‘Criminal Emily’ director Ford struggles with credit crunch

Emily the Outlaw

Credit: John Patton Ford

In the new movie”Emily the Outlaw,” the main character, played by actress Aubrey Plaza, is almost always in a state of fear.

There are moments when Emily’s fear goes away: after one of her successful robberies, when she paints in her apartment to classical music, or when she falls in love with Yousef (Teo Rossi), who introduced her to the world of credit card fraud. But these respite are always brief, and soon the fear returns. Much of this has to do with another constant in Emily’s life: her $70,000 student debt.

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The meager wages from her food delivery job barely keep her up with the interest accruing on her student debt each month. So Emily reinvents herself as a criminal, buying expensive electronics with stolen credit cards in pursuit of a less predictable life.

“I think fear is a great motivator for people,” he said. John Patton Ford, 40 years old, screenwriter and director of the film. “We do almost everything out of fear. The only reason anyone can do what she does is because they’re terrified of the consequences if they don’t.”

I was talking to Ford whose movie was critics’ choice from The New York Times and won awards at the Annapolis Film Festival and the Deauville American Film Festival this year on his interest in the student loan crisis and his decision to make his first feature film on the subject.

The film debuted in theaters in August, just days before President Joe Biden. revealed his long-awaited plan forgive most of Americans’ student loan debt. Even if the plan survives Republican challenges, outstanding student loan debt will still exceed $1 trillion, and every year another 5 million Americans take out loans for their education.

For those who have not yet seen the film, the discussion below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, contains spoilers.

Annie Nova: From the beginning of the film, Emily is in a really desperate financial situation. Why did you make her student debt such a big part of her panic?

John Patton Ford: Personal experience. I enrolled at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and graduated in 2009 with about $93,000 in debt. Each decision came down to this: Can I fly home to visit my family during the holidays? Can I afford to have coffee with a friend? It’s been almost my whole life. And I knew that I was not alone in this crisis. Tens of millions of Americans are experiencing the same thing, but I’ve never seen a movie about it.

AN: Have you paid off your debt yet?

JPF: I am no longer in debt, but it was a miracle. Getting a career as a screenwriter is a real miracle. I think there are about as many people in the Writers Guild of America as there are Major League Baseball players. And even then I couldn’t repay the debt. It took being a director and making the first film, which is astronomically difficult. My sister went to medical school – she’s an anesthesiologist – and has been working for about 15 years, and she’s still paying off her student debt.

“No other country will tolerate this”

AN: Did you research the student loan crisis for the film? What have you learned?

JPF: It actually started in 1980 when Ronald Reagan deregulated the economy so big corporations could find a way to avoid paying taxes. And now, 40 years later, the end result is that the government is no longer getting the tax revenue it was used to. They are unable to subsidize education, so we pass the cost on to people who are now running into huge debts to go to school.

It happened so slowly that we didn’t even consider the fact that we are the only country in the Western world that has this system. No other country would tolerate this. If this happened for one day in France, there would be mass protests. They set fire to the buildings.

A.N.: It seemed very interesting to me that you made an artist out of Emily, and a talented one at that. But her lifestyle leaves her little room for creativity. What is the movie trying to say about the impact of student debt on artists?

JPF: We have created a society in which it is not easy for artists. So much of the artistic innovation that has happened over the years has happened because the artists were in a society that supported or allowed them. Would the Beatles have survived without the robust social programs in 1950s England that kept them from working full-time or made college so inexpensive? They have to take lessons and then go home and rehearse as a group. But if the Beatles had $100,000 in student debt, they would be working in a coal mine. The amount of talent that is not being developed today and from which we as a society will never profit is tragic.

AN: There are so many things you could get Emily to do to try and pay off her student debt. Why did you make her go into credit card fraud?

JPF: I think the more disenfranchised you become because of the way things work, the more nihilistic you feel and you might say, “Well, if they’re robbing me, I’m going to rob someone else.” The minute you lose faith in something, you become as bad as the system.

AN: I really liked the scene where Yousef talks about the house he wants to live in for a day, with an open kitchen. And later, he is happy to introduce Emily to his mother. Why force this person involved in all these financial crimes to have such ordinary desires and dreams as well?

JPF: It says something about our vision of what is real today. As a person living in Los Angeles, I can tell you that you cannot own a house here unless you are a millionaire or a criminal. You start doing math and suddenly you say, “Yes. I’m willing to commit credit card fraud to throw a grenade into the system so I can actually own something.” It just seemed like a more appropriate, down to earth reason to do something.

AN: At the end of the film, Emily starts her own credit card scheme in South America. It’s like winning in that she didn’t get caught and is still alive, but she’s also still locked in this dangerous and precarious cycle.

JPF: History is ultimately a study of character; it’s about those who figure out what they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, and what they’re likely to keep doing. It’s more of a coming of age story than a thriller. Emily gets this opportunity to travel to another country and possibly focus on art, but later realizes that it just isn’t enough. I wanted to end it so that Emily finally gets what she thinks she wants: she really enjoys being the master of things, and the art never let her do it, but this new life of crime does. I have one last scene to show her full development as a character.

AN: How can movies shed light on the student loan crisis in a way that other media can’t?

JPF: Towards the end of his life someone asked Roger Ebert define a movie. And he said, “A machine that creates empathy.” I always thought this was a pretty good answer. Movies have a superpower that is hard to compare to other media. They really quickly make the audience empathize with the central character and feel what that person feels.

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