Photo by Kevin ScanlonCatherine Hardwicke grew up poor on a farm in South Texas near the Mexico
border, and, well, Christmas took some improvising on her dad’s part.
“He grew carrots, right,” Hardwicke says in a slow, quiet drawl that betrays her roots despite the Hollywood makeover and the trim, athletic body with which she will soon present herself to an international media junket. “So one Christmas he got a bunch of that raw, rich dirt that clings to the carrots, and he had the driver bring the truck over and dump it in our backyard. Our present was a mountain of carrot dirt, and it was the most bitchin’ present, because we were like, ‘What the fuck is this, Dad?’ And he said, ‘You gotta make something of it. You gotta dig things, make tunnels, make mountains. You gotta get sticks and wood and turn them into buildings and forests.’ ” So Hardwicke did, building an entire mountain village, complete with tunnels for her cat, towns, a graveyard, forests. She even composed a theme song to go with it. “If I got one of those plastic Barbie things with a home already made, or a video game, I don’t think I’d be where I am right now,” she laughs.
To read Joe Donnelly’s previous cover story on all things Dogtown,
For his interview
with Jay Adams,
Where she is right now is on a stretch of the Sony lot done up to look like a downtown Manhattan block, although with a storefront full of Z-Boy memorabilia in case the foreign press forgets what they’re here for. Buzzing around is Tony “Mad Dog” Alva, one of the original Z-Boys, who went on to be the first world skateboarding champ, and Skip Engblom, co-proprietor of the eponymous Zephyr Surf Shop and the Fagan of the delinquent gang of pubescent skaters who used the shop as their home away from broken homes. Of course, in the mid-’70s, Alva, Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta and the other lost boys running wild around the streets of Dogtown (the blighted stretch of Venice around the crumbling Pacific Ocean Park Pier they claimed as their surfing and skating turf) would change skateboarding from a languid hobby for idle surfers into the aggro, punk-adjacent, multibillion-dollar industry/lifestyle it is today.
To say the Z-Boys were seminal is an understatement, and their exploits have been
documented (most notably in Peralta’s award-winning 2001 doc, Dogtown and Z-Boys)
and dissected to the point where the Z-Boys are cult heroes and Dogtown is
part of the X-Games generation’s lexicon.
Yet it is the Hardwicke-directed Lords of Dogtown, a film that’s gone through a series of misfires, including one by David Fincher, that Sony hopes will capture the imaginations and allowance money of teenagers across the land, thereby elevating the Z-Boys from cult figures to household names. A lot of people have stakes in this enterprise, emotional or otherwise. Aside from the Z-Boys themselves, there is the hardcore and hard-to-please skate-and-surf crowd, for whom the legacy of Dogtown is sacred and whose approval will be important to the film’s word of mouth. All those hopes pinned on a package with a PG-13 rating. Hardwicke may be a long way from South Texas, and her hair might look like it came straight out of a Beverly Hills boutique, but even with the sheen, and her Dogtown print T-shirt, her strong, thick hands still look made for picking potatoes, or for carrying the expectations of Z-Boy-ophiles everywhere. She told the story about the carrot-dirt Christmas present to illuminate a theme in the movie, and in the real lives of the Z-Boys, which is doing something with what’s handed to you, even if it doesn’t look like much. “One of the reasons we’re attracted to these guys, I think, is because they lived authentically,” says Hardwicke. “They rode their skateboards, and their jeans were fucked up because they could only afford one pair. They weren’t sitting there watching TV, they were doing shit they loved, you know, and they cared about it and felt it vibrantly, and that’s why I think people are attracted to Tony and Jay [perhaps the most spontaneous, creative and troubled of the Z-Boys]. You can’t help but be attracted to them because they lived by their instincts.” “But,” says Hardwicke, who made her directorial debut with 2003’s Thirteen, a heartbreaking movie about overmatched teenage girls going wild, “I’ve always been about making something rather than thinking about how it’s going to affect others. I’m just more about making it and crafting and feeling and breathing it, and then other people who are smarter than me can interpret it.” She laughs and then says, “Seriously, I’m more intuitive.” Following is a conversation about where the lady steward of Dogtown’s intuitions led her. L.A. WEEKLY: What drew you to the material? CATHERINE HARDWICKE: I moved here from Texas in the late ’80s, and I met Stacy in acting class, and I saw this guy slapping stickers on his skateboard, doing his monologue, and I was like, “Who is that? What’s going on?” I wanted to know this guy. And so we got to be friends, and he introduced me to Stecyk [Craig Stecyk, Los Angeles artist and original documenter of the Z-Boys’ exploits]. I went to some of the Bones Brigades premieres [seminal skateboarding videos done by Stecyk and Peralta, some featuring a young Tony Hawk], and I started looking at his work and thought it was really interesting. And randomly, because I didn’t know anybody here, I looked in L.A. Weekly and found out about some club to go to, and I was dancing like crazy, and this producer of that movie Thrashin’ came up and asked me to production-design that movie, because I used to be an architect. So I production-designed Thrashin’, a skateboard movie. It was really bad, really bad, but it was fun and I got to build all the ramps and Tony was in it. You know, I got right into the culture and skaters lived at my house and I loved the energy. I’d be driving actors to the set and we’d stop at a gas station and I’d be filling up my car with gas and they’d be skating up the gas tanks, acid drops off the roof of the gas station, and, like, I love it! It was really exciting to me. A little while later, I moved to Venice . . . I learned to surf and met Jim [Muir — one of the original Z-Boys] out there in the waves and kept in touch with Stacy.
I kept hearing about David Fincher doing Dogtown. Of course, I saw the
documentary [Dogtown and Z-Boys] and loved it. A lot of my
friends in the art department were doing the Fincher version, and they were telling
me all about it, and I was getting really jealous and I was really pissed, because
I’m not a production designer anymore and couldn’t work on it, but I was like,
I should be on that project, and then
Fincher and the studio fell apart . . . So, when that fell away I guess it was
all dead again after the fourth director bombed out, and then Stacy saw Thirteen
and was like, well, “You should do it.” And when I got half a chance, I just
went in there armed with photos and skateboards and everything.
How familiar were you with the history and legend of the Z-Boys? Well, I was kind of familiar because I’d known a lot of the people already through the years. And, of course, [I saw] the documentary and the book and a lot of articles, and I’d get Thrasher, and I researched a lot of stuff. But also, as soon as I got the job, I just went down to Oceanside and hung out with Tony and his sister, and we looked through scrapbooks and talked about a lot of stuff. And then I jumped on a plane and went over to Hawaii to stay three days with Jay and went surfing with him and his girlfriend and just diving into it as deep as Jay would go, which, you know, he doesn’t always want to open up that much, but after three days you get a little bit deep into it. What was Jay’s attitude toward the whole thing?
He seemed pretty into it, pretty excited that people were committed to something,
but worried, nervous, trepidatious. I would be, too.
I gave him Stacy’s script, you know, before I rewrote it, and I just went out
and surfed while he read it, and I was all like — ahhhh — I couldn’t concentrate
on anything. Is he gonna freak, is he gonna run away, is he going to kill me?
But I said, let’s talk about it, that’s what I’m working on — how to get it better,
what bugs you? That was a real interesting experience.
Jay as the emotional focus of the story, was that the original intent of Stacy’s script or did it emerge that way? Well, in the original script, there was no stepfather, and that was one of the things that stood out, when Jay started talking about him and his stepfather and his mother and how they split up and all, and that’s something I wanted to put in. I thought that was quite important.
I think it more emerged when I talked to Jay. I think adding the stepfather and
him leaving, that’s one of the first scenes in the movie where you go [Puts
her hand to chest], where you kind of feel something. And I think the casting
of Emile [Hirsch] . . . A lot of people that know him really well have
felt a lot of Jay on the screen . . . the whole thing kind of took it to Jay.
I’m interested in the intentions of Stacy in writing the script. Obviously, there’s a lot of water under the bridge. It seems like Stacy’s still working things out with these guys. I did notice that. I think Stacy respects them and respects their attitudes and how hardcore they are, and we had many, many fascinating moments on the set. Incredible things happened on a lot of levels, like exactly what you’re talking about. I was just observing so many things. There was a lot of diplomacy, fence-mending, ego-management kind of things that I kind of did, you know, in a way. And certain people did have to apologize to each other before things could move on with the film. It sounds like a giant AA meeting.
Yeah. [Laughs.] It was cool, though. There were a lot of heavy moments.
I think that comes through a lot, and that’s a good thing. It seems like a movie about a dysfunctional family in a lot of ways. Yeah, a fucked-up family that tries to find a way back together. In a lot of ways the documentary did some of that mending, and some more hurt came from the documentary. And we tried to take this one more step, to do another set of mendings. If you talk to Tony, he really changed during the filming of this movie. He had a huge leap of consciousness and other things, you know. You know, all of us did. What’s the one thing at the core of each of the characters that you tried to get? Stacy would be one of the most difficult ones, because Stacy still is quite guarded with his feelings. As Stecyk says, “He’s more interesting than he lets you know about himself.” So, I think Stacy was the person I found the most difficult, even though I’ve known him the longest and the most, trying to understand all the things that really make him tick. I feel like he has this incredible amount of integrity and morality. His morality is strong. His athletic ability — he does have a lot of competitive edge that he doesn’t like to admit, but I watched it, and I loved to watch it when he got that way. I like the kind of inner strength that his character showed in the movie, even though he’s kind of the odd man out a little bit. Yeah, he didn’t give it up. He didn’t change, like, oh, I’m supposed to be a pirate. I’m supposed to smoke dope, or whatever, he didn’t do that. He stays true to himself. And, of course, Tony, you know. Very complex. On the surface you get just all kinds of crazy comments about Tony when you ask people about him, about how selfish and aggressive and maniacal he is. You know, how many girlfriends and how many times he leaves his friends and all that stuff, and that’s on one level. And then, the charisma, the magnetism that he has. Every girl falls madly in love with Tony Alva. It’s hard to resist him, even though he’s an asshole and everybody knows the stories, but he still sucks them in. But it goes back, really, to the core of his father and his relationship to his father. He and his sister started talking more and more about the father and their issues with the father. It’s all built-in there. We just kind of layered that all in there. I would have liked to have gone a little deeper.
And then, of course, there’s Jay, an immensely compelling person. I didn’t know
what I’d find — a man in his 40s, after hearing all these stories about him and
his youth and his spontaneity. But he was equally spontaneous and crazy and wild.
Within minutes of landing in Hawaii, I was eating mangoes with him, getting smashed
by mangoes, heisting things from hotels. [Hardwicke starts laughing.]
Like he goes up to old ladies, like a fancy old woman, and goes grrrrrrh!
and scares her, and we were eating in a fancy restaurant and he smashes mangoes
on my back, and I’m like, “You asshole.” And he says, “You’re getting in the water
anyway.” He’s like a wild animal. His instincts aren’t tamed, and that’s kind
of refreshing and fabulous. You just don’t know what’s going to happen with this
guy, and that’s what’s so great about his skating. He wouldn’t repeat the same
damn trick, and he would try something crazy, and he’d turn that into a trick
when he fell.
And yet Jay’s character in the movie had a higher standard for what he expected of his friends than any of the rest. How much of that was poetic license? That’s a damn good question, but, no, we built that into the script because that is Jay in a lot of ways. Right when I met him, I just loved him right then. You really love this man, somehow. You feel for him, you care about him. When you listen to him, there’s something about him. And you believe him, too, that he’s trying. He came from a really harsh environment, and when the film finished, I heard even more harsh stories. Some of which I’d known before. I guess with PG-13, you could only go so far. We struggled with that because we wanted kids to be able to see this movie. They have a system and rules, and I don’t really get it. You’re allowed shooting and killing and all kinds of shit, but you don’t see honesty. I don’t agree with the ratings system, and I don’t understand it. But I’m not wasting my life fighting it. I want to make movies instead of battling bureaucracies. I accepted it that kids would want to see it, and I wanted kids to see it, so I tried to find a way to subtly show all the things, to subliminally imply all the things we couldn’t really show. And I think we did it. I think you can feel it. There’s a lot of little tricks we did to make you feel it. You can read into it. How did Skip evolve as one of the main characters?
We didn’t realize how Skip was going to come across in the film. He’s such the
heart and soul of the film. I don’t think I really realized it. I think, in a
way, Heath [Ledger] brought so much to it that it kept emerging stronger
and it just emerged, and you felt the strength of the boys having to overtake
their master, and that became a sort of other whole story.
Of course, the time and place was really a character. Do you think this is sort of a time capsule in a way? Maybe it could be, because I look at the scenes and I’m like, “Damn, I just want to be there.” In the end, what are you hoping the film gets across? Seeing the world in a creative way and their story of friendship and trying to come back to what was the core of that friendship before it all got crazy and marketed and sold out, and I think that’s something that’s an ongoing story for these guys. It’s an ongoing struggle for everybody. What are you doing next? The Monkey Wrench Gang . . . I went to Moab, Utah, and Arizona and met a bunch of the characters that [Edward Abbey] based his stories on, and they are fucking rad at 80. They’re crazy, they’re sharp, and they’re just nuts. And the land is so beautiful there, and I think it’s even more relevant now than then. We’ve only fucked the Earth up more and more each day.
Exhuming the past through Hollywood magic (and big studio budget): Pacific
Ocean Park, above and below, rises again.
Celluloid Z-Boys: Emile Hirsch as Jay Adams, John Robinson as Stacy Peralta
(above) and Victor Rasuk (below) as Tony Alva
Déjà Vu: A young Peralta guards the pier in a scene from LOD
Photos by Craig Stecyk