As a trained architect turned production designer and now director, Catherine Hardwicke finds herself in small but select company. During a recent Dallas interview, the maker of “Thirteen” was asked whether many directors had followed a similar path. “A lot of people go from architecture to production design,” she replied. “Not too many go…from production design to direction.” She could name a couple, though: Alfred Hitchcock and James Cameron.

If the reaction to “Thirteen” is any indication, Hardwicke may be poised to join such exalted ranks. The low-budget picture, the tale of a 13-year old L.A. girl from a broken home who goes dangerously wild when paired with a troubled classmate and a mother who doesn’t know how to handle the situation, has been garnering rave reviews–not only for Hardwicke but for stars Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter and Nikki Reed.

Much ink has also been spilled over the fact that Hardwicke and Reed, the daughter of an ex-boyfriend of hers, wrote the script based on the girl’s own experiences. It wasn’t Hardwicke’s first attempt to do a screenplay that could serve as the basis for a debut feature. She got encouragement from friends like Richard Linklater. “He’s the king of tough love,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, Cathy, you should do it…just go out and make a move–just do it.’” But her earlier efforts were unrealistic. “I first wrote one for like [a] $9 million [picture], then I wrote one for $5 million. And they kept saying no, you’ll never get to make one that big as a first film.”

That’s when Reed entered the picture. Hardwicke met her when she was dating the girl’s divorced dad, and they became friends; and Hardwicke was there to see the change in Nikki that happened when she’d turned thirteen–she grew surlier and more rebellious. And she suggested to Nikki that they do a quasi-autobiographical script in which Nikki would star, if they could find the financing. “January 3 to January 9, Nikki had a week off from school, after all the holiday stuff ended, before she went back to eighth grade, winter quarter,” Hardwicke remembered. “So I said, we’re going to write this script in six days. Somehow it was just so present in my head and Nikki’s head and her life that I sat at the computer, and she would sit next to me, and as we would just talk about things, we would write. We literally just talked and acted everything out. The second it went onto the screen, it would be acted out: we’d get up and try the scene. That’s actually how it got shaped. At the end of six days, she had to go back to winter quarter.” Then Hardwicke made revisions. “When Nikki and I wrote the first draft,” she explained, [the adults] were all cartoon villains. They were all from her point of view. That we molded a little bit afterwards.” In talking about the changes, she added: “It’s hard to know how much kids really need you, and how to divide up your day. It’s hard for everybody.” And of Nikki’s own parents, she said: “It was courageous of them to say yes, you could make a movie about it. It took a lot of courage, and the reason was hoping that it could reach out to other kids, too…that kids and parents would realize we’re not alone, we’re not the only ones going through this kind of stuff.”

Of course, writing the script was just the first step; then producers had to be found who would dedicate themselves to the project, and a cast after that. Hardwicke was at a party a few nights later where she was talking to a therapist about troubled kids and described her script. “And she said, ‘You should show it to my husband–he’s a producer,’ and I said, ‘Well, I happen to have a copy of the script in the car.’ Strange how that works,” Hardwicke recalled. “Apparently he read it that night, and he called about ten in the morning and said, ‘I want to help you make this–I think this could be important.’” That’s how producer Michael London signed on, soon to be joined by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, with whom Hardwicke had worked as production designer on “Laurel Canyon.”

Then casting took over. “Michael called up Holly’s manager and said, ‘You should really check this out. I know she’s a first-time director, there’s no studio attached, there’s no distribution. I know she would bear the low-budget SAG-minimum rate. But she should still read it.’ And she wouldn’t be the star–an unknown teenager will be the star. It did not look good on paper, right? She read it and was fascinated by it.” Hardwicke found herself suddenly called to New York to meet with Hunter, taking along a quickly-shot video of Nikki. “She was startled and thought it could maybe be something good,” but asked for some new scenes to flesh out the mother’s role. “I went on the plane, took my laptop, wrote two more scenes, she got them on Monday, and she signed on on Monday.” Hunter’s hiring didn’t solve all the remaining problems, but it did help things along. “It meant that Evan’s agent took a serious look at the script now, because we knew she’d be playing with Holly Hunter. It just lent some level of credibility to the project.” Wood was important because it had been decided that Reed was no longer right for the part of the sweet, naive girl who goes to the opposite extreme. “She’s not really innocent enough to play herself anymore–like the innocent part,” Hardwicke said. “She’s very sophisticated, and she looks so much older than her age already. You think eighteen, and you put makeup on her and she goes to twenty-five! You couldn’t believe she was that sweet, innocent little girl. But the real thing happened when I started pairing her in auditions with other girls–before Evan signed on. She was never the less sophisticated one…She got it, too.”

Luckily Wood did sign on, Reed moved into the part of the seductive friend, and a 24-day shooting schedule was established. Because of the girls’ age, they were limited to 9 ½-hour days, but with makeup and preparation, “you really had 8 ½ hours to actually shoot. That’s one of the reasons why almost every single scene in the movie is hand-held, because you had to just be moving so fast. And we also wanted to feel that energy.” The harshness of the material made the shoot a difficult one, too. “It was really tough,” Hardwicke recalled. “[The girls] were comfortable with the material, their parents were, and we had rehearsed all the stuff, too–we had a week of rehearsal–but what I wanted was complete respect and almost silence on the set for the actors in those scenes where you’re doing the heavy stuff. There’s always a welfare worker [on the set], there’s me, there’s the girls’ moms. But somehow they’re so phenomenal, the girls were still able not to worry much about mom and go in and be the characters…They weren’t acting in my mind, they were living it. They just had to feel it. That’s what made it real.”

For the future, Hardwicke looks forward to making more films. “I have a lot of stories that I want to tell,” she said. And will first-timer Reed continue acting? “She’s thinking about it,” Hardwicke replied. “But of course she has tenth grade. And her school is hard.”