Catherine Hardwicke grew up in the border town of McAllen, Texas.
“It was like the wild west,” says Hardwicke. “Now it’s crazier since the drug trade has escalated. Our family had a farm on the Rio Grande and we would swim across to Mexico.”
It seems like a natural fit that Hardwicke would direct the film “Miss Bala,” which revolves around Mexican cartels smuggling drugs across the Tijuana and San Diego border. The film is a remake of a Mexican film of the same name that came out in 2011.
Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, who wrote the screenplay, researched developments in drug smuggling over the last decades. Among the many changes he and Hardwicke made to the original film was the dual citizenship of the protagonist, played by Gina Rodriguez (best known for her title role in the television series “Jane the Virgin”), along with a character arc that make her less of a victim. For instance, the cartel uses old school cell phones that don’t have GPS features.
Hardwicke started in film as a production designer, and while the majority of the films she worked on had some impressive male directors (Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Costa-Gavras), two of her credits were for films helmed by women — “Laurel Canyon” (Lisa Cholodenko) and the amazing cult film “Tank Girl” (Rachel Talalay). Of the latter, Hardwicke adds: “You can imagine how much fun I had as a production designer getting to make airplanes and tanks, like a tank with a barbecue pit on the back.”
Hardwicke didn’t start her career in film, however. That came a bit after she graduated from school the University of Texas and after moving back to her hometown to work as an architect.
“I went back to McAllen, my home town, and built 120 townhouses around a lake, and designed the streets. My first job in Hollywood was as a production designer,” says Hardwicke, who graduated from UT’s architecture program. “I started on low budget movies and crawled my way up to bigger budget films finally working on films like “Vanilla Sky” with Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise.
“I was into structural visualization,” she says. “You show me a piece of dirt, and I can turn it into a building. Same thing with a film. You have a script with words on a page, and you have to turn in into something vibrant, dynamic and dramatic.”
The majority of Hardwicke’s new film was shot in Mexico, with only a couple of establishing shots of California. “Miss Bala” features some very convincing action sequences, including a shooting in the parking lot of a bullring stadium.
“It was a great location,” says Hardwicke. “An establishing helicopter shot shows the bullring is next to the border wall. You can see in the aerial shot the wall goes right into the ocean.”
Hardwicke used toy cars to determine where the real cars would be for the shot and “how to set up the sniper cross fire so it was realistic.”
A border crossing at nearby San Ysidro allowed the production to shoot at five lanes that were closed at the time
“It’s very inviting and friendly when you’re entering Mexico, but when you’re trying to get back into the US — that’s terrifying,” she says.
Although Hardwicke’s resumé as a director includes films as diverse as “Thirteen,” “Twilight” and “Lords of Dogtown,” she still faces the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry.
“Four percent of the top 200 grossing films last year were directed by women, so the statistics tell the story,” says Hardwicke. “For the last two-thousand years, we’ve all been looking at coins that have men’s likenesses on them — kings presidents, general or whatever. It’s programmed into our society that men are leaders.
“Women are half the population, we can kick ass too,” she says. “Some guy has directed ten films and they grossed a billion dollars, so they have a track record and get hired — that’s the way it works.”
Just as a director auditions actors, Hardwicke had to audition to get her job for “Miss Bala.”
“Yes, it’s a coveted job, you have to walk in there and dazzled them and make them believe you are the right person to do it. Here are your ideas, your vision, your take,” she says. “There’s this impression that women can’t do CGI film or action films… We have proven it, multiple times. Kathryn Bigelow has, Patty Jenkins has.”
“Miss Bala” is currently in wide release.