Catherine Hardwicke is back in the driver’s seat of a new film, Miss Bala, which stars Gina Rodriguez as a young Latina from Los Angeles who is accidentally thrust into the perilous world of Mexican cartels at the US-Mexico Border. The film is a remake of the 2011 Gerardo Naranjo film of the same name.
Known for Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown and, of course, the cultural phenomenon Twilight, Hardwicke is back in her element telling the story of a strong young woman navigating a dark and dangerous world.
Check out an exclusive clip of a scene from the film featuring Gina Rodriguez doing some fast driving, then read on to find out what Hardwicke told Fandango about Miss Bala, why Gina is a great action star, and why she chose to shoot the film entirely at the often-volatile location of the US-Mexico border.
DaVette See for Fandango: This clip from Miss Bala is pretty harrowing. In it, Gina Rodriguez is driving fast and recklessly, and then jumps out of a car that then explodes. So, what’s the film about and how does this clip fit into the story?
Catherine Hardwicke: Gina's character, Gloria, is a make-up artist from Los Angeles who goes down to Tijuana to visit her friend. They go to a club and the friend gets kidnapped by a cartel, and she’s trying to figure out how to get her friend back and becomes kind of a suspect when she's questioning and looking for the friend. She gets kidnapped by them, too.
The charismatic leader, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova - amazing actor - tells her that if she does a little favor for him, they'll help her find her friend. “You have a driver’s license. Okay, you know how to drive. Drive this car. Just follow us.” She thinks, “Okay, this is the answer to help find my friend. They're armed anyways. I guess I've got to do what they say.” So, she drives that car and has no idea what's going to happen and she doesn't know what's in it.
Fandango: So, her motivation is really just helping her friend and not getting hurt herself?
Hardwicke: Right. She figures that the police haven't helped her. She's got to cooperate with this criminal gang to get her friend back. That's the best thing she can figure out to do at that time.
Fandango: In the original film, that character wanted to become a beauty queen, to win Miss Baja. Does Gina’s character want the same in your film?
Hardwicke: No, not at all. Our writer, Gareth [Dunnet-Alcocer], has definitely expanded on the story and made it his own story, basically. So, it is Gloria’s friend, Suzu, who wants to win this beauty contest so she can get a scholarship. And Gloria comes down, because she's a make-up artist, to do her make-up, give her a whole cool look for the contest. But Gloria doesn’t want to be in the beauty contest.
Fandango: What attracted you to doing a remake of the 2011 film and what's the biggest challenge you found in taking on a remake?
Hardwicke: To me, since the script was so different, it wasn't really like a remake. It was almost a new movie - just taking off on the same idea that comes from true news stories about narco novias in Mexico and Central America. A cartel leader will take a beauty pageant winner as their wife or girlfriend, then coerce them into working with them. There've been multiple stories, before and since the original Miss Bala, that are very similar to this kind of situation. One week, their picture will be in the newspaper as a beauty pageant winner; a month later, they're driving the get-away car for a gang.
Also, I thought the original film was very interesting, beautifully shot and everything, but the character is extremely passive, which was extremely annoying. Maybe it worked in 2011, but I don’t think you want to see that kind of movie now, where the woman just lets everything happen to her and doesn't fight back. The passivity of that character wasn't very believable or exciting to me. In this version, she's really trying to be smart and to actively figure out how to get out of all these difficult situations.
Also, we’re playing with the notion of identity a lot more in this movie than the first movie which was all about Mexico and everyone was from Mexico. In this movie, both Gina’s character and Ismael’s character, Lino, are straddling both sides of the border, with one foot in each culture because they lived both in the US and in Mexico. There's a great line where Lino says, "I feel like I'm too Mexican to be gringo and too gringo to be Mexican." This is a kind of identity crisis that a lot of people feel. They grew up in America but their skin color is brown, and they're not embraced as a “real American.” But when they go to Mexico, they don't speak Spanish perfectly, so they're not Mexican. So, we're digging a lot deeper into identity.
Fandango: The clip had a lot of action and so did the trailer. Were you stepping out of your comfort zone as a director, or were there any particular challenges that you faced, shooting action sequences?
Hardwicke: Lords of Dogtown, which was a skateboard movie - and the boys were always on wheels, always moving. In that case, I directed surf sequences, action sequences, fight sequences, and I directed from the back of motorcycles, from the back of jet skis in the water, which was all super fun. And Twilight has big fight and action sequences, vampire baseball, all kinds of crazy stuff, so I've actually always directed action, and I've written different action movies.
I do action adventure vacation rock climbing. This Christmas, I did the mountain trekking in Peru for seven days, south of high pass to Machu Picchu. I do surfing, mountain biking. I love action. So, for this movie, I was just like, “Yeah, let's make it even bigger than it reads on the page! Let's make it more exciting!” I have a little briefcase full of little cars, and I make a map to figure out how this car is going to run here, this here is going to blow up-
Fandango: Sounds like you were more of a Hot Wheels kid than a Barbie kid.
Hardwicke: Yeah, well, both. My Barbies would go on trips to the moon in their spaceship which was the pots and pans under the sink. Those would crash. I love it all.
Fandango: That's awesome.
Hardwicke On the film, I also had really cool stunt coordinators and a great second unit director and we got to use a Russian Arm. We used helicopters, drones. I mean, I had a great team and we just blew it up and acted everything out and tried to make it as real as possible. Also, Gina is a very good action heroine because she's very good at boxing. She's grown up boxing and she's very athletic. So, that was pretty cool.
Fandango: Gina’s character, of course, looks rightfully terrified in the clips, but sounds like she knew how to handle action sequences. Did she do any of her own stunts?
Hardwicke:Yes, she pretty much did everything that she was allowed to. There was one time where they did not want her to drive the car right through this fire and explosion. She was like, "I want to do it. I want to do it." We're like, "It's not safe. We cannot let you do it." And she got into fantastic shape. Her fiancé, Joe, is a trainer and he trained her and got her on a bad-ass diet. And she would be running all day, even between scenes. It would be 110 degrees and we'd be out there in the desert and then I'd see her sparring with her dad at lunch. Even though she'd been working out all day, she put the gloves on, he put the mitts on, and they would be sparring. I'm like, "Dude, you're insane." She is just the most high energy person. She's got great energy.
Fandango: There have been a number of female-led action films cropping up, so what will the audience find in your film that makes it stand out in that crowd?
Hardwicke: One thing is that we really try to do is keep her grounded like a real person. She has not been trained by a military operation. She's not like some bad-ass assassin or, you know, like Atomic Blonde, like Charlize Theron who was amazing. All those movies are great, but that's not our girl.
Fandango: She's not a superhero, she's like an “everywoman”? She's relatable?
Hardwicke: Right, she’s literally a make-up artist, so, you may feel more like, "Oh, that could happen to me." Sadly, we've seen these kind of shoot outs in nightclubs and other places recently and think, “What if that happened to me? How would I get out of there? How would I escape? Would I be brave enough to do it?” You can really put yourself into Gina’s character.
We also got to shoot all of Miss Bala in Tijuana. Nothing is in LA or Atlanta or anything like that. We have all real people from Tijuana involved in it, and we have an all Mexican cast and crew. People really haven't shot in Tijuana, Valle de Guadalupe, Rosarito. So, it's something that you haven't seen - a new texture. A lot of it was filmed right along the border wall which you can see in the background. It’s a place that we haven't really put a spotlight on before. People don't think about going down there to shoot. A lot of people were like, "Aren't you scared to go?" I'm like, "No." Because I grew up on the Mexican border in Texas and I love the border. It is a very interesting culture and just so fertile, and the cross-cultural juxtaposition, the mix of both sides, is so interesting down there. Then, there was the grittiness and the realness of the place. During the shooting of a big sequence, it's kind of at a bull ring, we had to be shut down because there was a high-speed chase going right through our area. It was pretty intense.
Fandango: Some are saying that the fact that we had a lot of female-led and female-directed films coming out or that have come out is a fad, that's going to fade. How do you see it? Are the doors that are opening going to stay open?
Hardwicke: I really hope so. I mean, even the last study that came out found that we actually decreased the number of female directors this year in top 100 grossing films. So, we know we've still got to keep fighting and keep trying and keep opening minds. But I feel like people aren't going to give up on it. There's so many talented women that are in film schools. The ratio is much closer to 50-50. We just want to fix all the leaks in the pipeline, as they say, to get from film school to actually having a beautiful sustainable career making movies. That's what we want to strengthen, that pipeline. And more people get inspired, the more they’ll see somebody up there at the Academy Awards or making a movie.
I had this really neat experience at the Academy where I was doing a class or something. This young, twenty-one-year-old girl from Peru, said that ten years ago she'd seen on the DVD that I was director of Twilight. And she said, "Wait a minute, maybe I could be a director, too." Cut to ten years later, she's there in the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, from a small village in Peru, and she's got a short film that made it to the Academy, to this screening.
Fandango: That's amazing.
Hardwicke: Yeah. It's like, “You see it, you can be it.” Like the Geena Davis Institute says, the more people are getting inspired to try, they're able to convince their parents, "Hey, that person made a living. Send me to film school." So, we're just building up some kind of momentum, I think, yes.
Fandango: My last question, which I think you just answered, is about Twilight. How do you feel it has impacted your career and how did it impacts the way Hollywood makes movies?
Hardwicke: I teach and do talks a lot at film schools, at Sundance Institute, at the labs, and I hear a lot of feedback from young women saying that, after they watched Twilight, they decided they were going to become a director. I love hearing that. If that's one of the big impacts, that's fantastic. Of course, I wish that the other Twilight films had been directed by women, the other Hunger Games and all the kind of “inspired by” films, had embraced female directors. But then, we got Wonder Woman. So that's cool. So as more and more films break ground and people are given chances, that's pretty inspiring.
And then Twilight did many other crazy things like, for instance, some people became vegetarians because we had Bella be a vegetarian. Many people started touring and appreciating the Pacific Northwest. Architects have been inspired by the Cullen house to design better houses. It has all these fun little legacy moments that trickle into the culture.
Fandango: People have said Twilight helped redefine what it means to be a fan and a geek, and that Twilight fans made Comic-Con what it is today.
Hardwicke: Yeah, we went to Comic-Con, New York Comic-Con, for the 10th anniversary and that's what they said. You never thought of all the fan girls before Twilight and then people realized this is a force to be reckoned with. That's pretty cool. We like that.
Miss Bala opens in theaters February 1. Check out the full trailer below.