The latest installment of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Tribeca Talks featured Catherine Hardwicke, whose achievements in directing render her one of the most powerful female directors in Hollywood. Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, and Twilight, whose opening weekend was the biggest ever for a female, are among her best-known releases, but her fight for equality is far from over. Hardwicke describes her most recent project—last year’s Miss You Already, now on Netflix—as “a film starring two women [Drew Barrymore, Toni Colette], directed by a woman, written by a woman… and super shockingly, hardly seen by anyone!”
Hardwicke’s impressive career is both a sober reminder that well-known industry females are few and far between and proof that concentrated effort can lead to success even in the face of adversity.
How does she do it? Her on-stage persona mirrors her director’s M.O.: half pep rally, half logistical flow chart—plus a healthy dose of sarcastic humor.
"Prep time is essential. Advance propping and pre-lighting means that you won’t waste your shoot day on set-up and that you’ll have more time to be creative."
"Thirteen"For Hardwicke, being a director means that her job is to know everyone else’s job.
Sweet Spot #1: "You have to think big picture, with both right brain and left brain," said Hardwicke. "You have to have the whole vision in mind, but you also have to think through the details of each department for budgeting and scheduling purposes."
How does she keep track of story, character, and on-set logistics simultaneously? "You could say 'I’m gonna leave all these jobs to other people to do,'" said Hardwicke. "But the truth is, no one cares about the movie more than the director. If you don’t take on some of these other ways of thinking, you’ll be stuck with bad schedules and very little shooting time.”
Hardwicke clearly has a knack for the visual. She credits her own learning experience to working as a production designer for many beloved directors such as David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, Cameron Crowe, Lisa Cholodenko, Costa-Gavras. "You’re constantly figuring out, 'Is it cheaper to build this set, do it in CGI with greenscreen, or go to an existing location and maybe modify it?'"
Now she asks herself the same questions when she’s directing. She creates tools such as charts, lists, storyboards, her own illustrations, and even collages in order to keep herself on track.
"I learned early on that you have to fight like a mad warrior to protect your time."
For Hardwicke, time is money. "I learned early on that you have to fight like a mad warrior to protect your time."
She offered Thirteen as an example: "No one wanted to make the film. So I kept making it cheaper and cheaper, more tightly scheduled. I finally got to make it for $1.5 million, with 21 shooting days—but it was more like 18 because my underage actors couldn’t work full days."
On Twilight, Kristen Stewart was seventeen and could only work half a day. "I had to compensate, so I used body doubles with tricky shot-blocking."
Even then, Hardwicke says, "I woke up one day and realized I could never do all of this in the designated number of days. So without telling anyone, I took out some pages myself and threw them away." She adds, with a wicked grin: "And no one even noticed."
Sweet Spot #2: "You have to understand numbers. Be creative; condense it. If you don’t explore fresh ways of thinking, you’ll be stuck.... Not just stuck, but over schedule and over budget!"
Hardwicke applies the same cost-cutting instincts to locations. She claims the trick here—which she perfected during her time as a production designer—is "turning a single location into a backlot."
"We don’t like to move locations in the middle of a day of shooting," she said. "You suddenly aren’t shooting; you’re just packing up the truck and driving. Our script for Miss You Already had 180 locations written in for a 30-day shoot. So we found one location, an old shut down bank-training facility, where we could have a multi-purpose location: a doctor’s office, a chemo room, a parking lot, a classroom, an oil rig, a lakeside funeral, a manor house, an English B&B, etc. You always have to ask yourself: 'How can I modify this so it doesn’t look like the same thing?'"
"Miss You Already"
When Hardwicke was casting Miss You Already, Toni Collette was on board and she wanted Drew Barrymore as Toni’s co-star. "I knew Drew was right for the part, but she was slow to commit," said Hardwicke. "So I sent her a collage, just to open the dialogue.” After seeing the collage, a paste-up of conceptual images related to Barrymore’s character (her look, her home, a color palette for her world), Barrymore was sold.
And that was just the beginning. "I felt like a camp counselor planning activities for my two co-stars," Hardwicke said. "It was so important for me that they bond with each other.”
Sweet Spot #3: "It’s crucial to keep actors excited and make them part of the process."
Rehearsals are key. Hardwicke likes to get actors into action early, to get things moving "as far into the process as possible so that I can start getting ideas... and try to build depth and layers."
"If you check your email even once during the day, you’re probably gonna miss the one cool thing that could have made your movie better."
For Lords of Dogtown, "I wanted to make casting decisions very early," she said, "and decide who would play whom right away so they could have two months to train." (That meant learning how to skate and surf in ‘70s style.) "I wanted the real actors actually skating, so everything would look more authentic."
Authenticity is a Hardwicke trademark. When one of the actors she cast wasn’t from LA, her attitude was, "You get off that plane, I want the Adidas off, I never wanna see you talk like a New Yorker! Don’t even call your New York friends. Put on the Levis and Vans [shoes] and train for two months."
And when she chose accommodations for one of her skateboarders: “I intentionally put [him] in a cheap Venice apartment because [the character he was playing] was poor. I wanted him to experience it for real… and also save the money!"
Solidarity with her actors was important as well. "Every day they were training, I showed up at 7AM just the way they did. I wanted to make sure they’d show up and not wimp out."
Hardwicke’s focus is laser sharp on everyone, not just her lead actors. For Dogtown, she made Heath Ledger learn how to shape a surfboard. "He had only one scene in the film, but it mattered and I wanted him to have experience. In my mind, it had to look like he’s been shaping boards for his whole life."
"Lords of Dogtown"
For Hardwicke, both actors and crew are like family. That means casting is crucial.
On Dogtown, "I got all the people in town who thought they could film skateboard action and brought them down for a skateboard demonstration day," she recalled. It was essentially an audition: after watching them all in action, she was able to 'cast' the best action shooter. "We ended up using Lance Mountain, a very famous skateboarder who understood the line the skaters were gonna take. [He was] beautifully attuned to it."
“When you meet with people, instead of having to explain stuff, show them a sketch."
Communication also matters—both verbal and visual. Hardwicke loves sketches, diagrams, and storyboards. "When you meet with people, instead of having to explain stuff, show them a sketch," she said.
On Twilight, she sketched all manner of platforms, contraptions, winches, plans for effects, and helicopter shots. She worked with a storyboard artist for two weeks, then "they left and I had to do it myself," she said. By the end, "I could convey what I wanted."
But that wasn’t all: before shooting began, she spent her own time and money in antique stores buying practical lamps. "I wanted lampshades that give a nice glow, and certain ones are better than others. [So I’d] show every lamp in the movie to the DP in advance—'Can this lamp and lampshade light the actor properly?' That made a big difference."
She also likes to talk color. "On Twilight, it was about character," she said. "Cullen’s color palette was silver, blue, white, and grey. All the colors of an arctic wolf. On Thirteen, it was more complex. The color changes throughout the whole movie based on different emotions. It's dull at first, then hanging out with the cool girl it becomes colorful, then doing more drugs it turns oversaturated, and then, finally, when the cool girl breaks up with her, it’s washed out."
Sweet Spot #4: "Prep time is essential. Advance propping and pre-lighting means that you won’t waste your shoot day on set-up and that you’ll have more time to be creative."
The Shot List
Hardwicke swears by her shot list because it includes all the details she wants to remember.
"I don’t give a shit if others see it," she said. "I give copies to whoever wants it, cause I found out nobody is ever gonna have the patience to read it. You’re really only doing it for you. You need to have it all in your head."
"A shot list not only saves money, but it also keeps you honest. It helps you narrow the options, focus on the essentials."
Her shot lists often include little sketches, such as where everyone will sit at a table, and when. "Why do such an obsessive, tedious thing? It saves you 45 minutes of people arguing over where they want to sit," she explained. "If you’re an actor or a DP and your director has places set, shots planned, this at least gives them the illusion that you know what you’re doing. It makes them more ready to listen—and it can save hours on set."
Sweet Spot #5: "A shot list not only saves money, but it also keeps you honest. It helps you narrow the options, focus on the essentials. Just don’t be afraid to change it once shooting begins!"
On Twilight, Hardwicke’s diagrams allowed her to suggest—and shoot—one of the film’s signature sequences. "I’d seen vampires in dark grungy streets in London, but never in a forest," she said. "I wanted a treetop. So I sketched out exactly how I wanted to shoot it. But I have to confess: there’s one too many shots in that sequence. I wish I’d done one less. Don’t look!"
On Missing You Already, "Organization was crucial because there were a million variables," Hardwicke said. "Drew’s pregnancy. Holidays. The gradual deterioration of the house. Sometimes we would have four different seasons in the same day, four different stages of cancer. Toni Colette’s wigs were a nightmare: we had to fit a two-year narrative into 30 days or less—and because we never got to shoot in order, her hair would fluctuate from scene to scene. We could never have done it without a shot list."
Attention to detail is good, but the main reason it matters, in Hardwicke’s opinion, is that it fosters engagement.
Hardwicke doesn’t like the Hollywood 'video village' convention of segregating cast and crew. During actual production, she wants to leave logistics behind and focus on "moving the story along."
"I like to stay really close to the actors and the cinematographer, always close to the action," she said. "[That way] I can see if people are really in the moment or not." After showing an image of herself during Dogtown on a motorcycle with a cameraman, she said, "I wanted to be near the actors while they were skateboarding—but I couldn’t keep up!”
She also puts her phone away. "If I’m gonna make these crazy shooting days work, I’ve gotta be in survival mode and tune out all other distractions," she said.
Sweet Spot #6: "If you check your email even once during the day, you’re probably gonna miss the one cool thing that could have made your movie better."
What’s next for Hardwicke? Right now, she’s shooting a feature somewhere north of Toronto. You can be sure she’s prepared... and don't try calling, because she won't answer her phone.
Be sure to check back for more coverage of Tribeca 2016.