Flixclusive SXSW Interview: Grow Up, Tony Phillips


[From March 9th – 17th, Flixist will be providing coverage from South by Southwest 2013 in Austin, TX.  Prepare yourselves for reviews, interviews, features, photos, videos, and all types of shenanigans!]

Grow Up, Tony Phillips is Emily Hagins’ fourth feature film! That’s remarkable for any filmmaker, but at 20 years old, this is an even more impressive fact. More importantly, Hagins is so insightful and devoted to her craft. During my interview with Hagins and Grow Up, Tony Phillips stars AJ Bowen, Tony Vespe, and Katie Folger, we talked about everything from the collaborative process in making the film to their favorite Halloween costumes.

The first thing I wanted to ask was [about] the costume design. Who decided the costumes?

Emily Hagins: We had two people. One built the dragon and the robot and everything. She was very thorough. Her name was Allison Murphy. I guess we had a lot of conversations about this very homemade film, like Tony didn’t have a million dollars to go out and build these amazing costumes.

Tony Vespe: Like they should be cool, but realistically cool.

EH: He’s still in high school, like we shot [Vespe] sewing, and he’s like, “I want to practice sewing!” and I’m like, “No, you’re not. You’re a teenage boy, and this is going to be how you sew. On the first take, that’s going to be your experience.” So yeah, he starts sewing and is like, “Yeah, I got this.” You can even tell his hand’s [shaking] like, “Uh oh.” So Allison, keep in mind, these costumes are being built by a teenage boy, but she was very thorough. Even on the robot, what she wrote in binary code was “Tony Phillips” or something.

Oh really? That’s pretty awesome.

EH: Last night [at the film’s premiere], she wore a dress where she painted the robot costume on it.

Katie Folger: She’s awesome.

EH: It was amazing! Misty Tavares did the rest of our costumes, and she was extremely thorough. She paralleled character themes with what they were wearing. Like, even on the couch scene with Devin [Bonnee] and AJ [Bowen], kind of the whole movie, you’re thinking Tony’s [character is] going to be AJ, but really Devin’s [character is] kind of AJ, and he points it out to him. Even in that couch scene, they’re both wearing yellow sleeves. She was very conscious of everything like that.

When Katie’s [character] at the party and she’s not being herself, it’s the only time she’s wearing green in the movie. Everything else is fall colors. Our whole art department was very conscious of the color scheme because they’re shooting in Austin. Everything did not look like fall, and everything was brown and orange and black. When characters weren’t being themselves, or when something had to be a little off, Misty was super conscious how to best represent that in a subtle way with the costumes.

AJ Bowen: I think that’s something when you’re doing press or interviews for movies, that falls pretty much on the directors and actors, we oftentimes don’t talk, or it can come across as not an important component of the gig.

EH: Like we’re taking credit for it.

AB: It’s not fair that the focus of this process seems to be primarily on these two departments, because yeah, they get the attention.

KF: It’s the whole team.

AB: The collaborative nature of film. I can tell you, several conversations everyday, I’ve had with Misty, we discussed a lot. I spent hours talking to Misty, going back and forth about, “Well, what do we think about this?” A proper costume designer has a lot of input for an actor about building character, because the other thing they’re doing is they’re getting an omniscient eye at it, and we’re dealing in the world of internalized ego with this character. “Oh, this is supposed to look cool for this person.” And she’s like, “Oh yeah, but just remember where you’re going to be sitting. It has to fit in with this, and these colors make people feel a certain way.”

And it has to also work, it has to mesh visually with the aesthetic of the overall film, so it doesn’t really matter if we’re really vibing something. If it’s not going to work, it’s not a cheat to say, “Well, that’s the wrong color palette.” So when you get a good costume designer like Misty, you talk about colors and what those mean because then, it’s iconographic in a bigger picture sense of the word, like what do these things represent. And similarly with the camera department, you know, you are there with the camera guys. I also have a huge relationship on any film is with sound. That’s half the performance.

EH: The scene in the jeep, there was all lit, and the sound… well, I guess you can’t really light it, but everything we did to make that scene was the way that it was recorded that day. We didn’t go back and add in an ADR or anything. It was like the sound people MacGyver’d that jeep to make everyone audible.

AB: That’s what I mean. When you’ve got that, you know the actors in the car know where the mic is, or you know that, for example, we’re on the trampoline. We know that we’re near an airport and we’re starting to become aware like, “We’ve got about seven minutes.” And you start feeling the sun move, and if you know where the camera is placed and you know where the sound guys are, those are hurdles that really don’t do anything but inform character choices that helps the performance, because it forces you to go, “Oh there’s a spill here, so if I back up this far, I’m in a better picture for this and it’ll also define intimacy in a different way.” So like in that jeep, it very much impacted the intimacy of what we were saying, how and when you say it.

KF: And in the scene where Tony and I, I confront Tony after the dance, we had our school that we had rented [had] like 15 more minutes, then it would lock on us.

TV: It would set an alarm, so we had like 20 minutes to shoot that scene.

KF: Yeah, we took very minimal takes on that scene because we were like, “Oh, we’ve got to do this! We’ve got to do this!”

EH: Well, it’s important to note about that whole day and how collaborative we were as AJ was saying was that you’d want to shoot five or six pages max, maybe, in a day. On that day, we had to shoot nine pages, all these extras, and there was that emotional scene, and if we didn’t leave, the police would come. It became very stressful, but in that situation, everyone knew we were going into that, and if something was like, “I’ve got to run over there and do this,” somebody would grab whatever that person was holding and take over, because it was like everyone was working on the same wavelength.

It was incredible, and I had never had a moment in my life until this movie where I felt like when I went on to set and then when I left and went home that day, I felt like a different person. I felt older, like I “Grew Up, Tony Phillips.” The team just worked so hard, and I’ve never been competitive, but I love people, so doing something [where] you can see how hard people are working is so inspirational for me, and I was just glad that we had assembled this group of people that respected each other, worked hard, and were just so talented.

Sounds like a very DIY collaborative team effort. I liked that.

EH: Sometimes we told the behind the scenes people to stop filming, like “We don’t want you to see how we’re doing this.”

TV: Not necessarily, but…

EH: It’s just magic. Movie magic.

Why a dragon and robot? Were there any deeper meanings behind them? Why specifically dragon and robot and not ninja or pirate or zombie?

EH: It did have deeper meaning at one point! There was a flashback scene cut out of the movie, which will be out on the DVD eventually, with young Tony, young Craig, young Elle, and young Pete, and you kind of saw where these characters were coming from. We cut it because, tonally, it was a little different from the rest of the movie, and we really thought that opening with the couch scene would be much stronger, and the opening credits sequence setting up the actual tone of the movie. Alone, the scene works okay, but young Tony is a ninja in that scene, and he and Craig talk about inviting Elle over to watch movies after trick or treating, and Craig says, “Girls don’t like monsters. We can’t watch monster movies with her.” And so later, when he’s dressed up as a monster when he’s with her, it meant something.

TV Girls totally like monsters!

KF: That’s cute.

EH: But not in the actual film. There’s a little sneak peek at the DVD extras that you’ll be seeing in 2014.

That’s pretty cool. So, I had a question about Tony’s growth at the end of the film, this is more narrative-based. Will he stop dressing up for Halloween, or is he extra comfortable with it because he finally has the support from his friends that he didn’t really have at the beginning of the film?

TV: I think for sure, I think he’s done trick or treating, but dressing up, he’ll always dress up. I think that’s what it kind of implies at the end of the movie is that, and that’s kind of the big moral of the movie, you can grow up without “growing up,” losing what makes all of that fun. He’s just moving from getting the candy to giving out the candy. You can still have a lot of fun doing that. You can dress up. He’ll probably still take Mikey trick or treating, maybe not in the most extravagant costume in the world, but Halloween will always be a big thing for him. That’s what it seemed like to me. He didn’t grew out of Halloween; he grew out of being the kid who gets the candy.

EH: I think you answered that.

You can tell he’s very kind and accommodating towards the kids.

TV: About 10 minutes before the end of the movie, he’s done. There’s the moment where he’s like, “You know what? I’m done. Mikey is embarrassed. I’m done.” And there’s the big moment where the doorbell rings and he’s like, “Whatever.” That’s kind of a big moment, but a throwaway moment to see people. Normally, he’d be bounding for the door, but he’s just like, “Whatever, I’m just going to watch TV.”

EH: Well, Tony Phillips has never handed out candy. He would be out there asking for the candy, so this is all new to him, and he’s figuring out what it means.

AB: It’s sort of understanding the value of both the fantasy and the value of being behind the curtain and seeing the reality, seeing the machine that makes it work. A big part of that is understanding there’s equal value in both. I think that’s why a lot of people experience that when they have children. We call it nostalgia, we put different names on it, but they get to live in a pure fashion, re-live these experiences, by providing them for people. Like what you guys were talking about, he might not trick or treat, but he understands by the end that that doesn’t take away the depth of meaning. It just becomes about where do you fit in this? What’s your responsibility now? It just paints a bigger picture about life in general, about getting older, about growing up is understanding when you’re the student and when you’re the mentor, when you’re actively living, and accepting that slot as it comes to you.

Like he’s sharing his past experiences.

AB: Absolutely.

TV: He’s going to live vicariously through the trick or treaters. He’s going to see their costumes… Well, that’s what he says earlier in the movie, he inspires people to make cool costumes. He’s still going to do that, and I figure he’s still going to make costumes and hand out candy.

He could grow up to be a costume designer.

TV: He could!

AB: I think Tony becomes one of the main characters in The American Scream. He could be one of the guys who spends his whole life building…

TV: Maybe Tony makes the best haunted house on the street.

EH: It’s all about the joy of other people.

TV: It’s his legacy.

For my final question, what have been your best costumes, or your dream costume ideas?

TV: AJ, what was your favorite costume growing up?

AB: Katie, what was your favorite costume?

KF: My favorite experience… me and my best friends dressed up as Geishas, and we had a whole skit where we went door to door with every house, and it was this weird thing. They would bring the family out to watch us do it.

Was that every year?

KF: We did that one year. I think that was the last time I trick or treated, but it was really freaking fun.

You set the bar too high.

KF: Yeah, it’s like, “We can’t top this. This woman just got her whole family out to watch us. There’s no way we can do it again.”

TV: I feel like my favorite costume I ever did… I’ve been asked this question a couple of times by my friends, because it’s apparently such a normal question to ask. I give a different question every time because I always think of another one because I’m very proud of all of my costumes. The one I had the most fun was being a reaper from Blade II. Remember that movie? The ones with the chins opening up. I had just seen that movie, and it was the coolest thing in the world to me. Me and my brother’s girlfriend at the time, this was years ago, I was like 12, she made this hoodie and made it look just like the movie. I covered my face in blood and had this prosthetic thing, and I went all out. That was my first Halloween where I went really all out with prosthetics and fake ears and stuff.

That’s pretty serious.

TV: I was really serious. I freaked people out because nobody knew where I was from. Most 12 year olds hadn’t seen Blade II, so I was some really creepy guy in a bald cap running around. It was embarrassing looking back now.

AB: Things were different in the 80s, man. I was a California Raisin one year. That was an intense commitment at the time. You had to get the garbage bag and cinch it up, but still get your legs through it, and put a bunch of rolled up newspapers inside the garbage bag around your body. I don’t know if you guys experienced this, but they used to… Do you remember, [PR Coordinator] Brandy [Fons]…

Brandy Fons: Because I’m old, too?

AB: It’s been a whole ten minutes since I made an old as shit reference. But there was this company, this brand that did these costumes. You could be the pumpkin, this or that. I remember distinctly the smell of the paint you could put on your face, because you couldn’t breathe. It was like a lead paint. It was like the early 80s, and it would crack off of your face.

TV: Oh yeah, they still had that in the 90s.

AB: It would also stain your face once the paint cracked off.

BF: I don’t remember the brand name.

TV: I don’t remember the brand, either, but yeah.

AB: I distinctly remember that, and you really ended up not looking like anything.

TV: It was like that kind of paint, but the smell of really bad latex masks. That’s the spirit of Halloween to me, that smell of…

AB: That’s sketchy.

TV: You know what I’m talking about, though. Being Michael Myers for Halloween [once], it stunk. It smelled like latex all night, or rubber or whatever it was.

EH: My favorites were the Pink Power Ranger.

TV: I was the White Power Ranger.

EH: Oh yeah, I think we talked about that. [The other was] Sailor Moon.

Oh nice. Did you have the meatball ponytails?

EH: Uh huh! I had longer hair, too, but I also looked really weird when I was a kid. My pupils were really big. I looked like an alien.

So you looked like anime then.

TV: Yeah, you looked anime.

EH: Kind of, yeah. I really want to do She-Ra. In two years, we’re going to do that. Me and Tony are going to do that.

TV: Yeah, we’re talking about this. I don’t think I could really pull it off, you know, but I’ll beef up.

Just for Halloween.

TV: I could get a Prince Valiant haircut.

EH: This morning, Tony, you looked in my mirror and you went, “Look at my arms.”

TV: I was wearing the Jack Burton wifebeater.

AB: The Workshop Express.

You’re on your way there. You’ve got… seven months?

TV: I’m halfway there. I could do it in seven months. Whatever.