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'Miss You Already' director Hardwicke embraces telling stories about difficult subjects

New drama starring Barrymore, Collette tackles emotions

Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette in "Miss You Already." (Roadside Attractions)

If we've learned anything about director Catherine Hardwicke in the past few months, no subject matter is too difficult for the acclaimed filmmaker to broach. It all comes down to the importance of the topic, the passion that drives Hardwicke to see her vision through, and perhaps most importantly, the chance that her work will help start a dialogue.

Hardwicke, who directed Lady Gaga's recent music video about campus sexual assault, "Til It Happens to You," is back in the spotlight Friday with the nationwide release of the drama "Miss You Already." This time, she's tackling the impact breast cancer has on a pair of lifelong friends and their families.

The film follows the lives of Milly (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore), who both experience life-altering events simultaneously. Milly, a mother of two young children with a loving husband (Dominic Cooper), has just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer; while Jess (Barrymore), after exhausting efforts of trying have a child with her husband (Paddy Considine), finally gets pregnant with the aid of in vitro fertilization.

Hardwicke, 60, said she was drawn to screenwriter Morwenna Banks' screenplay, because, like many of us, her life has been touched by people battling cancer. In addition to having close friends who are fighting breast cancer, the filmmaker said she lost her father to pancreatic cancer.

While "Miss You Already" deals with the effect breast cancer has on Milly, her family and friends, Hardwicke's father's fight after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis specifically resonated with her when she read the script. That's because the story, as dramatically daunting as it could be, also allowed for some humor.

"He was, in a weird way, the most like Milly's character, because he had this crazy, wicked sense of humor," Hardwicke told me in a phone conversation Friday. "Even during the tough days, he would be cracking these outrageous -- sometimes like gallows humor -- jokes, making us laugh so much that you just couldn't stay low. You just had to laugh, come out of it and really enjoy life. That's really appealed to me about the script. Morwenna kept injecting zingers into the script, because it was about two friends who knew how to bring each other up."

While both characters are dealing with life altering events in "Miss You Already," the core of the narrative is just as much about  Milly and Jess' lifelong, unbreakable bond of friendship.

"When I first met with Drew, she said her favorite movies were platonic love stories, and I thought that was a beautiful way of saying it," Hardwicke said. "The two people she and Toni played are really connected, through the great stuff and the tough stuff."

"Miss You Already" was a tough sell, Hardwicke said, simply because cancer is a difficult subject matter to address. Another part of the reason it's so hard to make films like "Miss You Already," Hardwicke noted, is the inability to figure out how and who the film should be marketed to.

"The statistics that everybody's talking about right now are about how women-oriented films are tougher to sell," said Hardwicke, who also directed such films as "Thirteen" and "Twilight." "People know how to market to male teenagers, but they really haven't perfected marketing to women -- and families. There are people would like something powerful and emotional like this. A story like this affects the family, the children -- every level of life is affected by this."

And because it's been given the chance to be made and seen, "Miss You Already" now has the same chance to have the sort of emotional impact "Til It Happens to You" has had as a video that has doubled as a public service announcement. Written by iconic songwriter Diane Warren and Lady Gaga, "Til it Happens to You" originated as the theme song for the acclaimed campus rape documentary "The Hunting Ground."

"The video already making a big difference," Hardwicke said. "The number we put on the video (the National Sexual Assault Helpline -- 1-800-656-HOPE) has had a 30 percent increase in calls with people wanting to share their stories and start the healing process, instead of hiding it. I think it is affecting college campuses, too. They're looking at their policies and doing a lot more. I want it to have an impact on men, too, so they won't think casually about some of their situations."