Holly Hunter: Women behaving badly

Holly Hunter bonded with her director Catherine Hardwicke during the making of the mother-daughter drama Thirteen. Not surprising, since they were two of the few adults on a set full of giddy teens. She tells Leslie Felperin why she loves being a grown-up
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The Independent Culture

One of the first things I did after I saw Thirteen, director Catherine Hardwicke's kidney-punching debut about an out-of-control 13-year-old girl named Tracy was to go home, remorseful for my own behaviour at that age years ago, and call my mother. When I meet her, Hardwicke, a striking woman in her early 40s with a head full of tiny plaits and a soft Southern accent, she laughs and reports people tell her that all the time. "The coolest one was a lady of about 78 who came up and said in a whisper, 'I was that girl! I would go out and smoke cigarettes and listen to Billie Holiday and wear coloured stockings!' A lot of people told me they called their moms afterwards and apologised, and some said their teenage daughters made them see it so they could say, 'Look, mom, I could be a lot worse!'"

Sitting next to Hardwicke on the couch in cool neutrals with her trademark mane of long auburn hair - only just resisting the urge to just lie down completely she says - is fellow Southerner Holly Hunter, who plays Wood's recovering alcoholic, deeply in-denial mother Melanie in the film. For a woman who doesn't even have children in real life, Hunter has played more than her fair share of mothers on screen, from wilfully silent Ada in The Piano, to George Clooney's fussy ex-wife and the momma to a brood of 12 or so in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to the murderous Wanda Holloway in the self-explanatorily titled The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.

For Thirteen, Hunter is in hippy-mom mode, playing the sort of woman who would rather be like a big sister than a mother to her daughter Tracy, performed with furious gusto by Evan Rachel Wood (last seen as Al Pacino's sweet kid in S1m0ne, and a familiar face to US TV audiences from her role in Once and Again). Hunter's baffled, wounded reactions as Tracy screams and fulminates at her for having the temerity, say, to trim a pair of jeans with fake leopardskin strips down the side so they'll look like the kind being sold on Melrose Avenue is truly heartbreaking and gives the film an extra emotional bass line to balance the younger actors' treble-heavy performances.

Hunter and Hardwicke haven't seen that much of each other for a while, and bounce off each other excitedly in conversation. She muses on what Hardwicke's been saying about people's reactions to the movie. "I've kind of avoided being a therapist to people who've seen it or having it be 'let this be a lesson to you about how Melanie fucked up,' because it's murky water that the movie treads and that's exactly the thing that attracted me to it," says the actress who's certainly never been afraid of murky waters, be they flowing through such independent-spirited movies as David Cronenberg's Crash, Alison MacClean's junky story Jesus' Son, or this year's Sundance opener, the deeply gloomy and misleadingly-titled Levity opposite Billy Bob Thornton.

"What really echoed for me was the strangeness of people living together - how strange we are to each other and how very unknown you can be to the person living right next to you. You cannot know what my experience is - it's impossible - and that both isolates us and unites us. The movie tackles that baldly, it confronts one humanity that bashes up against another one out of love. It doesn't back away from large themes that come between a mother and a daughter."

Amen to that. A friend of mine who has a 10-year-old daughter said the film moved her because it captured the sometimes almost unhealthy intensity of female relationships, the freighted exchanges of tenderness and manipulation between not just mothers and daughters, but between young girls themselves. Almost as a bonus it offers an unvarnished, coolly sociological look at what girls so often get up to at that age (and have for years) - taking drugs, shoplifting, sneaking off to mess around with boys, and dissembling with near psychopathic skill whenever necessary.

The strength of Thirteen, however, is that it's more about the emotions than the actions. Partly the authenticity could be ascribed to the fact that Nikki Reed, who plays the vampish, damaged Evie who leads Tracy astray, co-wrote the script in six intense days with Hardwicke, who once dated Reed's father Seth and stayed close to her after they split up. The film is largely based on Reed's own experience (her story is really more like Tracy's than Evie's in real life) although she has stated elsewhere that she filtered into the script the experiences of lots of girls she knows. Moveover, Hardwicke, a former production designer (who worked on Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky and Lisa Chodolenko's Laurel Canyon recently) and Hunter are both at pains to stress they wanted the movie to work as a story not as a piece of docudrama.

"I had adapted a historical story set during the Civil War before and I couldn't remain true to all the facts then because I couldn't get access to them, and it was similar here because I didn't know all the facts," Hardwicke points out. "You have to make it into a dramatic story. I would never ask Nikki, 'Did you ever do this with a boy or take this drug?' Nikki's mother Cheryl was on set the whole time, but she had to be by law." "I've played real life characters before several times," chips in Hunter. "Billie Jean King, Wanda Holloway, Ellen Russell/Jane Doe in Roe vs Wade [based on the US Constitution-changing abortion case]. This was very different because I didn't model my behaviour on Nikki's real-life mom at all. I've been on films where there was a technical consultant who was constantly being asked 'Is this real? Would they hold the gun this way?' But that never happened on this movie. I never asked Nikki questions like that or consult [Nikki's mom] between takes."

So why doesn't Nikki play Tracy, her fictional alter ego in the movie? "The first plan was that I was going to direct it and Nikki was going to star," explains Hardwicke. "Neither of us had done those jobs before, but it didn't work out that way for many reasons, one being that any person you put next to Nikki in the casting, if Nikki was Tracy the other girl had to be more sophisticated, more sexy and more worldly and there was almost no one that age that was more like that than Nikki. The only person who came close was 18 years old and that didn't feel right and didn't look right."

Like most films that look incredibly naturalistic, the effect was achieved by exhaustive rehearsal and planning. The shoot itself only took place over a packed 24 days, but Hardwicke, Hunter and the two girls spent a week seriously rehearsing at the Laurel Canyon (used as Tracy and Melanie's home) six hours a day beforehand to get the chemistry right and block off the scenes. "And I've never said this before, Holly," Hardwicke says, "but I was so excited because my cinematographer Elliot Davis wanted to come and watch the rehearsal but Holly said 'No, I don't want him there or others there,' and that rule was a good rule. I love Elliot, but that was invaluable." Hunter explains with the confidence of one who's been on many low-budget and big-budget film shoots: "The reason I insisted on that was because I've done a few movies where there's a week of rehearsal. The ones that have a month of rehearsal are for real, but the ones that have a week, they're never for real. It's always, 'I've got to talk to a location scout,' or 'there's an emergency casting meeting,' or 'the accountants need to meet me.' It's because the director doesn't want rehearsal, the director's scared. There's a reason why it gets frittered away because when push comes to shove and they have to rehearse tomorrow morning at 9am, they don't want to because they don't know what they want to do. In this case, Catherine really wanted to rehearse."

"I would have died if we hadn't done it!" laughs Hardwicke. Moreover, most of the key scenes were played out in their entirety, from beginning to end, instead of just being broken up into more manageable chunks. "See, I came from an architecture background first, then film and then I did a few theatre things with John Cusack as a set designer and when we did a whole rehearsal in Chicago from beginning to end I almost fainted," Hardwicke explains with near naive honesty about her lack of theatre experience. "It was so fascinating that you could actually tweak the whole thing whereas on a film one actor would show up one week and another actor another week and it was all put together later on. It amazed me you could get the whole piece in one sitting. So I tried to recreate that stage feeling because I think you stay in it more."

"Well, that's why the stage is an actor's medium and film is a director's is medium," Hunter chips in. "You're telling a story from beginning to end, eight times a week. Characters never live with me in film the way they do on stage and they have certain ramifications that movies just never have. But we did get essences of this with Thirteen - we covered such vast ground."

Did the girls turn to Hunter for acting tips while working together, I ask? "Evan Rachel Wood is a professional and has been acting for years and she has a lot of self-possession," Hunter says dismissively. "There wasn't a lot of discussion about how to do the scene. There was more between me and Jeremy Sisto [the actor who plays Melanie's boyfriend] and Deborah Ungar [the actor who plays Evie's guardian] because when they showed up I was like, 'Oh man! Grown-ups!'" Hunter shouts this last line, mimicking her excitement to see people over the age of 18 on set. "Because these girls didn't concentrate, they weren't focused. The set was not a quiet place. The set was really loud. They were all over the place, singing, dancing, talking on the phone, in a way like they are in the movie."

"Focus, I would say, focus!" remembers Hardwicke with a chuckle, who is slated to direct Lords of Dogtown about skateboarders in LA in the Seventies next. "But for me, because at any moment I'd have to be planning things, so really in my own mind I thought of all you guys as the same. I wanted to treat them the same, I wanted to treat Evan and Nikki just like professionals so they never had any excuse not to be as good as Holly. I never lowered my expectations for them."

"But they were both extraordinarily prepared," emphasises Hunter. "They had worked with a coach beforehand for over a month and they were right there when they needed to be. They were in it, their energy was fantastic. Because they were 13!"

So poised are their performances, if they didn't look so young it would be easy to forget this fact. I recently tried to interview Evan Rachel Wood, now 16, on the set of another film, The Upside of Anger, which stars Kevin Costner and Joan Allen. We'd finished talking about the movie at hand, and as soon as I asked her about Thirteen she was called back to the set, managing only to say of Hardwicke's movie that working on it, "was great," before bounding off, as if worried she'd get a tardy slip from the hall monitor if she didn't get to the set in time.

Nikki Reed, on the other hand, has put a temporary stop on doing interviews so she can concentrate on getting on with being a semi-normal teenager now that she's in high school. "They give her a lot of homework," explains Hardwicke. "They ask her if she wants to talk to this or that famous publication and she says, 'But I have to do my geometry!'"

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