“You have to be unstoppable and undaunted,” Catherine Hardwicke, director of the new film Mafia Mamma, often tells first-time filmmakers. She says her first movie Thirteen was born by “sheer force of will” and by using every resource available to her, including dressing actors in her own clothes.
Hardwicke is best known for directing the first entry of the Twilight series, and has also directed movies as varied as Lords of Dogtown, about Southern California’s Z-Boys skating team, and The Nativity Story, about the birth of Jesus. It starred Oscar Isaac in his first lead role on screen, and adds to Hardwick’s stellar track record with young actors: She directed several other of today’s biggest stars in their earliest roles, including Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight, and Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen.
We’re sharing her filmmaking advice in honor of Mafia Mamma, which stars Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci in the story of an American woman who inherits her Italian family’s mob empire. Below,, Catherine Hardwicke explains how acting classes are a great education, why #MeToo helped female directors more in TV than in film, and when it’s worth it to go with a non-union production.
— As Told To Joshua Encinias
1. Use your expertise, because there are many ways to break into the industry. I had training as an architect, so I worked as a production designer to make a living on other people’s films. The production designer is there from the very beginning of a movie. You get to see what the director’s thinking and help conceptualize the whole look of the film; how things can be shot by finding locations or building sets. Helping filmmakers like David O. Russell, Costa-Gavras, Richard Linklater and Cameron Crowe taught me how to make a movie.
Catherine Hardwicke on Making a Non-Union Film
2. First-time filmmakers can go non-union, so the money you would be paid goes back into paying your crew. I was not in the Writer’s Guild or in the Director’s Guild when I made Thirteen, so we could make it non-union. We shot it in L.A., but we did get busted by the union, so we had to convert, but that was only in the last two days.
Outside the union, you could do everything very scrappy. For example, I could work for $1. That’s how much I got paid as a director. Nikki Reed and I each got $2 for the screenplay. So that kept the costs low, but you can’t do that on union shoots. You have to be paid the DGA minimum.
By Nikki and I deciding that we weren’t going to take any money away from the production of Thirteen, all of that money went into the film. We scrounged up $1.5 million, which is still a lot of money, but every bit of that was used because we paid the crew with it.
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3. Ultimately, problems on set are up to the director to fix. My first studio movie was Lords of Dogtown, and we decided to do the hardest scene on day one, which is this surfing scene at the pier. We built some pylons to make the pier at Imperial Beach look like it used to. They didn’t look strong enough to me, but the engineers assured me they were.
But when we were going to shoot, these crazy undercurrents washed all but two of the pylons away. So I just walked out into the middle of the freezing water, in my wetsuit, to think. I knew nobody would follow me in to ask me questions.
I had to quickly think of a new idea to shoot the whole day. I decided we would use the existing pier and add the look we needed in CG. Until then, I thought my whole career was dead and I would be fired on day one.
4. The #MeToo movement has (in some ways) had a positive effect on my career. Overnight, the TV networks and streamers had massive mandates to hire more women. I was immediately hired to do two episodes of This Is Us.
Obviously, it did not translate to features hiring that many more women. However, in television, directors don’t get that much power anyway, the showrunners and the writers do. Directors basically just drop in, do your scenes, and take a lot of orders from people. But it’s still better than nothing.
5. First-time moviemakers should take acting classes and take them seriously. That made a huge difference for me. I forced myself to go on stage, do showcases, and put myself in high-pressure situations that were similar to filming on set.
I did not want to be an actor, but it really helped me understand the shit that actors go through, and it helps me protect them and try to make a better space for them on the set. It also taught me that a line can sound nice on paper, but has to be brought to life.
Catherine Harwicke on Working With Young Actors
6. If your story is about young characters, don’t watch movies about kids or high schoolers. Find a way to learn from real kids. When I was making Thirteen, I didn’t watch any movies like mine for inspiration. Nikki Reed was my 13-year-old writing partner, and when I visited her house, it felt like a war zone.
When I was filming her family, it almost felt like war photography. I watched war movies and I watched Mean Streets, because it was more like action, and I wanted it to feel that kinetic, because that’s the way the girls felt.
Also Read: Martin McDonagh: Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker
7. Having fun on set creates buy-in with your collaborators. Try to make people laugh during the day and make each person feel important. I’m trying to improve at this because on some of my first movies, I had such tunnel vision. You have to do your job, but you have to keep it fun and entertaining and let people feel good about being there.
You can go to dinner and bond during rehearsals, too.
8. Reading your script with actors creates ideas you wouldn’t find on your own. It’s very fun when you’re workshopping a script and you have actors reading lines. It may be earlier than the rehearsal, or it might be during the rehearsal, but that’s when you start to find little magical things and get some cool ideas.
You can find interesting, new locations for scenes that were written to be somewhere else. It’s to find all of the creative, spontaneous things that add to your movie. When you start seeing new ideas and the magic happens, that’s when moviemaking is super fun.
Mafia Mamma, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is now in theaters, from Bleecker Street.
Main image: Catherine Hardwicke and Toni Collette on the set of Mafia Mamma.