Catherine Hardwicke on growing up in McAllen.
Evan Smith: Could you ever have imagined when you first saw the script for Twilight that it would earn $70 million in its first weekend—the highest-grossing opening by a female director in history? Could you have imagined that it was a phenomenon in the making?
Catherine Hardwicke: At the time there were only two books out in the series—there was this passionate fan base, but it was much smaller than it is now. Stephenie [Meyer, the author of the Twilight series] is such a crazy-fast, prolific writer that she churned out two more books in the last two years. The books got people excited about the movie, the movie got people excited about the books, and it just built and built into this frenzy. So I think it was kind of a magical convergence.
ES: It’s remarkable how not only kids but also grown-ups have responded. It really has cut across demographics.
CH: When Stephenie wrote the first book, she didn’t expect it to go into the Young Adults section. Someone else decided that’s where it should go. She and I joked that, yes, you’ve got Romeo and Juliet, the two young lovers, but it doesn’t mean no one else can appreciate the play. It started out with the teenagers, but then it expanded—you know, you have the Twilightmoms and the Twilight grandmoms. I’ve met tons of people older than teenagers who loved the book and confessed that they’ve seen the movie three times, four times. And I’ve met boys who’ve seen it. Some of them had to sneak in; they didn’t want to tell their friends.
ES: What’s that about?
CH: They didn’t know much about the book. They loved the trailer—it’s about a vampire—and were ready to go see the movie. But they got to thinking, “Oh, it’s based on a book that young girls love so much.” And then they got a little embarrassed: “Wait, am I supposed to like it?”
ES: The girls didn’t need to be convinced.
CH: We toured malls the week before [the movie] opened. When we went to Dallas, there were one thousand girls screaming like it was Beatlemania and yelling “I want to have your baby” at Rob [Pattinson, the male lead] and all that.
ES: He was best known previously for the Harry Potter movies?
CH: He had done two—in the first one [Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire], his character [Cedric Diggory] dies. So he wasn’t that well-known, really. He had done a few indie movies since then, and a play, and this and that. He had been unemployed for a little while. His career wasn’t exactly shooting for the moon.
ES: Well, that’s changed.
CH: Oh, yeah. [Before I cast him] I was pretty desperate. I didn’t think I had found the right Edward. It’s a tall order: He had to be the most handsome guy in the world, and he had to have pale skin, and he had to be believable as a high schooler, and he had to be a really good actor, and he had to feel otherworldly. A lot of the kids who [auditioned] were really cute but looked like they could be the prom king.
ES: What about Kristen Stewart, who plays Bella?
CH: I had seen Into the Wild—I thought she was so good in that. There’s the moment where she’s sitting on the bed and is so vulnerable. You can just feel what she’s feeling. She wants to connect, and Emile Hirsch is great: “No, I can’t do it—you’re underage.” I loved her from that scene, and I thought, “I just have to meet this girl.”
ES: Her career has also been helped enormously by this.
CH: She’s an incredible actress. She’s been doing small roles in indie films, but even though that’s where her heart is, she can now get movies green-lit, because she has star power.
ES: Has this film had a similar effect on your career? Thirteen [Hardwicke’s directorial debut, in 2003] was big as far as it went, but it didn’t succeed on the scale that Twilight has.
CH: Oh, no. I mean, [Thirteen] was only in one hundred theaters total, so it made nothing compared to [Twilight]. On opening weekend we beat Thirteen by $65 million!
ES: So what’s the practical impact?
CH: Right now I’m sitting in my office with my assistant making a list of all the scripts coming in. Every day there are these possibilities: Do you want to make a movie in South Africa? Do you want to do a female-action Bourne Identity kind of thing? Are you interested in a remake of Grease? A remake of West Side Story? Another horror movie?
ES: Any of that stuff appeal to you?
CH: A lot of it doesn’t. But I’ll try to read the script all the way through to see, because the truth is that when I got the script for Twilight, it wasn’t even close to what we filmed. It was a whole other script that had been developed at Paramount before the book was released. Somebody read the novel in galleys and said, “Oh, I think this could be a cool movie.” It took extreme liberties. There was an FBI agent involved, and girls were on Jet Skis by the end, like Charlie’s Angels, and Bella was a track star—she wasn’t just a clumsy everygirl. So I read that script, and I read the book, and I went to my meeting with the studio and said, “You know what? This script should just be thrown in the trash. We have to start over and make it like the book. Because that’s where the heart is. That’s why these kids around the world are connecting with it.” And that’s what we did.
ES: Has that been the case with your other films—you started out with something vastly different from what you ended up with?
CH: Well, Thirteen was something I wrote from scratch with [Thirteen actress] Nikki [Reed], and that came from no material other than life. The draft that we wrote in six days was very close to the movie that you see. It’s got the same first scene, the same last scene—it’s pretty damn similar. But it became richer and deeper as I worked with [lead actress] Holly Hunter. When I met with her, she would have ideas, and I would write new scenes for her, which improved it greatly.
ES: Is it your experience that every director works this way?
CH: No. Some directors don’t write themselves—they don’t even try. I’m actually very hands-on, because I literally write a lot of lines and I write whole scenes. On Twilight we had a screenwriter who the studio had worked with before, but I went up and scouted all the locations and found these crazy things I wanted to put in. I don’t know if you remember the scene where they go outside and fly through the treetops. There’s not anything even remotely close to that in the book, but it was created to visualize a feeling of being in love—crazy, ecstatic love. I told the screenwriter I wanted to do it, and she put it in the script, very bare-bones, and then I elaborated on it and did storyboards.
ES: Very full-service.
CH: Did you hear that Little, Brown hired me to do a book about the making of Twilight? I had wanted to put a director’s journal together, because I had all the storyboard art and my sketches. You’ll see how we broke it down: shot lists, camera angles, all of it. It’s kind of cool if you want to make a film. There are so many girls who are so excited when they see that a woman directed this movie, and they come up to me and say, “I want to be a director!” They’re all revved up.
ES: You’ve now directed a total of four films, but before that you had a long career in the film business as a production designer. How did you make the transition?
CH: I used to be an architect. I went to architecture school [at the University of Texas at Austin], but after I graduated, my professors told me, “Hey, you’re way too creative for architecture—they’re going to try to keep you down.” I had already taken a job as an architect in McAllen, but I applied to UCLA film school. What I didn’t know is that when you go to UCLA film school, you’re the director, the producer, and the financier of your films. You write your own scripts, and you make the sandwiches. So I said, “If that’s what I’m supposed to do, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll start making films.” And when you get a taste, you go, “Oh, I love doing this.”
ES: Why production design?
CH: I had no money. People said, “Hey, you’re an architect. Why don’t you production-design my movie?” I realized I could make a living doing that. And it was a lot of fun.
ES: You seem to have worked on every conceivable kind of film.
CH: I started on a Roger Corman movie. It probably doesn’t even appear on any radar. It might have played in drive-ins in Cambodia.
ES: So you went from Roger Corman to Cameron Crowe. Vanilla Sky was one of your last films as a production designer.
CH: I literally started from the bottom, which is a respectable place. Roger Corman gave a lot of great filmmakers their start, because he was willing to give anyone a chance. I got to build all these crazy things and do all this stuff and learn everything: stunts and second-unit [camera work] and props and guns. You try to get the next job to be a little better, a little more legit, and when you come with absolutely zero connections, you have to claw your way up, which I did.
ES: And the next thing you know . . .
CH: I loved getting to work with Cameron and Costa-Gavras and Richard Linklater. When I worked with Rick—I did two movies with him [The Newton Boys and Suburbia]—he and I got to be really good friends. I thought he would help me. I said, “Rick, I’ve written this script, and I was hoping you would
executive-produce it.” And, you know, he gets that nine million times a week, so he flat out said to me, “Hey, man, if you want to direct, you just have to direct.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s pretty harsh!”
ES: What did he mean by that?
CH: Don’t talk about it, you know? Do it. If you get to direct a movie, you’re going to work your ass off—blood, sweat, and tears. If you’re not willing to do that, you don’t deserve it.
ES: It’s easy for someone who has directed a bunch of films to say, “If you want to direct, direct.” The reality is, you may have been a successful production designer, but you still had to get someone to entrust you with a film as a director.
CH: What he said to me was right, because I had to get off my butt and figure out how to do what he did. His first movie [Slacker] was made for $23,000. Another one of my close friends, David O. Russell, made his first movie [Spanking the Monkey] for very little as well. What Rick was saying was, If you want to do it, figure out a low-budget idea and make the damn thing happen yourself. And that’s the best thing I could have heard, because the two movies I’d been trying to make were going to cost $9 million and $5 million. I kept writing for a lower and lower budget, and then I was like, “No, I need to write something that’s going to cost nothing—something I can shoot in my house, in my car, in my clothes, with my own camera.” That’s basically what Thirteen was.
ES: How much did Thirteen cost you to make?
CH: I had planned to do it with my own money if I couldn’t find any other way, but I finally scrounged up just under $2 million.
ES: It’s a great movie for $2 million.
CH: I had to die for that movie to be made. I had to struggle to get that money, and even to make it happen for that money was hard-core. I think it shows.
ES: Tell me about growing up in McAllen.
CH: My dad was a classical pianist and trained as a chemical engineer, but his dad was a farmer. His dad told him he was going into the family business, and he did, with his brother and his father. The land was very cheap in McAllen, all around the Rio Grande in the irrigation plain, so that’s where the family moved. That’s how we got there.
ES: Farming is a tough life.
CH: If you’re a farmer, even if you do everything right, the insects could be bad or there could be onions all over the world keeping the price of onions low or the weather could be bad. So my mom got a teaching degree. There were three kids: me, my brother, and my sister. McAllen was pretty rough in some ways but also kind of fun. We had rope swings and tree houses. We would get inner tubes from tractor tires and blow them up and float down the river, get in crazy mud fights, and [mess with] snakes. I swam across the river two hundred times. It was a Huck Finn childhood.
ES: McAllen back then would have been very different from what it is today—very open and free as a border town, with less tension.
CH: No, it was tense. There were definitely racial tensions. Everybody was friends, but there would still be fights at our school. Our principal was stabbed three times my senior year on school grounds. I had three friends who were stabbed. I knew people who were shot in the back. There was drug smuggling, police brutality. Electronics smuggling was very popular in McAllen. They would fly planes, DC-3’s, loaded with electronics goods. They would land on unlit dirt airstrips with a guy with a flashlight guiding them. It was pretty wild.
ES: A different world.
CH: You could grow up in it and miss all that and just go to church and Girl Scouts. But, of course, I tried to catch on to every crazy thing that was going on.
ES: Did you go to the movies much as a kid?
CH: No. We only went to one theater, and they were showing mostly Clint Eastwood or films in Spanish. I didn’t go to many movies. Let’s be honest: It was a cultural wasteland. At the time, you could not go to a significant museum unless you drove three hours to Corpus Christi or four to San Antonio.
ES: Do you miss it?
CH: Yeah. I’ve gone back there a couple of times. I’ve been thinking about how we would go over to Mexico and get in all kinds of trouble, because if you were twelve or thirteen, you could go to the bars. You’d go to your prom and then run over there. Every now and then they would try to crack down and force you to have an ID to get into a club. All I had was my Girl Scout ID from, like, seventh grade. And I’d say to the guy at the door, “You have to be eighteen to have this.” And he’d say, “Come on in!” It was a wonderful childhood. I’m dying to make a movie about it.