In a summer when most big-budget studio movies have been embarrassing fiascoes, independent films have been cleaning up at the box office and pleasing critics. Thirteen, the writing and directing debut of renowned production designer Catherine Hardwicke, hits like growing pains. Co-written with teenager Nikki Reed, Thirteen follows the fast and furious evolution of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) from good girl to aerosol-huffing, tongue-piercing, back-talking troubled teen, and the impact that her radical transformation has on her family, led by single mom Melanie (Holly Hunter). I recently spoke to Catherine Hardwicke about Thirteen.
Gregg Shapiro: I'd like to begin by talking about the cast of Thirteen, which is comprised of established (Holly Hunter, Deborah Unger), rising (Jeremy Sisto, Evan Rachel Wood) and new (Nikki Reed) performers. What was it like to work with such a cross-section of experience?
Catherine Hardwicke: It was really interesting because, actually everybody, in a weird way, felt the same. Everybody was really serious and professional and committed and dedicated and prepared for their parts. They came in really into it. Nikki and Evan had been working with a coach for about a month before and I would pop in and work with the coach, too. We had five six-hour rehearsal days, in the house which was already dressed and ready, and the first day Nikki, Evan and Holly were completely off book. Not just off book, but from the heart.
GS: They were living the characters.
CH: They knew it. They were already in it and breathing it. The cool thing was that that night Holly said, 'Why don't the three of us just stay here in the house?' She opened the drawers and she saw that there was soap in the bathroom, food in the fridge. That was the most brilliant thing that Holly came up with because they formed a bond. The girls did Holly's make-up. They made her drive them around. Slept there in their beds. They stayed over that one night and it was like magic. The first night that they met at my house, the girls conned me into having a slumber party. Those kinds of bonding things —you see it on screen.
GS: You have a personal relationship with Nikki Reed, with whom you co-wrote the screenplay for Thirteen, and who also plays Evie in the movie. What was your reaction when you saw her work as an actress?
CH: When she told me that she was interested in acting, I thought, OK, I'm really going to take this seriously. I was a little worried that it might make her more vain or whatever (laughs). So I got her Uta Hagen, I got her Meisner technique. Let me nurture her. I took her to acting workshops and we listened to stuff. I had her with a friend of mine coaching. I shot a little short scene with her. When she said she was interested, then it was my goal to help her do that. I started thinking that she could be really good. She has so much personality and she comes so alive. I had a lot of confidence in her, and she became more confident. She worked really hard with a coach before filming. Then when I saw her the first day onscreen, I knew she was going to be good.
GS: The theme of 'cracking the popularity code' is something that we have seen in movies with teenage characters for many years. Were you a popular teenager and how much did that come into play when you were writing the screenplay?
CH: I had that odd kind of thing where my best friend was a cheerleader. I was the shyest, nerdiest one, but somehow I was her best friend. This weird diagram appears where you go to a slumber party and I'm invited because I'm Kelly's best friend. They play spin the bottle and I learned this part fast. If I sat kind of at an angle, behind somebody, the minute the bottle kind of lands on me or someone else—since they know I'm going to be boring, whatever my answers are, because of course I haven't kissed any boys—they picked the other girl. I didn't realize that I was the outcast until one time the popular girls were playing ping-pong and I saw Raylene and Mary Anne playing and I walked up and said, 'Hey, can I play?' And they said, 'Sure,' and they handed me the paddle and walked away (laughs). I, of course, wanted to be in that crowd, but I could never quite cut it. I was on the edge. Clawing my way in (laughs).
GS: Evie gets through life by turning on her seductive charms and using them whenever necessary, including with Tracy, creating a homoerotic tension between them. Do you think that kind of tension seems to be less suspect and more natural between teenage girls than it is between teenage boys?
CH: Yes, definitely. Because I see Nikki and a lot of her friends and other girls just hugging each other. Arms around each other, sleeping in the same bed—'Let's cuddle. Hold on to me.' I don't think that's the norm with (teenage) guys. You get slapped with the old (derogatory) words.
GS: The same homoeroticism surfaces between Evie and Melanie—particularly in a goodnight kiss that Evie gives to Melanie. Can you say something about that?
CH: I saw Evie as this very seductive, but toxic character. She had a lot of problems in her life, but she was a survivor. She would use whatever she could to survive because she'd been kicked around and abused and unloved. She's got to work it and she's clever the way she works it at every moment. When she sees Mel, she realizes that she wishes she were her mom, even while Tracy's rejecting her and hates her mom. Evie loves Mel; somebody that would actually make a meal for her and sew something onto her jeans. The desire this kid has to be loved is palpable.
GS: Tracy writes poetry in her journal and the subject of teenage girls and poetry is also explored in the movie Blue Car. Was that a useful form of self-expression for you when you were a teenager?
CH: I definitely wrote stuff in my journal and tried to spill out stuff. When I've looked back at it, it wasn't really that good (laughs). A 13-year-old girl that I know, not Nikki, wrote that poem (in the movie). It's an excerpt from a much longer poem that was really beautiful. Some kids really have that gift.
GS: I thought it was interesting that Thirteen and Freaky Friday, two movies about girls in their early teens and their relationships with their mothers, are opening in theaters around the same time. What do you think about those movies co-existing?
CH: I haven't seen Freaky Friday yet, but I really want to see it. I've heard it's pretty funny. I think it's cool to take different approaches to the same problem. (Freaky Friday's) humor, switched identities and magical elements and then ours just goes for the super gritty. I think that a lot of kids who have seen it with their parents, because it's rated R, in controlled situations, they have felt something real (in Thirteen) that they can relate to. There's somebody else going through this shit. A little bit of a lifeline, a little bit of cinematherapy. If you go with your mom you can talk about what it would be like to be in that situation. It's a safe, neutral ground.
GS: Your collaboration with Nikki began as a lighthearted teen comedy.
CH: We thought, 'Oh, we'll write a little comedy' (laughs).
GS: Do you think that you will ever collaborate with her on something in that style?
CH: Yeah, that would be fun, too. We thought there were a couple of moments that were funny in Thirteen (laughs). But not too many. I think that Nikki is a very funny and witty person. But I don't know if Nikki or I have the personality to do something that is totally light without any depth. I think we would always want to be going for something more.
GS: You are also credited as being one of the executive producers of Thirteen's soundtrack. What role does the music play in the movie?
CH: Certainly kids are obsessed with music. They like to listen to the latest, coolest, most obscure bands. It's the coolest thing. Nikki really loves hip hop music. This movie is a very low-budget project—like $1.5 million. I was like, 'Let's get (rapper) 50 Cent for the soundtrack.' The producer said, 'No, we can't. If you've ever heard of a band, we most likely can't afford them.' Unless they become a personal friend, like Liz (Phair) became a friend to the project. We had to seek out up-and-coming bands that weren't that well-known. That is even more exciting to me. Everyone knows that 50 Cent is great. So, we've got a 14-year-old kid named Orlando Brown who did two kick-ass songs on the soundtrack. Katy Rose, who is 16, has two songs in the movie. Now, she's coming out big, but when we met her a year ago she had just read an article (about the movie) in the newspaper and she called and said it was like her story too. She said, 'Listen to my music and tell me if you like it.' She wrote the last song after she saw the movie. She and Nikki met and they felt all this connection, too. There's a teenage all-girl band on the soundtrack called The Like, and they go to Santa Monica High School. It was so neat to have kids involved in the music too.
GS: Have you started work on your next directing project?
CH: I am trying so hard (laughs). I wrote a script before this and Fox optioned it. Now we're trying to get it ready to make and green-lit. It's kind of like Deliverance, but with girls, too. It's about this little town that I went to, by accident, that's about 64 miles from the center of L.A., but it is the heart of the American gun culture. It is the most redneck, wild town. The movie is about what happens when some over-confident kids from the city get into trouble.