as well, but at one point I was told ‘you’re a woman, you can’t write a male lead,’ and that just made me want to do it more. So every now and then, I just look at a new project and decide is it to be based on a male lead or a female one; it could be anybody. Because of who I am, I can still channel my experiences into the character, I can work with the actor and make sure it’s genuine, but I don’t see my male colleagues being told who they can and can’t write about. It’s important for me to listen and understand that this is not me, but these are some of my experiences that I’m putting into the character, so how can the actor help to bring those experiences to life in his character: I have to be open to that perspective.”

Having raised the male lead, Will (played by Jon Michael Simpson), I told Emily that he had indeed been a favourite aspect of the film: he was a well-drawn character, with interesting development throughout the story, and utterly likeable. I asked Emily whether Will was based on someone she knows. The answer turned out a little more personal than I expected: “In a lot of ways, he’s based on how I felt in my late twenties,” Emily said; “figuring out how to channel my interests, who I am, feeling my worth in that: am I worthy of being a filmmaker? So there’s a lot of my own doubts and self-worth questions in that. Something else important to me: I didn’t want him to appear like a ‘man-child’ that was purposefully not willing to grow; that wasn’t the intention. To me, Will is someone who was at a crossroads in his life and needs to make a journey; but I don’t like this ‘man-child’ trope, a roadblock in other people’s lives, who we’re supposed to like. That’s not something I enjoy, so I worked at getting this right with the actor, and I have a long working relationship with him (this is our fourth project together). It felt like we had a really open dialogue together about where Will is at this stage of his journey, what we could do to make him relatable, and Jon Michael’s experience too. So having a long working relationship brought his ideas and his trust into my script and in that way, we drew on both our experiences.”

As for Emily’s experiences… I had to ask whether she had had tough times with renting properties, with a difficult break-up, with toothpaste… We’d talked about the character, but did some of the plot come from her life too? We must have been on good terms at this point because despite looking a little bashful, she came out with the answer. “There is some real life here,” Emily said, “you’re going to laugh at me. I was watching a lot of ‘bake-off’ and was really into making a lot of cakes at the time I started the script, a lot, when other people might get drunk. I also stress out a lot about my teeth, making sure I take care of them properly, so there’s two personal aspects of me there.”

Will (played by Jon Michael Simpson) descending to the basement in Sorry About the Demon

I loved the special effects too, especially (minor spoiler coming up) the hole in the basement. I asked Emily whether she just briefs the effects team and then leaves them to it, or gives them precise instructions. “That was actually very challenging for us on set,” said Emily. “We had an opportunity to build the set and maintain a COVID bubble for the cast and crew within the same location, a Holiday Inn in a Toronto suburb: we used the accommodation there, and our set was in the atrium. So because of the ability to build each room, the basement part was several feet off the ground, so we were able to film it like a hole in the ground; that would have been so different if we were filming in someone’s house. So it was really cool for the actors to be able to go beneath the set, but we had some issues with what it was made of. Originally the hole was filled practically with goo and all sorts of things, but then stuff was breaking and we had actors in there and wanted to be sure they were safe and they were delightful and kind, but not comfortable. So while we wanted to get things done quickly, there were issues with throwing water balloons, bottles of goo, and then come in later with special effects to assist with how it looked. It was a big aspect of production and post-production, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. Hearing ‘hell hole’ for me, gives me sweat!”

Having talked about the characters and the set, I asked a little about the plot; specifically where the idea had come from about combining ghosts and demons in the haunting. “I think it was inspired by the first Conjuring movie,” said Emily. “There’s a demon possessing the Mom in that movie, calling the shots to ghosts who appear throughout the story. Because the demon is such a personality, I wanted to surround them with ghosts that are also being used as pawns. So much of it could be symbols too: Will has demons of his own, thinking he’s not good enough in his life, good enough for the demon. All these things relate to him and what he experiences. But I was certainly inspired by The Conjuring.”

Something else had struck me as curious too: Sorry About the Demon is listed as a USA film, but made in Canada… I asked Emily to explain. “Yes, that was actually because we had that opportunity with building the set,” said Emily. “As an independent film project, during the pandemic… well it was very expensive to be testing people every day, use a COVID safety officer, and so on. So we thought about what would be the most efficient and safest way to run the set, while doing the rules properly and everything. We had a bubble—kind of like the Netflix film The Bubble but I haven’t seen that, been scared to watch it—but basically everyone stayed in the hotel, went downstairs, and there was the set; we’d do our COVID testing while wearing a mask, get lunch individually packaged and take it to our rooms. So I was very nervous: we drove to Canada from Texas, it was a very long drive, and we’d stop to go to the bathroom or something; I was just covered in PPE. You had to have a COVID test to get into Canada and get there within seventy-two hours. So we took the test, and took seventy-two hours to get there, loaded up PPE whenever we stopped, head how difficult the border was to cross: I was so, so nervous, but everyone got across. So that’s why we had a handful of folks from the United States but most of the cast and crew were Canadian. That was definitely a different experience for me, but we just really lucked out with a great team and I’d work with them again. Stressful, of course, with COVID and all the new people; but I’m a big believer in keeping everyone well looked-after on set, and I couldn’t tell how that would go.”

Emily Hagins (writer and director) and Eric Oh (cinematographer) on the set of Sorry About the Demon
Photo courtesy of Emily Hagins

I guess it must have been worthwhile to go through all that stress and the extra practicalities for the ideal set. “Yeah,” agreed Emily. “And it was kind of the set plus getting the ability for people to stay there in the same location. No one had to go home late, and it was all safely contained; it was entirely possible for someone to roll out of bed and be on set in five minutes. Nice to know that if you’re walking through it all one evening, you could literally just walk down to the set and see how it would work.”

I only started interviewing filmmakers since the pandemic started: when Grimmfest, in Manchester UK, went virtual for the first time, they asked their press list if anyone would be prepared to do some remote interviews, and I gave it a shot. It’s been interesting to listen to different perspectives on the impact of the pandemic on independent filmmaking particularly, and I asked Emily if she had any kind of “before and after” observations to offer. “This movie hasn’t come out yet, so I can’t be sure,” Emily reminded me, “but in some ways I don’t think we’d have had a movie like this, with building the set entirely, staying in the same location and so on, if it wasn’t for COVID. I think it was a very nice way to film, and I would certainly do it again, COVID or no COVID; but it was a really good, safe environment, an impact that worked out well for us. And in hindsight, I don’t think we would have got that in other circumstances. The other thing too is that I don’t think the movie would have been made because I wrote the script before COVID, and I think there was something appealing about being isolated in your house and not feeling super-great… maybe it became a little bit more relatable, I don’t know.”

Having saved my (possibly predictable) daft question until now, I asked Emily whether she would rent a haunted house. “OK, I was hoping somebody would actually ask me that,” admitted Emily, “because I’m scared of ‘real’ haunted houses and fake Halloween haunted houses that you’d walk through: I can’t do it in any sense, I get very scared. I had a birthday party thrown for me when I was a teenager (my birthday is close to Halloween) and it was supposed to be a surprise party: it was in a haunted house and I was coerced into going through it and I thought I was the only person there and that I was going to die! My name was written out and it turned out to be a birthday message, but I just can’t do it, ever since then, especially. I do love haunted house movies though; a favourite horror subgenre. Maybe my real fear is what drives the interest!”

Emily Hagins’ new supernatural horror comedy, Sorry About the Demon, has its world premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest on August 29.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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