- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

An audience member stood up after a Sundance Film Festival screening of “Thirteen” earlier this year to tell the director he hated the movie.

The film, which follows a struggling teenage girl spiraling out of control, had “scared” him.

First-time director Catherine Hardwicke is hardly shocked by the reaction. She, too, has been frightened by the cultural shifts that have left young women nationwide more vulnerable than ever.

Sexy ads. Divorce. Drugs. Today’s teenagers run a gantlet of temptations as they approach adulthood. “Thirteen,” written by Miss Hardwicke along with star Nikki Reed, is a worst-case dramatization of these varied seductions.

Who can blame a young girl today for a heady bout of confusion, at the very least?

“If you go to the mall pretty much anywhere in the United States right now, you can watch kids go by … and you might not realize how old the girls are,” Miss Hardwicke, 48, says of today’s provocatively clad teens. Miss Hardwicke, in town earlier this month to promote the film, evokes the image of a much younger woman herself with her tan skin and cascade of tight braids.

A more sexually open society might not be unhealthy, she suggests, erring on the side of devil’s advocacy, but she nonetheless remains convinced that Madison Avenue also sells a duality that is hard to ignore and harder to counter.

It’s confusing for girls to see actresses looking sensual on magazine covers one moment, then being told young women shouldn’t be dressing like that or having sexual thoughts, she says.

It is the contradictory world formed by these mixed messages that “Thirteen” explores. The film, which earned Miss Hardwicke Sundance’s Dramatic Directing Award, focuses on Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), an innocent 13-year-old who gets caught up with Evie, a fast-living schoolmate (Nikki, was 13 when she began writing the screenplay). Nikki’s diabolical Evie introduces her co-star’s character to a world filled with drugs and promiscuity.

The girl’s father in the film is barely in her life, and it’s easy to infer how much his absence affects her. Still, Miss Hardwicke discourages interpreting her film as a cautionary tale illustrating the dangers inherent in the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family.

“Two-parent families [that are] still intact can have just as many problems,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a formula that if you have both your parents you’ll be perfect. Nor is the opposite true.”

Divorced dads still could learn a great deal from “Thirteen,” she says, voicing hope that the film will compel fathers to get more involved with their daughters’ lives, no matter the complications.

Miss Hardwicke got a crash course in teen culture from her real-life friendship with Nikki, the daughter of an ex-boyfriend. The director noticed the young woman had a great deal on her mind two summers ago and wanted to help.

“I was trying to connect with her because she was going through a difficult time,” she says. “I tried to find creative stuff for her to do.”

That impulse begat acting classes and then a screenplay assignment.

“If nothing else, it was gonna be a cool learning experience. But at the end of six days, you could almost feel something [in the script],” she says. “Here’s something urgent, something we haven’t seen before that would provoke people.”

Sure, the script’s adult characters resembled the kind of one-dimensional figures a teen writer might fall back on. The rest of the script, however, tapped into something far more profound.

Miss Hardwicke, who had been writing her own scripts for years in between regular work as a production designer on such films as 2001’s “Vanilla Sky,” massaged the script into shape.

The hard part — finding someone to finance their vision — followed.

Until then, she hadn’t had any luck finding money to produce scripts she wrote between production-design gigs.

Would-be financiers scoffed at “Thirteen.”

“They said, ‘Are you crazy? Why did you send us this? We’d never make it. It’s rated R, and its gonna have unknown teenagers in the lead,’” she recalls.

It wasn’t the first time she had written a script in which the protagonist was a young woman. Various studios fled from those projects, too.

“People say, ‘There’s no market for it’ right off the bat,” she says, noting that some rejections came from a surprising source.

“Very often, the people who say that to me are women [who] are in power,” she says. “They’re scared. Their job’s on the line, too.”

Eventually, Holly Hunter signed on as the film’s overwhelmed mother, and Miss Hardwicke’s guerrilla tactics began paying dividends.

She worked quickly on the tightly budgeted film, relying on hand-held cameras both for speed’s sake and to forgo time-consuming setup shots. She even used her own furniture to flesh out some backdrops.

Working so loosely gave the film “a certain energy,” she says.

Miss Hardwicke is confident that a whole new realm of story ideas could open up in Hollywood if more women follow her path.

The industry will evolve slowly, she says, as female directors aggressively pursue their vision and more female stars flex their muscles.

Fledgling female directors would be wise to prepare as if their next project could be the one to break through.

“Do tons of homework. You can’t be caught on anything. You have to be really prepared,” she says.

It’s no accident that Miss Hardwicke’s first film proved a Sundance favorite.

“I’ve taken years of acting class. I made my own little short films. I tried to be prepared for the moment,” she says.

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