Catherine Hardwicke

Age of Reason
Catherine Hardwicke interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba and Talene Montgomery

Director Catherine Hardwicke bridges the gulf between fantasy and reality in her feature-length works such as Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown and Twilight. Shining compassionate light on whatever coming-of-age story she tells, from a fucked-up LA teenager’s journey for affirmation to a vampire story of unrequited teenage love, Hardwicke’s films depict the intensity of this learning process detailing the yearnings and desperations of growing up. It’s not difficult to recall that this fragile time involves subjecting oneself to a continuous feedback cycle of exposure and protection, engagement and detachment, anticipation and disappointment. In this sense, Hardwicke is concerned with the blurry threshold between reason and uncontrolled emotion – the very territory one navigates in a state of crisis.

Jeffrey Inaba: Your films all seem to deal with youth reckoning in one way or another with reality. Your characters address the transition between a formative fantasy world of love, friendship and family, and real encounters with people and events. When adolescents face ‘adult’ situations for the first time they must reconcile reality with their formed hopes and dreams. And discerning what the real world is and what the ideal world is, doesn’t happen all at once. It’s an awkward back-and-forth negotiation where teens often miscalculate the intentions of others, and the codes of interaction that they are experiencing. From Thirteen all the way to Twilight it seems that you are fascinated with portraying this dimension of youth.

Catherine Hardwicke: My films are all coming-of-age stories, in a way. They are about youth, about that transitional moment in our life that we’re trying to figure ourselves out, figure out our reality. Where do we fit in, in a life where everything is suddenly possible? You can drive, you can drink, you can kiss a boy or a girl for the first time, and this whole world of choices is out there. It’s got a lot of potential for drama, and I think it’s the most volatile and interesting time of life.

Thirteen was forced upon me, in a way, because I was friends with this thirteen-year-old girl and her family, and every time I went over to their house there was this kind of on-going struggle, where this thirteen-year-old girl had matured very quickly. She looked like a supermodel, and she was being bombarded by 3,000 advertising images per day – like we all are [pause] telling us to be sexy and hot and be cute and dress radical. And then when she acted out and did what society was telling her to do, people were shocked!

It was a story that I needed to tell. And telling it in a very specific way about this specific girl and her mother and her family turned out to have kind of an enormous resonance all around the world.

For me, it started with Nikki [the girl] having this trouble and this crisis, and me wanting to help her to find constructive things to do with what she was going through. I tried to get her to learn how to surf, go to museums, draw and everything, but no, she really wanted to act. So we said, okay, let’s write a story that you could act in and I could direct. But the story became so much bigger when I saw what she was really going through.

JI: Thirteen was based upon real events whereas Twilight is a fictional story. What were you trying to achieve in dealing with something fantastical?

CH: Well, I wanted you to feel like this could really happen to you. Our special effects budget got slashed about a month before shooting, so I had the challenge of figuring out how to do everything that I want to do and create a level of magical realism. We didn’t have the money to build a forest or have control of settings. We had to shoot outdoors, and we didn’t have green screens or anything. We were really up in the trees.

JI: Yes, that is a very specific sensibility of your films. There’s a raw beauty instilled into very realistic tableaux in some instances, while in others there are treatments with an overtly fictional feel. Again, it seems that as a personal creative interest you constantly move between registers of realism and fantasy, intersecting imagery from both. At the same time, the way you portray reality and fantasy also is highly appealing to an audience of a wide age range. Teens and adults alike seem to respond to your aesthetics of fantasy, as if it fulfills an interest to explore their indistinct boundaries to a far greater degree. What stands out the most in this regard is your use of color. Can you discuss that?

CH: In Thirteen, we tried to make it really respond to the emotions of the characters – the color – that in the beginning it is slightly dull, ordinary look, then when Evie, the bad, glamorous girl comes into her life, the color gets more beautiful, like more golden skin tones – like the fantasy world – and it continues as she takes more and more drugs. We start hyper-saturating the color, so that by the time you’re on Hollywood Boulevard, [it’s] too bright and too intense and too saturated. We used color gels in the lighting of the house, so that it got garish in a way. Then when Evie deserts her, and when everything falls apart, the color drains away pretty drastically. It’s very desaturated by the end, and then there’s just a little bit of hope coming back in at the very end when the mom, you know, puts her arm around her, and we go a little bit more natural colors. A bit more golden light.

In Twilight no sunlight is allowed in the movie, because of course, Edward [the vampire] can’t be in the sun, but also to create that beautiful, Pacific Northwest, moody atmosphere. The palette was strictly controlled. So the movie is real things and real clothes and high school and everything, but we select that reality.

In terms of art direction, well, you really feel almost damp. I think what I tried to do – I think this could be related to architecture too – when you go in our dream world, when you go to the location, we would really try to understand the inherent qualities of the building or the place, and that’s what I really tried to do with the location, going to the Pacific Northwest. So I had actually been there quite a bit before and already loved it, and hiked around on rainy days up in Vancouver, and felt a real connection to that kind of…almost inhospitable beauty.

Talene Montgomery: Do you think working within the fantasy genre lends layers of metaphor that perhaps communicate things more realistic stories cannot? Fantasy generally distinguishes itself by being very confident in its own suppositions. What does that sense of certainty convey to the viewer? Does it maybe help the viewer to come to grips with their own sense of self-doubt or uncertainty?

CH: Well, I can try to answer that…it’s a pretty complicated and beautiful question (laughs). I think that the vampire metaphor is a pretty obvious metaphor for teenage sexuality: coming to your own, feeling all these hormones in your body telling you to do things. You just want to grab the person next to you, but you’re not supposed to. And how do you find that kind of balance? I’ve heard that a lot of boys sneak into the movie. They don’t want anyone to know that they sneak in when the lights go off. They’re trying to, like, come to terms with their own feelings.

JI: That element of emotional processing seems to be a really important part of the crisis experience. When there’s a sense of potential crisis oftentimes it’s a thing we gravitate towards. It fascinates us because there are things we may very well want to discover, despite knowing that their discovery might come at a cost. The way you talk about it makes me wonder if we are somehow attracted to crisis.

CH: Yeah, well to drama, or something that means something in your life. That brings it excitement or [pause] that’s why we pick the wrong boyfriends or girlfriends. [laughter] So that you can feel something. To feel alive.