Ever since she made her directorial debut in 2003 with Thirteen, Catherine Hardwicke has been one of the American cinema’s great chroniclers of young people navigating the transition to adulthood. In films as diverse as Lords of Dogtown, Twilight, Red Riding Hood and The Nativity Story, Hardwicke has explored teenage crises and discoveries with serious intent and the sharp attention to visual detail that she developed as a production designer on movies like Three Kings and Vanilla Sky. Her work on those films and other often demonstrated a bold and original approach to color, and this is true of her latest directorial effort, Don’t Look Deeper, as well. A series for Quibi that follows that platform’s format of 7-10 minute episodes that can be watched either horizontally or vertically on one’s phone (the viewer can switch aspect ratios at will at any point in the narrative), Don’t Look Deeper is top-tier Hardwicke, a vivid and emotionally devastating coming of age story with sci-fi trappings in which every visual detail deepens and expands our understanding of the characters. Helena Howard is superb as a high school senior who realizes that everything she thought she knew about herself and her life is false, and Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer are equally strong in supporting roles as adults who are both the source of her anguish and the two people most determined to protect her.
To delve too much into the plot would be to rob the viewer of Don’t Look Deeper’s pleasurable twists and turns, so I’ll just say that it’s worth watching for the usual reasons that apply to Hardwicke’s work, along with a few new ones. Her ability to thoughtfully convey the struggles of her teen characters and to elicit complex performances from young actors is on full display, but the philosophical questions raised by showrunners Jeff Lieber and Charlie McDonnell’s scripts allow Hardwicke to explore unexpected and provocative ideas—she’s always been interested in inquiries into identity and how it’s formed, but such questions reach a whole new level here. I spoke with Hardwicke by phone a few months before the series’ release and began by asking how she first came to be involved.
Catherine Hardwicke: The two writers, Jeff Lieber and Charlie McDonnell, had been working on this idea for short form content and sent it to me—probably because it had a complex teenage girl going through a journey of self-discovery, which is the kind of thing I love. And I did immediately love the script; I was very intrigued and drawn into this emotional struggle the girl goes through. About a week after they sent it to me, Quibi announced that they were going to start making content using a short form model. It was great synchronicity: I had done another project with Jeffrey Katzenberg and had a good working relationship with him, so we went in and told him the concept and they were on board right away. I think we were one of the first dramatic shows to start shooting, and it was very exciting, because they were encouraging these interesting actors that we cast. It was really fun to be one of the first out the gate.
Filmmaker: Since you brought up the actors, I wanted to ask you about how you decided on Helena Howard, because I thought she was really fantastic. How did you come to cast her, as well as more established actors like Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer?
Hardwicke: Helena had that beautiful movie at Sundance last year, Madeline’s Madeline, where the director did something similar to what I did with Thirteen—found this incredible girl and built a story around her. I thought Helena was very moving in that film, and knew after having some conversations with her that she would be fantastic. With Don and Emily, we talked on the phone and on Skype and I would just ask them how they saw their characters. I’d share my images of how they could dress, and what the vibe would be, and what kind of backstory I thought of, then see if they liked that or wanted to add to it. What kind of professor would Don be? What kind of house would he have? You just make sure you’re all on the same page before everybody signs on. Then we had a couple of days of incredible rehearsals with Don, Emily, Helena, and other cast members, and that’s where Don was really a creative force. He has produced, written, directed and starred in so many things, and he has so many great ideas and feelings—not just about his character, but details he thought of for Emily and Helena too. It was a really fun, creative process, finding cool new things to incorporate into the script while also figuring out what everybody would wear and how it would inform the characters.
Filmmaker: Something that characterizes all of your movies is that the performances don’t feel like performances. They feel like behavior that you just caught on the fly. I’m curious how you achieve that.
Hardwicke: What a wonderful compliment, thank you. I think part of it does start with those early conversations, when you develop and build the character through wardrobe, hairstyle, details like that. And then, in the rehearsals, there’s not a giant crew around, so the actors can feel free to express any problems they have, any areas that don’t feel right to them or dialogue that they feel is missing something. We have that private time to express all that, so everybody gets their fears and issues out. By the time we get to the set, we know we’re going to have more people standing around, but at least we’ve created this bond where we feel good and understand what we’re doing, even though on the set you can’t shoot it in order. You have to go to the house and shoot all the house scenes, and it might be just wildly out of order. Or you have to do the final scene the first day. I remember we had to do the sex scene with Emily and Don first. It’s a very emotional scene, where Don really opens up and is very vulnerable. But we had done those rehearsals.
Of course, the more emotional the scene is, as a director I try to keep the set to a minimum amount of people. On some shows I’ve literally put up a sign: Respect for Actors. They need quiet, so don’t be talking about where you’re going to go to get a hamburger. Help them stay focused in their character. I think our crews get excited about that. They really do want to support the actors, because we all know that it doesn’t matter how cool the camera moving is, or how beautiful the set or the costumes are—if you don’t love the actors or don’t feel for them, then you don’t really care about the story.
Filmmaker: Absolutely. When you’re on the set and you’re shooting, what kind of give and take is there between the performers and the camera? Do you preplan your shots pretty specifically? Or are you more responding to what the actors are doing on the day?
Hardwicke: It’s kind of a dance. I hate to keep coming back to in rehearsal, but that’s where I’m already thinking about the blocking that would work best cinematically. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to rehearse in the real locations; in Thirteen we did that. In this one, we didn’t get to do it as much, but I knew the space, I could lay it out and visualize it for them. I knew what would work well for the camera, so we would talk about that, even in rehearsal. If something felt jammed into a tiny little corner, or people’s faces were too close to each other or something was too static, we would talk about that in the rehearsal to figure out a way to open it up or make the scene more dynamic. So that on the day, yes, I did have shot lists and diagrams of all the shots planned out, but you still have to be flexible. Something might not work the way you thought it would work, but at least you have a plan that you can then deviate from if you want to.
Filmmaker: I really liked the look of the film, especially the way you used color, and I was wondering what kinds of conversations you had with your DP and production designer.
Hardwicke: We had a beautiful cinematographer, Patrick Murguia. He’s from Mexico City, where a lot of the best cinematographers in the world are from. I had already done two projects with him, Miss Bala and a TV show in Detroit, so our minds were already in sync when it came to the palette. We would have these beautiful photographs that were our guiding references and influences for each scene. The production designer, Adam Riemer, is also very good with color and very focused, as is the costume designer, Marie France. We were all in sync, and the photographs and everything else we looked at went up on the wall, so that you could walk into my office and see the whole look of the film right there.
The big challenge was that the show had to work in both vertical and horizontal formats, and Patrick and I had never done anything like that. We’re used to shooting horizontal. So we did a short film as a test, where we shot it horizontally, then we shot the same film vertically, so that we could learn these principles and the differences. You might be watching it in a landscape format, and you can really feel the environment and the influence of that environment on the characters. If you turn it at any moment into the vertical format, it’s more intimate, more of a closeup, where you’re almost FaceTiming with the character. In a way, you get to be your own editor as you’re watching it.
Patrick and I had to figure that all out: which lenses, what kinds of lighting work better in one format or another, or just don’t work at all when you change it. There was a lot of experimenting to learn about the format. Then there’s the structure, where people are watching segments under 10 minutes. I had never thought that way. I made shorts at school, but they were standalone films. I thought it was a great exercise, because as a filmmaker you’re always trying to find a way to tell this story efficiently. Maybe layer the frame so that you can convey a lot of information in a short amount of time without being repetitive. We’re always trying to make sure that we do not repeat the same beats, to advance character development, the plot, whatever. So this took it to the extreme, the question of how to streamline it and be respectful of the viewer’s time and attention. We always try that, but now we have to do it on steroids.
How can I compose a frame in a way where there’s foreground, middle ground, and background all giving you interesting information, while also allowing you to share the feelings of the character? It’s more compressed, more efficient. I love that challenge. I have a short attention span: I’m, like everybody else, super busy, and I like it when the filmmaker respects my time and does it in an engaging and efficient way. The editing process was like learning to play the trumpet or something, because working with the two aspect ratios really keeps your brain elastic. I felt like I learned two languages and an instrument because you had to be able to fluidly turn your phone horizontal to vertical. So that means the soundtrack has to be exactly the same, right? And the takes to the lip sync will work out, right? Or the sound effect of the knock on the door has to be the same. So you cannot change takes unless the sound is synchronistic, yet some things that worked beautifully in landscape do not work in vertical at all.
Filmmaker: I would also think that on top of all there’s a delicate balance in terms of giving the audience information, because the script is very precise in terms of the way it keeps us in the dark about some things and reveals others. Was that all worked out fairly well ahead of time, or did you get into the editing room and find out that you had to play with it a little bit too?
Hardwicke: The script was very well structured, but when we got into the editing room no episode could be longer than 10 minutes, not even one second longer. That was the whole point. That was the format. And suddenly some episodes were longer. We had a big wall of cards in the editing room, and we did have to do some restructuring, which like you say, could not tip the scales. It couldn’t have any spoilers. It still had to be in that precise, beautiful order of reveals. It was very challenging. I had many days where I was just looking at all the cards on the wall, because then you can see the heart. When you put the cards on the wall for every scene, you can see the whole picture. And when you’re in AVID, you’re almost editing in a linear manner. So, I would go back and forth from the macro to the micro to try to figure out the mind bending exercises, how to accomplish the time limits and the intricacy of the story. I bought some brain pills, some brain vitamins while I was in there. I’m not kidding. Because my head was exploding.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.