Best known for her adolescence drama 'Thirteen,' she knew how young fans adored the book series.
Catherine Hardwicke knew exactly what she was getting herself into when she signed on to direct the big-screen adaptation of " Twilight," the first installment in author Stephenie Meyer's bestselling young adult franchise about everygirl Bella Swan and her vampire beau Edward Cullen. The filmmaker had turned up to see the author on an L.A.-area stop on her 2007 book tour and witnessed firsthand the near hysteria the books inspire among legions of largely young, largely female readers.
All Meyer had to do was say the name "Edward," Hardwicke said, and the room would erupt in screams.
But the prospect of translating the story -- in which Bella finds the unlikeliest of soul mates after moving to small-town Washington for her junior year of high school -- was intriguing to Hardwicke for its bigger themes about the perils of first love and the turmoil of adolescence, all told from its heroine's point of view.
Specifically, she said, she wanted to try to capture the power of Meyer's "obsessive prose."
"I appreciate that time as a time of extreme turmoil," Hardwicke said. "Your body changes, you can kiss a boy, you can kiss a girl, you can drive a car, you can drink. There's so much drama. It's when you discover who you are. I liked just being drawn into this world, and I wanted to see how I could create that on film."
Hardwicke might be in her early 50s, but she radiates a creative boho spark more common to a recent college grad. Her Venice Beach home has a gorgeous funky aesthetic, a sort of radical second-hand chic. These days, her coffee table is covered with magazines, many of their covers touting the upcoming premiere of "Twilight," her fourth feature, which begins showing at theaters across the country at midnight tonight.
A former production designer, Hardwicke's filmography is centered around teenagers: She remains best known for her wrenching 2003 directorial debut "Thirteen," a tiny indie production about a nice girl who goes off the rails at the onset of adolescence that garnered Holly Hunter a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a single mom desperate to save her daughter from herself.
Two subsequent films, "Lords of Dogtown" and "The Nativity Story," failed to generate the same kind of stir, but "Twilight" has more stir than many filmmakers ever encounter. It’s been hailed as the heir to the “ Harry Potter” phenomenon, though the four books in Meyer’s series, which has sold about 17 million copies worldwide, represents only a fraction of J.K. Rowling’s wizard chronicles.
Still, readers connect to the material in a powerful, palpable way: At the movie's Monday night premiere in Westwood, fans from all across the country, some of whom camped out overnight to catch a glimpse of the young, relatively unknown cast, thronged the streets, screaming as the actors arrived to walk a fairly mammoth red carpet. Newly minted heartthrob Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward, easily earned the loudest reception.
As Bella, actress Kristen Stewart, who won accolades for her supporting turn as a free-spirited love child in Sean Penn's 2007 drama "Into the Wild," is tasked with creating a character grounded enough to anchor the more fantastic elements of the story but also with believably conveying Bella's undying devotion to Edward without making her seem weak or passive.
"She really has a depth that's almost unbelievable," Hardwicke said of the actress. "For me it could not have been a really cute TV actress; it just couldn't have been. The way people feel connected to the books, you have to have somebody with that depth, that passion."
Stewart said she found Hardwicke's perspective and guidance key during the shoot, particularly when it came time to film the more keenly emotional scenes between Bella and Edward.
"You need to be in a really particular place to give so much, just because it's so honest," Stewart said by phone, calling from the East Coast, where she was promoting the movie. "Catherine helped me. She has a wisdom about her that is very childlike in that it is fundamental. She put me in a place that was open enough to realize that if you're really going to say to someone that you love them and that you want to die for them then that's what you should say. It really should be simple and down to it."
Hardwicke actually spent time running through some of the most critical scenes with the actors in her home. Stewart and Pattinson famously rehearsed Bella and Edward's first kiss on Hardwicke's bed, for example.
Capturing the romance on film on location in the Pacific Northwest was daunting at times, Hardwicke said. Stewart, then 17, was only allowed to work 5 1/2 hours daily, and the erratic weather, an unending cycle of sleet, hail, rain and sunshine, created more headaches.
"There were some very dark moments making this personally," Hardwicke said. "But it got done and I'm as proud of it as I can be under the circumstances, the constraints and the issues. Every time you have a big challenge, a personally difficult situation, and you survive it, that's good."
Hardwicke said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to do action scenes involving stunt work and visual effects, two things that will play a much bigger part in any potential "Twilight" sequel. Distributor Summit Entertainment has suggested that should the film make upward of $150 million at the U.S. box office, it will most likely move forward with at least one follow up: Meyer's second book in the series, "New Moon," which involves a trip to Italy, a group of shape-shifters and plenty more raw emotion and teen angst. (There's already an online campaign underway to make sure the movie hits that target.)
Though the filmmaker said she was optimistic about revisiting the characters' epic romance, she's more focused now on, hopefully, having delivered a film that will live up to the sky-high expectations of Meyers' readers.
"At Christmas last year, I was in Oregon at a party and helping clean up, washing dishes," Hardwicke recalled. "There were two girls who were like 11 and 12. They spent an hour talking about Edward's soul in great detail, really trying to figure out his humanity, his connection [to Bella], how vampires could have evolved the way humans evolved. I thought, 'It's pretty cool that these girls have read the books and are discussing this. I better do a good job on this movie!' "