Catherine Hardwicke's Venice Beach office is something of a shrine to her creative vision: Skateboards from Lords of Dogtown hang on one wall, above a witchy painting that inspired her episode of Guillermo Del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities. Another entire wall is covered in artwork for "this crazy animated project I'm going to do." Elsewhere, a poster for her new movie, Mafia Mamma, is propped up next to a framed poster for her first-ever movie, Thirteen.
Hardwicke wrote the latter, a gritty look at the perils of being a teenage girl, with her 13-year-old star, Nikki Reed. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003, where Hardwicke won the Directing Award — heralding the arrival of a new voice in independent filmmaking. (Thirteen would go on to earn Holly Hunter an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.)
Hardwicke's next movie, 2005's Lords of Dogtown, similarly turned her verité lens on the world of skater boys. And then came Twilight. Hardwicke envisioned the Y.A. vampire adaptation as another tale of teen angst — albeit this time with fangs. It became a global phenomenon. The years since Twilight have seen the director constantly shifting gears, swapping genres, and creating one of the more eclectic resumes of any filmmaker working today. Take Mafia Mamma, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a suburban mom (Toni Collette) who travels to Italy for her estranged grandfather's funeral and finds out she's inherited his mafia empire. It's Under the Tuscan Sun meets The Godfather, but with more slapstick comedy and full-on action sequences.
"I can imagine it isn't easy to be a female director in Hollywood, but she's doing great," Monica Bellucci, who stars in Mafia Mamma, says of Hardwicke. "She's moved from one genre to another, because she did films like Thirteen and Twilight and a mob movie! She's so elegant. I think that she brings elegance to this movie as well, in the middle of violence, and she knows what she wants, even though she's so delicate."
To hear Hardwicke tell it, she's spent the better part of the past two decades either pursuing her passion projects or attempting to apply her passion to the projects that come her way. Now, the filmmaker says, "I'm, like, ready to keep doing crazy sh*t. But I'm trying to do stuff close to the heart, following the roadmap that I first started.
A.frame: This year is 20 years since you made Thirteen. Before that, you were working in the independent film scene with Richard Linklater and Lisa Cholodenko. What was the vibe of that time? What was it like entering the fray as a first-time filmmaker?
Oh my God, it was really fun! I had worked with Richard and David O. Russell and Lisa, doing these scrappy movies. And then, I finally got to make my own. I didn't have a lot of money, because I was a production designer and I had no work for one year because I worked on Thirteen. We made it for $1.5 million, but I got paid three bucks. And suddenly, we got into Sundance. We worked up until the last second — we were the classic in the lab on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, trying to finish the movie — and then suddenly you get there to Park City. I didn't think I would be on camera or have to talk about the movie. I was just in this scrappy world.
And then they're giving you swag! Nike gives you a ski jacket! And you're on camera! Honestly, my head kind of exploded. I'd been to Sundance so many other times, but I had snuck into screenings. Literally, one time, I stood behind the curtain on the stage until they swept out the theater and then jumped in. I walked backwards through the exit door. I would draw the things with markers on my hand to get into parties. And that first day in the Eccles Theatre, it was on a Friday night and it was a packed house, and I'm holding Nikki's hand. We just turned white. 'Are people going to love it? Are people going to hate it?' And then when they really seem to really like it and respond to it, I had this wave of euphoria. The whole thing was a blur, almost, but a beautiful experience.
When is the last time you sat down and watched Thirteen?
They did a 15-year reunion for the Austin Film Society with Richard Linklater. That was really interesting, because half the audience had never seen it and half had. I was just laughing! I mean, there's a lot of funny stuff in it to me. So, I'm laughing and other people are like, 'This is not funny.' But Nikki and Evan [Rachel Wood] did a lot of little quirky, cool things that I just love to watch. It still holds up for me. And on TikTok, you can see there's, like, 1.5 billion engagements with Thirteen now. People relate to those scenes. They'll put a scene in that's her fighting with her mother and say, 'That same argument happened to me last week!' Because all that stuff was so real. I wrote it with a 13-year-old girl, and I was witnessing those fights between her and her mother, and I filmed my movie kind of like war photography. What's going to happen next?! Where's the next bomb going to go off?!
When that movie did as well as it did and got the attention that it got, did you have a moment to stop and consider the roadmap ahead, of how you wanted to leverage that into the films you were hoping to make?
I did, and it really did not work out at all! [Laughs] Little did I know. Well, in a way it started to work out because my next one was Lords of Dogtown, and that was right on the path. That one was something that I loved. It was gritty and raw, and it was the opposite of Thirteen, because it was boys from the tough part of town, broken homes, that were finding a way to take their frustration and pain and turn it into something very creative that actually changed the world. I thought it was a great companion piece. I loved it. And then after that, all my plans went off the rails. I thought that if you worked one million percent on something like I did on Thirteen, and on Lords of Dogtown — if I worked really hard and just focused 24 hours a day triangulating how to get something made — that the same thing would happen on my next movie. But it did not work out that way.
I worked for a year and a half on my next project, and nothing happened. That was The Monkey Wrench Gang, which is an Edward Abbey novel about eco-terrorists. Super fun, super radical. I met with all these wonderful actors from Ryan Gosling to Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway, Jeff Bridges, Matthew McConaughey. Everybody wanted do it. But they were worried that it was eco-terrorism instead of eco-activism. At the end of that, I realized, 'Oh sh*t! You can put your whole heart into something for a year and a half and go on location scouts and do storyboards and pay out of your own money — everything possible — and it won't happen.' And then I got offered Nativity. 'Hey, this is going to happen.' And I thought, wow. Within nine months, I will literally have a movie done. Because they had to have it done in nine months to release at Christmas. I'd get to go to Italy, I'd go to Israel, I'd go to Morocco. I'd work with ancient scholars. And I got to cast Oscar Isaac in his first role, and we premiered in the freaking Vatican! I mean, it was out of control. But that wasn't a movie that I would've ever planned. That was definitely not from my heart. It is from my heart in a way...
Because you put your heart in it.
I like that. Yes, I did. And I was raised in a Presbyterian family so I grew up believing in Judeo-Christian values, so it was a fascinating experience. [Laughs] I got to ride camels!
And then you found yourself in the studio world, working with established IP on Twilight and Red Riding Hood. But after that, you've directed pretty much every type of movie one could direct. What has been your approach to the project you do or don't do?
Well, here's the thing. I call it 'The Ghost in the Garage,' because in my garage, there are all my heart projects that I have not got to make yet. Every director has them. I mean, I saw the Stanley Kubrick exhibit of Napoleon that he didn't get to make. Even Stanley Kubrick couldn't make his passion project?! I felt a little better. But I've tried so hard to make all these projects that I love, and a lot of times those are not the ones that people will pay for. I still have many projects that I love that I'm still not giving up on. And then something comes to me that has a lot of interesting elements that I think maybe I can do something exciting with it. Like, Twilight was turned down by every studio. Nobody wanted to make it.
The Summit people liked Thirteen and they said, 'We can give you five scripts and see if you respond to any of them.' Well, I hated all of them and threw them all in the trash. And then the next day I thought, 'What about that vampire one? Maybe there's something to it.' I went and got the book and I read it. And I went in and said, 'I do have an idea for this. I want to see if I can capture the ecstasy of first love.' How can I make you feel as ecstatic and crazy and intoxicated as the book makes people feel? Like how you feel the first time you fell in love. And I love the woods and I love moss, and I thought, 'I've never seen vampires in the woods. I've only seen them in dark streets in Paris.' I thought, 'This could be fun!' I wanted to try it, and it turned into craziness.
I do think it's a testament to you that you cast Oscar Isaac, and you cast Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, and these people all became stars. But also, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have some of the most interesting careers of any actors working today. They leveraged Twilight and are doing wacky, creative, feeding-the-soul art films now. And that's a testament to you, because you saw something in them.
Thank you, because I've said before if that was the only legacy of Twilight — that Rob and Kristen greenlit so many indie films — that's amazing. That's beautiful.
When you think back, is there a project you feel like you learned the most on? Or one where you really stepped into yourself and how you want to show up as a filmmaker?
I would say I definitely learned the most on Thirteen, because I'd never directed anything. I'm working with an Academy Award-winning actress, Holly Hunter, and two 13-old-girls. And Nikki had never acted. There were so many challenges on it, but I was just naive. 'I can do this!' And I had prepared myself. I had taken five years of acting classes to work with the actors. I had taken writing classes between every production design job. I did anything that I could to learn and get better to become a director. But it was a huge learning curve, and it was very stressful. The schedule we had was insane. It was down to the second. Because the girls were underage and they had to leave. That was hectic. Now, I would say by the time I did Mafia Mamma, I've done enough movies that I'm not quite so panicked. I know I can make a shot list. I know I can rearrange it in my brain during the day if we're falling behind, and I can catch back up or I can do without that shot. So, finally, I'm a little less panicked.
How did Mafia Mamma come to you, or you to it?
Toni Collette and I, and Chris Simon, the producer, we did Miss You Already together. That was in London with Drew Barrymore, and we had a great time on it! So, Toni got this script and said, 'What if Catherine did it?' She called me and I was like, 'Hell yeah! Let's go to Rome and have a fun time.' In the middle of COVID world and all these dreary things, this was fun. This was an adventure. This could make you laugh. So, we had to go for it.
Beyond getting to work with Toni again and getting to have a brief pandemic reprieve in Italy, what excited you about the opportunities you'd have as a director on this?
I actually like doing action. I think it's fun! I also like to laugh. I thought her trajectory from this people-pleaser and nurturing mom, and everybody's pretty much just taking a sh*t on her all the time, to her staying her beautiful self and her loving self, but finding how to be tough and stand up for herself. I thought the story was beautiful. And when I read this script, I could see Toni [playing the role]. She's a marvel in whatever she does. But I've seen her too much lately in those serious things. Like The Staircase, she gets killed! This one, I'm like, 'I don't want anybody to kill Toni again!'
I want to watch Toni kill some people!
Yes — accidentally! I want her to live and thrive!
When the movie was announced, you said that you 'personally relate to this woman who has to tap into her inner warrior and earn the respect of a bunch of men — especially after working in the film business.' Were you able to take any of those experiences and put them back into the story?
Oh, yes! Those three men [Collette's character's misogynist coworkers, who constantly belittle or overlook her] kind of represented many meetings that I've been in, where people are mansplaining stuff to me. Even on Lords of Dogtown, this is the dumbest thing, but we were supposed to be building a pier and they said, 'Well, we're going to have the hydraulic engineer put the post in here. And we'll calculate the water.' And I go, 'Wait a minute. I have an architecture degree, and that's not going to work. I've been out in the water and I've surfed those waters, and it's not going to work.' They literally were like, 'You don't know what you're talking about. Leave it to the experts.' Day one of shooting, what they built completely fell over. [Laughs] But that's just an example. Like, no woman would have an engineering mind. No woman would understand how to do action. People think I wouldn't understand how to do visual effects. That was my first job when I got here! So that kind of underestimation.
Beyond that, on a deeper level, certain movies that do have a lot of grit to them, they say, 'Oh, we want a man to direct this.' I've been told that. The Fighter — which, I think David O. Russell did a great job — I really loved that script. I felt it was very relevant to Thirteen. I had taken boxing classes myself, and I wanted to do it. I couldn't even get an interview. Even though Twilight had just made $400 million! They wouldn't even hear my pitch on it. Nope. 'We want a man to do that.' Because men can direct women in anything, but women can't direct men. But that's changing, so...
I thought those guys in the meeting might have resonated with you. I wouldn't have minded if they got dropped into the grape smasher by the end of the movie.
Yes, or run over by a jet ski!
Beyond feeling less panicked by the day-to-day, how do you feel like you've changed as a filmmaker in the past 20 years?
Well, every time you think you've learned something, something new just comes up and sucker punches you in the face. Honestly, I don't want to act like I know everything, because I've been shocked by new, strange things happening right and left! [Laughs] I hope I've gotten better about trying to deal with it, but I don't want to pat myself on the back or anything.
You said you made a roadmap for yourself back in your early days and then it didn't happen. Do you still try to plan ahead now? Have you created a new roadmap for yourself, or are you more open to seeing what comes your way?
Well, I have written two original screenplays that I'm really trying to move forward. One I co-wrote, and then the other one, I wrote it myself. Of them is called One Track Mind. It's set in the '70s, '80s and '90s, and it's a story of Diane Warren. She's a pretty good friend of mine, and she has a very crazy origin story. She went to juvie hall. She ran away from home and lived with bank robbers. She was told by her guitar teacher that she's tone-deaf. She was freaking tortured, but she always believed and when everybody was beating her down, she was making hilarious wisecracks back to them and stuff. And then, she persevered and worked and is basically the biggest songwriter of all time. So, it's a really funny, radical story. I'm working with Diane on it, so she's going to do all the music and everything. It's a very uplifting story in a way, that you could be quirky, odd, not fit in, nobody believes in you, but if you believe in yourself and you work your a** off like she does, you could actually turn into something. I mean, she just performed at the Academy Awards!
And then the other one is called Streetwise, and that's with Nic Sheff, who wrote Beautiful Boy. It's his story. He and I are doing something that's set in Venice in the world of street kids, because he was on the street but still had aspirations and dreams and was trying to do cool stuff. It's a super fun project too, with some Lady and the Tramp and some Oliver Twist and Lost Boys mixed in there.
Consider me intrigued. I will personally keep my fingers crossed that neither of these become 'Ghosts in the Garage.'
Oh, thank you! I really feel those movies. I hope that I can make them. I'm in the process of climbing up the hill. Those two would be very true to my heart and my soul, and I think, great films. Really, they go back to Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, which are closest to my heart.
By John Boone