S Magazine, Issue 14, Summer 2012
Catherine Hardwicke’s big break came on a couch. In fact the very same low-set, gray couch that I’m sitting on. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and the 56-year-old movie director and I are in the living room of her modest Venice Beach home. She begins her story across a coffee table made from a surfboard, while her cat, generously named The Black Luxury Velvet Item, remains vigilant.
“I realized I could do it cheap. I could use my own clothes, my own car. I could make this movie. And I just sat here and started crying”, says Hardwicke, recounting the real-life scene in which she tried to convince a producer to help get her the seed money after years of setbacks for various other directorial projects. “I will sell my house, I will do anything to make this damn movie”, she had pleaded.
The producer came through, and the feature film, Hardwicke’s first as a director, was Thirteen, cowritten with then fourteen-year-old actress Nikki Reed, and made on a $1.5 million budget. It earned an Oscar nomination for supporting actress Holly Hunter, a Golden Globe best actress nomination for a fifteen- year-old Evan Rachel Wood, and for Hardwicke, the 2003 director’s award at Sundance, not to mention a total salary of three dollars.
Nearly a decade and five features later, Hardwicke is still at it, furiously trying to get her film projects out of development hell and into production. Outside, it’s a strange weather day in Los Angeles, with winds gusting over 50 mph. Inside, however, the chaos is controlled. If there’s an interior design genre called teenage bedroom chic, it would be her home’s aesthetic. A wide assortment of framed movie posters and random pictures cling to almost every open surface, including ceilings, walls of books, propped-up surfboards, and a mounted cow skull. It’s as if she lives in a collage.
“My house is, like, insane”, says Hardwicke, a long-time Texas transplant now possessing a distinct SoCal vernacular. “I’ve had it for twelve years, but the house is 105 years old.” To illustrate how her place was never meant for year-round dwelling, she points to the flimsy partition separating the dining room from the kitchen. “They’re not even walls. They just thought it would be, like, your beach house, if you were wealthy and lived in Pasadena.”
Three years ago, during the worst of the economic crisis, Hardwicke managed to buy the matching house next door, which now contains her office. It was the period that saw Hardwicke’s fourth film, the first instalment based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight book series, gross nearly $400 million. “I did okay that year”, she admits.
Hardwicke is taking me on a tour of her compound. She’s dressed like a teenage skateboarder: skinny black pants, long-sleeved shirt under a snug tee, a pair of what looks to be special edition, black and white Nike Dunks, and long hair hanging loosely around her makeup-free face. We cut through the idyllic front yard, filled with lemon trees and strawberry patches, then enter the office, passing homey work stations surrounded by bright windows and patchworks of inspiration boards for the multiple projects that she’s trying to get going.
She points out the various distractions as we walk through to the back of the home: her sister Irene’s fanciful artwork (“She’s three years younger and lives in Oregon”); some paintings that Hardwicke herself did yesterday; her Twilight memorabilia cabinet (which includes the original script, her copy of the Twilight book, costumes, a potholder knitted by a fan), and an ancient Macintosh PowerBook used by Wood’s character in Thirteen.
We snake our way to the area where she holds auditions: an open courtyard that accesses her garage. She gestures to the carport, pointing out where Twilightactors Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart first enacted any scenes together, and then to some steps in the courtyard, where their costar Taylor Lautner once ran lines. There are also various entrances for her tenants, which include a musician, a photographer, and a lawyer.
It’s odd to find that one of the highest grossing female directors ever moonlights as a landlord. But in between making feature films, which can be fairly long stretches of time, even directors can be considered essentially unemployed and struggling. “There’s a lot that filmmakers can’t control”, says Hardwicke, who has several projects in the works, including a film about the tumultuous relationship between Swedish singer Anita Lindblom and boxer Bo “Bosse” Högberg, and another based on James Patterson’s Maximum Ride young adult sci-fi novels.
“You think you’re inches from shooting a movie — and that can be with a studio or with the indie world — and everything falls apart. If we were a painter, like my sister, the total outlay would be a couple hundred bucks. Our outlay on our art form is millions of dollars.”
Of course, she points out, she still has her house (or well, houses), and there are also alternatives, such as editing or writing for other people, and directing commercials. Hardwicke generally chooses to avoid commercial work, not only because she’s averse to “forcing people to buy shit they don’t need”, but also because of the time it steals from her personal projects. “It’s not like you just show up and direct your commercial. You still have to prep it, and there goes another five weeks of your life, and what do you have at the end? There are a lot of advantages”, she says, “but I’ve never seen that path for me.”
Earlier in the day, Hardwicke had attended the premiere of Mirror, Mirror, the Snow White remake starring Julia Roberts. “I love Tarsem Singh”, she says of its director. “He’s really great, and my boyfriend worked on it. But I couldn’t help but just sit there for one second and go, ‘So that’s what a fairy tale looks like with $55 million more than they gave me for Red Riding Hood.’” Hardwicke was granted $40 million to make her fantasy movie starring Amanda Seyfried. “I wish they’d trust a female director with a few more bucks”, she says.
It’s true that a film’s success cannot be predicted at the outset. Several companies turned down Twilight until Summit Entertainment picked it up. “Literally every studio in town said that this will not make money. It wasn’t like I got paid like it was a big-budget movie”, says Hardwicke, who made it on a $37 million budget. “Rob and Kristen, the next year, they made $30 million dollars” — collectively, she means. “It’s nothing like that for a director. Well, actually, it’s nothing like that for a female director.”
It’s clear that the subject of sexism in Hollywood plagues Hardwicke. She’s widely griped in interviews about the industry’s double standard, pointing out the dearth of films directed by women, which are typically under ten percent of the industry’s output. “There’s a lot of built-in prejudice that people maybe don’t want to acknowledge, or even admit in themselves”, she says. “Sometimes people say it directly to me, other times it’s indirect.”
When pressed to elaborate, she tells the oft-told tale about her desire to direct The Fighter, the 2010 biopic based on the life of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, before the gig was entrusted to David O. Russell. “I said, ‘I love that script, I’d love to have a meeting to direct that movie.’” Instead, they turned her down on grounds that it was a male-oriented action movie. “There’s no man on the planet that wouldn’t have gotten that meeting after directing a $400 million movie and starting such a huge franchise”, she says.
“I don’t want to be a baby, but I’m thinking, okay, a guy gets to direct all the other Twilights, and those are the most girly books ever. And a guy gets to direct Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Sex and the City. Guys can direct girly movies, but girls can’t direct a ‘guy’ movie. So it’s pretty frustrating.”
Hardwicke grew up the oldest of three children in McAllen, a Texas border town where, she says, there wasn’t much creative inspiration. “I never met any person who was any kind of artist or musician”, she says. “I didn’t know that that was a job you could have. There were just really hardworking, low-income people.” Her mom taught elementary school. Her dad worked ten hours a day on the family farm, producing cotton, sugar cane, cabbage, onions, and peppers. “Farming is just a tough life”, she says. “You could do everything right and then have your crops wiped out by the weather.”
Meanwhile, drug traffickers and illegal immigrants made their way across the Rio Grande River, which flanked the edge of the farm. Crime was rampant. Her high school principal was stabbed three times in one year by students. (Did he quit? “No, he was like an ex-football player.”) So were three of her hometown friends. Two of them survived, one didn’t. Her cousin, still a farmer in McAllen, often goes to work armed with a gun and wearing a bulletproof vest. “It’s always violent down there”, says Hardwicke. “It’s the poorest MSA county in the whole United States, and it’s been that way for 60 or 70 years.”
Perhaps the exposure to violence from her childhood explains how Hardwicke seems to maintain such a friendly disposition despite the vexations of Hollywood, like when false reports came out that Summit had fired her after the first Twilight.
Actually, Hardwicke had said that the timing for the sequel, New Moon, which ultimately arrived in theatres 364 days after the original’s 2008 release, didn’t work for her. “I couldn’t be fired because in my contract, if your movie makes 1.5 times what it cost to make it, then you automatically have first right of refusal for the sequel”, she says, adding, “I’m not really a sequel person. I honestly liked the first book by far the best.” Each of the three follow-up films have been directed by different men, including Chris Weitz (New Moon, 2009), music video director David Slade (Eclipse, 2010) and Bill Condon (Breaking Dawn – Part 1, 2011).
After every difficult phone call she takes, if someone’s dropping out of one project, or if financing has fallen through on another, Hardwicke will walk into her garden and trim leaves. “I’ve actually been reading about nature deficiency disorder, that people are just not around nature enough”, she says. It also helps that Hardwicke lives a few steps away from the Pacific Ocean, where she surfs or paddleboards with various schools of dolphins to decompress from “the crazy pressure and weird stuff”.
She also concedes to shutting off when she’s in shooting mode. She won’t carry a cell phone, check her emails, or allow visitors to distract from her work on set. “There’s an intense pressure during the day to get all the shots you have to get, and everything basically works against you”, she says. “If I’m not concentrating even for one minute, checking some dorky email, then I’m not helping get the shot done or seeing one more problem that I can solve.”
“So what’s your favourite part about directing?”
“I like when they just say, ‘This is a go movie’, and you don’t have to work on fifteen other projects anymore.”
During high school, a wealthy family in town had access to a private jet and a son that they were going to fly out to Houston, to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, to take a career aptitude test. They invited Hardwicke to join. The test told her that she should be an architect. “I was off the charts on architecture and engineering — and they were right”, says Hardwicke, who went on to enrol at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. “I was in heaven. I loved drawing, sketching, building models. I was, like, ‘This is me.’”
After five years of school, Hardwicke graduated as class valedictorian. For her final presentation, when the department flies in professional architects to critique student projects (“and somewhat slash you to ribbons for an hour”), she designed a project that included dragon heads that collected rainwater. The water would then spew out of the dragons’ mouths and into a swimming pool. There were solar energy panels, and there was even Hardwicke, dressed up like one of her buildings, pulling off layers of clothing, like a striptease, to demonstrate the intricacies of her design. “I thought I had nailed it on every level”, she says. Instead, the judges were speechless. “They looked at me and were like, ‘Whoa.’ Then they said, ‘Okay, next.’ I was kind of devastated.”
The next day, one of the visiting architects approached her and, as she recalls, said, “You’re going to be stifled in architecture.” Hardwicke hadn’t realized thatvery few architects actually get to be creative. At the time, she was already committed to a project back in Texas to build townhouses, so she returned home. What the architect said stayed in her mind, just as she was beginning to become fascinated with elements of movie production — in particular, the fact that somebody had to be making the sets and costumes. It was an architect’s understanding of filmmaking. She knew virtually nothing else about motion pictures, but when she finished her commitment to the townhouse job, she applied to UCLA film school, where she was accepted.
Friends threw her a going away party, but told her, “You’ll be back in four months”, like everyone else from McAllen who had tried to make it before her. Her big LA connection was a guy who was an assistant manager at a McDonald's.
But Hardwicke didn’t go home. After six months, her first student animation film, Puppy Does the Gumbo, won a national film award, landing her on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. She also got a job working for Tim Burton, and spent her weekends building models for a visual effects company. But animation was a tough career path to get started in, so she changed course for live-action filmmaking. “I didn’t have any money to keep going to UCLA”, says Hardwicke. “You have to pay to make your own student films.” Puppy had cost $3500, which she funded from her own savings while living with four other students.
For sixteen years, Hardwicke ensconced herself in Hollywood as a production designer on nearly twenty films, such as 1999’s Three Kings and 2001’s Vanilla Sky. Still she longed to find a way to direct on her own. “Being a production designer on those jobs, I learned a lot”, she says. “Each person has a different technique. I love that Cameron Crowe directs with music. If he wants to change your performance, he’ll just change the music. Richard Linklater is very low key. Sometimes he uses reverse psychology. He’ll downplay his own ideas and then he stays calm even if the actors get all wacked out. Whether they wanted to or not, they helped me.”
In between, she’d always be trying to write scripts. When it came time to solicit help from directors that she’d worked with, she hit dead ends. “Some I specifically went to and asked, ‘Would you help?’ They said no. I joke about this all the time. Richard Linklater said no. He said, ‘If you want to make a movie, you just have to make it.’”
Hardwicke heeded the tough love advice. Her second film was Lords of Dogtown, a fictionalized account of the Z-Boys, who revolutionized 1970s Venice Beach skateboarding culture. Starring Heath Ledger and Emile Hirsch, the 2005 movie sealed Hardwicke’s reputation as a teller of coming-of-age stories. “They are about [the] transitional moment in our life that we’re trying to figure ourselves out our reality", she once said in an interview. "It's got a lot of potential for drama, and I think it's the most volatile and interesting time of life."
Despite her penchant for working with young actors, she doesn’t consider herself very maternal. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that way”, she says. “I don’t cook, I don’t have yummy food lying around. I’m not motherly. I’m more like an aunt.” One of the films that she’s trying to make now deals with issues that are far more adult. Titled Plush, it’s a story about a touring singer who’s tempted with an extra- marital affair. It’s something Hardwicke can relate to.
Almost every year, Hardwicke is out of town for six months, working on location. Her live-in boyfriend of six years, director-producer Jamie Marshall, keeps a similar schedule. “You feel pretty alone”, she says. “That’s a big theme in Plush. That’s how the singer on the road starts her affair. You sit there in these hotel rooms. It doesn’t have all your junk. You don’t have your friends. It’s depressing.”
Hardwicke points out that there are two types of movie projects: the ones that studios want (“sequels or romantic comedies or whatever”) and the ones that filmmakers want to make (“something from the heart, something unique”). Every year, the ones that are usually up for awards are the latter kind, which, from conception to completion, are perhaps the most difficult to make. “They really do take ten years to get these damn things made”, she says.
“You try to only attach yourself to something you can feel passionate about. But I’m at the point now where I’ve been trying so hard to get people to see my vision and say yes — and to give me money to make it. Then you just give up [because], well, here’s a studio job, and you’ll actually make some money and not be broke for two years. You take that and then you go, why did I do it? It’s just a crazy roller coaster.”
At the end of our conversation, we step out into the blustery, late afternoon. Down the road, she points out the house where Z-Boy skater Tony Alva lived during the ’70s, and the kink in the sidewalk caused by tree roots, off of which the skaters of yore used to do tricks. Down a path, we can see the ocean in turmoil, and as we turn the corner onto the boardwalk, the rain hits.
“Should we turn back?” I ask.
“It’s kind of fun, I like it”, she says, and pushes on.