Hardwicke was born in Cameron, Texas on October. 21, 1955, the daughter of Jamee Elberta (née Bennett) and John Benjamin Hardwicke. She has a brother Jack, and a sister Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, who became an artist. She grew up in McAllen on the U.S.–Mexico border, where her family owned and operated a farm along the Rio Grande, and was raised as a Presbyterian. She said the border area was wild: in high school, "her principal was stabbed three times. A friend's father was shot in the back, and another friend was murdered. And yet life could be wonderful at the same time. 'It was a Huck Finn life, too,' she said." Growing up in McAllen, Hardwicke describes it as "wild". As a child she did not attend many movies and explains, "I didn’t go to many movies. Let's be honest: It was a cultural wasteland. At the time, you could not go to a significant museum unless you drove three hours to Corpus Christi or four to San Antonio". However, there were other ways to have fun such as sneaking over to the bars and nightclubs of Mexico before she was even a legal adult. Speaking on her early life Hardwicke says, "It was a wonderful childhood. I'm dying to make a movie about it".
She graduated from McAllen High School and went to the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a degree in architecture. Among her post-graduation projects was designing the solar townhouse complex built around a man-made lake on the 20-acre site, complete with waterfalls and swimming pools. The property was owned by her father.
After graduating from her hometown High School, McAllen High School, Hardwicke went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin. Studying Architecture, Hardwicke felt that she had far too much creativity for that field, stating:
I was a little out there for architecture school. I would dress up like my building and people were like, "wow, dude, architecture really doesn’t encourage that type of creativity.
Feeling limited, Hardwicke moved to Los Angeles, where she studied at UCLA film school to explore her creative talents. Hardwicke made her first short film for her brother Jack who was getting married to Nicolette Cullen. During this period in the 1980s, Hardwicke made an award-winning short, Puppy Does the Gumbo and was recognized with a Nissan Focus Award was featured in the Landmark Best of UCLA film program.
Hardwicke became a production designer, working with film directors such as Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater, and David O. Russell. She was influenced by them, gaining experience in their techniques, and learning informal aspects from professional conversations. She talked to some about her desire to be a filmmaker, and received advice and tips.
While working with such big-name directors, she was able to study their techniques: "I always told them I really want to make my own movies, and they were all very generous and gave me tips." Her career as a production designer was crucial and beneficial to the molding of her career as a director. Her time spent with these directors aided her and were able to give her a sense of direction: "As you’re riding around with the director location scouting, you hear a lot of conversations and you start piecing them together, so I think that helped me." She even worked with fellow female director Lisa Cholodenko on her film Laurel Canyon (2002). Aside from her time spent working alongside directors, Hardwicke continued to work on her own projects such as scripts, short films, and teaching herself Final Cut Pro. Hardwicke even took it upon herself to take acting classes to become a better director.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Hardwicke worked as a production designer on films including Tombstone (1993), Tank Girl (1995), 2 Days in the Valley (1996), The Newton Boys (1998), Three Kings (1999), and Antitrust (2001). In 2000, she worked as production designer with director/screenwriter Cameron Crowe and actor/producer Tom Cruise on Vanilla Sky (2001). That and Three Kings were noted for their original use of color-manipulation techniques to complement the narrative.Thirteen (2003)
Hardwicke's first film as a director was developed by her in collaboration with then-fourteen-year-old Nikki Reed, who wrote a screenplay that reflected some of Reed's teenage experiences. Hardwicke had known Nikki since she was five years old, and after Hardwicke's relationship with Reed's father ended she continued to stay close with her. Hardwicke said "I started getting my hair cut by her mother, which is similar to the film, so I saw them every few months" she continues to say, "when [Nikki] turned thirteen, I started noticing she had completely changed to becoming quite angry with her family, her mother, and herself. I started seeing all these changes and difficulties she was going through, so I thought, along with her parents, that if she could hang out with me, things would get better". Throughout the time they spent together, Reed had revealed to Hardwicke that she was interested in acting which was the spark that ignited Thirteen. They completed the script in six days during Christmas break. When asked why there was an urgency to make the film, Hardwicke replied with "I felt it was almost like a snapshot of a particular time. I really wanted Nikki to be in it, because her energy was so inspiring to it, and I don't like the movies where the person is eighteen years old playing a thirteen-year-old, so I said, 'We're going to shoot it even if it's with a digital camera and me as the whole crew."' Evan Rachel Wood was contracted to star in the movie alongside Reed. The film tackles difficulties of contemporary teenagers. A young teen loses her innocence in a rapid spiral of events, with disturbing portrayals of drug use, sex, theft, and dropping out of school.
Reed and Hardwicke wrote the script from the point of view of Tracy, a "normal" 13-year-old who begins at a new middle school. There she meets Evie, who she thinks of as more advanced and whom she wants to impress. She hopes Evie will give her entree to what she thinks is an exciting "crowd." Tracy's single mother Melanie, played by Holly Hunter, has tried to be a friend to her daughter and does not know how to deal with her changes. The film features female friendship and the difficulties of adolescence. Hardwicke has developed these as recurring themes in her work. The film received critical acclaim and had praise for its stars and Holly Hunter was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Thirteen earned Hardwicke the directing award at Sundance in 2003.Lords of Dogtown (2005)
She went on to direct this fictionalized account of skateboarding culture. The film is based on the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys by Stacy Peralta, whom Hardwicke had worked with. As she lived near Venice Beach and knew most of the Z- Boys well from surfing, Hardwicke drew on personal experience in directing the film.
Lords of Dogtown explores the young Peralta, Tony Alva, and Jay Adams as they revolutionize the world of skateboarding. Hardwicke has said that the drama film was not intended to compete with the documentary, but to express the perspective of people as they lived the events, rather than later recounting them. The technical work was acclaimed, from the skate tricks to the tricky camera work. Lance Mountain, legendary skater, cameraman and long-time friend of Peralta, shot the action while riding along behind the skateboarders.The Nativity Story (2006)
In 2006, Hardwicke directed this biblical film for New Line Cinema. At first she was reluctant to take on the project as she worried about finding a fresh approach to the story at the heart of Christian culture. She began to consider Mary as a young girl faced with an incredible task, and also incorporated a psychological approach to Joseph and his issues. She put it in a context of contemporary teenagers. Hardwicke tried to dramatize the account of the Bible. Hardwicke wanted to cast a young actress as Mary, traditionally held to be about 14 or 15 at the time of Jesus' birth, given the age of marriage of girls in that culture. She wanted an actress who at least appeared to be Middle Eastern. She cast as her lead Keisha Castle-Hughes, the Oscar-nominated New Zealand actress of aborigine descent, who starred in Whale Rider (2002).Twilight (2008)
Her direction of the film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling novel, Twilight, was an international commercial success. The film is the first in the series produced by Summit Entertainment based on Meyer's four books. Twilight is the story of a teenage girl named Bella Swan dealing with her parents' separation, and living with her father after years of having little to do with him. They live in a small town in Washington where she tries to adjust to a new school. Her typical teenage trials change character as she develops a crush on an attractive young vampire. The film and its leads attracted fans all over the world.
Hardwicke shot the film in 44 days on a budget of $37 million, which was reduced because of rights issues to do with the book. As her main actress, Kristen Stewart, was a minor, she could work only five and a half hours per day. This significantly slowed down shooting for the project. Hardwicke was willing to deal with that difficulty, as she believed that Stewart was perfect for the role as Bella. Casting for the character of Edward Cullen was more difficult. The character had to look like a high school student but portray a cultured persona and the learning of a long life. Hardwicke found Robert Pattinson unique, with his own wide range of interests in art, literature and music; she thought him deep enough for the part. Its $400 million global success made her the most commercially successful woman film director.
Amid rumors of a rocky relationship with Hardwicke, in 2008 Summit Entertainment announced that she would not direct the Twilight sequel, New Moon. Hardwicke said it was her decision, although a blog reported she had been fired by Summit. She said, "I couldn't even be fired, that's what's so funny," she says. "In my contract, I had the first right of refusal." She turned down the second film, she says, because the studio wanted to rush it out. "I do not regret it at all, thank the Lord," she says. "The truth is I liked the first book the best." Hardwicke went on to direct Red Riding Hood for Summit.Red Riding Hood (2011)
Her following film was not a commercial or critical success. Doing an adaptation of the classic fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood", Hardwicke makes this a coming of age story, exploring the theme of adolescence growing into adulthood and sexual awakening. As in Neil Jordan's 1984 film The Company of Wolves, the wolf is a werewolf who lives as a human among the townspeople. The village becomes turned on itself as everyone is suspect. Gary Oldman arrives to help solve the mystery. Red Riding Hood is played by young actress Amanda Seyfried, with supporting roles from Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez as the love interests.Plush (2013)
Hardwicke's next feature came in 2013 when she directed the erotic thriller Plush. Following a young female rock musician and her band Plush, the film starred Emily Browning, Cam Gigandet, Xavier Samuel and Frances Fisher.Reckless (2013)
In 2013 Hardwicke also directed and executive produced the pilot for the CBS hour-long legal drama Reckless starring Cam Gigandet, Shawn Hatosy, Kim Wayans and Adam Rodriguez. It was ordered to series for the 2013-2014 season on May 12, 2013.Miss You Already (2015)
Hardwicke directed the British-American comedy-drama Miss You Already in 2015. The film starred Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette as best friends who hit a snag in their friendship when one of them is diagnosed with cancer as the other becomes pregnant for the first time. The film premiered in the Gala Presentations section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
A common theme in her movies, specifically Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, is teen angst. These movies revolve around the trouble that comes with adolescence and show it in a realistic way. In Thirteen she shows head on the trials and tribulations that come with growing out of adolescence and into adult hood, and girls becoming women. Her film Lords of Dogtown is an example of the laid-back California lifestyle and fictional account of boys growing up in the streets of Venice. Hardwicke purposely casts young teens from indie films, "both of Hardwicke's pics (Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown) are marked by the believable performances she elicits from young actors, something she says comes from respecting their creativity and a lot of time spent ‘just hanging out’".
Hardwicke addresses these problems as real ones rather than simply dismissing, "I care about difficult emotional moments and I want to be there for those moments and not cut away" Hardwicke takes a close look into the lives of young teens, showing that they too experience raw emotion, pain, and happiness. Rather than focusing on comedy, and the lighter part of being a young teen Hardwicke chooses to show parts of teen life that are often kept hidden. In both movies, these characters have anger and release it not only on themselves but the people around them. She includes examples of teens not being sure of who they are, or where they are going in life. Another thing that Hardwicke focuses on is the power of friendship. Both movies show difficulties of life but how they can be made easier or even more difficult by the friends we have.
Hardwicke has worked with many of this generation's tween idols: Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown), Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner (Twilight), who each got big breaks in her highly successful films. Hardwicke's films have been considered "dark" in story and tone. In 2009, she was awarded the Women in Film Dorothy Arzner Directors Award.
In 2012, Hardwicke helped create a public service announcement for the National Women's History Museum. Hardwicke came up with the idea for the announcement and contributed to the script.