How Director Catherine Hardwicke Defied Hollywood Odds With 'Miss Bala'

The filmmaker assembled a cast and crew that is 95 percent Latinx at a time when the industry still struggles with representation: "I think maybe three people from the U.S. came."
Catherine Hardwicke; Gina Rodriguez   |   Amanda Edwards/WireImage
The filmmaker assembled a cast and crew that is 95 percent Latinx at a time when the industry still struggles with representation: "I think maybe three people from the U.S. came."

Catherine Hardwicke’s new film Miss Bala feels particularly timely.

The Sony thriller opening Friday comes in the wake of the 4 percent challenge, which is calling on studios to commit to working with a female director within the next 18 months. The challenge, issued by Time's Up and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, came after a study showed just 4 percent of the 1,200 top-grossing films over the last decade have been helmed by women.

Hardwicke worked her way up to directing after 15 years of working on movie sets as an art director and production designer. She ultimately reinvented herself as a director thanks to 2003’s Thirteen. Hardwicke also co-wrote her directorial debut which landed her a Sundance Film Festival directing award. From there, Hardwicke worked with Heath Ledger on Lords of Dogtown (2005) and launched one of the most successful young-adult franchises to date: Twilight (2008).

Miss Bala, a Tijuana-based action thriller starring Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez is a reimagining of a 2011 Mexican film of the same name. Filming took place almost entirely in Tijuana, Mexico, a rarity in this day and age, and it also boasts a cast and crew that is 95 percent Latinx.

“I think maybe three people from the U.S. came. So, that made it really fun. With the story we were telling, it kept it very authentic,” Hardwicke tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Miss Bala comes at a time where Latinx leads are still a rarity in studio films.  Only 4 of 2017's Top 100 films featured a woman of color, according to a 2018 Annenberg report and Rodriguez has been vocal about promoting opportunities for Latinx actors.

Hardwicke recently spoke with THR about shooting Miss Bala in Tijuana, her memories of Heath Ledger and her time as production designer on Tombstone, the now-classic which saw its director fired a month into production.

One day, we won’t have to acknowledge how unique Miss Bala’s representation is for a major studio film, but until then, how did you create such a diverse set and how was the on-set experience as a result?

From the moment that Gina signed on, we had eight weeks because of her window with Jane the Virgin. So, we had eight weeks to figure out how to make the movie. I had been looking around Tijuana just kind of researching, and I really wanted to shoot all of the movie there. There’s such a great, rich culture there that’s quite exciting. I called it “the new Tijuana” instead of the dusty or crumbling old Mexico border town that one might imagine. There’s badass modern architecture and cool food trucks. So, I said, “Let’s do it there.” Then, that led to the idea of shooting it with a full-on crew that was almost all from Mexico; some people were from Argentina, Uruguay but mostly Mexico. I had worked with a fantastic Mexican DP Patrick Murguia on Low Winter Sun, and I said that if he’s available, this is gonna be great. He was available, and he even brought his awesome crew. So, it was actually easy to find this amazing, talented crew that was mostly from Mexico. I think maybe three people from the U.S. came. So, that made it really fun. With the story we were telling, it kept it very authentic. Casting directors, local casting directors, local actors from Tijuana... it just kept it real.

Since story influences the look of a film, as well as technique, what aspects of the script influenced you the most as far as how you shot the movie? Were there any particular works you referenced prior to production?

I watch every movie every year, and I love film, but I actually don’t try to go to other films to reference in my work. I try to go from the inside more. I was just trying to convey what it feels like to be this woman. I wanted to be close with Gina’s character, Gloria, a lot of the time, but I also wanted to see the scope of the surroundings and what she was up against. We had wide anamorphic lensing with beautiful old lenses that added a lot of texture because of the spherical nature of the lenses. Patrick Murguia was very inspired to do that. Also, we really wanted to feel what Gloria is feeling. The first act is more studio mode; the camera is mounted on a steadicam, dolly or crane. In the middle act when all hell breaks loose, we go a lot more handheld to create a “Holy shit, what’s going on?” feeling. In the third act, she’s actually become resolved: “I’m gonna solve this; this is my plan; these are my intentions.” So, we went back to steady a little bit more. We just tried to make the camera track Gina’s emotions in the film.

With Twilight, you chose to make the first film as close to the book as possible. Since Miss Bala is based on a 2011 Spanish-language film of the same name, did you refer to it as you put your film together, or did you opt to respectfully keep it out of sight, out of mind?

I saw it once and thought it was a really interesting, very well-made and very well-shot film, but as you know, the protagonist in that is very passive. That was made in 2011, and I think global women have come a long way since then. We want to see a woman with agency, with ideas and using her wits to solve problems. So, we made our characters a lot more active. Also, the screenwriter, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, expanded the story. He did a lot of research into the narco novias and many other stories besides the original inspiration of Miss Sinaloa, which happened very similar to this, as beauty queens and other women were captured Patty Hearst-style and brought in to the cartels. So, he enriched the story, and I feel our story took a different direction and certainly a much more active role for Gloria. So, I wasn’t really referencing the original; I was just trying to feel every moment of our story.

Gloria is a resourceful hero. Gumption keeps her alive as you didn’t turn her into Sarah Connor or Lorraine Broughton overnight. Was your objective to create a hero that is credible above all?

Gina and I said, “If she couldn’t climb out the window or if we couldn’t run across that bull ring, we wouldn’t do it.” She does get one lesson in loading and firing a gun. She’s getting instructions from people throughout the film so she has to use her skills as a makeup artist, such as listening, observing and attention-to-detail. I think we really tried hard to make you feel like she was not trained as a Navy Seal or anything like that. She was doing things that a normal person could do.

As mentioned, you shot in Tijuana which is a welcomed change of pace from most cartel-related dramas. In other words, the locations are distinct from what we’ve seen on-screen of late. Was that a priority for you as well?

I lived there for five or six months. I really got to know the city and the area: Rosarito, Playas de Tijuana and Villa de Guadalupe, that beautiful wine country where we have the villa that Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) takes Gloria (Rodriguez) to in order to hide out. That hotel was designed by a very cutting-edge architect from Tijuana. So, I really wanted to showcase how vibrant the city is and how much art and culture is going on there. It’s new; you feel an energy there and a beauty. Capturing that was important to me when looking for locations. Working with local people, location managers and local actors that would turn me on to interesting things. Some of our local actors have their own music in the movie so it was really fun.

Albuquerque often doubles for Mexico.

We didn’t even have that conversation. I went there; took all these cool pictures and said that we can make a really exciting movie in a location that people have never really shot. I don’t think they’ve shot Tijuana for Tijuana.

Over the last decade, only 4 percent of the 1,200 top grossing films have been directed by women. Thus, the odds of a woman directing a studio film that also happens to be a passion project are virtually nil right now. Generally speaking, when you’re offered a studio film that isn’t a passion project, do you feel somewhat obligated to say yes given how rare the opportunity is and for the sake of your fellow female directors?

I wouldn’t say most filmmakers would feel obligated. We actually have to find a lot of passion for every project that we do. For me and Miss Bala, I felt a lot of passion for it because of the fact that this woman becomes empowered. Also, it involves the Mexican border, which is where I’m from [the Mexican border in Texas]. I love the richness of the two cultures, so I got really excited about this project. I wouldn’t be able to direct something –– and I don’t think anybody I know would either –– if they didn’t care about it, love it and feel like they could really put their heart into it.

To the larger issue, we do want to be an awesome example. As a woman, I do want to pave the way for more women and inspire more women. So, the more female directors that take these jobs, accomplish the task and do something amazing with it, is gonna be great for the future. Just recently, I had the opportunity to meet a young girl from a small town in Peru. She said she was looking at a DVD for Twilight, and once she saw that a woman directed it, it blew her mind. Then, for the first time, she told her parents, “I’m going to be a director.” Ten years later, she’s showing a short film at the Academy in L.A. It was amazing. So, if we keep paving the way, more and more women can kick ass. Yes, we gotta do it.

You worked on Tombstone as a production designer. Is there a particular memory that comes to mind above all others, and in regard to Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday, did you and the rest of the crew recognize right away that he was doing something quite extraordinary?

Oh, yes! Every day, we were just loving what Val was doing. The original writer and director, Kevin Jarre, had written those beautiful, great lines such as “I'm your huckleberry.” In fact, I just went back to the city of Tombstone for a reunion, and it was so fun. We watched the movie outside on the street at night, and everybody was in costume. It was killer! And yes, we knew that Val was doing something amazing. Everything about that movie was crackling, fun and exciting. A million stories happened when they fired the first director [Jarre] and the second guy [George P. Cosmatos] came in. He fired 95 people and tortured the hell out of me and everybody else, but it came out vibrant. All that storm and angst made a really cool movie.

You also worked with the late Heath Ledger on Lords of Dogtown. His character, Skip Engblom, actually looked a lot like Val Kilmer.

He does! He looked like Val Kilmer in The Doors.

Exactly! Plus, they both possessed the unique ability to oscillate between leading man and character actor.

Yes, they did!

When it comes to your experience with Heath on Lords of Dogtown, what sticks with you to this day as far as his way of working or way of being?

He was really creative. The thing that I thought was so great was that he’d really go into his full body as a character. His whole body became the character. His body language changed from every single role he did –– and the sound of his voice. When he played Skip for me, he just became this wild surfer-stoner, and I never knew what he was going to do exactly. I don’t think he knew, either. He just got so deep into it. For example, the party scene where Skip sees his whole empire, his dreams and his team falling apart… he gets drunker and drunker. Then, he goes up on the roof and smashes some surfboards. I did not know that Heath was going to sit on the parapet with one leg dangling off the side toward the pavement. I was just panicked, as the stunt coordinator was, about him falling. Of course, he just had enormous control over his body. Even as fluid and loose as he looked, he knew what he was doing. He was just so fun to work with...

Lastly, did you have anything to do with Michael Caine’s bar in Mr. Destiny, be it the ‘Spilt Milk’ elixir system or The Universal Joint sign?

Oh my God, that is so crazy that you asked that question. Hell yeah, I got to design that bar. That was so much fun. I was the art director, but the production designer was working on other things. He said, “Yeah, you take over on this.” So, that is the most obscure question I’ve ever heard in 15 years of press tours. That bar was fucking cool, wasn’t it? 

  • Brian Davids