Helena Howard doesn't look any deeper
Since her directorial debut in 2003 at the age of 13, Catherine Hardwicke has been one of the greatest chroniclers of young people in American cinema who control the transition to adulthood. In films as diverse as Lords of Dogtown, Twilight, Little Red Riding Hood and The Nativity Story, Hardwicke has explored teenagers' crises and discoveries with serious intent and the attention to visual detail she developed as a production designer for films like Three Kings and Vanilla Himmel. Her work on these and other films has often shown a bold and original approach to color, and so has her recent directorial work, Don & # 39; t Look Deeper. A series for Quibi that follows the platform's 7-10 minute episode format, which can be viewed either horizontally or vertically on the phone (the viewer can change the aspect ratio at any time in the narrative as desired). Don & # 39; t Look Deeper is top-tier Hardwicke, a lively and emotionally devastating coming-of-age story with science fiction productions in which every visual detail deepens and extends our understanding of the characters. Helena Howard is an excellent high school graduate who realizes that everything she thought she knew about herself and her life was wrong, and Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer are as strong in supporting roles as adults, who are both the source of their fear and who both are people who are most determined to protect them.
Diving too much into the plot would mean robbing the viewer of the pleasant twists of Don & # 39; t Look Deeper. I'm just saying that it is worth looking at for the usual reasons that apply to Hardwickes work, along with a few new ones. Her ability to mediate the struggles of her youthful characters thoughtfully and elicit complex performances from young actors is fully evident, but the philosophical questions of showrunners Jeff Lieber and Charlie McDonnell allow Hardwicke to explore unexpected and provocative ideas – she was Always interested in requests for identity and how they are formed, but such questions reach a whole new level here. I spoke to Hardwicke by phone a few months before the series was released and asked how it got there for the first time.
Catherine Hardwicke: The two authors Jeff Lieber and Charlie McDonnell had worked on this idea for short form content and sent it to me – probably because a complex young girl went through a journey of self-discovery like she is of what I love. And I loved the script right away; I was very intrigued and drawn into the emotional struggle the girl is going through. About a week after they sent it to me, Quibi announced that they would start creating content using a short-form model. It was great synchronicity: I had done another project with Jeffrey Katzenberg and had a good collaboration with him, so we went in and told him the concept and they were on board immediately. I think we were one of the first dramatic shows to start filming and it was very exciting because they encouraged these interesting actors that we cast. It was really fun to be one of the first.
Filmmaker: Ever since you raised the actors, I wanted to ask you how you chose Helena Howard because I thought they were really fantastic. How did you get to cast them as well as more established actors like Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer?
Hardwicke: Helena had this beautiful film last year at Sundance, Madeline's Madeline, in which the director did something similar to what I did when I was thirteen – found this incredible girl and built a story around her. I thought Helena was very moving in this film and after a few conversations with her I knew that she would be fantastic. We talked to Don and Emily on the phone and talked on Skype, and I just asked them how they saw their characters. I would share my pictures about how they could dress, what the mood would be like and what kind of backstory I was thinking of, and then see if they liked or wanted to add that. What kind of professor would Don be? What house would he have? You just have to make sure you are all on the same page before everyone signs in. Then we had a few days of incredible rehearsals with Don, Emily, Helena and other performers, and here 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 only about his character, but also about details that he also thought of for Emily and Helena. It was a really fun, creative process to find cool new things to include in the script while figuring out what everyone would wear and how it would inform the characters.
Filmmaker: One thing that makes all your films stand out is that the performances don't feel like performances. You feel like behavior that you just caught on the fly. I'm curious to see how you can do that.
Hardwicke: What a wonderful compliment, thanks. I think part of it starts with these early conversations when you develop and build up the character through wardrobe, hairstyle and such details. And then, during rehearsals, there isn't a huge crew, so the actors can feel free to express their problems, areas where they don't feel right, or dialogues where they lack something. We have this private time to express all of this so that everyone can express their fears and problems. By the time we are on the set, we know that more people will stand around, but at least we have made this connection in which we feel good and understand what we are doing, even though you cannot shoot it in the correct order on the set. You have to go to the house and shoot all the house scenes and it could just be wildly out of order. Or you have to make the last scene on the first day. I remember we had to do the sex scene with Emily and Don first. It's a very emotional scene in which Don really opens up and is very vulnerable. But we had made these rehearsals.
The more emotional the scene, the more I try as a director to limit the set to a minimum of people. I literally put a sign on some shows: respect for actors. You need rest, so don't talk about where you're going to get a hamburger. Help them stay focused on their character. I think our crews are happy about it. They really want to support the actors because we all know that it doesn't matter how cool the camera moves or how beautiful the set or costumes are – if you don't love the actors or don't feel them for them, then you care Story not really.
Filmmaker: Definitely. What kind of give and take are there between the actors and the camera when you are on the set and taking pictures? Do you plan your recordings quite specifically? Or do you rather react to what the actors are doing that day?
Hardwicke: It's a kind of dance. I hate coming back to it in the rehearsal, but I'm already thinking about the blocking that would work best on film. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to rehearse in real places. we did that in thirteen. In this case we couldn't do that much, but I knew the room, I could lay it out and visualize it for them. I knew what would work well for the camera, so we would talk about it, even during the rehearsal. If something felt jammed in a tiny little corner, or people's faces were too close together, or a little too static, we talked about it in the rehearsal to find a way to open it up or to make the scene more dynamic. Yes, that day I did have listing lists and diagrams of all scheduled recordings, but you still need to be flexible. Something may not work the way you imagined it, but at least you have a plan that you can deviate from if you want.
Filmmaker: I really liked the look of the film, especially the way you used color, and I was wondering what kind of conversations you had with your DP and production designer.
Hardwicke: We had a nice cameraman, Patrick Murguia. He comes from Mexico City, where many of the best cameramen in the world come from. I had already done two projects with him, Miss Bala and a TV show in Detroit, so our thoughts about the range were already in sync. We would have these beautiful photos that were our guides and influences for every scene. The production designer Adam Riemer is also very good in color and very concentrated, as is the costume designer Marie France. We were all in sync and the photos and everything else we looked at were hung on the wall so you could go to 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 this. We are used to shooting horizontally. So we made a short film as a test, in which we shot it horizontally and then vertically, so that we could learn these principles and the differences. You may see it in landscape orientation, and you can really feel the environment and the impact that environment has on the characters. If you convert it to vertical format at any point, it's more intimate, more of a close-up where you almost do FaceTiming with the character. In a way, you become your own editor while you watch it.
Patrick and I had to find out all this: which lenses, which types of lighting work better in one format or another, or don't work at all if you change them. There was a lot of experimentation to learn more about the format. Then there is the structure in which people watch segments under 10 minutes. I never thought so. I made short films at school, but they were independent films. I found it a great exercise because as a filmmaker you are always trying to find a way to tell this story efficiently. You may want to overlay the frame so that you can convey a lot of information in a short time without repeating yourself. We always try to make sure that we don't repeat the same beats to drive character development, action, etc. This brought it to extremes, the question of how to rationalize it and respect the viewer's time and attention. We always try, but now we have to do it with steroids.
How can I put together a frame so that foreground, middle ground and background provide interesting information and at the same time you can share the feelings of the character? It is more compressed and efficient. I love this challenge. I have a short span of attention: I am very busy like everyone else and I like it when the filmmaker respects my time and does it in a committed and efficient manner. 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 had learned two languages and one instrument because you had to smoothly turn your phone horizontally to vertically. So that means the soundtrack has to be exactly the same, right? And the lip sync settings will work, right? Or the sound effect of knocking on the door must be the same. You can only change takes if the sound is in sync. However, some things that work wonderfully in the landscape don't work vertically at all.
Filmmaker: I would also think that there is also a delicate balance when it comes to giving information to the audience because the script is very precise as it keeps us in the dark about some things and reveals others. Did it all work out pretty well in advance, or did you come into the editing room and find out that you also had to play with it a bit?
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 a second longer. That was the whole point. That was the format. And suddenly some episodes were longer. We had a large map wall in the editing room and we had to do some restructuring that, as you say, couldn't tip the scales. There could be no spoilers. It still had to be in this precise, beautiful order of revelations. It was very challenging. I've had many days just looking at all the cards on the wall because then you can see the heart. If you hang the cards for each scene on the wall, you can see the whole picture. And when you are in AVID, edit almost linearly. So I went back and forth from macro to micro to find out how to reach the time limits and the complexity of the story. I bought some brain pills, some brain vitamins while I was there. I am not joking. Because my head exploded.
Jim Hemphill is the author and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.