Courtesy: John Patton Ford
In the new movie “Emily the criminal”, the main character, played by actress Aubrey Plaza, is almost always in a state of fear.
There are times when Emily’s fear disappears: after one of her successful burglaries, when she paints in her apartment to classical music, or when she falls in love with Youcef (Theo Rossi), who introduced her to the world of credit card fraud. But these respites are always short, and soon the fear returns. That’s largely because of another constant in Emily’s life: her $70,000 student debt.
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The meager wages from her food delivery job barely allow her to pay the interest that accrues on her student debt each month. So Emily reinvents herself as a criminal, buying expensive electronics with stolen credit cards in search of a less predictable life.
“I think fear is the great motivator for people,” said John Patton Ford, 40, the film’s screenwriter and director. “We do almost everything out of fear. The only reason anyone would do what she does is because they are terribly afraid of the consequences of not doing it.”
I spoke with Ford—whose film was a New York Times Critics’ Choice and won awards at the Annapolis Film Festival and the Deauville American Film Festival in Deauville, France, this year—about his interest in the student loan crisis and his decision to make his first feature about the subject.
The film debuted in theaters in August, just days before President Joe Biden unveiled his long-awaited plan to forgive a large portion of Americans’ student loan debt. Even if the plan survives Republican challenges, outstanding student debt would still exceed $1 trillion, and an additional 5 million Americans borrow for their education each year.
For those who haven’t seen the film yet, the discussion below—which has been edited and condensed for clarity—includes spoilers.
Annie Nova: From the beginning of the movie, Emily is in a really desperate financial situation. Why did you make his student debt such a big part of his panic?
John Patton Ford: Personal experience. I attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and graduated in 2009 with about $93,000 in debt. Every decision came down to this: can I fly to visit my family for the holidays? Can I afford to have coffee with a friend? It’s been running pretty much my whole life. And I knew I was not alone in this crisis. There are tens of thousands of Americans going through the same thing, but I had never seen a movie about it.
AN: Have you already repaid your debt?
JPF: I no longer have any debt, but it took a miracle. To have a career as a screenwriter is an absolute miracle. I think there are about the same number of people in the Writers Guild of America as there are players in Major League Baseball. And even then I was unable to repay the debt. We had to become a director and make a first film, which is astronomically difficult. My sister went to medical school – she’s an anesthesiologist – and she’s been working for about 15 years now and she’s still paying off her student debt.
“No other country would tolerate this”
AN: Did you research the student loan crisis for the film? What have you learned?
JPF: It all started in earnest in 1980, when Ronald Reagan deregulated the economy so that big corporations could find a way not to pay their taxes. And now, 40 years later, the net result is that the government is no longer raising the tax revenue it used to. They can’t subsidize education, so we relieve the costs of people who go into massive debt to go to school.
It happened so slowly that we didn’t really take into account that we are the only country in the Western world that has this system. No other country would tolerate this. If this happened on a single day in France, there would be mass protests. They had burned down buildings.
AN: I found it really interesting that you made Emily a painter – and a talented one too. But his way of life leaves him little room to make art. What is the film trying to say about the effects of student debt on artists?
JPF: We have created a society that does not make life easier for artists. So many of the artistic innovations that have happened over the years have happened because artists were in a community that supported or empowered them. Would the Beatles have existed if not for the strong social programs in England in the 1950s that made it possible for them not to work full-time, or that made university studies so cheap? They could take lessons and then go home and train as a group. But if the Beatles had $100,000 in student debt, they’d be working in a coal mine. The amount of talent not being developed today that we will never be able to tap into as a society is tragic.
AN: There are so many things you could have had Emily do to try to pay off her student debt. Why did you make him cheat with credit cards?
JPF: I think the more disenfranchised you become with the way things work, the more nihilistic you feel and you can become like, ‘Well, if they rip me off, I’ll rip someone else off.’ As soon as you lose faith in things, you become as bad as the system.
AN: I really liked the scene where Youcef talks about the kind of house he wants to live in one day, with an open kitchen. And then later he is excited to introduce Emily to his mother. Why make this person, involved in all these financial crimes, also have these very ordinary desires and dreams?
JPF: It says a lot about our view of what is realistic these days. As someone who lives in Los Angeles, I can tell you that you cannot own a house here unless you are a millionaire or some kind of criminal. You start doing the math and you suddenly say to yourself, “Yeah. 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 down-to-earth reason to to do things.
AN: At the end of the film, Emily runs her own credit card system in South America. It feels like a victory because she wasn’t caught and is still alive, but she’s also still locked in this dangerous and precarious cycle.
JPF: History is ultimately a character study; it’s about someone figuring out what they’re good at, what they like to do, and what they’re likely to continue doing. It’s a coming-of-age story, less than a thriller. Emily gets this opportunity to go to a foreign country and maybe focus on art, but then realizes that it’s just not enough. I wanted to end where Emily finally gets what she thinks she wants: she really likes to be in charge of things, and art never allowed her to do that, but this new life of crime did. I have this last scene to show his full progression as a character.
AN: How can film shed light on the student loan crisis in a way that other media cannot?
JPF: Towards the end of his life, someone asked Roger Ebert to make a movie. And he said, “A machine that creates empathy.” I always thought that was a pretty good answer. Film has a superpower that is hard to compare with other media. They very quickly make the audience sympathize with the central character and feel what that person feels.