Emily Hagins was 12 years old when she directed her first feature film, Pathogen, a genre picture about a teenage girl whose dreams might hold the key to a strange, fast-spreading infection. Twelve years and three feature films later, her teen adventure comedy Coin Heist is streaming on Netflix. The film follows four high school kids on a quest to break into the U.S. Mint to nab millions of dollars of rare coins to save their school. When she was making films as a teenager, Hagins knew she wanted to use her unique perspective to show what being a kid was really like. Now, at 24, she’s still dedicated to showing teens as who they are.
“I feel like there’s this idea that you move from being a teenager and not knowing your place in the world or not knowing how to grow up yet to all of a sudden graduating high school or college and knowing what’s going on,” she says. “But honestly, I don’t know anyone who’s made that transition easily.”
Hagins says it’s frustrating to watch older directors try to portray kids, because they hold some deep-seated misunderstandings of contemporary childhood, often perpetuated by the media.
“I grew up with a cellphone and Facebook, but I feel like the misconception is that it controls the growing-up experience today,” she says. “Like they’re not the same as kids that grew up 20 years ago. But everybody’s still learning lessons like they always have.”
In Coin Heist, there is a programming geek, Alice (Alexis G. Zall), but rarely in the film is she staring down at her phone or her computer. She still has a regular life that isn’t solely defined by technology — Hagins looked to the teen movies of the past to create her characters' identities. But the writer-director also was given some interesting parameters by her production company.
Coin Heist is produced by Adaptive Studios, which has pioneered a pretty novel method for making films. Every studio has thousands of scripts that never got produced just lying around. These idea graveyards are rarely returned to, but Adaptive realized the potential in these stories that didn’t quite make it. Adaptive staff take old scripts and write a detailed synopsis from them, simultaneously hiring a novelist and a director to adapt for both book and screen. Hagins never saw Adaptive’s treatment. Instead, she worked off Elisa Ludwig’s book.
“I was only recently given the treatment [or the original script from which it was written],” she laughs. “And in some ways, I was glad to have only the book to go from, because I had freedom to interject more of my voice in it.”
Hagins was all in on Adaptive’s concept, but she needed some convincing on casting. Coin Heist stars actors who got their starts on YouTube and Vine, respectively, Alexis G. Zall and Jay Walker, and Hagins admits being wary when the company suggested they cast all social media stars.
“I wasn’t too wild about that. I was familiar with some of these movies that cast YouTube kids, but I’m really into the idea of making movies where kids think their voices are being heard, instead of something like, ‘Here’s something dumb for the kids,’” like some of the more thoughtless projects that have been thrown together slapdash to capitalize on a social media star’s cachet.
“Where we landed was having two kids who had more traditional acting experience, and two who are from that world but aspiring actors. Meeting Alexis and Jay Walker really changed my mind. I think you just need to find the people who want to give a good performance, not just show up with their YouTube personality.”
It’s heartening to hear Hagins was able to push back to get what she wanted or needed. For years, she’s been trying to shed the idea of the “girl director,” where everyone would ask her what it’s like. (“I’ve been looking forward to nothing more than to just being a filmmaker,” she says.) She didn’t go to film school, instead learning the ropes by doing, but if she were to go back to school, she’d study history or writing “to help shape [her] films.” She already did an enormous amount of research on this newest movie, where she says math skills came in handy.
“I had to learn everything I could about making coins and do a lot of math, because they had to weigh a certain amount so the characters could feasibly carry them out of the Mint,” Hagins sighs. Despite her dedication to facts, it’s still a movie. “Look, I know the U.S. Mint doesn’t put coins in buckets, but we had to show a visual representation for people to understand. And then some YouTube comment complained that stealing $20,000 in quarters was impossible because it would weigh too much, and I was like, ‘You think I didn’t do the math! I did the math!’”
Hagins being a young woman in the field of directing may make her a target for the naysayers who want to pick apart her stories. But she’s less interested in fielding weird criticisms from adults than in making fun, thoughtful stories for kids. No matter what, she says, she knows “there’s always going to be one grumpy old dude who’s like, ‘I don’t understand why kids would break into the Mint!’”
It’s a movie, grandpa.