Only 4% of working filmmakers are women. Of those women, only one has had a film that has grossed $400,000,000 dollars. For a wildly successful filmmaker, whose raw, tough films provoke controversy, Catherine Hardwicke is surprisingly soft-spoken and mild-mannered. I sat down with her to chat about her beautiful, candid film, Miss You Already, and how she’s made it in the male-dominated Hollywood biz.

Hardwicke’s directorial debut was in 2003 when she caused international stir with the emotionally charged and provocative Thirteen. Five years later, she returned with another film about adolescence – the dark and moody Twilight. Less sex and drugs, more blood and melodrama, it was an overnight sensation, pulling in over 35 million on opening day. With both critical acclaim and box office success, one would assume that Hardwicke had it made. “Twilight made 400 million dollars and it still took me a long time to get another movie. Every movie is so hard to get green lit. You don’t even want to know the challenges of this one,” she says of Miss You Already. “It almost didn’t happen.” (We’re so glad it did!)

Starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Colette, Miss You Already tackles two serious and prevalent issues: breast cancer and infertility. Jess (Barrymore) and Milly (Collette) meet in childhood. We watch the girls grow up and experience all the ‘firsts’ together. While we’re accustomed to Barrymore being forever cast as the wild child, in Miss You Already, she’s the sensible, do-gooder hippie, while Collette plays the free-spirited, fashionable and daring counterpart.

After reviewing their past, we get to know them in their present. Jess lives on a houseboat, works for an environmental charity and is struggling to conceive. Milly, a high-powered publicist in the music world, lives with her rock star husband and two young children in a ridiculously cool loft. While both women have daily obstacles, they enjoy a vibrant London life full of splashy dinners, birthday celebrations and cozy family moments. Life is busy, fun, and full, but it abruptly shatters when Milly is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. This is the point where the film could easily slip into emotional mush, but it doesn’t.

When Hardwicke was first sent the script, she loved it, but felt it was too sentimental. She wanted to add “teeth.” Working closely with talented screenwriter Morwenna Banks, they modified the script: less crying, more conflict!

Once the script was toughened up, and the actors were signed on, the research began. “We did have a lot of medical consultation with doctors, and we had doctors on the set and nurses on the set to help ensure we were getting all the emotional beats right,” says Hardwicke, who also scheduled her own medical examination prior to shooting. “I decided to have my whole examination done, so I could write through the process. I had the movie in mind and when I was going through the mammogram, I didn’t know what my results would be. It put me almost in a method acting state.”

From chemo treatments to failed attempts at intimacy, and difficult conversations with the children, we see every stage of the disease in Miss You Already. “Fifty per cent of the population gets cancer. We’re not trying to hide it. We’re not burying it. It’s not taboo. Why not talk about it? It’s part of life. It’s more part of life than being a hitman, and we see a million movies about that!”

The on-screen chemistry between Barrymore and Collette is magical, their friendship electrifying and believable, but it’s Hardwicke’s vision and direction that focuses the film, giving it layers of complexity and depth. When I asked her how she learned to become a director, she credited some of her success to having had the opportunity to work with some of the best as a production designer: “I was very lucky to work with David O. Russel, Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater. I could see how each person had an extremely different style.”

It wasn’t just these collaborations that helped her step into the director’s chair; Hardwicke worked. “I was reading about directing and taking acting classes in between every job. I was writing screenplays and doing my own little short films. I was giving myself a multi-level education of what to do. Let’s just be honest: you’ve gotta work harder than the guys, because you’ll have every obstacle against you.”

She is right: as women, we need to work that much harder to break through. There are enough hitman movies to last an eternity, but gems like Miss You Already, that tackle women’s issues with intelligence and humour, are much harder to come by.

This piece was first published in Sept, 2015, during the Toronto International Film Festival. Miss You Already opens in theatres across Canada today.