wanted to be an observer and documenter, and let things get stirred up and get
people to talk about it." Words tend to tumble when Catherine Hardwicke
starts talking. In her sundress and long blond braids (that look more
comfortable than flawless, like her girlfriend did them), she looks bright and
breathless, not unlike the subjects of her first feature, Thirteen.
on the frankly gnarly experiences of a couple of seventh grade girls in Los
Angeles, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Evie (Nikki Reed), Thirteen,
co-written by Hardwicke and the then thirteen-year-old Reed (reportedly, the
first draft was finished in six days), is both raw and melodramatic. Taking
"Girl Culture" seriously, the movie portrays the girls engaging in a
range of activities, from shoplifting and taking drugs to cutting and pursuing
sex. Trying to stave off disaster is Tracy's mother Melanie (Holly Hunter), a
recovering addict herself, trying hard to stay on course as well as take care of
her two children; Tracy's brother Mason (Brady Corbet) is a sweet-natured surfer
kid, just trying to keep his head down as events around him head for implosion.
for all the emphasis on sexuality and acting out, the movie is plainly concerned
with how mother and daughter work out their strained relationship. In this way,
it's not so different from other teen movies, except that the characters are
flawed (and remain so), and the adults actually care about what the kids are
would you describe Thirteen's attitude toward its girl subjects, or the
culture they're absorbing?
don't think that Britney's bad; she's doing what she wants to do. But it's scary
to see a seven-year-old mimicking Christina's moves. In fact, I had originally
written the little friend who comes to live with [Tracy and her mom] was doing
some of those dances, but it was almost too scary to see what kids are really
doing. I held back in this film. I think it's already strong enough. I think
that [popular culture] gives a confusing message to kids: "You should not
be thinking about sex, but there's a huge Calvin Klein billboard with a stuffed
package." How do you navigate? The boys in junior high get really lewd and
say outrageous stuff to the girls. If somebody yelled the stuff at me that I've
heard at junior high schools I've visited, I'd be scared and humiliated. Even if
you don't want to care about your ass or your boobs, you have to all of a
sudden. And, while I love hiphop music, it can be so outrageous. That's why I
wanted to make this movie. A couple of years ago, I heard Nikki and a friend of
hers belting out this song, like "Deep throat my nine inch," and I
thought, "Twelve years old, can they know what that means?" And of
course, they do. There was something going on that I wanted to blast out for
Adults tend to think as you did, that girls don't understand, perhaps because
it's too scary if they know.
Oh they know, and they feel their power. It's not your choice if you're in
seventh grade to get boobs and a body; it just happens. Instead of doing a movie
more like what I went through as a kid, more like the Welcome to the
Dollhouse outcast story, in this case, it's the popular kids, the gorgeous
kids. And their story is much more complex than you see in Clueless.
That's what I tried to deconstruct, Evie's world, the way she's been tossed
around. I see Evie as a survivor. Real things did happen to her, but she works
it. She's one of those kids who's so alluring, but toxic. You know if you're
going to be around that kind of friend, it's going to be fun, but you don't know
where you're going to end up.
The ratings system has a serious effect on your potential audience.
Yes, they can live it but they can't see it. If you say the F-word more than
twice in a movie, in a non-sexual way, it's rated R. If you have a kid drinking
beer, it's rated R. We couldn't make a movie about this subject without those
things; it would be phony. So we went for it, there wasn't even a question. For
audiences, the idea would be, go with your big sister, go with your mom or your
friend, and use it as cinematherapy, a neutral ground for talking points.
Even when I was writing it
with Nikki, I never asked her, "Did you do this?" It was her personal
business. It was more like, "Okay, if the character's going through
something like this, how would she say it?
How would it happen? Set up a scenario here." And having the neutral
ground was a way for her to spill out her feelings and thoughts without me being
Several scenes are very intense, emotionally. Did you do anything specific on
the set to allow that?
The thing that helped me the most to be prepared was that I took a lot of acting
classes. It was embarrassing, because I don't want to be an actress, but I made
myself get up and perform. That's where you learn a lot, like how much it takes
to be right up in that moment when people are looking at you, and be real and
honest. So that gave me an idea to create an atmosphere on the set that would be
supportive. One thing I did was have the least possible number of people around.
The other thing was quiet respect for what the actors were doing. And the third
thing was that no one on the crew could be snippy with each other. We focused on
what was going on with these actors. And because we were shooting in a real
house, the spaces were limited. The bathroom had a lot of intense scenes, the
cutting scenes are in there, and only three of us could fit in there anyway. We
had no money, and we couldn't build a set. If we'd had a set, we could have
taken a wall out, you know? So it was almost like Evan and I in that scene. It
was so heavy.
I know that you've worked [as a production designer] with some great filmmakers,
David O. Russell, as well as Cameron Crowe, Costa Gavras, and Richard Linklater.
Each offers a positive model for working within the larger production and
distribution systems, while maintaining control over their projects. Are you
imagining that transition?
Luckily, I have worked on big productions, like Three Kings and Vanilla
Sky, which included pressure from studios. For both of those, just the
production design budget was about four times the entire budget of this movie.
That helped me to handle this crew and the pressure, though I hope that if I'm
doing an emotional scene on a bigger movie, we can maintain a set where the
actors feel protected. One thing that David did so well was keep the emotional
tension alive in every moment of Three Kings. Being a production
designer, you get involved at the very beginning of a movie, so you have a front
row seat with a great director, in this case.
The other thing Russell does brilliantly is write a script that can be funny,
politicized, dense, and edgy, all at the same time. Your script also combines
Three Kings had more humor, I think, but I wanted to get more in there. I
learned something about scriptwriting from him: on one script, he literally read
the first page, found a word that suggested it was unreal, and that kicks your
butt. Like, I'd better get my shit together, and make sure there isn't any dead
air. I'm sure I learned more with that response than if he had read the whole
script. The script for Thirteen is tight, and not because of the now
famous six day writing spree, but more because it started out as fifteen pages
longer. When I found out how much money I was going to have, $1.5 million or
less, I knew we couldn't waste any shooting time on something that wouldn't be
in the movie. I cut it down to a ninety-five-page script. Cutting is great. In a
way, it's my favorite thing. If there's anything that could be on the chopping
block, then it should be. You start thinking, "That's a little weak,"
and you get that damned thing out of there. I liked that, boiling it down to the
essence. Even after that, I cut five or six scenes out that we did shoot.
For the DVD.
It's on the DVD! We did the commentary on Saturday night. It was so wild.
Evan, Nikki, Brady, and I did it. And they had never seen the scenes we cut, so
they were all saying, "I like that scene! Why did we have to cut it?"
And I was like, "Because it had to move, baby!" [snaps fingers]
Can you talk about structure, beginning with the hitting scene, then cutting
around back to it later?
Of all the stuff that Nikki or I talked about, that situation was the thing that
really blew me away. These girls, so obsessed with beauty, and they're just bam!
Beating each other up.
That actually seems a function of being obsessed with beauty.
Yeah, it's the flipside. And there was another reason: I was at Nikki's mom's
house one day, and Nikki came in with a bruise, and I asked her about it. She
said something like, "Oh, you know how clumsy I am," and told a story
about falling against a table. I didn't know. She and I and her mom are
laughing, and of course, later, I learned that this was one of the hit-me
sequence things. She had me totally fooled too. None of us had any clue. It was
right in her bedroom. A mom can be that attentive and that involved, but what
are you gonna do? March in there like a military thing? That's gonna drive your
kid away too.
The movie's set displayed that idea; Tracy had that window in her bedroom so she
could see out, but mom might also see in.
When we were looking for a location and found a house that had a lot of windows,
we knew that was it, because you could build in depth and layers.
Speaking of layers, how did you conceive the relationship between Tracy and Mel?
When Nikki and I did the first pass at the script in those six days, the adult
characters were two-dimensional Evil Villains. This was mostly from her point of
view. And then when I thought, we're gonna send this to Holly Hunter, I'd better
do a little work on the mom. I've got to give her more of a life and round her
out. That came out of my personal love for her mother, and putting myself into
it. I mentor another girl who's the same age, and they all have slumber parties
at my house: surf camp or fashion-and-style camp. All their moms, from all
different economic or educational levels, have a tough time navigating this age.
It's hard to know if the girls are just experimenting or if what they're doing
will lead to some irrevocable harm, like a sexually transmitted disease. Tracy
and Mel's relationship was working, up until she hit adolescence.
The film doesn't just blame the kids, but shows how they make their own sense of
adult culture and advertising around them, shown in Brooke's surgery, the
"Beauty is Truth" poster.
If you decide to tell a kid that looks don't matter, she can prove you wrong
every day. Because they see it everywhere. That is age-old, going back to the
Greeks, but now we're bombarded nonstop. That image on the poster isn't even a
real person: it's Nikki's eyes, someone else's lips, photoshopped to the nth
degree. We'll never live up to it. Before seventh grade, Nikki would wake up at
4:30 every morning to do the perfect J. Lo makeup. She was so good at it that
she was paid in seventh grade to do people's makeup -- adults! She was just
doing what we're telling her to do. And then we're horrified that she does it.
that line in the film, "We love you, Christina Ricci," and that was
originally "Angelina Jolie," but her agent wouldn't even consider it.
What we wanted was someone with that "bad girl" image, because that's
what girls -- and adults -- revere. We went through similar experiences as
girls, but now a twelve-year-old girl will wear a pink rhinestone t-shirt that
says "69" or "porn star" on it. That's kind of different,
that porn stars are now embraced, and superbad, slutty looking girls are who we
So is this a function of too much media?
Yeah, commercial images. Have you seen this book Branding [by Alissa
Quart], about "the buying and selling of teenagers"? I'm working on
another script right now, about the No Logo movement and globalization.
Everything is so aggressively marketed, at every age: if you're not in Baby Gap,
you're not cool. That's how everybody's grown up, so they don't even know it
could be another way. A seventeen-year-old girl interviewed me yesterday, and
she was shocked that after feminism, people are more obsessed now with looks and
being a hottie. And here's another thing! My niece goes to a tiny Baptist high
school in central Texas, and she was voted "Best Ass" at her school.
Not "Most Likely to Succeed" -- "Best Ass."
And yet, kids learn to handle it, most of them surviving it, because they're
dealing with this lunacy every day.
A woman in her 50s said to me last week in Chicago, "If you don't get some
of this out of your system when you're a teenager, it'll get you later."
She said, "I started acting like Tracy in my 50s. And people are a lot less
forgiving then." You do have to try some stuff. And in a wild way, Nikki's
already over a lot of it.
It sounds like she has a set of adults who are supportive and listen to her.
That's true. The model on the opposite end is Evie's parents, strung out or
incoherent. Or those latchkey kids whose parents are so inattentive. Other than
the lower income kids we showed, there are additional problems.
Though it's generating some controversy, Thirteen has a traditional moral
Yes. You can see that Melanie is trying, even though she's in a recovery
program. What a situation that is, when your kids bring drugs into the house.
How do you balance that, your sobriety and that whole new level of stress?
How did you think about the race dynamics, as the girls specifically pursue boys
That came from L.A., of course, where you have every kind of person on the
planet. But more importantly, the superstars are rappers. That's the music the
girls like and the idols they have. Rappers and black guys are the coolest guys
for Nikki. I didn't want to demonize any boys. I have the girls being more
aggressive, they set things up and instigate. They're excited with their new
sexual power. We've seen 100 movies where the guys attack someone, but this is
what Nikki and her friends are involved in.
We're out of time, but I know you want to say something about the music on the
soundtrack. I was pleased to hear Liz Phair's "Explain It To Me" over
the closing credits.
With the exception of Liz Phair, who we reached and talked to personally, and
who got her record label to give us a huge discount, if you had heard of the
band, we couldn't afford them. So, like everything else in the movie -- we had a
lot of kids who'd never acted before -- we got to discover new people. We took
the positive attitude. We have a fourteen-year-old boy, Orlando Brown, who raps
["Pay Attention To Me" and "Die to Entertain" are the names
of his tracks in the film]. We have a high school girl band, the Like, who are
so great ["(So I'll Sit Here) Waiting"]. And then Katie Rose is a
special case. She read about the film, and had gone through similar experiences,
and she sent us a tape ["Overdrive," "Lemon"]. Now she's
signed, at sixteen, and has a record coming out in September. It's great that
these teenagers wrote the music, and it's empowering for kids to hear that
someone their age did this.