A Conversation with Coin Heist Author Elisa Ludwig and Director Emily Hagins

Elisa Ludwig’s Coin Heist centers on four students who have a wild plan to save their school from being shut down in the wake of an embezzling headmaster: rob the U.S. Mint. Though each hails from a wildly different social strata, the quartet finds themselves working together after a school trip to the Mint reveals a security lapse too good not to exploit.

The book was written in partnership with Adaptive Studios, which develops books based on unproduced screenplays–which they then hope to see adapted into films in turn. Coin Heist is now a Netflix original movie; author Ludwig and the film’s screenwriter and director, Emily Hagins, recently sat down to discuss the adaptation process, creating the perfect heist, and the importance of prom.

Elisa Ludwig: When I imagined you adapting [the book], I was thinking: did you read through and sort of think through the formal limitations of film? Like oh, this scene which is all internal monologue and won’t work and how do I dramatize it?

Emily Hagins: Having the internal process so clear for each character was super helpful, because there’s always this surface level, but what you’re saying and what you’re thinking is behind that. You don’t always have the luxury with a screenplay of knowing what every main character is thinking.
I told [the actors] that I want them to always believe in what they were saying, so if I wrote something that wasn’t how they talked to always speak up about that. And they did. I liked having that dialogue with them a lot because our youngest actor was 17. From day one she was saying things I had never heard of, and I was like “I am not that old! I do not know this slang! What is this?” So we had to tone that down.

Ludwig: There’s such a believability and a palpability about those characters that was so strong in the movie that I was like “oh!” It was kind of uncanny to see because the actors did such a good job, and you did such a good job in coaxing those performances from them.

Hagins: Yay! They had great chemistry, they hung out outside of filming, they really enjoyed one another’s company and trusted one another. When they had that trust, it really lent to them improving one another’s performances. They were all strong to start with, but it was interesting watching from our initial cast read to the end of filming.

Ludwig: I can imagine. I think, in talking about writing, filming is a little bit like the process of writing a book. I know a lot of authors that write books with their chapters out of order, but I actually really like to write chronologically. And one of the reasons why is because hopefully your characters are going through some kind of character arc through the course of the story, they’re growing and developing and learning, and I think if I’m writing it in that order, I can feel that growing process and be with them through that. Once I had a good outline in place that was very detailed, I really tackled it chapter by chapter.

Hagins: Yeah, I can’t write a screenplay out of order either, but like when you’re filming, the schedule gets put in an order based on time and money and everything, so it’s like a different switch in your brain from writing to directing and still trying to find the emotional place with the actors on set.

Ludwig: Did you listen to music when you were writing? Because I don’t usually. Some books I’m working on, if they have a really, really specific ambience I might make a playlist. This book, I felt like I had so many things I needed to juggle: my point of view and the heist dynamic and I felt like music would have really thrown me off. Although, I definitely remember hearing echoes of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” as I was writing the final sculpture scene because it’s something of an homage to The Breakfast Club, and that song is so iconic.

Hagins: I listened to a lot of that dreamy modern music with an ’80s feel to it. I was trying to kind of live in that John Hughes world in some ways without being way too homage-y. Something like dreamy and synth-y but not too over the top with the ’80s. I mean, I don’t mind: to me there’s no such thing as over the top with the ’80s. Valley Girl, everything I do in my life is to try and make Valley Girl. It’s like the best thing ever. Like Dakota doing her makeup before the prom, I was just showing them clips of Valley Girl like “Do this, please!”

I loved the idea that it was their prom. Because right before we started filming there was that huge snowstorm in New York that shut down the city. [The producers] were like “if there’s that much snow it wouldn’t be prom and it’s going to mess up the timeline of the movie.” There was all this concern over the timeline of the movie, and at the last second we changed it to the winter formal. Dakota’s really obsessed with the winter formal, but in the book it’s PROM, it’s prom! Of course it did not snow even a little bit the whole time we were filming! Maybe a little patch of snow somewhere. But I was so mad we did the whole rewrite on that script.

What was the hardest scene to write?

Ludwig: I think that the heist scene was very challenging, and I definitely had to rewrite it a bunch of times to get the technical aspects right, and for them to be able to pull it off. You probably found this as well, but dramatizing things that happened on computers is difficult.

Hagins: It’s very hard, yeah.

Ludwig: It was very challenging, and it’s probably much easier in a book than in a film, running between the prom and the heist setting was challenging. Just knowing that that kind of had to be the climax of the book. It really had to have a lot of energy; it had to be really exciting to read. The book is called Coin Heist, the heist has to deliver. I think another sort of big challenge writing the book in general was, with four different points of view, really giving them equal weight and keeping their motivations driving, and keeping them distinct and feeling like their own characters. How about for you? What was the most difficult to film?

Hagins: Definitely the heist. It got rewritten to different locations, there was a rewrite right before filming to the location that we ended up using. And a few days before we started production, I was so tired that I fell asleep at the computer and then we did our cast read-through and I didn’t remember what happened in the heist. I hoped I didn’t write my dream that I had while I fell asleep at the computer. But, you know, it turned out fine. I did a lot of research. I joined some coin collecting forums and just read a lot. And you and I had both gone to the Mint, and I think that was really helpful in figuring out exactly what the stuff looks like.

Ludwig: Yeah, if you didn’t see it, if you just read about it, I think that would be hard to re-create, because it really does look like it in the film, like I’m amazed at how you were able to recreate that look of the Mint.

Hagins: It was this fine line of keeping everything realistic enough to where we know how to make coins basically, but also we didn’t want go over people’s heads with some of the terminology. Could four teenagers break into the Mint? I hope not.

I think that as far as the character stuff goes, I have to give enough for the actors to interpret for their performances. But some writers aren’t like that. Some screenwriters want the actors to stay exactly on script, but I just think the way that teenagers talk is so interesting and different from the way adults talk, and I do everything to embrace that awkwardness as a filmmaker. I feel like as a teenager you’re learning so much about the consequences of your actions, and you have your own little teen high school world, and then you have the real world that you get glimpses of. I like movies that explore when kids are learning.

Ludwig: Yeah, and your world as a teenager is so small, I mean certainly for these kids this school is their world, and you know, it’s small. I think one thing they hopefully come away with is that they don’t really need this small world. They feel so attached to it and connected to it, but it’s not really school that gives them their identity or gives them the sense of who they are. But yeah, this book throws them into the big world, I guess you could say, and crime.

Coin Heist is available now at Barnes & Noble—and don’t miss the film adaptation on Netflix!

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