It might seem puzzling that filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke isn’t more of a household name considering her achievements.
Thanks to 2008’s “Twilight,” she held the record as the female director with the highest-grossing three-day opening ever — $69.6 million — for seven years. “50 Shades of Grey” beat that record with $85.2 million earlier this year.
“Twilight,” the Gothic romance between a vampire and a mortal high-schooler based on the young-adult book series by Stephenie Meyer, went on to collect $192.8 million in North America and is still the fourth-largest domestic box-office take for a film by a female director. It grossed a hefty $400 million worldwide thanks to the global reach of Twihard worship.
Hardwicke also helped make Comic-Con safer for female geeks when the she and the cast participated in a hugely attended “Twilight” panel at what was once considered primarily a male conclave for super-fans of genre films and TV.
But during a conversation at the recent Middleburg Film Festival in Northern Virginia — a four-day, annual celebration of cinema created by local billionaire businesswoman Sheila Johnson and run by women — Hardwicke told the crowd that she barely got more than a mini cupcake after she put Summit Entertainment on the map by kicking off a hugely successful franchise.
“I heard about what happened when male directors had a huge hit,” Hardwicke recalled. “I thought I would get a car or a three-picture deal. But I got no calls.”
Still, that did not stop this specialist in teen angst and rebellion. Before becoming a first-time director at age 47 with her 2003 Sundance hit, “Thirteen,” Hardwicke was a production designer for 16 years, working with directors such as Richard Linklater (“Suburbia,” “The Newton Boys”), David O. Russell (“Three Kings”) and Cameron Crowe (“Vanilla Sky”). Hardwicke might have hoped that studios would entrust her with a potential superhero franchise, as they often do when male directors suddenly succeed at such a level. But the lucrative offers failed to materialize.
Instead, she continued to make the kind of smaller films that she appreciates. Her latest is a change of pace from her previous youth-focused efforts, such as “Lords of Dogtown,” “The Nativity Story” and “Red Riding Hood.” In fact, “Miss You Already,” which opens November 6, not only handles adult topics such as breast cancer and infertility, but also stars three actresses over 40: Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette and Jacqueline Bisset.
Set in England, Barrymore plays American-born neo-hippie Jess, while Collette is her urbane, sexually charged pal Milly. As for Bisset, she is almost unrecognizable under a mound of bleached-blonde hair as Milly’s upbeat, globe-trotting TV-star mum, Miranda.
The two BFFs, who have known each other for almost their entire lives, seem to have it all: caring husbands. interesting jobs and well-appointed boho-chic abodes. Then Milly, a mother of two, learns she has breast cancer. At the same time, Jess deals with fertility issues. Milly turns into a regular “cancer bully,” while Jess struggles to be there for her increasingly difficult friend. There is a surprising amount of humor onscreen provided by these feisty and funny ladies, but having Kleenex at the ready is recommended.
It’s hard to believe that Hardwicke, a native Texan with an infectious laugh whose favorite adjective is “cool” and whose greatest compliment is to call someone “a bad ass,” just turned 60. But her status as a veteran of the film industry has made her a perfect candidate to be one of the women directors interviewed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) this month while they investigate claims of systemic discrimination against women directors. Hardwicke spoke about her push for better opportunities for women in Hollywood, as well as about her new movie.
W&H: How was the reception here in Middleburg to “Miss You Already”? The two screenings were fairly packed.
CH: The audience today, when I walked up on stage, they jumped up on their feet and gave me a standing ovation. They were very moved by it. I walked down the street, and about 10 different people came up and gave me hugs.
W&H: So many people, if they haven’t gone through cancer themselves, know someone who has.
CH: I was told 50 percent of the population gets cancer. Everybody is going to be affected.
W&H: This year, you lost your title of having the highest-grossing opening weekend for a film by a female director.
CH: We want to have women who keep doing that. I want them to beat my record.
W&H: On the surface, 2015 seems to be a little better year for women than last year. This summer had “Inside Out,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Spy” and “Trainwreck.” Two female directors cracked the top 20 box-office films so far: Sam Taylor-Johnson for “50 Shades of Grey” and Elizabeth Banks for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Even in the films competing for Oscar, there are more female stories that are in contention for best picture: “Carol,” “Joy,” “Suffragette.” But there is still a wide gulf between how men and women are treated in Hollywood.
CH: The truth is, most of those female stories that are contending for Oscars are directed by men. Let’s be honest. I looked at the 44 Oscar contenders in Variety that someone wrote up — there was not one directed by a woman. All the ones that were getting an Oscar pitch with the money and everything behind them were by men.
W&H: Even “Suffragette”?
CH: Well, that might be, now that it is just coming out. I think that we all think, “Oh, it’s not so bad.” But, still, when we all look at the numbers and we end up being proud that just two women made it into the top grossers this year…
W&H: How old is the medium of film? About 100 years? Surely, there should be more by now.
CH: Everyone has been talking about this a lot. I have been to a lot of cool conferences and a lot of events where people are trying to shine the spotlight on the subject. I think there is hope for the future if we talk to all studio executives and financiers and producers and say, “Make a commitment.” For every single male-directed film, back one by a woman.
W&H: They can’t say films made by and about women don’t make money. You proved it with “Twilight.” “50 Shades of Grey” proved it. As for female-driven films, “Hunger Games” proved it. All these YA novels that are being made into films prove it.
CH: Women and girls are their primary audience, because that is who reads the books, And they make money for the most part. How much proof do you need?
W&H: There seems to be more big names talking about these issues without fear of repercussions.
CH: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Salma Hayek, Meryl Streep. And Meryl spoke out about the low percentage of female critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Why are there 760 male critics and just 168 women? You are immediately [biased] on what kind of films you are being told to go see. What are you told are good films? Male films.
W&H: The fact that the American Civil Liberties Union called for an investigation into the “systemic failure” of studios and networks to hire women directors was announced a couple months ago. Now there is a formal inquiry conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I hear you are going to be one of the filmmakers interviewed.
CH: I am going in two weeks to the EEOC. There is a place in downtown L.A. where I will be doing my deposition. Maria Giese is the one who has really led the charge at the Directors Guild of America and got the ACLU activated. And she and I have been talking. Also, I have been talking directly to the ACLU, and then I am going directly to the EEOC.
W&H: Hopefully, all the outlets that write about film, and even ones who normally don’t consider the state of cinema today an important subject, will cover what is found during this investigation. When it was initially announced in May, it did get fairly widespread coverage.
CH: One thing that is important in all industries — we just had this conference where people from Google came and explained to us about unconscious gender bias and how they changed the culture at Google. Now they have more diversity, more women and their profits and productivity are improving. So, hello! It’s unconscious gender bias, which we all have in our brains.
W&H: For me, it is such a head-scratcher what happened — or rather didn’t — after “Thirteen,” your debut as a feature director, came out. You won the directing award at Sundance that year, as well as many other honors for the screenplay and the film. Holly Hunter got an Oscar nomination. You weren’t a newcomer to the industry — you were a production designer on 20 movies, with big directors like David O. Russell and Cameron Crowe. So how does someone like Colin Trevorrow, whose 2012 indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” won a Sundance screenplay award and grossed a little less than “Thirteen” did domestically with $4 million, get such great directing opportunities as “Jurassic World” and one of the new “Star Wars” films as a reward and you didn’t?
CH: Have you seen the leaky pipeline study that the Sundance Institute and Women in Film did? They looked at the Sundance directors for the last  years and they said, “Even if your film gets in there, with similar reviews and similar attention, then what happens next?” Most of the female-directed films, if they got distribution, would have fewer dollars to support the film and play in fewer theaters than the men. Because the female-directed films go to smaller companies. So the gap starts widening.
Then, of course, the male-directed films make more money. “Thirteen” opened in three U.S. theaters. And two in Canada. Fox Searchlight did a great job, but three theaters? How much money can that make? Then the next step in the research was, do the male and female directors get another movie after that? It falls way off at that point. The second movie. The third. To the point where we make only 7% of the movies. Then people say, well, TV is so much better. Did you see the DGA report? The cover of the DGA magazine: 16% of TV episodes are directed by women, 84% by men.
W&H: Is there this tendency in the film industry where people in power mostly connect with people who are like them?
CH: That’s right. Mini-me. Do women get that opportunity? For me, I directed the first “Twilight” movie. It was in my contract that I could have gone on to do the other films, but I didn’t feel as connected to the other books. I chose not to do it. I’m not complaining that I didn’t do it. But why didn’t they hire one other woman for any of the other movies or any of the copycat spin-offs? This is what happens. Now there are three guys who directed “Twilight” films that had a gross of a gazillion dollars. All those “Hunger Games” guys, the “Divergent” guys. All those people. When they are looking for the next big director, they see they have a track record. So there’s 20 people that spun off of “Twilight” that have more qualifications than any woman.
W&H: One thing I appreciate about you as a director is that you have such a great eye for spotting new and upcoming talent. In “Thirteen,” you hired Nikki Reed as your star and co-writer as well as Evan Rachel Wood. In “Lords of Dogtown,” you had Heath Ledger and Emile Hirsch. For Joseph in “The Nativity Story,” you found Oscar Isaac. Without the electric chemistry shared by of Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson as well as Taylor Lautner as his rival, the “Twilight” franchise might have been doomed.
CH: I was laughing when I saw Oscar in the new “Star Wars” trailer. When we had a premiere of “The Nativity Story” at the Vatican, 2,000 nuns had crushes on him. And I had America Ferrera and Sofia Vergara in “Dogtown.” And Jeremy Renner is in “Dogtown.” And Vanessa Hudgens is in “Thirteen.”
W&H: You should just be a casting director. Was it hard to go from being a production designer to being a director, especially with all your great connections?
CH: Yes. I love Richard Linklater; I did two movies with him. And I love David O. Russell. We had a blast on “Three Kings.” But they are so busy doing their own thing, they are fully immersed in their own projects. I asked them both, “Can you help me?” They are like, “What?” They are too busy. But in a way, they helped me, though. I learned a lot from them. David had a little kick-off party for “Thirteen.” But they are so busy on their own.
W&H: But guys like Steven Spielberg do find time to give a boost to other men, like Colin Trevorrow…
CH: That is something all these people who are studying the situation are looking at: the mentorship and how do you help other people. It’s like you said, that mini-me thing, people are more likely to help other people who look exactly like them. They will hang out at the bar and on the golf course with them. How do you get people to think outside of that box and sponsor other people?
W&H: Let’s get back to a film that is about women and made by a woman. You didn’t write the script for “Miss You Already.” British comedy actress Morwenna Banks based it on her radio play. But you did contribute to it.
CH: I worked on the script a lot with Morwenna. I love her. She is a riot. We really workshopped the script. Morwenna came over to the U.S., we got all the actors, we did scenes. I was just very frank. I really wanted our male characters to be a lot stronger. We gave them careers, lives. I wanted that scene where Jess and Milly leave London and go to the Moors because of “Wuthering Heights.” Morwenna was very open. I just wrote a script myself that I love. I love writing, too, and I loved writing “Thirteen” with Nikki. It’s intense and difficult, but a great experience.
W&H: This film seems to make everybody cry.
CH: We didn’t expect that anyone would cry because Milly is kind of a pain-in-the-ass character. She is not a saint. She’s got all these flaws.
W&H: Yes, but because she is flawed, we can connect with her more. If she was a paragon of virtue, I wouldn’t like her.
CH: It makes sense. But I’m surprised by the overwhelming emotional reaction.
W&H: That the film deals with what happens when your most female of body parts fail you, whether fertility woes or breast cancer, touches a real nerve. Your self-esteem can definitely take a hit, especially when you are a complicated narcissist who needs to be validated by male desire like Toni Collette’s Milly. We all have body image issues. But to lose control over what physically defines us as women can be very devastating.
CH: I have had two friends who have gone through this. Another friend of mine is going through another kind of cancer right now. I have been with her every weekend. And my dad had cancer. He was kind of like Milly. He was cracking jokes every second. In fact, I got some of the lines from my dad. The night before my dad passed away, he ordered a coconut cream pie. My mom was like, “Wow.” And he said, “I don’t want it now. I want it waiting in heaven.” And my dad had a hilarious sense of humor literally until the last drop. I think that is what made me like the script. The girls kept cheering each other up. That was fun. They ad libbed a lot of their stuff. Those two are comedians. They are super-creative.
W&H: It struck me as unusual that you would have a female character who cheats on her husband with another man and then doesn’t have to pay a price for it. I do think there are more examples of men cheating in movies because they are disappointed, frustrated or angry with their wife without repercussions. “Fatal Attraction” is the exception. For women, though, it’s usually akin to “Madame Bovary.”
CH: It’s like “Unfaithful,” where someone is going to have to die or there is a high price they have to pay.
W&H: Well, in this movie, it is almost like a prescription medicine. And Tyler Ritter, Milly’s paramour, is cute.
CH: Isn’t he adorable? He’s the lead singer for All-American Rejects. He had a two-year writer’s block and after he did the sex scene with Toni, he went home and wrote the song “There’s a Place” that’s in the movie.
W&H: I enjoyed seeing Jacqueline Bisset as Milly’s scatterbrained though well-meaning mother. I think the bleached blonde hair freed her from not having to be Jacqueline Bisset.
CH: She is so unique and funny. We wanted an English actress because we were in London. We wanted a real English actress rather than someone like the lovely Jane Fonda putting on an accent. There are only a few who are the right age and would be right to play someone who “cares about the boobs.”
W&H: There is a tradition of cancer-related relationship films like “Terms of Endearment,” “Stepmom” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” And “Beaches,” although that was heart disease. You get into more of the medical nitty gritty of breast cancer than is typical. You actually show Milly’s incision. How did you do that?
CH: That we did do with CGI. I was trying to study all the photographs. I got a mannequin and I showed them. “It’s got to be flat.”
W&H: The most beautiful scene that you might think would be depressing but wasn’t was when Milly allows her hair to be shaved after she gets chemo and finds just the right wig to wear.
CH: Toni is a bad-ass in that scene, and she doesn’t play any of the emotions that you kind of think she would. She really did shave it, right there in one take. She put her heart into it.
W&H: So what is next for you?
CH: I used to be an architect, so I have a series I am working on with USA Network that I created and am co-writing. It’s called “Starchitects” — that’s what they call hotshot architects. It is like when you get out of architecture school, and you believe you are going to build sustainable buildings and green buildings and change the world and art. And then you hit commerce. It’s what happens when extraordinary vision meets extraordinary greed. It’s “House of Cards,” but in the architecture world. And there is a YA novel, although it’s more like a fairy tale, that we are turning into a movie called “Stargirl.”
W&H: From what I know of it, it at least is not another dystopian universe where young people are forced to sacrifice their lives.
CH: Taylor Swift cited this on her book club. It’s one of her inspirations. They are still trying to put financing together.
W&H: It probably won’t be a franchise, since there is only one book and the sequel is written like a diary.
CH: We want to make just one movie. And then I just wrote a really cool script. It’s called “One Track Mind.” It’s an origin story about the most successful and the most foul-mouthed, outrageous songwriter in history.
W&H: I assume it is a woman.
CH: Yes, Diane Warren.
W&H: She’s foul-mouthed? She writes these beautiful love songs, like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Un-Break My Heart” and “How Do I Live.”
CH: Oh my God. Have you gone on her Twitter feed? Go on her Twitter feed. You have to follow her. You are going to be laughing your head off.
W&H: So is it a biopic?
CH: No, it’s a origin story. Basically, when she was a teenager, she was in juvenile hall because she ran away from home. Every bad thing happened to her. She wrote two songs for “Miss You Already,” but she also wrote a song with Lady Gaga about the campus rape crisis, “‘Til It Happens to You.” I directed that video and the song was part of the documentary “The Hunting Ground.”
W&H: You will have someone play the young Diane Warren then.
CH: I’ve already found this really good person.
W&H: A newcomer?
CH: She is right on the brink.