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Fade to Black:Catherine Hardwicke, Director

Following her ultra low-budget success with Thirteen, production designer-turned-director Catherine Hardwicke says her second feature — Lords of Dogtown, a June release from Columbia about the 1970s skateboarding subculture in Los Angeles — was “mostly a great experience.” The header Hardwicke took into an empty swimming pool while filming the movie’s final scene was an exception to the otherwise positive experience. The accident left her with a broken orbital bone under one eye, a broken jaw, and a nasty concussion, and it delayed production for 10 days.

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Thus, the biggest lesson Hardwicke learned on her first major studio film (Dogtown was produced for $25 million, a huge leap from Thirteen’s $1.5 million) was this: pay attention to your surroundings when directing.

“I insisted on rehearsing even though it was Sunday and everyone was supposed to have the day off,” she says. “I was really into it — talking about the characters and where I wanted to go with the scene, and I took a step forward. My foot slipped over the edge, and my mind didn’t process that I was falling into a hole, so I failed to put out my arms to brace the fall and I crashed on my head. Considering I went out on jet-skis, motorcycles, and skateboards on this film to try and get the moving camera I wanted, it was so stupid to fall like that. I got back on set 10 days later, but they insisted a bodyguard stand with me, and every time I got near the pool, he grabbed my belt loop and held on.”

Near-death experiences aside, Hardwicke is excited about her effort to capture what she calls “the dirt, grittiness, and roughness” of the legendary Z-Boys of Venice Beach in the 1970s. She says the need to painstakingly re-create a unique time, place, and ambience richly played to her background as a production designer (Tank Girl, Three Kings, and Vanilla Sky, among others).

“As a production designer, I was personally responsible for a large department that might have 150 to 200 people in it and a budget of 4 or 5 million, and I routinely interacted with all major departments,” she says. “Managing people, budgets, and schedules, in addition to creative responsibilities, is actually great training [for prospective directors]. On this film, I made sure the production designer [Chris Gorak] was someone I had worked with before — he was my art director in the past. We already had a shorthand in place to communicate our visual ideas. With directors who are not visually oriented, designers often have to provide elaborate drawings and models to explain it all. Chris did not have to do that on this film because of our past experience together. One of the big things about being a good director … lies in placing a good team around you.”

Gorak, DP Elliot Davis, visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall, and a stunt team that included some of the older Z-Boys — including Tony Alva (pictured right with Hardwicke) and Stacy Peralta, who also wrote the screenplay — were key members of that team. But Hardwicke says her collaborators on the film stretch a lot further than that: Virtually the entire art department consisted of longtime colleagues.

Overall, the film’s gritty look evolved out of Gorak’s production design, combined with Davis’ lighting style, subtle visual effects — including facial replacements and architectural alterations and extensions — and Hardwicke’s first experience with the digital intermediate process at Fotokem Film and Video, Burbank, Calif‥

“Some scenes, like [the re-creation of the Bahne-Cadillac Skateboard Championships in Del Mar, Calif.] were filmed over three days, and the ocean sky tended to change three or four times a day,” she says. “The DI helped us smooth out skies and lighting, gaining a measure of control over weather conditions. It also helped make the film look more 70’s style, but in a subtle way. We didn’t want it to be like those beautiful surfing movies where the water is luscious and gorgeous. That was not what Venice was like in those days. The DI helped us make that look more cohesive, to take what we got in-camera to another level by crushing blacks, pushing highlights even more, and saturating some colors.”