Director Catherine Hardwicke’s Miss Bala (2018), a remake of Gerardo Naranjo’s 2011 film, centres around Gloria (Gina Rodriguez). When her friend is abducted one night, she finds herself drawn into a dangerous game involving the CIA, the DEA, and a ruthless cartel kingpin. As she attempts to rescue her friend, she finds an inner power as she cunningly plays the three organizations against the other.
Hardwicke’s previous films include her debut feature, Thirteen (2003), based on the real life experiences of its young co-writer Nikki Reed, while her sophomore biographical drama Lords of Dogtown (2005), centres around skateboarders in Venice Beach in the ’70s. In 2008 she moved towards fantasy with the adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, and in 2011 directed the fairy tale horror Red Riding Hood (2011). Then, moving away from fantasy she directed Plush (2013), a thriller about a singer’s dangerous liaison with her guitarist, which was followed by the comedy drama Miss You Already (2015), a story of two friends who find their friendship tested.
In conversation with PopMatters, Hardwicke discusses the intimate origins of her filmmaking career, the absence of control or choice for the filmmaker, and giving voice to her as of yet unrealised stories.
The feeling or realisation that you are a filmmaker does not necessarily come with a first short or feature film. Was there a moment when you felt you could call yourself a filmmaker?
I was a production designer first and I was able to work with these brilliant directors: Richard Linklater, Costa-Gavras, Cameron Crowe, Lisa Cholodenko, David O. Russell. I saw how each of them were so different, but how much of their heart and soul, blood, sweat and tears they put into the project — full immersion. I have always been that way. Even though I was an architect and a production designer on their films, I would be working literally every single day, every minute, and in my dreams waking up with an idea to make the set better. I felt that I was in the flow of this full dedication to and full passion for whatever I’m working on.
So I think it was seamless for me because when I finally got to direct Thirteen, I’d been making short films and I’d taken five years of acting classes in between jobs. I’d just been doing everything — learning editing and screenwriting — so I felt ready to do it, or just so excited to do it that I was on fire with the material, which was so interesting because it was true.
I wrote it with a 13-year-old girl; it was her story. I knew her, I knew her mother, her brother and her father. I was involved in their life and I knew I had to make this movie. … I wouldn’t be stopped from making it because I knew that project, to put it bluntly, was about poor people. I knew they could wear my clothes, could use my car and my furniture, and I thought: There’s nothing that can stop me from making this and becoming a filmmaker like some of my idols (like Richard Linklater, who had just made his first movie for $7,000), I’m going to doing that!
From Thirteen to Miss Bala, your filmography is comprised of stories that contrast. How do you personally perceive your body of work as a whole?
As a filmmaker I’ve made eight films, and Thirteen came out 15 years ago. Even in that time I’ve had other projects that I thought I could make, and I wanted to make. I’d say 40 projects, maybe more that I put an enormous amount of effort into it — my mind brain power, heart, soul and visual ideas including location scouting, and making teasers and trailers. And out of all those 40 these are the eight that got made, which is an incredible blessing and I’m very grateful that I even got to make eight films in 15 years; that’s awesome.
But there are many other ones that I had heart, soul and passion for, and I thought could have had an incredible impact on the world in their own ways. And many of those, maybe I love them 50 times more than I love the eight that I got made — not Thirteen, but every one after that.
So as a filmmaker you look at your body of work and you look at your ghosts in the garage, all the ones that you couldn’t make that somehow the lightning didn’t strike. Why these eight got made was because somebody who had money decided there was a reason to make them. So it’s not a direct line as an author or as a painter, where you say: “This is what I wanted to do. This is what I want to put out into the world.” My sister’s a painter and she paints what she wants, and other writer friends of mine, some try to write what they want depending on the position they are in.
Storytelling in cinema, then, is a mix of control and lack of control for the director/storyteller?
The filmmaker uses a collaborative art that is very expensive, and those movies I got to make I’m very proud of each of them for their own reasons. But it’s not my own personal through line of what I thought would be the best or most impactful and radical things to put out into the world [laughs]. I still have those other ones I hope I can get to make sometime.
With each film I had to attempt from the beginning to have a point of view that we haven’t seen so often, to have a diverse cast, especially lead characters that I could relate to. They are, of course, mostly female characters and on a superficial level it’s trying to tell a woman’s story, a young girl’s story, or very specific people’s stories.
And then there will be something strange like Twilight (2008). Why did I want to make that? I felt that the author [Stephenie Meyer] had created this very strong sense in the novel that obviously many people responded to, of first love, ecstasy and yearning. [Meyer’s work] was so intoxicating in her books that I wondered if that intoxicating first love could be put on screen – as a filmmaker could I create that “drug” that she created that we’ve all felt, or at least most people at a certain age have felt. I saw that as an extreme challenge, and then I saw it as a chance to sneak in many of the things I wanted to make movies about, but I couldn’t get them green lit. I snuck good architecture into that movie because I’m an architect. I snuck in an environmental consciousness – I had my kids go to greenhouses and I had Bella become a vegetarian. I made the characters more diverse than they were in the book and it was a battle. There were all kinds of things that I tried to do within the content of this crazy love story [laughs].
Each film you do as a filmmaker, you have to weigh the options of trying to make something that nobody will give you the money for, and you are falling deeper into despair, or getting to make something, and then trying to layer it in the best way you can with all these other things that you think can have an impact. Or it could illuminate, shine a light on the human condition in another way. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s how I see it as a struggle [laughs]; long years of struggle to make my first one, and then a struggle to make everything after that too.
We can only ever know a filmmaker based on the work they are able to share, and comparing film to a psychological construct, the films you get to make are the consciousness of the filmmaker, and the unrealised works are the unconscious. The act of sneaking things in could be compared to the communication between the levels of consciousness.
… We have all these feelings that we want to portray about being human, about trying to navigate and find our place, our worth and meaning in the world. How do we make the world better and feel more compassion for others, and for the environment, for all those things? How can you put that into an entertaining way so that it just seeps into people’s unconscious?
When people speak with me about Twilight, they talk about how gorgeous Rob Pattinson was, but then I’ve also found out that 250,000 architectural models of the Cullen’s house are available online. They’ve inspired architecture students to go to college and have elevated the design consciousness of a generation. Then I find out that many girls are vegetarians because they heard Bella say she’s a vegetarian. So it was packaged in this fun world of love and vampires, but these other things do seep into the subliminal mind and became accepted and normal, or just part of life or aspiration.
I love that, and I hope in this film that you feel the inner strength that Gina Rodriguez has as Gloria, a presence and a dignity that prevents certain negative things from happening to her character, but also carries her through this incredible journey she has to go through. We all have this desire, and the civil war writer Ambrose Bierce wrote that in real life in the civil war, people wanted to go to war just to test themselves, to test their nerves, their strengths. If I’m standing here facing a line of muskets will … my legs turn weak and will I run? Will I have the courage to stay? … Our characters go through these heroic and fascinating journeys that we as filmmakers go through just to get our movies made, or that we all go through in life…
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
I have definitely been transformed through each film I’ve made, and have had many moments of self-criticism. Why did I do that, why did I not value that person’s contribution? And you have been through a war, you have worked longer hours than you should humanly ever work. You’ve been obsessed with getting your dreams [on film] and I you’re still writing new scenes in your dreams for months later, even after you’ve finished shooting. You go into the full immersion of it, which many filmmakers like myself and other ones I admire do. It leaves an indelible mark on your life, in your consciousness, and we hope the film reaches people in some way too.
In this case, we hope that what you see Gina’s character going through gives you the courage if you are in a horrible situation. How do I keep focused and balanced, figure out how to do the least damage and harm to anyone else, and get out of here alive? How do I stay focused and keep my wits about me, and then taking other circumstances that happen, find a way to be calm and focused, and survive. Maybe that’s one of the lessons, to survive with dignity and compassion.
That’s some of the stuff we were working on and also with identity in Miss Bala, we were trying to find this cultural identity where someone feels too Mexican to be gringo, or too gringo to be Mexican — not feeling embraced by either culture. How do you find peace within yourself and self-confidence to move forward, even if society and every person that you meet does not reinforce your self-worth? How do you find that within yourself? So hopefully these things are layered in the film and will give someone meaning, even maybe not in the moment they see it, maybe later.
* * *
Miss Bala is released on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital by Sony Pictures.