John Patton Ford Interview – Writer/Director of “Emily the Criminal”
John Patton Ford wrote and directed his first short film, Patrol, in 2010. He thought he was off and running but while he’s remained in the industry in other roles, he had to wait twelve years to finally write and direct his first feature film, Emily the Criminal – which was presented as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) on the eve of its U.S. release. The film stars Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as a college graduate saddled with student debt and unable to find work. In desperation, she becomes involved in a credit card scam, acting as a dummy shopper, and buying increasingly risky products with stolen credit cards. John Patton Ford spoke to us on zoom about his labor of love.
Where did the idea come from?
I had about a hundred thousand dollars of student debt when I came out of graduate school and I think I had a lot of anxiety and fear and desperation about that, and ‘how am I ever going to pay it off’ kind of feelings. I knew that I wasn’t alone, and it just seems crazy that 30% of the population in the U.S. has this massive issue they’re dealing with, and you’d never know it judging by our movies, so that’s what started it.
How did you find out about dummy shopping as a part of credit card scams?
I had first lived in a neighborhood in LA where I knew that there was some organized criminal activity going on in the neighborhood, but I didn’t know what exactly – until one day there was this FBI bust and it was on the cover of the LA Times. The FBI had arrested nearly 100 people and you could read the entire affidavit on the internet, so I read it all and learned about one of the crimes this organization was doing, with this elaborate dummy shopper scheme.
Have you ever been hacked yourself?
I’ve been hacked and I feel like everyone has. It’s funny because I actually got my credit card information stolen while we were making this movie and I couldn’t get food at the grocery store one day because my credit card was shut down. It really made me question, ‘why am I making a movie about the people who are doing this crap?’ (laughs)
How did you keep going for 12 years between films?
I made that short film when I was 26 and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll get out of school, and I’ll make a feature first thing.’ That was years and years ago and the reality was I had to pay $1,200 a month in student loan payments and another $1,000 a month in rent so I ended up just doing whatever I could to pay those bills, working in catering like Emily in the film and I hung on by my fingernails. I’ve had four movies fall apart before this that I almost directed. I was two weeks away from production one time and it fell apart, so I feel like I got so many shots that one of them was going to go eventually and then this happened.
How did you cast Aubrey Plaza?
I gave the script to a friend for notes, and he asked if he could give it to her and I thought nothing would come of this. But then I got an email from someone appearing to be Aubrey Plaza saying she liked the script and wanted to meet. We had coffee and I just really liked her. Beyond that, she has this crazy energy that’s hard to describe but I knew made her perfect for Emily and she was willing to take a shot on me.
Why was she perfect to play Emily?
Aubrey is very aggressive and very fearless, and she has tunnel vision when she wants something. I mean this in the most loving way, but she is unsafe. When you’re around her, you don’t know what’s going to happen or what you’re going to get, and she brought that kind of mercurial thing to the character. She’s a tiny person, the size of an umbrella, who could just power the state of California; she’s that strong.
What were the biggest challenges making this film?
I’m grateful we made it, but it’s tough when you have no money and very little time. We had 20 days to shoot the entire movie, and there were 123 scenes and 60 locations and stunts and fights and a car chase. The car chase itself, we had technically half a day to shoot, which is six hours and realistically more like four giving the setup time. We didn’t have the money to shut down streets, which is typically what you want to do but we had the money to pay for three police officers who could kind of pause traffic for five minutes at a time and then they’d have to let traffic go through for another five minutes. There were also makeup stops during the car chase as Emily has more and more blood coming out of her nose, so it ended up being a brief chase but you make the best of what you got. I think if the audience cares about the character, then won’t really mind if it doesn’t look fancy and expensive.