Catherine Hardwicke and her exceptional work has spoken to us throughout the years as she’s an influential, kick-ass director and champion for social change. It was a pleasure to chat on the phone recently with the director of the bold and visionary Quibi series Don’t Look Deeper, which is quite unlike anything that I had ever seen before.
While watching the Helena Howard fronted series, it felt a little bit prophetic in some of its themes and subject matter, but it also offers moments of levity and is a series that demands to be checked out.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation with the awesome Catherine Hardwicke of Don’t Look Deeper.
Brief Take: I devoured every single episode of your series, I thought it was fantastic.
Catherine Hardwicke: Oh wow, that’s so cool, thank you! Awesome! [laughs] We had a fun time making it. Yay! [laughs]
BT: Was it a consideration to make a project about technology for this new form of technology, the Quibi service?
CH: Yes, it is. I think that it is part of our lives – we struggle, we limit, we hate it every day, [chuckles] struggling with technology, and yay, it’s awesome! What does it mean to us, how has it changed our lives, even in the last three months, everything is such a great conversation to have and we’re having that conversation within the piece. Like why does Emily Mortimer want to make this amniotic creature, because she can. And then her boss stops her and says: “Well, have you ever stopped to think if you should do this and what are the implications?”. And I think that all of those things are great questions with which to grapple. And then this technology, Quibi, because it was under 10 minutes and it was horizontal and vertical, it forced me and inspired me to think in new ways. I had to break out with new ways of storytelling, new ways to open episodes, and start out with a fun decker or a crazy fun music montage, or non-linear ways of thinking, which was really exciting.
BT: The last episode was nine minutes and 59 seconds, and the rule is that you must go under 10 minutes. Did you have trouble making sure it was exactly the length that it needed to be?
CH: Apparently we did! Good memory [laughs] and good point. Well, it was funny because we had this beautifully written and structured script, all of these different chapters, and then it doesn’t always exactly translate when you shoot it because some moments just need to breathe a little more, maybe the actors will improv something cool or you can pace it, and we did actually have to rearrange a bit of the structure, it didn’t exactly go the way that it was scripted in the final thing. [laughs] But I’m serious, the editor and I were always like if we could find a place to take out one second: “Wooo, celebrate!”, we had a bell: “Ding! We could get it down”. It was fun.
BT: Did you intentionally cast really nice seeming actors and people, such as Emily Mortimer and Don Cheadle, they seem so nice and wonderful, to play sort of questionably ethical characters?
CH: Yeah, that was what was kind of fun because the casting of Emily, for example, you hit it on the nose. She’s almost never played a character like that, that has had so many grey areas. [chuckles] In person she’s so lovely, so I think it was intentional that she was attracted to it for that reason. This passionate scientist that almost has blinders on, she might even be someone on the spectrum, who is so focused on what she does and that intrigued her a lot. And then Don usually doesn’t do a buttoned-down character like this, he’s usually wild. He’s often [laughs] very wild, like on Black Monday, so I think that this was kind of fun for him too, something out of the norm.
BT: Was there a significance to setting the series in Merced, California?
CH: Well we were thinking about Merced because it’s in central California, and somewhat southern central California, and it wasn’t a very glamorous town, so she could want to get out of there, so she could have that dream at the beginning, “as long as you have this dream of going to college, I want to break out of here, Dad, and then you never planned on me leaving anyway”, and we were looking at drive time, up into the Pacific Northwest and into Canada, everything. I think that Jeff Lieber, the showrunner, found it on a map and there’s a little bit of tech near there, it’s kind of close to tech, but not really. It has a university, but it’s not super well-known, and so it would be a good place for Emily and Don to hide and just kind of be almost off the radar, to try their experiments.
BT: You had a nice shoutout to Toronto, in that one of the hubs of the tech corporation is based here, and one of your team members is based here as well.
CH: And that’s where Charlie (McDonnell) lives. We love Toronto. I’ve filmed there many times, visited many times. Yeah, you guys would be perfect for a nice, nefarious corporation, I think.
BT: Producer Doug Liman’s previous series Impulse was filmed in Toronto. There were perhaps similar themes. Even in your own work, do you see a continuation thematically of previous projects?
CH: Well I would definitely say that the fact that it is a coming-of-age story of a teenage girl that feels like she’s different from everybody else, that is thematically similar to other films that I’ve done [laughs] like Thirteen, except that this girl, when she’s trying to figure out herself, who I am, her identity, she really comes up with something different than everybody else. It’s much more singular than other teenagers who…well, I guess I’ve done vampires, too (in Twilight). I’ve already been very interested in sci-fi and reading sci-fi and stuff, so I was super happy to have that chance to jump into this world and into the near future.
BT: When you’re world building in this way, what are some techniques that you hadn’t used prior in terms of technology?
CH: Well one thing is that CGI has gotten so much more affordable and sensible, so basically, every five minutes I was thinking: “Oh, wouldn’t it be neat to make the background glow? Wouldn’t it be cool to put one of those solar balloons on top of the school?”. “How can we very subtly slip in little bits of technology, that is, quote, fifteen minutes into the future.” So that was a fun little detail to think of that and keep in the back of my mind. I mean all the cars are electric cars and we built little extra fuel extensions and we had them blowing in places in which we usually don’t see them, and we try to kind of keep sneaking in like neat little fuel extension elements because it’s more affordable now to do that sort of thing.
BT: How do you see the expression “fifteen minutes into the future”? Is it literal or figurative to you?
CH: I think that it means that it was in the very near future. It’s weird, like I was watching Gattaca again last night and it was set in the very near future, like this could happen, I mean as of right now, a lot of the big companies have begun working on A.I. and robots and everything, and so there could be a very advanced robot popping out of Facebook or Google or Apple at the moment [laughs], like these robots that we have in our film, so I think that it’s supposed to be close to now.
BT: What was it like to make this project before Quibi actually even existed?
CH: Well that was interesting because the day when I went in for the job and we pitched it to Jeffrey Katzenberg, he had no more I believe than six employees and it was an idea, the idea was we’re going to turn-style technology, in which you can see it in vertical or horizontal, and he was pitching us on all this stuff, but the technology wasn’t there yet. [laughs] Now there’s like 300 employees or something like that, and in over a year we saw the company expand greatly and we saw their technology being developed. And in fact, I was even hired at the very beginning to shoot a little short film and to shoot it both ways: horizontal and vertical and then with a force turn with the camera, all of these different techniques, so they could test it while we were developing our series and figure out which ones worked the best or not, and we were either the number one or number two first dramatic series to start filming. Even at the time, the rules were changing, the the Quibi rules were changing, the Quibi ideas were changing, that made it fun, we were just part of new stuff.
BT: This series has a lot of moments of humour. How important is it for you to come up with content that is envelope pushing?
CH: Well I think that if it’s provocative, that’s what’s going to make us watch it and talk with other people about it. The end of the first episode is quite shocking and is almost a horror moment, but the humour is important to me, too. Even with all the craziness going on, we still have to find a way to laugh somehow, [laughs] and just release our tension, and that’s what we’re trying to do, to have tension and release, too.
BT: You really explore issues of consent in a funny way as well.
CH: You saw him asking again: “Are you sure this is okay?”. You know what I mean? The kid at the house at the party. Oh yeah, that one’s cool. Yeah, you’ve got some great questions, you really picked up on the details, I love it. Thank you so much for this.
The first three episodes of Don’t Look Deeper are now available on Quibi. A new episode will be available every day until its finale on August 11.