Director's Chair: Catherine Hardwicke — Quibi's <I>Don't Look Deeper</I>
Issue: July/August 2020

Director's Chair: Catherine Hardwicke — Quibi's Don't Look Deeper

Texan writer/director Catherine Hardwicke began her career as a production designer for such big names as David O. Russell, Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater before making the leap into directing movies herself. Her debut film, 2003’s Thirteen, was critically acclaimed and won Holly Hunter an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and the Sundance directing award for Hardwicke. Her next film, Lords of Dogtown, a gritty look at skateboarding culture starring Heath Ledger and Emile Hirsch, was also an indie hit, but it was 2008’s Twilight that catapulted her career into the big time.

Based on the popular young-adult novel by Stephenie Meyer, the vampire love story became a monster (pun intended) hit, grossing nearly $400 million worldwide with a production budget of just $37 million, and overnight making Hardwicke the most successful woman director in Hollywood. She went on to direct 2011's Red Riding Hood, starring Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman; 2015's Miss You Already, starring Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore; and last year’s action-thriller Miss Bala, starring Gina Rodriguez.

Her latest project is Don’t Look Deeper, a sci-fi drama set in Merced, CA, "fifteen minutes into the future.” The show, starring Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer, centers on a high school senior, played Helena Howard, who can’t seem to shake the feeling that something about her just isn’t right - that she’s not human. The revelation of what she really is, where she comes from, and who has started looking for her, sets in motion a series of events that suddenly puts her entire life in jeopardy. The show, directed and executive produced by Hardwicke, premiered on Quibi in June. 

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, Hardwicke, whose TV work includes directing episodes of This is Us, Hell on Wheels, Low Winter Sun and the pilots of Reckless and Eye Witness, talks about making the series, her love of post, and the challenges of being a female director.

What sort of show did you set out to make? 

“It’s this coming-of-age story, which I’ve tackled before, but this was so different, as it’s set fifteen minutes in the future and it’s like it’s on steroids. You’re discovering your identity, but it’s very different from the one you imagined, and how do you come to terms with that? That was so fascinating to me, so exciting, and it also gave me the chance to world-build. What does the near future look like? How do I shoot it but not let the drama become dominated by the sci-fi elements? There were so many interesting challenges.”

Hardwicke, on set with Don Cheadle and Helena Howard.

A big one must have been how different it was directing this project for this new platform in an era of phone-viewing?

“Exactly. Suddenly you’re dealing with all these new levels, such as vertical composition, and I thought, ‘This is going to be difficult, I’ve never done it before – I’ve got to try it!’”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“Right from the very start we wanted this turnstile technology, where you’d be able to watch it in vertical and horizontal modes at the same time. At any moment you could change your mind and basically become your own editor. And going to art classes all my life, I’ve done vertical composition, like a portrait style, but usually with just one person in the frame. But here you’re suddenly having to deal with motion, and you have six people in the frame. How do you fit all that into the vertical format? So before we began, Quibi hired me, and a few other filmmakers, to do tests, even before they’d developed the technology, so we could shoot in those formats and try all different methods, and figure out exactly how we’d film our projects. And this show was either the first or second dramatic series made for Quibi, so we really were guinea pigs, learning as we went.”

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?

“Right at the start. As soon as we got the green light, we began planning out post and talking to various VFX and special effects houses, and how they could work closely together, because of the robots. We ended up getting a great team who had worked together before, with Engine Room doing all the VFX, and I felt that was so important as there’s so many effects on screen, and we wanted to create more unusual effects and designs. And then all the scenes I considered scary, where things could go wrong, were like red flags, and we did tests on all that stuff first.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It had the same pressures as all shoots – the director always has bigger eyes than the budget, you always want to do a cooler stunt with the car, you always want a better beauty shot and do it late in the day. So it’s down to very careful scheduling and being as prepared as possible.”

Where did you post?

“All in LA. We did all the editing in a suite at New Form in Culver City, where they do a lot of short-form content. It was great, as the producers were right there too, so if we had any problems they could get right on it. And then we did sound at Post Haste Digital, Sound For Film and Margarita Mix, and the DI at Harbor (Picture).”

Do you like the post process?

“I really love it, and it’s so fun after the shoot and all the crazy pressure of time and money on a set. It’s when you get to make magic, and I love all the creative breakthroughs you can have in post when you realize stuff like: What if we move this entire sequence to later? Or earlier? And this could be a cliffhanger ending! I love all that, and adding the sound and music, and seeing it come to life.”

Talk about editing with Josie Azzam. How did that work?

“We shot on location around LA and she maybe came out to the set once, but basically she was at New Form every day cutting scenes from the previous day, and she’s very fast. I’d sit down with her some evenings and at the weekend, and go over all the coverage, and she’d give me cool notes later if she had any issues, and was very collaborative. She also did those early tests with me for the vertical and horizontal formats, and was so helpful in dealing with the composition for all of that. And that was the first time we’d worked together, but we got on great – which is so important with your editor. You need to be compatible, as you spend so much time together, and for most of the shoot you’re not with them that much, and by the time you’re in post it’s really too late to make a big change. So I love doing any short project first with a new editor, and usually I’ve managed to do that over the years.”

What were the big editing challenges? It must be tricky dealing with the 10-minute format?

“Very tricky, but luckily I had a great editor in Josie. Of course, it was all divided up into these chapters in the script, but it never works out to be exactly the length you need – and we couldn’t be even one frame over the ten minutes. Some scenes need to breathe, some scenes need to be paced up, so in the edit we worked on the Avid in the usual way, but also had a big wall of cards as a visual representation of every scene and of the whole show, so I could stand back and look at the big picture, even while Josie was working on the details of a scene. So if an episode was too long by, say, three minutes, then we had to figure out where and how we could cut that and use it in a later episode without breaking the flow of the story or screwing up any of the carefully-constructed reveals and details. And at the same time we had to maintain a strong opening and closing for each episode, so it was this big, beautiful puzzle we had to solve.”

Sound and music play key roles.

“Absolutely, and I’m very involved. I’d gone to the Sundance Composers Lab last year as an adviser and I’d met [composer] Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum there, and we talked a lot about the meaning of this show and what it means to be human, and how the sound of breath and the use of woodwinds in the score all added to the feeling I wanted. And she wrote this very emotional, beautiful score based on all those ideas. And then the great Frank Gaeta, who I’ve worked with before, going all the way back to Thirteen, did all the sound design, with all these great layers that he built up. He has his own studio where we also did all the ADR with the cast, and he also did all the pre-mixing there, and then we went to Post Haste for the final mix.” 

All the VFX also play a key role, like the arm reveal shots where you see all the glowing circuitry. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Dan Schmit.

“Dan and his Engine Room team had really inventive, amazing ideas, and they had lots of experience with AI and cutting edge technology, and they were so receptive and always open to improving a shot – even on ones we thought would never change. And then we enhanced some of that circuitry glow in the DI.”

How important is the DI to you?

“Very, and we had a really great colorist, Elodie Ichter, who I met through our DP Patrick Murguia. He’d worked with her before and told me she had a great eye and a great sense of color and all the nuances, and she did a great job on this. Patrick set a lot of the looks while he shot and then they worked on all that together in the DI and I’d go in and we’d work on specific details, like all the robotic stuff. I’m very happy with the way it all turned out.”

What’s next?

“I’ve got a few long form projects I’m developing, and it’d be fun to do more projects for Quibi. I found it to be a very interesting new way of telling a story.”

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies, and famously after you directed the first Twilight blockbuster and paved the way, there were four more in the series, as well as other Y.A. mega-franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent – but none of them were directed by women. Are things better in TV?

“It’s definitely better. I believe it’s almost 50 percent women in terms of hiring now in TV, and we had a lot of women, including our editor, composer, colorist and music supervisor, so they’re getting a lot of opportunity. But change in movies seems much slower.”