The Real Deal

Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood, the teen stars of the movie "Thirteen," are sprawled one atop the other, playing a scene in which they make out on the floor of a bedroom decorated with pictures of Christina Ricci. After sharing a swig of beer--actually a prop bottle filled with water--they experiment with several seductive kisses, their willowy bodies a tangle of braided hair and bellybutton rings.

After the first take, cinematographer Elliot Davis stops the action to adjust the stream of light shining on the bedroom wall. "What are you worried about?" asks Reed, tugging on her tank top. "While we're making out, you think people are going to be going, 'Look at that wall; it's not properly lit?' "

It was only eight months ago that Reed, then 13, sat down with a friend to try to write the kind of movie Hollywood thrives on, a dumb teen comedy. But something unexpected happened. When Reed, now a 14-year-old student entering ninth grade in Culver City, began dredging up stories from her own life, the dumb teen comedy became a harrowing drama about a young L.A. girl who grows up too fast and finds her life spiraling out of control, fueled by a volatile combination of rebellion, anger and a fascination with sex, material goods, self-mutilation and drugs.

As Reed puts it: "All this stuff came out and, call it what you like, it wasn't a dumb teen comedy."

Now something even more unexpected has happened: The movie is being made. Reed and Wood, the younger daughter in the TV drama "Once and Again," have the leading roles, along with Holly Hunter, who plays a character based on Reed's single mother. Called "Thirteen," the movie has been filming in Los Angeles for the last month, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, a respected production designer ("Vanilla Sky" and "Three Kings"). Reed co-wrote the film with Hardwicke, whom Reed has known since she was a toddler.

Teen confessional books are suddenly hot properties, at least on the cutting edge of the movie business. According to Variety, Radar Pictures recently bought "Twelve," a grim portrait of drugs and decadence among upper-crust New York teens by 18-year-old wunderkind Nick McDonell. "XXX" co-star Asia Argento plans to direct and star in an adaptation of 22-year-old writer J.T. LeRoy's "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," a series of stories about drug abuse and prostitution. And Miramax is developing "Teen Angst? Naah ...," a nonfiction account of teen life by Hunter College student Ned Vizzini.

It's doubtful that any of these projects, if made, will ever match the business "Scream" did in its opening weekend. The Hollywood teen movies that turn a profit are usually heart-tugging romances like "Save the Last Dance" or outrageous fantasies about the rituals of young boys and sex, focusing either on their efforts to lose their virginity ("American Pie") or help a girl lose hers ("Cruel Intentions").

The films that have dealt realistically with teen angst, including "Election," "Crazy/Beautiful," "The Virgin Suicides" and "Ghost World," have been box-office underachievers. Going through adolescence is tough enough; when teens go to the movies, they seem to prefer seeing an idealized version of themselves.

In fact, the major studios had little interest in "Thirteen," which relentlessly de-glamorizes the teen experience. Michael London, one of the film's producers, says the script is so unflinching that it scared most of the people who read it. The film's original financing came from equity investors assembled by producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte; Working Title Films came up with additional funding just before shooting started.

With a budget of less than $2 million, everyone has scrambled to make ends meet. Davis has shot the film in Super 16, allowing him to film everything with a hand-held camera and work without time-consuming lighting setups. Hardwicke recruited friends to work on the film and has furnished most of her own locations.

"Almost everything you see here is from my house. We took a truck over and emptied out all the furniture," says Hardwicke, who has a South Texas twang and wears a tiny white bird clip in her hair. "The actors have all worn my clothes at one time or another, and last week we used my Jeep as the camera car. When we needed to do a dolly shot, Elliot grabbed a shopping cart he saw at the side of the road."

Time is always short, especially since child labor regulations limit the 14-year-olds to seven-hour shooting days. A child welfare officer is on set to enforce the time restrictions as well as to arbitrate decency issues.

The officer, Honore Sato, is ever alert. When a suspiciously sweet cloud of smoke wafts over our head one day, she dryly explains, "Don't worry, that's an herbal cigarette, not pot." Because of the explicitness of the script, there are a lot of challenges, especially involving a scene in which the girls, armed with a bong pipe, try to seduce their 24-year-old neighbor.

"The bong is OK as long as the girls aren't actually smoking it," explains Sato. "With the seduction scene, the big issue is touching. The girls can take the guy's pants off, but they couldn't touch his zipper or crotch or his nipples."

Sex is an integral part of "Thirteen," in part because it illustrates Reed's rocky journey into adolescence, in part because it reflects the way teens absorb our culture's barrage of seductive messages. When one of the girls in the film is asked if she knows how to kiss a girl, she responds with jaded cool, "Of course I do. I practiced along with 'Cruel Intentions,' like, 50 times."

One day, Hardwicke points out a skimpy yellow thong hanging on the wall in Reed's character's bedroom. The thong is emblazoned with the slogan: "Slippery When Wet." "It's not something we made; we bought this at a store," says Hardwicke. "And then we wonder why girls are always thinking about sex? Well, look at the messages we send them. We pump all this body consciousness into their heads and then act surprised when they lose their innocence."

Hardwicke and Reed became close after Reed's parents split up and Hardwicke was dating her father, Seth Reed, a Hollywood art director. Nikki would stay with her dad every other weekend and bonded with Hardwicke, who taught Nikki's older brother how to surf and remained friendly with Nikki after Hardwicke and her father broke up.

"Catherine wasn't step-mom material," Nikki Reed explains while taking a break from filming. "She was more like your crazy, fun older sister. I liked her because she had a lot of goals and was someone I could talk to."

Hardwicke took Reed to museums and got her interested in photography. But when she returned from a movie shoot a couple of years ago, she noticed that the onetime honors student was sullen, argumentative and uninterested in school.

"I was lost," Reed says. "I was really unhappy with who I was. There were lots of times when I'd wake up and just want to die. I guess it's part of being a teenager that you always want to be somebody else. I started hanging out with these bad girls because at least I felt I belonged, even if it really wasn't the right place."

Eager for Nikki to have a creative outlet, Hardwicke got her interested in acting, which led to the idea of writing a script together. Reed found a new group of friends, started getting A's in school again and somehow turned a corner. "Who knows what changed?" she says. "Maybe you can only be depressed so long. I just woke up and it was a new day"

Reed says "Thirteen" is largely autobiographical, though as she puts it, "some things are more extreme. But the main events really happened." In the movie, Wood plays Tracy, the character based on Nikki; Reed plays Evie, her seductively cool new friend and a composite of the bad girls Nikki knew in real life.

"Part of me wanted to play myself," she says. "But I keep telling myself. 'You've already gone through it. Why should you have to do it again?' "

Reed's mom, Cheryl Houston, says she embraced the idea of Nikki chronicling the unhappiest chapter of her life. "I told her to write from the heart," she explains. Houston is on the set each day but keeps a low profile. "Nikki will tell me what they're shooting and whether it's OK for me to be around," says Houston, who works at home as a hairdresser. "And let me tell you, when she did the scene where she gave the next-door neighbor a lap dance, that was definitely a mom's not-to-be-around day."

Reed still acts like a typical teenager, shooing her mother away when she wants some privacy. But she's appreciative of her mother's trust. "She's been great," says Reed. "She didn't ask me to take anything out. And that's what makes this movie what it is--the stuff we didn't take out."

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"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday August 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 536 words Type of Material: Correction Restrictions on movie sets--In Patrick Goldstein's "Big Picture" column on Tuesday about the film "Thirteen," child welfare officer Honore Sato was misquoted about what type of activity is prohibited for teens on a movie set. The quote should have read: "The girls cannot take the guy's pants off, nor can they touch his zipper or crotch or his nipples."
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