Hester Schell, M.F.A. is an award-winning director, veteran acting teacher and recovering academic. Her screenplays focus on social good and environmental stewardship with roles for middle-aged women and seniors. Schell is the author of the critically acclaimed volume, CASTING REVEALED: A Guide for Film Directors, 2nd edition, Focal Press. She’s a member of SAG-AFTRA and Harvard Square Script Writers. Follow Hester on IMDb, Facebook and LinkedIn.
In the films of Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, Twilight, Miss You Already) her casting choices jump out. Hardwicke nails great casting every time and understands that making bold casting choices is a big part of what makes her movies successful. Not only is she one of the most successful woman directors of all time, but also she is the director of one of the highest moneymakers in history, Twilight. We all know it doesn’t happen alone. It takes cooperation, collaboration and everyone doing a fantastic job, from the actors to the production assistants, to get a film to an international audience and then to the Oscars.
Hardwicke was this year’s special guest at the 9th annual 2016 POW Fest, Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival. Her master class was the insider highlight not only for adoring fans, but for local directors who also turned up to spend two very short hours with this genius. Thrilled to be the guest of honor, Hardwicke opened the near capacity Sunday morning class with funny stories, career highlights and how she started out in architecture. Understanding form and structure is natural to Hardwicke, as is her attention to detail (she stared out as a production designer.)
Of particular note Sunday morning were the casting stories. “Nothing is firm until the contracts are written and signed,” she said. “Always have a plan B, as actors will say they’re doing your movie, then drop out.” Ms. Barrymore only had a nine-week window, so pre-production ramped up to get locations set. According to IMDb.com, Jennifer Anniston was going to do Miss You Already, but dropped out, creating the opening for Drew Barrymore, who simply shines in the role. The film shot in the fall of 2014, opened a year later. It disappeared quickly from theatres after earning just over a million. (Spoiler alert: It might remind viewers of the Bette Midler hit, Beaches, directed by Garry Marshall in 1988.)
Hardwicke literally opened up her notebooks sharing shot sequence sketches, which she laughingly described as “hen scratches.” They may be hen scratches, but her ideas are clear – and that is what matters: getting the ideas out of her head into the designers and key staff. However you get it done, get it done you must. These hen-scratches and logistics notes on action sequences offered up all sorts of secrets for successful pre-production preparation. “Can women direct action sequences, even though I hadn’t ever directed an action movie before? You bet!” As an exercise she recommended watching movies in the genre you are directing and creating shot lists based on what you see.
She shared rehearsal footage for Twilight where stunts, wires, harnesses, falls, were all carefully choreographed and rehearsed over and over, not only to eliminate errors which could injure someone, but to make it better. “Get rehearsal in the contract,” she exclaimed. And she’s right. In a movie the scope of Twilight, you need every minute of rehearsal. Her teacher recommends three weeks for a feature. These days you’ll be lucky to get a week.
She shared a clip from the skateboard hit, Lords of Dogtown, and we lamented the untimely death of Heath Ledger who played Skip Engblom, the innovative designer, instrumental in the evolution of all things skateboarding. It’s a short scene where we see Ledger sanding a board. Hardwicke shared her story how she sent Ledger to the board shop in the morning to learn how to do the sanding. After he got there, she told him she couldn’t get there until four that afternoon, leaving Ledger the whole day to study with the master and learn his character. (We miss you, Heath.)
As the central creative mind holding the vision for a movie, she knows she has to inspire all her co-creators and steer the ship. She does her homework thoroughly so on the shoot days she can focus on the actors. And to support that focus, so she can speak their language and direct in ways the actors understand, she studied acting, improvisation, scene study, all of it with one main goal: to be a better director.
This was a window into her world, a world of vast insight, experience and humor. Her stories of pre-production were amusing to say the least. She talked about the necessity of having more enthusiasm than anyone else on the team. She talked about creative ways to get actors in the same room at the same time to test chemistry, without calling it a call back. “Find a simple way to communicate and get things done,” she said with a big smile. She’s not averse to combining a rehearsal with a wardrobe fitting, which she did on Miss You Already, so she could get stars Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette together.
If you haven’t seen Thirteen (2003) starring Holly Hunter and Rachel Evan Wood, it’s time to catch up. Hunter’s performance as the mother of the girl mixed up with the wrong kids at school and experimenting with drugs, brought Hunter an Oscar nomination and fresh stardom to Miss Wood. The camera moves, a distinctive style used two years later on Lords of Dogtown, put Hardwicke on center stage. Her long time collaboration with cinematographer Elliot Davis (The Birth of a Nation, 2016; Miss You Already, 2015) solidified Hardwicke as one of the most intelligent, diligent, thoroughly prepared directors working today. Together they developed their visceral signature shooting style.
In Twilight, can you imagine any other actor in the role of Edward, the Vampire? Pattinson brought just the right amount of allure and danger to the role. Stewart was perfect as the budding teen falling in love for the first time. Clearly Hardwicke knew her genre (teen horror/thriller romance) and yes that is a complicated multi-genre. You’ve got to get the casting perfect to lure teen girls into the theatre. You’ve got to deliver a heartthrob. The actors’ chemistry took the franchise to the bank.
Hardwicke knows how to have fun. Her big smile, big energy and big enthusiasm for the craft, the script and all aspects of movie making play a huge part in her success. She inspires everyone to step up. She includes everyone and has earned the respect so well deserved for a top tier A – list movie director.
Actors want to work with her because they know they’ll be in good hands. When you have great actors giving you great takes and a cinematographer who understands how camera moves relate to emotional content and connection, the combination creates a dynamic movie going experience audiences thirst for.
The POW Festival ran March 3 to 6, 2016, at Portland’s historic Hollywood Theatre, one of the great movie palaces of the golden era, fully restored. (Next time you’re in Portland, see anything here. The Bagdad Theatre is another movie palace not to miss.) Visit POW at powfest.com Check Withoutabox.com for entry information. Stayed tuned for their 10th Anniversary in 2017.
- Casting the Micro-Budget – Jane Doe Chronicles, Part 2
- Write, Direct, Repeat: Working with a Casting DIrector [Interview]
- Writers on the Web: Casting a Web Series
Get tips on casting in Hester Schnell’s book
CASTING REVEALED: A Guide for Film Directors