Catherine Hardwicke Talks Toronto-Bound ‘Miss You Already’

After helming her first feature film at the age of 48, Catherine Hardwicke has essayed an impressively diverse range of projects over her decade-long directorial career, from “Thirteen” to “Twilight,” “Lords of Dogtown,” “A Nativity Story” and “Red Riding Hood.” This week she’ll make her Toronto fest debut with “Miss You Already,” a Morwenna Banks-scripted dramedy starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette as lifelong friends who are forced to deal with sudden pregnancy and a cancer diagnosis, respectively.

How far back do you go with “Miss You Already”?

Well, it actually probably goes back to 2003, when I was at the London Film Festival for “Thirteen.” I met the producer, Christopher Simon, there, and we were at one of those filmmaker dinners and really hit it off. I was always doing sketches of everyone I met at festivals in my notebook, and I did a half-hour sketch of him at that dinner, with all these wine bottles in front of him . We actually just found it the other day and were laughing so hard… But he loved “Thirteen” and it really stuck in his mind, and so when this project came around – he’d been working for three or four years with Morwenna on the script – he reached out to me.

Do you still do sketches at festivals?

Yes I do. I’ve gotten to go to so many amazing festivals and things over the years, and I’ll always be looking through notebooks and finding things, like, “Hey, Patricia Arquette, look at this drawing I did of you 20 years ago!” And they’ll be, “Oh, gee…thanks?” But I think of them as my little records of the times. And at a long dinner, it’s my way of staying occupied rather than just eating or drinking too much.

What was your response to reading the script for the first time?

I liked the script a lot, but I thought it was a little too… The actors were crying all the time. And I thought, no man, they’ve gotta be a little more tough and funny. So Morwenna came over from London and we did a reading with a bunch of Brits and expats in my house, to just try to nail down the details and make it a bit more wild, and emotional but yet not sentimental. Morwenna’s an excellent writer and she has that wicked sense of humor.

What was it about the sentimentality that you felt needed to be tempered?

You know, there are a lot of people who have family members and close friends who have gone through something like this, and the people that you kind of love the most are the people that are tough and funny the whole time. Like my dad, he literally cracked some of the most wild, off-color jokes just a few hours before he died. Which I just loved. He had that crazy, fun, fighting spirit, and I wanted to keep that alive all the time in the script.

You are one of surprisingly few directors who started as a production designer. How much does that background still affect your filmmaking?

When I was 17 I went to architecture school at the University of Texas, and went through a five-year program – so you don’t lose that sense of structural visualization. It’s ingrained in my head. I’ll walk into a building and think, “How can I transform this? How can I use it? How can I make a scene flow within this space?”

When I came to film school at UCLA after that, I didn’t really know what a production designer was. But because I had the architectural background I was able to get work as a production designer, which gave me a chance to really watch directors. I was just diligent, trying to get every aspect of the craft: In between jobs I’d take a writing workshop, I’d take a directing workshop, I’d make a short film, take an acting class… And then I’d go back on another job and get to work with someone amazing like David (O. Russell) or Richard (Linklater), and watch how they applied everything I was studying… It was this continual process. I had taken five years of all these different classes by the time I directed my first movie, so I had all these different skill sets.

You have a tendency not to linger on a specific style, to make a lot of different kinds of movies, whether it’s a skateboard movie, a Biblical adaptation, a Sundance coming-of-age movie, a…

A vampire movie?

…a vampire movie, a fairy-tale movie, etcetera. Is that partly a function of that background?

For one, that’s what makes it fun. And in architecture, I was trained in a very experimental kind of creative, problem-solving sort of way. I had a lot of great teachers who would give us these assignments where you couldn’t have a preconceived notion of what to do. I had one professor who told us to design something that would cost five dollars, and that you could take to a three-day rock concert that would provide shelter. Now, if someone tells you to just design a house, or a church, or a museum, we all have 50 ideas of what that could look like. But I have no idea what a five-dollar shelter for a rock concert looks like. So you have to really make something out of nothing. Something about that process really unleashed my creativity. And I think that’s one reason I love to work on so many different types of projects.

And by the way, I am circling back to architecture. I created a show at USA we’re doing a pilot for right now about architects, so I guess I’m bringing it all back home.

There aren’t too many architect-centered projects floating around these days.

It’s a great profession for a character. And it’s a great profession to give a character’s husband in a movie, because you can just put a big model in the background and you immediately know what they do.

Which of your films are most personal to you?

“Thirteen” was very personal because Nikki (Reed) and her family were very close friends of mine. I had known this girl since she was little, and I had seen her going through this change at 13 where a dark cloud came over her, and I felt a personal commitment to try to help her get through that and do something creative rather than destructive with her life.

And then “Miss You Already” is quite personal because all of us go through these things with our families and our friends, learning how to deal with tough times with humor, and learning how to be there for people and not be an asshole and say the wrong thing… What can you do? It’s such a world to navigate.

With “Miss You Already,” you have a film that’s written by a woman, directed by a woman, and stars two women dealing with things like pregnancy and breast cancer. More and more within the discourse that surrounds film, we seem to be reaching this critical mass where people are really focusing on the degree to which women filmmakers are allowed to tell their stories in Hollywood. How much is that discussion having a tangible effect on what is getting made?

We certainly want it to have an effect. This film was not made with a big budget. It was a very scrappy, guerrilla-style production. Which is great. But for every movie that actually makes it through the labyrinth and gets made, it just gives hope to the next person, and they give some kind of hope to the next person. And every one that makes it just gives you more and more ammo to say, “We need to make these movies. People really are interested in this.” You want to be part of the wave that changes the tide.

And it’s important to point out with this movie, this is the kind of thing that touches men too, because men are affected by what happens in their families, with their children and their spouses. The men who we’ve shown this too have been just as affected as the women, and sometimes more. The person that I saw cry the most at a screening was about 6’5” and looked like a linebacker. This kind of emotion isn’t just something that women go through.

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