Co-writer Nikki Reed and director Catherine Hardwicke in Fox Searchlight’s Thirteen
“I 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.
Focused 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 13-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.
But 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 going through.
PopMatters: How would you describe Thirteen‘s attitude toward its girl subjects, or the culture they’re absorbing?
Catherine Hardwicke: I 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 discussion.
PM: Adults tend to think as you did, that girls don’t understand, perhaps because it’s too scary if they know.
CH: 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.
PM: The ratings system has a serious effect on your potential audience.
CH: 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 accusatory.
PM: Several scenes are very intense, emotionally. Did you do anything specific on the set to allow that?
CH: 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.
PM: 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?
CH: 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.
PM: 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 tones.
CH: 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 15 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 95 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 damn 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.
PM: For the DVD.
CH: 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]
PM: Can you talk about structure, beginning with the hitting scene, then cutting around back to it later?
CH: 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.
PM: That actually seems a function of being obsessed with beauty.
CH: 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.
PM: 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.
CH: 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.
PM: Speaking of layers, how did you conceive the relationship between Tracy and Mel?
CH: 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.
PM: 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.
CH: 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.
There’s 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 12-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 love.
PM: So is this a function of too much media?
CH: 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 17-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.”
PM: And yet, kids learn to handle it, most of them surviving it, because they’re dealing with this lunacy every day.
CH: 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.
PM: It sounds like she has a set of adults who are supportive and listen to her.
CH: 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.
PM: Though it’s generating some controversy, Thirteen has a traditional moral sensibility.
CH: 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?
PM: How did you think about the race dynamics, as the girls specifically pursue boys of color?
CH: 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.
PM: 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.
CH: 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 14-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 16, 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.