I was born in Harlingen,Texas and I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley on the Mexican border. My father was a farmer – cotton, sugar cane, onions, cabbage, carrots – and my mother was a school teacher. It was a culturally remote area, but my childhood included “Huck Finn” moments every weekend on the Rio Grande River swimming, rope-swinging and building fires. I now live in Venice Beach, California and work as a film and TV director, writer and producer.
Describe your path from being an architect to production designer to director. My senior year of high school, an aptitude test showed that I scored high in “structural visualization” and the alluring word “architect” was mentioned. What a revelation! All my life I had loved drawing and painting and making little “towns” in the backyard. Architecture was the perfect fit – and the University of Texas was a creative crucible. I painted and sculpted crazy designs and even dressed up like my buildings and wore birds in my hair. I loved architecture! Five years later, I had a professional degree and was back in my hometown designing and building a 20-acre subdivision. My father mortgaged one of our farms to buy the land. I laid out a plan which included a 3 acre lake, two swimming pools, brick walking paths, and sculptures of the owners’ faces on their houses. I based the home designs on passive solar principles and a wonderful book called “Community and Privacy” which aims to create neighborhoods where the residents actually know each other and interact. My father and I dug up tiny willow trees from the banks of the Rio Grande and planted them. Today the neighborhood is lush and shady and the community is thriving and friendly. The problem for me was that everyone wanted me to duplicate the same designs that were already successful. When it comes to building, banks and owners are usually conservative – they’re worried about resale value. I (mistakenly) thought that the film business would encourage creativity, so I headed to Hollywood and enrolled in graduate school at UCLA. As much as I loved architecture, I immediately fell in love with film. Pow! A whole new world to learn about! Six months later, I made a short animated film about a dancing bull terrier and it won a big prize and traveled across the country. I got an agent and thought I was set for life! I wrote scripts and made another short film, by my senior thesis film at UCLA was going to cost at least $50 grand and I didn’t have the money. A producer I met at a concert thought I would be a good production designer since I was an architect, so he hired me on a low-budget skateboard movie starring Josh Brolin, called “Thrashin”. It was wild, dangerous guerrilla-style filmmaking – mostly without permits. I was naïve to the Los Angeles scene and found myself alone re-decorating an active crack house – trying to pay a tweaker to help me paint. Another day I spray-painted over some graffiti and the hardcore gang members surrounded me, threatening me. I proudly said: “I’m working on a movie!” Unimpressed, they rollered over all my artwork with black latex that night and graffitied choice phrases about me. I got to build skateboard ramps and paint them crazy and burn them down. Movie-making was exhilarating – I was hooked. I worked my way up to more legit films and got to work with some great directors – David O. Russell, Costa Gavras, Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater, Lisa Cholodenko. I designed and built authentic western towns in Arizona for “Tombstone”, Iraqi villages on a copper mine for “Three Kings”, a natural history museum complete with all the taxidermy displays for “Mad City”, futuristic warplanes and bunkers for “Tank Girl” and Tom Cruise’s luxury apt. for “Vanilla Sky”. In between every production design job, I would write my own scripts, make short films, take acting and directing classes. I wanted to make my own films and I finally got the chance with “Thirteen.” I co-wrote the script with a 13-year-old family friend, Nikki Reed, who was going through some very tough times in middle school. She had turned model – beautiful at 13 and male attention, drugs, her parent’s divorce, and peer pressure had taken its toll. I had known her since she was 5 years old, but suddenly this creative kid hated her parents and the world. Somehow, she didn’t hate me, so I started helping out her parents – taking her to museums, teaching her to surf and to draw. But she really wasn’t interested in those things – she wanted to be an actress. So I took her to acting classes and gave her books by Meisner and Haagen. I suggested we write a script and if it came out good, I would direct it and she would star in it. This seemed like a crazy dream since neither of us had done these jobs before, but we hunkered down and wrote the script over the Christmas break and five months later we made the film. It was back to low-budget, no-permit guerilla-style filmmaking, but it worked somehow. All the lessons I’d learned from the directors and producers and actors paid off. Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, and Nikki put their hearts into the project – and their work was amazing. (Evan and Holly got Golden Globe nominations, Nikki won an Indie Spirit Award, and Holly got a Academy Award nomination.) Thirteen won the director’s award at Sundance and top awards at film festivals around the world. Somehow telling Nikki’s very specific personal story touched people of all ages and many other countries. After “Thirteen”, I have directed two TV pilots and five other films, including the first “Twilight” in Portland, Oregon.
What is the best part about being a director?Creative collaborations are a rush. Working with a writer, the actors, the composer, the production designer, the cinematographer, etc… When you get into a creative “jam session” – these can be the most exhilarating moments. On “Lords of Dogtown” for example, I worked with Heath Ledger and Emile Hirsch. We were about to film a very emotional scene down on the beach, after the old P.O.P. pier burns down. The actors weren’t feeling the dialogue, so I pulled out a yellow pad and a Bic pen and the three of us brainstormed and re-wrote the scene, right there in the sand. I just found that yellow paper a couple of days ago.
What is the worst ? Movies are very expensive – even the low budget ones. “Thirteen” was non-union, under the radar, but it still cost $1.5 million dollars all in. So it’s very difficult to get the money to make a film unless it’s a big studio film with big stars based on a pre-existing property like a comic boy, a toy, a TV show. Directors struggle for years trying to make a movie happen… you pour your heart and soul and time and artistry into it and you never know if it will get made. I often look at the “Ghosts in the Garage” …. Boxes full of scripts, lookbooks, presentations, music, short trailers, audition tapes, storyboards, set designs, concept drawings – everything I’ve made trying to get actors and financiers to make a film. So many projects that would be terrific films never get made. Every year at the Oscars, we hear the stories – this year it was “Dallas Buyers Club” that took over 20 years to get to the screen!
Early in your career, before you had any real success, what fed your determination to keep trying? I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17, so I’ve always had a lot of energy. I like to make things – I like to write, to draw, to brainstorm, to plant, to build. I’ve never liked sitting around watching other people do stuff or watch sports. I want to be doing things myself. So I just have to keep making things! I might allow myself to have a pity party — cry, and write horrible things in a journal and hate myself, but after a while, that is pretty boring. A $40 mini trampoline is a good way to take out your anger and frustation.
How do you deal with the disappointment/despair when your work isn’t getting the attention you desire? See Above
What would you tell the younger you, just starting to direct? Only do projects you really care about. Don’t get tempted by shiny objects.
Are there some rituals you follow in your creative process that help sustain you? I’m outside about 1/3 of every day. Whenever I have to take a phone call to agents, financiers, etc. about all the frustrating non-creative stuff, I walk out to the garden and prune leaves, pull weeds, etc. while I’m talking. Just touching a tree helps. I also like exercise – biking, hiking, swimming, surfing, paddle-boarding, jumping on the mini-tramp. This is a great time to dream….
How closely do you follow your original ideas when directing a film? I was looking at some of the photos I took when I was scouting locations in the forest for Twilight. I had my assistants pose for me – and so many of the shots ended up exactly the same in the final film. I arrange people in the space and try different angles – “structural visualization.” I usually have pretty solid ideas about blocking and staging and angles when I get to the set, but sometimes inspiration hits and I’ll come up with even better ideas on the spot. Or the cinematographer or the actor will do something unexpected that makes things better. In terms of finding real, true moments between the actors on the set – it’s important to create the space for that… sometimes a scene doesn’t feel real or interesting and you have to add another layer to make it come alive. It’s important to me to do my homework – writing shot lists, doing blocking diagrams, etc…. but to also be open to new ideas on the spot. On “Thirteen”, a young Production Assistant, Alden Wallace, was in charge of taking care of the characters chickens that they kept in the yard. Alden ran in one day holding a chicken and showed me a “trick”… the chicken’s head was like a gyroscope – it stayed level no matter how much you turned or rotated the chicken. I decided that scene had to be in the film – and if you watch it, you’ll see Holly Hunter’s boyfriend demonstrating the “Chicken Trick.” It’s a much –needed funny moment in a pretty intense film.
Tell me about balancing your work with being in a romantic relationship? I’m lucky that my boyfriend is also in the film business and he understands the insane hours we have to work. We take 2 weeks off at Christmas and try to do something interesting – this year we hiked and biked in Ecuador and the Galapagos.
How do you get through writer’s blocks while writing scripts? Since I’m often working on developing projects to directs, I end up doing a lot of rewriting on existing scripts where I’m trying to make things better. I also often work on projects that are based on books or on life stories. Even so, you have to get inspired to create dramatic, cinematic scenes that express the character’s truths. I am surrounded with art and photography books that I’ve collected over the years and I often flip through my favorites or search out inspiring imagery on line. I also live right on Venice Beach and I can just walk outside my door and observe interesting people from all over the world. Most of the original scripts I’ve written were from some inspiration or burning idea… so writer’s block wasn’t really an issue.
How do find the strength to continue? See question above.
What projects are you working on now? There are two interesting films that I hope will get made. One is based on the book “Age of Miracles” – a poetic look at our changing environment through a teenage girl’s eyes . She wakes up one day to find that the world rotation has slowed – 6 minutes the first day, 15 minutes the next… then 3 hours… Suddenly days are 22 hours long. Half the population feels like the world is ending, others are trying to adapt to changing climate, food production, circadian rhythms. The other project is set in London, called “Miss You Already” – it’s based on a true story of two wickedly funny sexy friends dealing with a painful disease.
What are your vices? Chocolate. Especially chocolate with interesting things inside like sea salt or chile peppers.
What kind of pets do you have? For thirteen years, I had a crazy little beloved cat named The Black Velvet Luxury Item. She recently left for kitty heaven…. ☹
What is the last wild animal you saw? Squirrels sneak up on me in the garden everyday and bees are drinking nectar outside my window right now as I’m typing. I also see dolphins at the beach in the morning, and pelicans and all kinds of sea fowl. And tons of hummingbirds. In the Galapagos over the holidays I swam with sea lions, saw giant tortoises, penguins, and blue-footed boobies!
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I am so happy to feature my sister on Light Seeking Eyes!!! Catherine, Jack and me in the early years in Texas….
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