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‘Thirteen’ tells troubling truths

Special to The Times

There used to be formalized rites of passage to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood; now some kids just fall into the chasm and barely get out. Blame it on the lack of parental guidance, blame it on the modern temptations of sex, drugs and consumer products, but it’s a particularly perilous moment for an adolescent girl. Feeling insecure about her looks, her emotions, her place in the world, she may reach out and grab onto anything as a life buoy, even if it means falling in with the wrong crowd.

“Thirteen” is about just such a girl, whose descent into rebellion hell seems strangely natural -- probably because just such a girl co-wrote the script. Nikki Reed was 13 when she worked on the screenplay; she is now 15 and enjoying her first-time credits both as co-screenwriter and as co-star in the film (opening today). Her adult collaborator is Catherine Hardwicke, a veteran production designer (“Three Kings,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Laurel Canyon”) who had long wanted to direct and who has known Nikki since she was a child.

Sitting in the eclectically decorated living room of Hardwicke’s bungalow just off the Venice boardwalk, the two describe how the movie came about -- and it sounds as much mission of mercy as career move.

Hardwicke is tanned and taut, her blond hair cascading in a hundred small, tight braids. Reed is slender and pretty, with long brown hair curling at the ends and wearing a tank top. They sit next to each other on the sofa, Reed snuggled up close.

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The movie literally opens with a slap in the face. Two girls, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Evie (Reed), are taking turns sniffing aerosol from a can, and as they get increasingly high, they dare each other to strike out -- and they do, with increasing violence.

It’s a disturbing scene of modern girlhood gone awry, part of Tracy’s seduction by the siren song of “the popular girls” and all the things they do, embodied by Evie.

So this drug induces a kind of numbness?

“It slows everything down,” says Reed, with a certain residual relish. “It makes your body tingle, and it feels like little things crawling all over your body.” Here she reaches out to Hardwicke and taps her fingers around her friend’s arm and forehead, as if playing a piano. “It’s a really cool feeling, but it lasts for only 20 seconds, so you want more and more.”

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“My God, there’s so much stuff going on with kids that we don’t know about,” Hardwicke says with a grimace.

They met when Hardwicke was dating Nikki’s father, a divorced architect interested in getting into the movie business. They were together four years, then drifted apart, says the director, but she adored the kids, Nikki and her older brother Nathan, so she made an effort to see them. “I still planned to be in the kids’ lives,” she says, “so I started going to their mom to get my hair cut.” Like Tracy’s mother in the movie, Melanie (played by Holly Hunter), Reed’s mother is a hairdresser who works out of her home.

As Reed entered sixth grade, Hardwicke noticed a dramatic and disturbing change -- the girl was dressing up way beyond her years and was often angry toward her mother, with whom she had been close.

“I knew I felt really horrible about myself, but I thought it was part of this greater ... how do I explain it?” Reed begins. “I remember being really angry at my mom all the time. There was a Thanksgiving when I was literally on the floor screaming and crying, people were taking furniture out of my room to use it for the table, I was off the dial, dramatic, angry, mean.”

“Her mom and her dad, they said they didn’t know how to help her because she’s rebelling so hard,” Hardwicke recalls, “but it seemed like she could hang out with me.” So she began to invite Nikki to stay with her, for days and weeks at a time.

Meanwhile, she was trying to think of some way out of this downward spiral for her surrogate daughter. One day she sat down with Reed to plan some positive activities for her to engage in. Reed was enthusiastic. “I was going to enroll in ballet, I was going to enroll in acting classes, I was going to try to get on the sports team at school,” Reed says. “It felt so good to know Catherine was interested enough to sit down and make this list with me, because my parents could have made this list with me, but I wouldn’t let them.”

“You wouldn’t give them the time, either,” Hardwicke adds gently.

“No, but there’s a weird thing -- a parent has to know even when your kids say ‘Don’t hug me,’ you hug them,” she retorts. Reed is smart enough to see her own contradictions. “That’s what Melanie and Tracy do at the end.”

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Finally, Hardwicke and Reed decided to write a film script together -- a typical teen comedy at first, but Hardwicke soon realized that the really interesting story was in Nikki and the group of “popular girls” that she had fallen in with at school.

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Capturing real experience

Today adolescence is fraught with risks, Hardwicke acknowledges, perhaps in a way it wasn’t when she was growing up in Texas. “Suddenly drugs are a possibility, suddenly sex is a possibility, suddenly driving is a possibility,” she says. “It’s a whole new world you never had to experience before. That’s one of the things we wanted to capture in the movie.” She points to her friend. “As you can see, Nikki has all this explosive energy.” This was partly expressed through the restless, handheld photography throughout the film.

“We had too much freedom,” Reed admits, and she points out that she had two separated parents to play off each other. At 11 she got them to agree to let her have her tongue pierced, for example, by telling each that the other had already consented.

“She knew how to work it,” says Hardwicke.

As the film suggests, there are also plenty of media exhortations to lead the consumerist, fast-track life. Reed and her friends learned to put on makeup and to dress from teen magazines, and what they couldn’t afford they shoplifted.

In early January 2002 Hardwicke and Reed sat down and wrote a first draft in six days. They were guided by the fact that “it would be similar to Nikki’s life,” and the result, says Hardwicke, made her think, “There’s something powerful here, something electric.”

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She polished up the script, changing the names, and two weeks later she had already interested two producers -- Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, whom she knew from “Laurel Canyon,” and Michael London, whom she met at a party. Then came the hard part: raising money. Despite her industry connections, Hardwicke found that people “were terrified to make the movie” because of all the unknowns, as well as the difficult subject matter.

Ultimately she decided to bite the bullet and told everyone she would begin shooting that summer, even if she had to mortgage her house, so that Nikki could be in it and still be the right age. Levy-Hinte managed to raise a million dollars (later, Working Title tossed in half a million), and the team went after Holly Hunter to play the mother. Hunter agreed to a meeting in New York, and Hardwicke took a red-eye flight to meet her, armed with a card Nikki had made expressly for her. The actress was receptive to the project but asked for more aspects to her character. Hardwicke wrote in three extra scenes and “enriched” others, and Hunter agreed to take the part.

While they originally thought Reed would play herself, producers questioned whether she could carry the lead -- and besides, she had no marquee value. So after a wide search, Hardwicke cast Wood (TV’s “Once and Again”) as Tracy and persuaded the producers to let Reed take the Evie role.

Facing a low budget and labor regulations that allowed the girls to be on set no more than 9 1/2 hours a day, including lunch and makeup, Hardwicke devised a tight 24-day shooting schedule. They did manage to fit in one week of rehearsals before starting. To save money, they shot on super 16 millimeter film, and Hardwicke called on whatever resources she could; sets were furnished with things from her own house.

In the end, Hardwicke was pleased with the intense performances she extracted from her actors, teen and adult alike. “Every performance that comes from your heart -- which is what they all did -- you don’t know where it’s going to go,” she says. “Some things work and some things don’t, but they found it -- being there, that moment, in their heart and in their soul.”

Today Reed gets along much better with her mother, with whom she still lives, although she attributes this as much to natural growth and maturity as to the film. Still, the writing and making of “Thirteen” made her think about her situation a lot more closely: “It helped broaden my perspective.”

“My task was to capture as much of Nikki as possible but also add in texture for the parents,” says Hardwicke.

Reed agrees. “Melanie has to be a character, not just Tracy’s mom.”


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