By Bill Desowitz
Catherine Hardwicke worked for years as a respected production designer with the likes of Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky), David O. Russell (Three Kings) and Richard Linklater (SubUrbia). She recently made her debut as director with Thirteen, the $1.5 million drama of female teen angst from Fox Searchlight, which she co-wrote with 13-year-old actress Nikki Reed.
Hardwicke went to architecture school at the University of Texas at Austin, then to UCLA’s Film School. After making short films there, half animated, half live-action, she recalls people saying to her, “You’re an architect, why don’t you design movies.” So she started out designing Roger Corman films, then went on to projects with bigger budgets. But Hardwicke really wanted to make her own movies, so she took writing courses, directing courses, and also acted. “Then,” she recalls, “I shot little short films and learned Final Cut Pro and wrote screenplays…so finally I felt pretty prepared to make my own film.”
Below the Line: What were some of the things that you gleaned from the directors you worked with?
Hardwicke: Richard [Linklater] was great. He said the second you yell “cut,” you have to go right to the actors and give them feedback. You do not go to the cameraman, you do not go to any of the other crew; you go to the actors and let them know that they’ve put their heart out for you and that you’re aware of [that]. You can hit the crew after that….Richard would also be good at staying calm when other people would be having a hissy fit. I asked him how he stayed calm ‘cause I’d always get upset. He said, “No matter what, you have to stay calm.” David [Russell] brought an enormous amount of energy and vitality to each moment. He used to say [we should] pitch without shame, and to me as a production designer, that was like saying, “Go ahead, throw it out there. We won’t laugh at you much.” He said good ideas come from crew people and open to listening to them. Cameron [Crowe] was so wonderful with the actors – right in there with them with every line reading, which I thought was so wonderful.
BTL: What was the advantage of being a production designer?
Hardwicke: People are always saying how hard it is to direct, but they don’t know just how hard it is to be a production designer. It’s a very intense, radical job. On huge movies, the production designer is managing a large crew – much larger than the entire crew on Thirteen. And the time pressures are enormous. The designer has to deliver a set that everybody thinks is fantastic and on time, and if you’re one minute late, you hold up a whole crew to the tune of $150,000 or more a day. And [they won’t] take no for an answer even if the producers change the schedule a hundred times. The art department will probably be working on Sunday, while everyone else is kicking back. Yeah, it’ll get done because your crew is so dedicated… But [as a director] instead of being worried about the texture on the walls, I was worried about the texture of the performance.
BTL: But it must’ve been an advantage in getting good performances because you are so aware of the environment.
Hardwicke: For me, my film is very gritty, very real. It was shot all on location and we didn’t build any sets. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. We used a real bathroom in a real house, and it only made it better. Only Elliot Davis, the [cameraman], myself, and the sound guy could fit in there, and it made it more intimate. If we had built a set and taken out the wall, I don’t think we would’ve gotten as good a performance. Our film was very much about creating reality. But the production design was all about the location you choose, the house you choose and what you do with that house. And our house had a neat look because it had big windows and lots of light. Elliot thought that was the whole design of shooting through the windows. You could build a lot of depth into the shot because you could see basically through walls onto the porch. Of course, training as a production designer helped me to know what to look for and how to set up shots to get more visual interest even though it’s an ordinary little house.
BTL: Tell me how you came to select Elliot, your production designer Carol Strober, your costume designer Cindy Evans and your editor Nancy Richardson? For your first time out, your choices are so important.
Hardwicke: I wish I could’ve used people that I worked with before, but everybody has their own issues and scheduling conflicts and wanting to get paid [what they’re worth]. And if people make a big budget movie, they have to decide if they have enough money to spend while working for the minimum rate on a project that they love. On the back end, some people had a deferred deal, and we had a few points we could offer if they worked more than 30 days and if we ever make a profit. So I couldn’t get any cinematographers that I had worked with before and I thought Elliot’s work was so intuitive on I am Sam, getting into the head of this character, that I thought I really want to feel that emotion, that spirit from teenagers in this movie. Our producer, Michael London, had worked with Elliot before on 40 Days and 40 Nights, and I asked him to please send him the script, and I think he was a little embarrassed. Finally he did and when Elliot responded as the pure artist that he is with an architecture background like me, he thought we would hit it off. When I met with him, I put together in Photoshop a whole book of photographs I had taken around my house of how light came in through windows. So I showed him these photos and that got him excited, and so we had that common language and we hit it off.
BTL: What did he bring to Thirteen?
Hardwicke: He brought everything. He just put his heart and soul into it and his body. Since every shot is hand held and we move from one room to the next – we don’t stop, we don’t cut, and Elliot is running into walls and door jambs. He has a fierce intelligence and is not scared. Every Sunday he would bring his laundry to my house and we would talk about what we were going to do the next day. And he helped me fight for stuff. Sometimes when we didn’t have any time to shoot a scene, because we only had 24 days, and we only had the kids for nine-and-a-half hours total, he figured out a way to shoot a scene I just had to have. Plus we started out non-union and then became union [after getting busted]. His gaffer is fantastic and his first electrician had experience, but after that the main guy on the set had been an electrician for two months. And Elliot still managed to get this crisp lighting. After what we went through he said he was never gonna criticize a [cinematographer] again on a low budget film.
BTL: And Carol?
Hardwicke: She was an architect like Elliot and I. She had done some very interesting low budget movies and had a tremendous spirit. I felt sorry for her because she had me for a director. And we talked about me coming from production design. I told her, “I want you to realize that every movie I’ve worked on the director would have a say in what the production design would look like, and I hope you don’t resent me for that.” And she had to think about it before she accepted the job. And she did great, considering she had no money. In fact, one of my friend’s sons came out as an intern and worked on her crew and got painters that I knew for deferred payment. It was pretty desperate. And she had to drive the little rental truck to my house and move everything that could be used on the set like my paintings, bedspread, all my plants.
BTL: And Cindy?
Hardwicke: She was the one person I did know from Laurel Canyon. She was amazing. She found everything and was never satisfied and was always adding some little cool jewel. She got really involved with the girls and found really great contrast for them. Not too corny and kind of cute. When Evie [Reed] has to be a hottie, she found this great silhouette that Cindy made with pants and tight jeans and texture on the jeans to emphasize the waist. Very scrappy.
BTL: And Nancy?
Hardwicke: She’s a longtime friend. I’ve known her over 10 years. She has a great sense of story and is not afraid to say what she thinks. She obviously doesn’t work on movies that are this low budget and was the first person I sent the script to. She said no, because she couldn’t afford it. But I think they made some kind of deferred payment for her. Anyway, a week later she called and said she still kept thinking about my script. She always wanted to do a teen movie. I was just so blessed. She teaches at UCLA, which has made her really great at finding solutions and also is very open minded about finding new ways to cut things because students come up with the craziest shit – putting cranes in backwards. And she says if it works, great.
By Bill Desowitz