At home in ‘Dogtown’: Catherine Hardwicke directs skateboarding’s seminal tale

After moving to Los Angeles from her native South Texas in the late 1980s, Catherine Hardwicke--then an architect and budding production designer with ambitions to direct--was attending an acting class with the late, great coach Peggy Feury. One day in class, she recalls, "I saw this guy doing a monologue, and his activity was slapping stickers on a skateboard. I was, like, 'Whoa. Trippy, dude. I want him to be my friend.'"

The "dude" was Stacy Peralta, a founding father of present-day, co-founder of skateboard company Powell-Peralta, and, more recently, award-winning documentary filmmaker (Dogtown and Z-Boys, Riding Giants), director, and screenwriter (Lords of Dogtown). Hardwicke got to Know Peralta and gradually became immersed in the surf- and skate culture.

He introduced her to friends such as Craig Stecyk, the artist-photographer-journalist who, in a series of groundbreaking magazine articles in the '70s, had documented the nascent phenomenon of the Zephyr-Boys: a group of young surfers, including Peralta, Jay Adams, and Tony Alva, who took their aggressive, surf-style moves to the rough streets of "Dogtown" in Venice, to asphalt banks and empty swimming pools, and turned skateboarding vertical.

Then, by chance, Hardwicke was hired as production designer on the skateboard movie Thrashin' which drew her further into the culture--and on a Suicidal Tendencies music video called "Possessed to Skate." She moved to Venice, to a street where skaters are a constant presence, and she started learning how to surf.

When she heard about Lords of Dogtown, Peralta's theatrical film version of the Z-Boys' story that would follow his acclaimed 2001 documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, David Fincher was already attached to direct. Hardwicke was "jealous" but didn't see any way that she could be involved.

She had left behind her production design career--her credits include Laurel Canyon, Vanilla Sky, Three Kings, SubUrbia, 2 Days in the Valley, and Tombstone--and had just made her directorial and screenwriting debut with Thirteen, the implosive tale of teen-girl crisis that won her the Director's Award at Sundance in 2003 and several honors for its cast.

When Fincher left the project, Peralta saw Thirteen and recommended Hardwicke--who "just about flipped out." She took the meeting armed with photos from her skateboarding movie and her own surfing exploits, and with a gut-level passion for the story and its characters.

True fiction: Though it began 30 years ago, the Z-Boys' story has an immediacy for many of Hardwicke's Venice neighbors, and they didn't let her forget it during the shooting of the film. "When I was making the movie, many times I would just walk out my door or people would ring my doorbell and almost threaten me: 'You better get this right, man.'

I was, like, if I don't do this fight, I'm going to have to move. There are a lot of people that really feel it's their story. Dogtown means something heavy to them ... so that's really tricky."

Hardwicke hoped that involving the real Z-Boys in the making of the film would help her interpret their story authentically. As soon as she got the go-ahead, she hired Alva onto the production as a consultant--to scout locations, approve wardrobe, find the swimming pools, and train the skaters.

At home in ‘Dogtown’: Catherine Hardwicke directs skateboarding’s seminal tale

"There were always at least two or three of the real dudes there, everyday, watching me," says Hardwicke with a laugh. "It was really good to have them around because they just know it in their bones. It's so much in their heart and soul, and they remember all this stuff. They remember exactly how they would skate up to a girl and, like, hook their arm around her and pick her up. They got the moves, still."

It was a gift for the actors to have their real-life counterparts onset, she says: "Heath Ledger spent a lot of time with Skip Engblom [one of the owners of the Zephyr Shop that was the Z-Boys' home base], and each of the kids spent a lot of time with their real person, skating and hanging out with them."

Hardwicke talked to her cast about how to use the research; the idea wasn't "to imitate or match mannerisms, but catch the essence of the person," she says, although, Ledger also "came quite close to matching the cadence, the rhythm, the speech patterns, and the accent of the real Skip." She says, "In a way, I think we cast people who were able to really connect with the spirit of the real person, and some people in an uncanny way.

For example, [actor] John Robinson and Stacy Peralta [have] very similar characteristics and kinds of integrity in real life."

The director needed very specific things from her cast, most of whom had to skate believably and portray real people, but she saw one person only for each of the five lead characters: Engblom, Alva's sister--played by Hardwicke's Thirteen-collaborator Nikki Reed--and the three central Z-Boys. Emile Hirsch (Imaginary Heroes) was an easy choice to play the wildest, most naturally talented skater of the group, Jay Adams.

Says Hardwicke, "Right when I'd just barely gotten the green light, he walked into my office. He goes, 'Well, I'm going to be Jay Adams.' He grabbed a skateboard that I had sitting there and did a little kick-flip and messed around and talked to me for a while. He walked out of the room about 30 minutes later and I'm, like, 'Yep, he's gonna be Jay Adams.' I never thought of anybody else.

"Then my assistant, Beanie Barnes, suggested Victor Rasuk from Raising Victor Vargas [to play Alva].... As soon as she said his name, I was, like, 'That's it; clone deal. It's got to be him.' Same thing with John [Robinson] when I saw Elephant.... They all came in, and I read scenes with them. They just seemed to have the right attitude and spirit. It was kind of great."

Yin and yang: With Lords of Dogtown, Hardwicke had the opportunity to take an alternate view of that volatile moment of early adolescence that she explored in Thirteen--and the boys' story, with its mini-epic, skate-warrior quality, is an interesting counterpart to the girls' story of everyday self-destruction.

Hardwicke sees the films as sharing an explosiveness and larger cultural implications, though their gestures are different. Thirteen, she points out, "is also about a cultural phenomenon .... It's about the power of the media and advertising, and how that makes girls feel about themselves and their bodies.... In every single country we visited for Thirteen, morns and girls were coming up and talking about their pressures and [noting] very strong similarities to the movie. So, in some ways, it's more universal."

At home in ‘Dogtown’: Catherine Hardwicke directs skateboarding’s seminal tale

Lords of Dogtown has plenty of easy hooks--its '70s setting, unusual locations, cute boys with cool moves---that could distract a filmmaker into turning out fluff. But Hardwicke approached the film, like her directorial debut, as a character piece about misfit kids responding to poverty, dysfunctional family lives, and a surfeit of new choices.

"What was interesting," says Hardwicke, "is where the girls chose to react in a self-destructive way ... the boys in Dogtown, I think, reacted in a really constructive, creative way. They took this shitty environment, the ghetto by the sea and the cracked sidewalk, and they figured out how to do a skateboard trick on the cracked sidewalk."

With its PG-13 rating, Lords of Dogtown will likely reach a younger audience than the director's R-rated first film. Hardwicke is asked what she hopes those youngest viewers will take away from the Z-Boys--who are portrayed in a world seemingly without school or any meaningful parental authority--and she says, "With the family lives they had, the neighborhood they grew up in, and the gang influence and everything, [the Z-Boys] could've just turned out to be criminals--all of them--and they didn't.

They turned out to innovate moves and create a whole little cultural phenomenon.... They had a passion for what they did, even if other people thought it was lame, or laughed at them, or didn't get it, like their parents or their teachers. They stuck with what they believed in, and they were creative with things that other people would think were ugly.

"And there's the helmet problem," she adds, thinking of the skateboarders who may want to imitate what they see on the screen. Hardwicke got insight into the physical peril of the sport when she fell headfirst into an empty pool near the end of production, fortunately escaping permanent damage. "In the '70s they didn't have helmets and equipment and pads, so we kept it true to what they did," she says. "But I will be the first one to say after my injury: Wear a helmet when you're skating a pool. The last shot of Jay; he's wearing a helmet."