With her low bangs, long tresses and celebrated vigor, Catherine Hardwicke, director of "Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown" and "Twilight," seems more like the teens who flock to her films than a 55-year-old industry veteran.
If the Texan — in Austin for a workshop panel and midnight screening of "Red Riding Hood" at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival — was irked by reviews bashing her new romantic fantasy thriller, it didn't show.
The artistic hard-charger, work ethic in gear, soldiered on, talking with customary verve and passion about her cinematic fairy tale, South Texas ties and unabashed love for Richard Linklater.
It was while working on the Austin filmmaker's "The Newton Boys" and "SubUrbia" that Hardwicke told him her dream. After nearly 20 years as production designer for some 20 films, including "Tombstone," "Vanilla Sky" and "Three Kings," she wanted to direct.
"I said, 'Rick, I want to make my own movies,'u2009" Hardwicke recalls. "He's heard a million people say that. I said, 'Will you help me?' And he said, 'No, you've got to do it yourself.' And by discouraging her, she gratefully says, he encouraged her to do it.
"Rick didn't believe that I would do it at all. I thought, 'Well, I'm going to show him. I'm going to do it. I'm going to prove it to him.'u2009" And she did, going on to direct five features, including a Christmas film, "The Nativity Story."
But getting to make "Thirteen," her acclaimed directing debut about a teen led astray by her friend, wasn't easy. "I couldn't get anyone to help. I couldn't get David O. Russell, whom I loved and worked with on 'Three Kings.' So I thought, 'I'm going to do it the way Rick did.'u2009"
"Thirteen," made for less than $2 million, screened at Sundance, where Hardwicke landed the dramatic directing award. "I had freedom since there was no money, no studio or any notes, so I got to make a pretty tough movie."
Her vampire blockbuster "Twilight," based on the Stephenie Meyer novel, landed her in the "Guinness Book of Records" as the female director with the highest-grossing opening weekend ($69.6 million) in history.
Then her richly illustrated "Twilight: Director's Notebook," taking fans step-by-step through the making of the film, spent six weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. A similar script-to-screen paperback is out for "Red Riding Hood."
Rather than "rush out" "New Moon," next in the "Twilight" series, she has said, she walked the franchise and directed her "dream job:" re-imagining a classic fable à la Catherine.
"I think 'Red Riding Hood' is the first studio movie starring a woman, directed by a woman, filmed by a woman and edited by two women with costumes designed by a woman. Two of the three producers are women, and so is the color timer, which is very rare."
Set in the gothic village of Daggörhorn, inspired by a book on northern Russian architecture Hardwicke has saved since a teen, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is torn between two suitors (Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons) when a werewolf slays her sister.
Summoned by the village priest (Lukas Haas), werewolf hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), or "Homeland Security" as Hardwicke calls him, warns that the shape-shifting beast might be anyone in the village.
"This movie is a fairy tale world, and it's a slim little fairy tale, so you don't know what the village looked like or what Red Riding Hood's house looked like. So we could create an architecture of paranoia, where these people have been menaced by the wolf for 20 years."
Credit for its haunting, rustic look goes to the Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch peasant paintings that Hardwicke studied for her trademark bold visuals. Credit for making the big, bad wolf a werewolf goes to Leonardo DiCaprio, whose company Appian Way produced the supernatural murder mystery.
"If you look at the old versions of Red Riding Hood, there was a werewolf in it," Hardwicke says. "The Brothers Grimm kind of sanitized things."
From the outset, she knew who should play Valerie with the signature cloak, one raw silk, the other swirling 20-foot velvet — the only reds in the film palette. "Amanda is quite a dazzling presence, very vibrant with a luminous face and eyes. She looks as if she stepped out of a fairy tale."
Since "Thirteen," Hardwicke insists lead actresses be involved in determining if chemistry exists with other actors. "You have to put them in a room and see. Are these people going to have sparks? Is there going to be that magic?"
Fernandez and Seyfried clicked with that kind of excitement, she says. "Then this amazing guy walked into the room. It was Jeremy Irons' son, but I didn't know that. They don't look alike at all. He's 6-foot-3 and you think, 'Oh my God, this guy's got to be a jerk.' But, no, he's cool. He's got a big heart. He's polite and funny. That's going to make a good dilemma for our actress."
For the grandmother, Hardwicke made an unusual choice: decidedly uncraggy Julie Christie. "And man, she is crazy whip-smart," Hardwicke says of the Oscar winner. "Also flexible, sexy, funny and ridiculously gracious."
When wrong lights overheated the set, triggering a fire alarm, Hardwicke apologized to the star. "Julie said, 'Darling, you shouldn't be apologizing to me. I get to take breaks. You don't. I should be apologizing to you.'u2009" Hardwicke says she almost fainted.
The $40 million film shot for 45 days on two soundstages at Canada Motion Picture Park in Vancouver, B.C. They went there, Hardwicke says, because of the big tax incentives.
"We hope Texas can keep supporting incentives and increase them so we can make movies in Texas. Now they've built these beautiful stages in Vancouver. And because they've supported the industry in a very clever way for 20 years, now they have fantastic crews and get huge movies."
Growing up in McAllen, Hardwicke drew every day, creating her own little worlds. "My mom would go down to the McAllen newspaper and get the cut-off ends of the newsprint. That was what we used as our drawing paper. My sister Irene is a painter. That's where we started."
Hardwicke trained as an architect at the University of Texas, but her ingenious senior project with a water-collecting dragon left faculty speechless. With such creativity, a visiting critic advised, she wouldn't be happy in architecture. "I was already building this very interesting subdivision in McAllen, but the critic had planted the seed in my head that maybe I should do something else."
The "something else" was UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where her short "Puppy Does the Gumbo" won a Nissan Focus Award and toured in the Landmark "Best Of UCLA Film" program."
Asked the source of her famous energy, she says, "I think my family is like hardy Texas stock. My father was a farmer, and my mom was a school teacher." Her mother now lives in Oregon, where, until felled by pancreatic cancer, she says, her father liked to climb mountains.
"But he went out good," she says. "He was making jokes an hour before he died. And he got to see 'Thirteen' and 'The Nativity Story,' the first movie ever to have its premiere in the Vatican."
Hardwicke lives in Venice, Calif., but her family still farms in the Rio Grande Valley. "We still grow cotton, sugar cane, onions, cabbage, peppers. I think I'm the only person in Hollywood who gets a bill from the Boll Weevil Association. And when my relatives see me at a premiere with Julie Christie or Gary Oldman, they say, 'Catherine, you are standing in tall cotton.'u2009"