Thursday, October 22, 2009

Safety school: in the writing process and on-set, Catherine Hardwicke had to create the right atmosphere for her 13-year-old co-writer to express hers

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When film designer Catherine Hardwicke sat down with 13-year-old Nikki Reed to write a screenplay, what started as an exercise in creative expression became a story that had to be told. Thirteen documents the life of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a shy and naive seventh-grader. Enter Evie (Nikki Reed), the mercurial popular girl. As Tracy works to win Evie's affection, she transforms herself into the archetype of the modern teenager, complete with piercings, low-riders jeans, and thong underwear, much to the dismay of her single mother (Holly Hunter).

Hardwicke briefly dated Reed's father; though the relationship didn't last, Hardwicke remained close with Reed and watched first-hand as the adolescent suddenly became angry, insolent, and rebellious. The engaged and optimistic child Hardwicke had first met seemed to be falling away, and Hardwicke tried to keep her motivated by encouraging her to get involved in the arts. Over Reed's Christmas break in 2002, the two set out to write a fun, light screenplay about the modern-day teen experience. But the more Reed shared with Hardwicke, the more Hardwicke realized a highly complex story was at work. What followed was an intense six-day writing process: Reed and Hardwicke would act out the scenes, and Hardwicke would shape the story. The screenplay was completed, and Reed went back to school, but Hardwicke knew that the film had to be made and that Reed needed to be a part of it. Time was crucial, as Reed needed to be as close to 13 as possible. Hardwicke scrambled to pull together a cast, including Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under), that could handle the difficult and often emotionally charged material.

Wood said of the script: "I was a little worried when I first read the script, because the material is so scary, and I wasn't sure how the material was going to be handled, but after I met with Catherine, I was completely convinced. She is so passionate about it and had this amazing vision. She kept bringing out all these pictures, so I would know exactly what everything was going to look like; she had the music. Besides that, the whole time we basically just talked about what it's like to be a teenager, and after that I just really wanted to do it--she just understood, she really got it. I was almost in tears by the end of the meeting."

For Hardwicke, creating a safe environment for the actors was instrumental in getting the performances out of them that she needed. Said Hardwicke, "I have been taking acting classes for the past five years with Diane Salinger, Jeannie Berlin, and the Improv Olympics. I really felt like it was the only way for me to truly understand the actors' process. To force myself up onstage, embarrass myself, and put myself out there, it really gave me the whole other side of how intense, difficult, and astounding it is for any actor to give a real performance in the environment we hand them on-set. I became committed to creating the most conducive environment possible. It was my top priority to create an atmosphere that was quiet, respectful, comfortable, and supportive. I really wanted the filming to be all about the actors."

Wood agreed: "The set was really safe, Catherine was very open to us and to creating a warm environment; there was actually a lot of improv that went on, especially with the teenagers. Catherine just let us go: She wanted everything to be as real as possible so she pretty much just let us do our thing."

Perfectly Foreign

While Hardwicke had initial interest from producers, she needed to pull together a well-known cast. After pitching the script to Holly Hunter's manager, Hardwicke flew on a red-eye to share her vision with the actor. Said Hunter: "When I read the script, the thing that nailed it for me was, I had to stop reading because I didn't know what they were saying, I didn't know what they were talking about, and it really felt foreign. That was the mark of authenticity."

Though Hunter has worked with some of the biggest directors in Hollywood, she has no qualms about working with a first-time director. "Movies are an indescribable collaboration," Hunter said. "Ideas come from the prop master, from a teamster, from a PA. It's such a massive recipe that goes into making a movie. And Catherine was very open to it all. I've worked with first-time directors before who have been very intimidated by their actors. Often if a first-time director also writes the script, she'll want to play the part, because she feels like you're not going to be able to do it the way she imagined it in her mind. Catherine didn't have that problem at all, and that was a joy because I was allowed to do my work and develop relationships with Nikki and Evan that were of my own creation."

Though Wood is a seasoned professional, Reed had never acted before. Still, Hardwicke was confident of the performance that she could get out of her, as well as other first-time actors who appear in the film. "Most of the kids in the movie, even if they had never acted before, really didn't require much coaching," she said. "They pretty much got it; the story was so close to their experiences that it was easy for them to latch onto. They really felt like this was their movie. I really relied on the kids' energy, because that was the whole spirit of the film. Part of the way I tried to capture that energy was with the camera work: It's all hand held, except for the first and last shot of the film. All the actors had to be on at every given moment because they had no idea whether the camera was on them or not. We had a second cameraperson who was always trying to get additional shots and close-ups."

Art and Architecture

As a graduate of architecture school, Hardwicke used the structure-building techniques she learned there to get herself through an extremely limited 26-day shooting schedule. "Architecture school is all about creative problem solving: how to approach a situation, analyze it, formulate a solution, and carry it through. That way of planning and thinking structurally was an invaluable help in creating this film."

The already tight shooting schedule was further limited because the film's two major roles were played by minors. Hardwicke had only nine hours a day to work with Reed and Wood to get through a tremendous amount of material. "Every scene was shot in no more than three takes," said Hardwicke. "There were days in which we shot literally nine scenes, each one vastly different, with its own costumes and makeup, and we would have no more than five minutes of prep time and costume changes between shots."

Still, she said, though the pressures were tremendous, maintaining a positive outlook was crucial to getting the film completed. "One thing I learned in my comedy improv class that proved invaluable to me is the 'yes, and ...' exercise. if the sun is going down, and the lights blew out, and the car won't start, you just have to remind yourself, Yes, and this movie is going to get made, and it's going to be great."

Hardwicke has already written her next script, which she described as a female version of Deliverance. And though she said the film will be very different from Thirteen, she still remains committed to creating a supportive and safe experience for actors.

Source Citation:Bock, Pamela. "Safety school: in the writing process and on-set, Catherine Hardwicke had to create the right atmosphere for her 13-year-old co-writer to express herself." Back Stage West 10.34 (August 21, 2003): 10(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 24 Oct. 2009

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