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Catherine Hardwicke Rides Into SXSW

Catherine Hardwicke Rides Into SXSW (photo)

The woman behind "Red Riding Hood" and "Thirteen" laid out floor plans of how to become a better director at a great panel on Saturday in Austin.

One of the great elements of Catherine Hardwicke’s films throughout the years has been a sense of place and community, whether it was the loose-knit family of orphaned Southern California skaters in “Lords of Dogtown,” the tenuous, hard-won relationship between the warm-hearted vampire clan of the Cullens and the occasionally chilly human population of Forks, Washington in “Twilight” or even in her latest film “Red Riding Hood,” where Amanda Seyfried’s titular character goes from beloved daughter and belle of the town to an outcast whose societal freefall after her encounter with the big bad wolf feels particularly cruel given how strongly the director sets up the world around her.

So there’s little surprise that Hardwicke’s “Director’s Workshop” Saturday afternoon at SXSW, which is fast becoming a home away from home for the helmer who went to the University of Texas’ School of Architecture after growing up in the Texas bordertown of McAllen, had a most unusual vibe for an established filmmaker addressing a crowd of aspirants — one that felt as though we’re all in this together.

This was evident from the moment when the scrappy filmmaker in Hardwicke asked the crowd “Who had the best scam?” before moderator Hollywood Reporter‘s Jay A. Fernandez could calm all the hands that were about to be raised. It was the kind of panel where “Twilight” was oddly only mentioned once near the end, and Hardwicke felt obligated to detail the geography of the scene of Bella and Edward flying caroming from tree to tree, but where her first film “Thirteen” was celebrated and treated as a master class on shooting economically.

As Hardwicke demonstrated through a fast-forwarded version of the entire film, she demonstrated the very deliberate and gradual shift in colors from dull to vibrant to reflect her main protagonist’s increasingly wild life and then brought out floor plans of the house she used in the film, a form of preparation that was born out of her pre-directorial career as a production designer on such films as “Vanilla Sky” and “The Newton Boys,” and showed how every camera move utilized the angles available to her at that particular home.

Although she was a pro at figuring out landscapes early on, Hardwicke admitted when she first started she knew her way around an actor’s process far less, telling the crowd, “All the films I was a production designer, I didn’t realize I should respect the actors more.” With her “Red Riding Star” star Shiloh Fernandez sitting next to her on the panel, this led to a discussion of how Hardwicke took improv classes herself to realize what kind of space actors actually need, why she wants her actors to understand and personally connect to every line they say (Fernandez said the process gave him a personal way into the material), and in a moment of levity, how she navigates the “nipple zones” (what areas Hardwicke is respectful of while shooting during intimate scenes).

Afterwards, Hardwicke was kind enough to speak to me about taking on the role of mentor, something that she’s not only did with the panel, but as an executive producer on Janet Grillo’s drama “Fly Away,” which is making its premiere at the festival, what effect being the “Director of ‘Twilight’” has had on her, and why SXSW was a welcome distraction this particular weekend.

How did you feel being amongst all those aspiring filmmakers at the panel?

Wasn’t it wild? It was fascinating. It was a big, interesting crowd of people in there. Whatever happens, if I can get one or two people inspired, give them a good idea of the way I do it, they can change it and maybe they can do it better than me, but at least it shows them hey, this is one technique you can use.

Amanda Seyfried has talked about the extensively designed books you created as a resource that really sold her on making “Red Riding Hood” – is it something from your background as a production designer to plan in such a way?

On “Red Riding Hood,” it was a really big deal. Everything…we had to design all those sets from scratch. We’re trying to visualize a whole world. What could it look like? Nobody knows what it’ll look like and you have to do a sketch and you have to get a budget and how much will it cost to build that thing? So the studio has to get some clue if we can afford this project and how big does the set need to be and can a horse fit around there?

As a marketing device, it’s great, but as director of varied interests, how has it been to have “From the director of ‘Twilight’ appear on the poster?

It’s good and bad. I said, “Could I have ‘Lords of Dogtown’ on there and ‘Thirteen’ too?” And like “Nobody knows those movies.” [laughs] I was like…[shrugs shoulders] No, I said, does it only have to be that? But I don’t really get to choose what they put on the poster. I would’ve rather have some other movies too, but I think it’s good and bad when you say “Twilight.” Some people love it and a lot of people love to hate it.

The one connection the two films have is some very strong chemistry between the leads and one of your stars Shiloh Fernandez mentioned during the panel that you were very keen on asking the actors about what every line means to them personally. Do interesting things come out of that process?

Oh yeah, because sometimes I think it means something – that line – and they might’ve interpreted it in a different way and maybe we need to change it or shade it different. Or maybe it’s too serious and we need to give it a little spin and make it a little lighter.

I’ve never been able to talk to a director of such a big movie on an opening weekend – I know you’ve been able to distract yourself with SXSW, but is it a nerveracking experience?

It’s pretty nerveracking, but really at that point, you can’t do anything. The baby’s out there. Maybe you could run nude through New York City to get some free publicity, but besides that, it’s kind of like it’s done, so to me, I love Austin and I love this festival, so I was just trying to think of any excuse to come. I said to Janet [Pierson, the festival chief], “Can I do a panel or speak?” just to have an excuse to come. [laughs]

You also had another excuse as an executive producer on Janet Grillo’s film, “Fly Away,” which is here at the festival. Is being a mentor a role you embrace?

It’s kind of a nice privilege. I think Janet made a movie that is very much from her heart. It’s very intense and it’s very much about her life and it’s important for a lot of people to see that film, so I’m happy to support her in a little small way.

What’s up next for you? You’ve been attached to many things the past few years.

There’s “Maximum Ride,” “Maze Runner,” and “Hamlet” – I don’t know which one will go. I’m not trying to be coy. You just don’t know what the studio will decide. I thought a different project was going to go at Summit. I was doing “If I Stay” and then all of a sudden, they didn’t say yes and Warner Brothers said “yes” and you’re like, okay. So you’ve got to have a few things cooking and then maybe none of the ones you thought were going to go might go and suddenly another one will come from outer space. Or maybe I’ll make a little no budget movie. I don’t know.

“Red Riding Hood” is now open wide.

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