Since her daring 2003 directorial debut, “Thirteen,” Catherine Hardwicke has been telling thoughtful stories about young women trying to figure out who they are. Her latest project, Quibi’s “Don’t Look Deeper,” takes on that same theme with a sci-fi twist: The protagonist isn’t sure she’s even human. The show, released Monday, follows Aisha (Helena Howard) as she uncovers the unsettling truth about her past and those in her inner circle, including her father (Don Cheadle) and therapist (Emily Mortimer).
The 14-episode series, created by Jeffrey Lieber and Charlie McDonnell, is set “15 minutes into the future,” a timeline that places sophisticated artificial intelligence alongside Aisha and her high school classmates. (You can probably guess where this is going). Futuristic setting notwithstanding, there are clear parallels to Hardwicke’s most celebrated films including “Thirteen” and her cult favorite 2008 adaptation of “Twilight,” the bestseller by Stephenie Meyer.
Less familiar is the format of “Don’t Look Deeper” — Quibi episodes clock in at under 10 minutes — but Hardwicke welcomed the challenge. In an interview with The Washington Post, the director talked about why she signed on to direct the show, the legacy of her films and how it was to work with the “strong and vulnerable” Howard, who stunned Sundance audiences two years ago in the experimental drama “Madeline’s Madeline.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
So many of your projects are related to adolescence and identity. “Don’t Look Deeper” draws heavily on those themes. Do you see parallels between your previous films, and is that what attracted you to this project?
Yes, it was, definitely. I love the idea of — starting with “Thirteen” — where you’re trying to figure out who you are as a person. You know, like Evan Rachel Wood['s character] was trying to figure out, am I going to be the popular girl, the bad girl, the good girl, the poetry-writing good girl … or am I going wild? What direction should my life take? That’s obviously something that we’re all trying to figure out probably at any age, but especially when you’re young.
Aisha is just trying to discover that for herself. You can see she’s kind of self-reflective, doing self-portraits at the beginning [of the series] and trying to think about: “Who am I as a person? Why does something feel weird and wrong?” I thought it was such a great coming-of-age self-exploration. The answers she finds are very mind-blowing, very next-level — much more challenging than the answers most of us find when we’re on a path of self-discovery.
Why Quibi? Were the shorter episodes appealing?
Actually, the script was written for short episodes. It was written in chapters. I thought that was quite interesting when I first read the script. I was like, “Wow, that’s fascinating,” because the short format does tie in — it weaves in directly with what’s going on with [Aisha’s] memory. We tell the story in a non-linear way as her memories are being erased and restored. The technology that we’re exploring, showing it on a new technological platform with the vertical and horizontal, it all seemed to kind of work together in an interesting way. So this leap of faith — that [Quibi founder Jeffrey] Katzenberg said let’s try this format — I thought that was an interesting challenge to dive into it and see what happens.
Are there any unique challenges in shooting for that format?
Oh, yes. First of all, there were the time limits. I’ve worked on episodic television — we know we have like a half-hour of length — but 10 minutes, you even have to think in a more layered way or more compressed and efficient way of storytelling, which includes not just the writing, but also: What can you pack into the frame? What layers can you give in the frame if there’s foreground, middle ground and background, all helping to contribute to the story?
And then to make that even one step more complicated and challenging, it had to be seen in vertical and horizontal format. So, I had to have it in my mind that I was going to go back. I shot it in a landscape format, which when you watch it in landscape format, you can get the whole sense of the environment, like how the environment is impacting your character. But when you have your choice to switch to vertical format at any moment on your phone, then you get a more intimate look. Usually it’s kind of a closer shot, more of a close-up on the character. So you feel more what they’re feeling, almost like you’re FaceTiming the character. So that was just fascinating to think about designing it and shooting it, so that it would work both ways.
Was there anything that you had the actors do either paired up or individually to sort of get into their roles and get excited about filming?
[Howard] came out early [before filming] and we kind of hung out and did wardrobe tests and tried different clothes on. What feels right? She’s very opinionated. She really has to feel good about something. We did chemistry reads with the actors, just like I did in “Twilight” and “Thirteen,” too. I’ve always sort of been able to cast a leading woman first and then cast the men around her, which is kind of cool.
We had a really cool stunt coordinator — Heidi Moneymaker, that’s her name, amazingly enough — and we went out to the gym that she’s a part of. And we did training for any kind of stunt work. Helena has to do some interesting body movements and has to go into different states, physical states. So we worked on that. That was actually a lot of fun, trying to figure out how she would move in certain scenes.
And then the actors — I have a picture, it’s kind of fun — when I did the first chemistry read for “Twilight” and “Thirteen” we just did all the rehearsals over at my house to keep it more convenient. We did rehearsals and auditions here. And so in the same bed where Rob [Pattinson] and Kristen [Stewart] met and did their kissing scene, where Evan Rachel and Nikki Reed did their kissing scene, that’s where two of our characters did their first scene together.
You worked as a production designer for years before you started directing. Did your architecture background influence anything in “Don’t Look Deeper”?
We didn’t have a super giant budget like “Westworld” had to go to Barcelona and film in all those beautiful locations. But L.A. has some great architecture. So we did some — it was mid-century modern, so it still had a feeling of modern architecture.
You had these elegant modern shapes, but they weren’t, like, super brand-new, glossy, perfect. It looks like a lived-in world, which I thought was kind of fun.
One of the “This Is Us” episodes you directed was the episode where Tess comes out to her parents, Randall and Beth, which seems fitting given some of the LGBT themes in some of your other work, including “Don’t Look Deeper.” How do you approach those stories?
It’s back to identity: How can you find your authentic, true self and express it and feel good about it, and let yourself be authentic and real? I think that’s one of the revolutions going on right now in the world, where people are … celebrating and embracing and loving people that are in a struggle to find themselves, find their identity, or have found it and are speaking their truth. So, I think people get excited as an actor, when you can help represent things and show people a path — a way to feel good about yourself and understand yourself in a deeper way.
Is there anything you’ve seen in the past few years, particularly in the young adult space, that has stood out to you?
I think there’s been a lot of people making efforts to show us new kinds of characters: “Euphoria,” that was interesting. “13 Reasons Why,” “Eighth Grade.”
I love that we’ve just been diving deeper into characters. I remember when we tried to make “Thirteen” people were just like, “What? Nobody’s going to go see a movie with a 13-year-old girl. What’s the audience? What’s the market?” But now, I think people are opening up a lot more to seeing women’s stories.
“13 Reasons Why” faced a backlash for the way it portrayed sensitive topics such as suicide. Has that been a concern for you in your work?
It’s such a fascinating issue. With “Thirteen,” I had one voice versus probably about 5,000 that said, “I wish you hadn’t put the cutting scene in there because that might have encouraged other people to cut.” But really, the vast majority of feedback I’ve gotten over the years, which is over 15 years now, [has been positive]. Margot Robbie said, “Yeah, my friends and I saw that in Australia when we were young.” Skrillex said to me, “I saw your movie 26 times. I could relate to it.” It was something that people could grasp onto. “There’s somebody like me going through the tough stuff, I’m not alone.”
A movie that helps people connect and realize that they’re not the only person feeling this way can really be a lifeline and be very positive for people. It’s tricky, and obviously we don’t want to glamorize or encourage it or anything.
You’ve talked about some of the challenges you have faced as a female director, particularly in film. Do you find TV more welcoming to women?
Well, I definitely think it’s exciting because it seems like all the networks, studios, streamers — everybody’s making a big push, and the tide has really turned to hire a lot more women directors and persons of color. The tide has turned much faster, it seems, in television.
People know that they want different perspectives and they appreciate the different perspectives. So it’s a very exciting time. And, of course, there are so many great women’s stories being told on TV with leading characters that are women.