‘Miss Bala’ Director Catherine Hardwicke on How Gina Rodriguez’s Heroine Is Symbol of ‘Female Empowerment’

Plus, the director talks to TheWrap about showing Mexico in a different light and why the shoot-out scene was the most fun scene to film

Last Updated: February 4, 2019 @ 4:45 PM

“Miss Bala” director Catherine Hardwicke was ready to show Mexico in a different light and portray a female character that was both a badass and could be the quiet girl next door – and that’s what she got in her new movie starring Gina Rodriguez. As Hardwicke puts it, all in the “agency of female empowerment.”

“Miss Bala” is based on the 2011 Mexican film of the same name and is set at the U.S.-Mexico border. It follows Gloria (Rodriguez) who must take matters into her own hands when her friend is kidnapped in Tijuana.

“The original character is very passive — she doesn’t do anything active to save herself and many bad things happen to her,” Hardwicke said in an interview with TheWrap. “We made a bigger effort to show Gloria with agency and trying to figure out how to save herself… I’ve always loved Mexico, I’ve always loved the culture and that fertile mix of two cultures along a border. All these combinations I got excited about, and I thought, let’s do a re-imagination of the story and identity. I got excited to show Mexico in a different way.”

For Hardwicke, Gloria represents female empowerment, who must discover her strength and skills in the midst of a crisis.

“One thing we were really interested in doing was making her feel really grounded,” she explained. “A real girl that could be your best friend — she’s your makeup artist, she takes yoga classes, but she hasn’t been trained as a Navy SEAL. These women are just super badasses, but we still wanted to make it feel like she is an ordinary girl.”

On a personal note, Hardwicke is pleased with the progress she’s seen in the hiring of more female directors, but adds that they still have a long way to go.

“There are certain barriers to break down in terms of a male actor to be directed by a woman,” she said. “Jack Nicholson was directed by a woman in ‘What Women Want,’ Brad Pitt had his wife Angelina Jolie direct him in a movie, but there are not too many times when men are at the top of their game and they are being directed by a woman.”

“Miss Bala” also stars Ismael Cruz Cordova and Anthony Mackie, and hit theaters last Friday. It grossed $6.8 million its opening weekend.

See below for TheWrap’s Q&A with Hardwicke.

Why remake the 2011 film? What drew you to the story?

I had not seen the 2011 movie, and [producers] Pablo Cruz and Kevin Misher, they had the idea. This movie has a kernel of something that could be opened up and made more accessible to more people. It was Mexico-centric, and it was made at a time where they were symbolically showing the violence in Mexico. The original character is very passive — she doesn’t do anything active to save herself and many bad things happen to her.

Then there was the idea that the characters lived on both sides of the border, and they didn’t feel Gringo enough to feel fully accepted in America, but they weren’t fluent enough in Spanish to be Mexican. A lot of people now straddle that moment in time: the identity crisis. Who am I? Where do I fit in? My Vietnamese dentist told me she went back to Vietnam to visit but doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t feel accepted there or here. We made a bigger effort to show Gloria with agency and trying to figure out how to save herself. I’ve always loved Mexico, I’ve always loved the culture and that fertile mix of two cultures along a border. All these combinations I got excited about, and I thought, let’s do a re-imagination of the story and identity. I got excited to show Mexico in a different way.

Any drug cartel movie is difficult to pull off. What were your biggest challenges?

We weren’t trying to imitate an existing cartel. We did various amounts of research about new generations and other people getting into it with all the difficulties they had in their life. We created this new cartel for Tijuana. Tijuana is the busiest, biggest border in the world — more people cross that border every day. It’s a very vibrant and intense place to be. That was interesting… that was maybe in some ways less dangerous territory than if we were trying to imitate a real cartel leader.

What was the hardest/most fun scene to shoot?

That shoot-out scene was fun and intense. It was one of my favorite scenes, and we started on it Day One. Everyone was like, “are you crazy?” I just knew I’d be able to plan it out better. That’s actually filmed right next to the U.S. border and you see the border wall. I went there and I was like, wow, this is cool. It had this western feeling — dusty and everything. I got out my miniature cars, we went to the location, I planned it out like a military strategy. I was in my war room figuring it out, but then we also went to the real location and we would have rental cars and the stunt guy would be pretending to be the sniper. The pre-visualization was awesome. At one point, we needed five extra drivers so we asked the rental car drivers, “Do you guys want to be in an action scene?” They played the parts of all the drivers. Everyone got into it and helped me figure it out.

That one was the most fun because we got to blow up cars and crazy things happened. A real police chase came right through the set, so that was three extra cop cars we didn’t have in our budget. They were the real cops trying to shut us down. Another location that was fun was the Valle de Guadalupe, the red rocks in wine country in Baja that had that modern glass building — that was a beautiful location.

What do you think Gloria represents for women?

One thing we were really interested in doing was making her feel really grounded. A real girl that could be your best friend — she’s your makeup artist, she takes yoga classes, but she hasn’t been trained as a Navy SEAL. These women are just super badasses, but we still wanted to make it feel like she is an ordinary girl. We wanted to make you ask yourself, how would it feel for you in this instance when you had to show some way to save your friend and use your own wits and skills that you have to get out? Anything that Gloria was going to do, we were like, “Could we do that? Could we run across that lot in a rain of bullets?” The idea was that she found a depth of strength and character that she never knew she had. She was basically a double agent. That was kind of interesting, that she was really finding her power, all in the agency of female empowerment.

How do you feel about female directors once again being shut out from the Oscar nominations?

I think we knew it going into the nominations, because none of the female-directed movies were getting the push, the money, the buzz, the lightning in a bottle, the marketing campaign. There is still looking at this, asking, why? When will it change? When will women have the chance to get better material, opportunities to work with bigger actors, bigger budgets? When a wonderful movie like “Leave No Trace” came out, it didn’t have an Oscar campaign. How can they be supportive when a wonderful movie does come out?

People have been trying to be more progressive about hiring female directors. Do you think we’re actually seeing progress?

It’s a leaky pipeline that we’ve been talking about. Every year, Sundance and other festivals have been very progressive about actively making sure there are more female-directed movies and diverse stories. That’s great, but the leaky pipeline is: what happens after these festivals? A lot of studies have shown this — if a movie directed by a woman or a man does well at Sundance, a majority of male-directed movies get more marketing budgets, get seen by more people, and they are perceived more successful.

You’ve done so many movies and shows in your career — is there an idea you haven’t been able to play with yet?

There have been a lot of situations where there are still a lot of barriers to break, like beautiful literary properties, valuable IP that would help get people into theaters, novels, things that already have a want-to-see factor built in. Those are important things for women to be invited to direct. We’re seeing step-by-step that things are happening. [“Wonder Woman” director] Patty Jenkins did a great job, for example. There are certain barriers to break down in terms of a male actor to be directed by a woman. How do you break down that barrier? We were trying to think about that the other day. Jack Nicholson was directed by a woman in “What Women Want,” Brad Pitt had his wife Angelina Jolie direct him in a movie, but there are not too many times when men are at the top of their game and they are being directed by a woman. Hopefully the world is opening up, and people are opening to possibilities. Fingers crossed.

Is there anything else you want to say in regards to “Miss Bala?”

I do want to embrace Sony’s awesomeness. The movie is starring a Latina as an action hero and the movie has almost an all Latinx cast and crew. And a woman director, an African-American woman as our editor, and a lot of cool game-changing elements. There’s a lot of gender balance and diversity.