Oscillating between big budget thrillers and down and dirty indies, Catherine Hardwicke’s oeuvre is surprisingly diverse. On top of her directorial credits for films like “Lords of Dogtown,” “Twilight” and “Thirteen,” Hardwicke has also worked as a production designer on nearly 20 films, including “Vanilla Sky.”
Historically vocal about the gender biases in Hollywood, Hardwicke has built a reputation as a tough but big-hearted director who refuses to be defined or constrained by her gender.
The filmmaker’s newest is the part-buddy comedy, part-sentimental dramedy “Miss You Already,” starring Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore as two best friends whose lives are thrown into a tailspin when their long-parallel paths are disrupted by a surprise pregnancy and a cancer diagnosis. Written by Morwenna Banks and also starring Dominic Cooper and Paddy Considine, the film is a surprisingly uncynical rumination on friendship and loss.
After her film played at the Middleburg Film Festival in October, Indiewire sat down to talk to Hardwicke about her production designing past, what her newest film has in common with her first and Hollywood’s unfortunate gender bias.
Everyone was crying in there! Did you intend to a film that was going to grip people like that?
I didn’t think it was going to be so sad! Because Milly (Collette) is kind of unlikable, she says bad things. She’s kind of a pain in the ass narcissist. So I didn’t think people would connect with her like they did. But there usually is that kind of reaction, and I think there are people who have gone through this with with their own family members, so it might be that too.
These two women have a really beautiful chemistry, can you talk about the casting process?
Christopher [Simon] was the producer and I’d met him at the London Film Festival with “Thirteen” like 12 years ago and he always kind of had me in mind. When this script came together, he thought of me. And Toni Collette had already read the script and liked it. With Toni on, we thought who would be good, we thought Drew. She’s pretty awesome, who wouldn’t want Drew to be your best friend?
I think a lot of people feel like Drew is their best friend already.
Right? Something about here, you just think, that chick has my back. She just has the biggest heart. And Toni wrote her a letter, and I went and met with her. And she thought it would be fun, but she had her little baby, and she didn’t know how she was going to move to London for three months, but she pulled it off, she’s like Superwoman. She’s got her three businesses, she’s got it all.
Some of the funniest lines, they just improved. Drew is just — even in “E.T.,” she improved a lot of the lines. She’s just funny, she’s just wild. And once they get going, they play off each other and we just keep the camera rolling and see what happens.
Were you excited to shoot in the UK?
Oh, yeah. I was like, “Is this really happening?” Because London is happening, it is wild. It’s so alive right now, you just go out on the streets and there are so many fun people, cool street art all over the place, great new architecture, mixed with the old. Very high energy level. So I was just like jazzed to be there.
The men in this film are really great, because they’re not the focus but they’re so cool and understanding.
They’re not this like, arrested development, man-child baby. They don’t cheat, they don’t feel like they have to be really macho, they’re human too.
So I think what was interesting in the script is, if you get sick, it doesn’t just affect you. It’s your family, it’s your love life, it’s your kids, it’s your mom. It’s a ripple effect. How do you keep it all going? Life doesn’t just stop. Kids still have to go to school, everything.
The film feels so kinetic and inventive, what were your aims for your shooting style?
This is in a way, very related to “Thirteen.” When I did that movie, we had $1.5 million, so we couldn’t afford a dolly even if you wanted one, we couldn’t find a crane even if you wanted one. So it does have to be handheld. At that time, I looked at Scorsese’s first movie, “Mean Streets,” which was very kinetic, following them through New York. I looked at “Woman Under the Influence,” I saw the intimacy of the handheld camera. And you can do it much faster, you’re not waiting for them to bring in the dolly track, laying them down, screwing them together. You don’t have time for that when you’re doing low budget films.
And working with Nikki [Reed], her energy was very wild, I would be writing with her and we would be in it, we’d be emotional, and all of a sudden her phone would ring and she would be like, “Oh, hey!” and be laughing. Her emotions would switch in one second. Then the person on the phone would say something mean and she’d be in tears a few seconds later. Then she’d throw the phone down, then a song would come on the radio and she would bust out dancing.
I wanted that feeling in that film. The emotional roller coaster, with seismic changes and instantaneous movement. So that really all dovetailed together. In a way, this was like that too. It’s got its own emotional roller coaster, it’s got kids zinging in and out, and you’ve got Milly as this hot mess and they’re on the move, pinging off each other.
It makes sense that since the camera is intimate, the film also feels that way.
Yes, I thought about Nan Goldin’s photography, where you really feel like you’re in the room with the family. We use the Alexa, the digital camera, but it’s still kind of big. Super 16 cameras are really small, and when we shot “Thirteen” we used Super 16. I think even “Suffragette” is shot on it.
There’s something intimate about that that you can be closer. I was showing the DP how I wanted to film it and there’s two scenes that I shot with my iPhone 5 that are in the movie. Recorded the sound on it, and they’re in the film. Nobody really notices it. I wanted to be really close, so he got this really funky camera that I’d just float around with and try to create this intimacy.
You mentioned “Suffragette,” did that film speak to you? It’s sort of doing a lot of things that seem very important to you.
I thought it was great, I loved it. It’s quite powerful. It’s something dear to all of our hearts. I just found out that my great-grandmother Maude led the march in Corpus Christi, Texas. And I thought, “Yeah, it’s in the blood!”
There’s been some other badass projects like that I tried to get made that were unsuccessful. But perhaps the tides are changing, as we get women who are more and more successful, they are able to help other women do the same. There are studies that are seeing the concentration of wealth move into the hands of women, and that could change everything. More stories get told, and we all win.
This film is very much about beginnings and endings, do you feel that in your own professional life?
Right now, it’s this crazy time right now for female directors. People are finally opening their eyes and thinking, “Hey man, maybe there should be different kinds of voices out there.” So I feel like in a way, sometimes I get scripts sent to me where a young teenage boy is the lead, and I think, “Okay, that’s interesting.” And of course you can talk about how it might be great for a woman to direct a man’s story, but now maybe it is the time to tell women’s stories.
If I’m going to take a year of my life, or a year and a half of my life, maybe I want to be sure that I’m spending that year and a half telling a female story. So I’ll say no to those things, even if they’re good. And I’ll say, let me find ones that are from our heart, that aren’t told all the time. I think it’s a change, it is a time to look at what message we’re putting out into the world. We need to make it fun and entertaining, but also how can we get new voices and out there.
Do you find that there’s a lot of pressure put on female directors?
Well, I see any opportunity as a gift. I want to celebrate any opportunity I get because obviously if there’s only 4% or 6% of us are even getting movies made, I have to be happy for any love I can get. I was just at this conference about unconscious gender bias and they talked about how if a woman fails, in any business, that it’s remembered a lot more than when a man fails. “Oh, we did let a woman run that product line and it didn’t work.” But a man could have failed 10 times and they might place the blame on the product rather than the man.
The memory is a lot longer for female failure than male failure. So yes, the pressure does mount in a big way. [laughs]
You have a history of working with female screenwriters and co-writing, and that’s a really great practice.
That’s my own filter that I see in the world, so of course I’m going to be more interested in that story then one where a guy goes and kills a bunch of people. In this time of gun violence I don’t understand why we’re putting more movies out there and just glorifying that. I don’t gravitate towards those kinds of movies. I want to do stuff that speaks to my heart and that often would be written by a woman.
What is happening with “Stargirl”?
Isn’t it a beautiful book? We’re trying to find the last bit of financing to make it work, so we don’t know if it will go, we’ve got the fingers crossed on that one. I just talked to a financier yesterday because people are a little nervous, like they were with “Twilight.”
Nobody thought “Twilight” was going to be successful. It was kicked out of Fox, it was kicked out of Paramount, they put it in turnaround, so people are worried about “Stargirl,” about whether it will find an audience. There is a lot of love for it out in the world, it’s still taught in schools. So I hope that goes.
Pre-“Thirteen,” you did a lot of production work. You worked on “Tank Girl,” which is sort of a girl power film.
Oh my god, it was so fun. Of course I love the comic it was based on already. The whole attitude and the spirit and I loved it. I thought it would be the raddest, most fun project I could ever do. And it was. We end up shooting in an abandoned copper mine in Arizona, and they had all these strange abandoned buildings with pipes and weird stuff. Every day it was like I’d climb into wherever we were shooting and be like, “I could put this with this and I could paint this blue,” literally the most fun thing. I could get giant cranes to come and move pipes and put them where I wanted them, every day it was like I had died and gone to heaven. I got to design her tank, ride around in a frickin’ tank. Every day it was just action mode. I felt like I was Tank Girl myself.
Everybody should feel like Tank Girl.
Yes, [laughs] at least once in their life.