Director Catherine Hardwicke
Catherine Hardwicke directs Lords of Dogtown. Photo: Columbia Pictures

Catherine Hardwicke’s first film, Thirteen, which she also co-wrote with Nikki Reed, won her the 2003 directing award at Sundance. But her “overnight success” was actually 15 years in the making. During those years, Hardwicke stayed steadily employed as a production designer on everything from big studio films like Three Kings to little cult movies like Tank Girl. Meanwhile, in preparation for the day she would get to direct, Hardwicke took acting classes. It was there that she met former skateboard champ-turned-video and TV director, Stacy Peralta.

While Hardwicke dreamed of directing, Peralta yearned to write features. He finally got his shot with Lords of Dogtown, the fictional version of Dogtown and Z-Boys, his award-winning documentary about the early days of skateboarding. David Fincher was originally slated to direct, but when Fincher left to take another project, Peralta saw an early version of Thirteen, he realized his longtime friend was perfect for the job and recommended her to the producers.

It’s easy to see why. The gritty, realistic style Hardwicke brought to Thirteen was just what was needed for Lords of Dogtown, another film about troubled teens set in and around Venice, California. This time, however, Hardwicke had a bigger budget to handle and new challenges as a director—not to mention a reputation to live up to.

Nancy Hendrickson (MM): You’ve been working in the film business for years. At what point did you first know you wanted to direct?

Catherine Hardwicke (CH): Well, I went to UCLA Film School in the late ’80s and started making my own movies, which I loved. I made little short films but, since I had an undergraduate degree in architecture, people said to me, “Hey why don’t you production design my film?” So that’s how I made my living. In between jobs, I would write screenplays and do budgets and storyboards and try to get my movies made but none of them happened until Thirteen.

MM: As a former production designer directing on a low budget, was it a frustration not having the funds to build whatever sets you envisioned?

CH: No. Even though, as a production designer, I’d built a lot of big sets, I didn’t want to build sets for either of my own films. I did not want to do anything on a sound stage. I wanted them to be very real. I wanted you to feel like you were really in the house on Thirteen or in the old surf shop on Lords of Dogtown. I like the interior-exterior connections and the fact that, if you shoot a bedroom scene or a bathroom scene, you’re really in a tiny little room and you’ve got to make it work. You feel the claustrophobia on film, I think, and I wanted that.

MM: So using real locations wasn’t a compromise…

CH: I considered using real locations an advantage.

MM: …But there must have been compromises you had to make doing two low-budget films.

CH: On Thirteen, the short shooting schedule was a compromise. Also, not having the money to make things work or have a proper crew. For instance, the vehicles on Thirteen didn’t run most of the time. We had to frame out the grips that were pushing the cars. But Thirteen had a much lower budget than Lords of Dogtown. Thirteen was $1.5 million and Lords of Dogtown was $25 million, which is still low-budget by studio standards, but not compared to Thirteen. I actually got paid to direct Lords of Dogtown!

MM: There are similarities between the two films, though. The location, obviously, and the teenage characters from blue-collar…

CH: … Dysfunctional amilies… Yes, exactly.

MM: Did having done Thirteen make you more confident going into Lords of Dogtown?

CH: I thought the similarities were helpful because I had had time working with mothers and children and that was where a lot of the angst and problems came from in Lords of Dogtown, too. But they were different films in a lot of ways. One is set in the ’70s, one in 2003. One is about girls, one is about boys. And, of course, Lords of Dogtown has a lot of physicality to it. We had so many stunts and skating and surfing. That was a whole level Thirteen didn’t have at all.

MM: And that presented challenges you hadn’t faced before as a director?

CH: Yes. How do you capture the feeling of skateboarding in a cinematic way that we haven’t seen a million times before? We had a day or two at a pool we’d drained when we let all these different [second unit] camera people come down and try out their techniques to see what would actually work and ended up using a combination of the best of those ideas. Lance Mountain, who was a legendary skateboarder in the ’80s, got the most thrilling shots in the movie. He skated along with the skaters in the movie while holding a camera.

MM: You also had to find young people who could act, ride a skateboard and who looked like the people they were playing. How hard was that?

CH: That was a real challenge. For example, [former world skateboarding champ] Tony Alva was half Mexican, half Dutch. How many actors are even going to fit that description? I also knew I wanted to cast people as quickly as possible so they could go through a minimum of two months of intensive skate and surfboard training classes. Even if they were already good skateboarders, they had to learn the old school style of skateboarding and they had to get their character’s individual style down.

MM: What kinds of films would you like to do in the future?

CH: I want to do things that are personal—where I can feel a personal connection to the story. That’s what I’m most interested in. I’m also interested in things that have an impact on the world we live in now, because I think there are so many problems going on in the world, we should be trying to use this medium to promote discussions about them.