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The Big Picture PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The Real Deal

Nikki Reed meant to write a teen comedy but came up with something truer

August 13, 2002|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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.

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."

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.

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