Which Is Why I Am A Spy: An Oral History Of ‘Harriet The Spy’

In 1964 the country was weary in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War had begun to escalate, and The Beatles made their debut in the U.S. In the midst of all this, author Louise Fitzhugh’s book, Harriet the Spy, was published. The book followed the life of an 11-year-old spy living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who was constantly writing observations in her notebook — this included notes on Ole Golly’s (Harriet’s nanny) obese mother, her own dumb mother, the crusty eyes of her poor friend Sport, and the sad couple whose only purpose in life is collecting avant-garde art.

With Harriet’s uncensored and audacious thoughts, the book arrived to mixed reviews. Some schools banned it from their libraries. In ’64 the notion of such a precocious, imperfect and, at most times, rebellious young girl was seen as a crass and a horrible example to children everywhere. But Harriet was a revolutionary character in children’s literature: She was a real and honest depiction of how kids felt and how they aspired to be. Of her classmate Pinky Whitehead she writes,”Does his mother hate him? If I had him, I’d hate him,” but also pondered about life, “When somebody dies maybe that’s the worst thing. You want to tell them things that happen after.” In the end, the book leaves readers with valuable advice: That it’s okay to lie, “but to yourself, you must always tell the truth,” as Ole Golly tells the young spy.

In 1996, the country was weary in the aftermath of Selena’s death, the internet was shifting into high gear, the Spice Girls made their debut in the U.S. and Nickelodeon was the pinnacle of kids entertainment. The network released their first feature-length movie, an adaptation of Fitzhugh’s classic, with Nickelodeon darling Michelle Trachtenberg as Harriet and Rosie O’Donnell as Ole Golly. The movie, like the book before it, charmed and influenced aspiring young spies and writers. And while the concept of an opinionated young woman was less scandalous in ’96, it was still a vital character to maintain. The novel and movie led many young readers and viewers to emulate the life of Harriet. For those (like this author) who lived in the mountains, spying was easy because no one locks their door. Going to a bodega to enjoy an egg cream, less accessible. But writing down your daily observations and thoughts in a super secret notebook is something everyone can gravitate towards.

For the 20th anniversary of Nickelodeon’s film we spoke with director Bronwen Hughes and the film’s stars Michelle Trachtenberg, Vanessa Lee Chester (Jamie Gibbs), Gregory Smith (Sport) and Charlotte Sullivan (Marion Hawthorne) about the making of Harriet the Spy.

“I Want To Remember Everything. And I Want To Know Everything”

Bronwen Hughes, Director: Since I had been out of film school I had started directing commercial music videos and ultimately shorts for Kids in the Hall. In those early days it counted against you if you came from music videos because [they] would say, “Oh, they can’t get narrative.” But then comes MTV and Nickelodeon, so they came to me because I had done music videos and had this vital language which was emerging.

Michelle Trachtenberg, “Harriet M. Welsch”: I had several rounds of auditions in front of everyone involved in the movie. I wore the same thing every time, a striped Gap T-shirt and overalls, which I keep in storage to this day.

Vanessa Lee Chester, “Janie Gibbs”: I remember going into the waiting room and there were a lot of young girls — I remember everyone being super serious. I was just playing around and I started talking to the receptionist and telling jokes with her and having a blast. She ended up being one of the producers of the movie and she was like, “I love this girl!”

Gregory Smith, “Sport”: I made a tape in Vancouver with my mom and then we just sent the tape away and didn’t think much more of it. Then one day I got a call and they were like, “Hey, you got this movie, we’re going to move to Toronto for three or four months.” And I was like, “Awesome, so I get to miss school and do this?” And they’re like, “Yup.” It’s like a dream come true for a kid. [Laughs.]

Charlotte Sullivan, “Marion Hawthorne”: Playing that troll is always fun, but it slightly concerned me because all I play, still. [Laughs.] I’m like, “What is it that they see in me that’s so terrible?” Because I do get cast quite often as the See You Next Tuesday kind of girl. I don’t know why, but it is the most fun. It’s certainly the most delicious role.

Trachtenberg: I had a very outgoing personality and my mom and I worked hard on rehearsing the scenes round the clock —my passion for the role won the producers hearts. I loved everything about Harriet, particularly that she was a writer because I had been writing stories from the second I learned how to write.

Hughes: When I realized how many people had read the book and considered it their childhood enlightenment, it was a very big deal. I realized the responsibility that was entrusted to me so I couldn’t take it lightly. Then the purists will never forgive us for updating it. But Nickelodeon and Paramount wanted it to speak to the kids who were 10 at the moment, not the kids who were 10 in the ’60s. It was a very big responsibly to please the people who considered it a cherished childhood experience to read that book.

Sullivan: I do remember thinking, okay, how can I use this to my advantage? And Nickelodeon makes Gak and Floam and weird toys and I remember just wanting all the toys. I was strictly thinking how I could get the toys, I was not really thinking of the magnitude of it being the first Nickelodeon film.

Trachtenberg: At 9 years old, I didn’t register it being the first film [for Nickelodeon], I just felt very grateful for the opportunity. I had been acting since I was 3, and to be the star of a movie was a dream come true.

“Carrie Andrews Thinks She’s Cool Because She Spent Her Summer Vacation Growing Boobs”

Hughes: I actually found working with the kid actors to be utterly freeing because they are so uncomplicated, if you pick the right ones that is, and I think we did. If you want to try something completely different you just say so and they try it. As opposed to some more complicated personalities who when you say, “Let’s try something completely different,” they go into a dark place of “Why are we trying something different? What’s wrong with me?” It’s like I have to talk people off a cliff or something.

Trachtenberg: The first day of principal photography was October 11, my 10th birthday, and it was the scene where all the kids run around playing tag in the park and Marion finds my notebook for the first time. It was quite the introduction to all of the kids!

Chester: The funny thing is Michelle and I have actually worked with each other multiple times throughout our career. The first time we met was in New York, we were 5 years old and we did a commercial together. I just remember when we all met back up our parents were like, “Wow, what a coincidence, we’re all here.”

Trachtenberg: I was in almost every single scene every single day, which I loved more than anything, therefore I didn’t get to know all of the kids too much. I spent more time with Gregory and Vanessa because we had more scenes together, and we had school on set together.

Smith: I remember Dov [Tiefenbach]. He was the Boy with Purple Socks, and I just thought he was the coolest guy ever. Computers were just coming out so my parents got me a little old 46 laptop that Dov taught me how to write really simple computer programs. I also remember, I got really into rollerblading because there was this rollerblade scene. We were just kids being kids. The movie that you’re working on is sort of just a thing you did, almost like an extracurricular school activity. You stand here, say this line, then goof off and go find a tree or something.

Chester: Greg and I hit it off immediately. That was my best friend on the shoot. We all lived on the same hotel floor and his siblings would stay over at my hotel room, I would stay at his hotel room. We’d go shopping for Nerf guns and have Nerf gun wars in the hotel room. I’m sure people loved that. Greg and I jumping over these great sofas and extravagant decor just to shoot each other with foam bullets. It was crazy.

Sullivan: I love that man [Gregory] so much. We kept in touch a little bit, probably a couple years after the film and then obviously he lived in Vancouver so he was further away from me. His mom was trying to set us up [Laughs], which I didn’t know at the time. She would call us and get us together and she was trying to play matchmaker. Unbeknownst to me, I had no idea. This was probably 16 years later Greg told me this story.

Smith: Yeah, my mom wanted to set me up with Charlotte and I had a huge crush on Charlotte anyway, so whenever I came back to Toronto to film something she said, “Oh, Greg, let’s get together with Charlotte,” but once that happened I was too nervous to talk [laughs]. No matter what, for years after, there’d be a girl at school I’d have a crush on, I’d be like, “Yeah, she’s really nice, but she’s not like Charlotte,” [Laughs]. Charlotte and I ended up working together almost everyday for the past six years, very funny how life works.

Trachtenberg: I probably bonded with Rosie [O’Donnell] the most. She was very caring, and so funny. When we had to be serious for a scene we would, but we always went back to giggling and playing games when that scene was done. She was a very giving actor, even off camera.

Chester: I have the fondest memories of Rosie O’Donnell. She is the sweetest woman ever and it was constant jokes. My mom and Michelle’s mom, they both happen to be from other countries. My mom’s from South America and Michelle’s mom is Russian and so everyday she would pick a different mom and just speak to us in our parent’s accent and it would crack us up all the time.

Trachtenberg: Any scene with Rosie was so special for me. She was amazing to work with, and we genuinely had a great time together. She respected me as an actress and I learned a lot from her. The hardest scene was saying goodbye to Golly.

Chester: My little brother Kevin, they were like best friends. Rosie and my brother probably hung out more than any other group on set. One day my brother came up to Rosie, he’s probably 4 years old and he was really excited and he was like, “Rosie, Rosie, Rosie, I gotta tell you something!” And she was like, “What Kevin? What’s going on?” And he was like, “You know what, never mind.” So for the next two months, no matter what was going on, she would run up to Kevin and be like, “Oh my God Kevin I’ve got this amazing new video game you need to try. It’s so awesome, it’s back in my trailer.” And he’s like, “No way!” And she’s like, “You know what, never mind.” She would do it to him every day.

Smith: I was doing a scene and I was holding something and I dropped it and I froze in the middle of the scene. That wasn’t supposed to happen, I was like a deer in the headlights, I didn’t know what to do. Then I ran off camera. And then afterwards [Rosie] was like, “Hey, hey Greg, you just dropped that right?” And I was like, “Yeah,” She’s like, “Well, in real life if you dropped something, what would you do?” I said, “Pick it up,” she’s like, “Yeah, that’s all you gotta do. That’s what acting is, it’s just be yourself. Go with the flow, see what happens.” That became one of the main things of my philosophies as an actor. It’s a simple thing that she would never remember but that stuck with me to this day.

Chester: At the time she had just adopted her first child so she was a new mother and she was just so fantastic. I know she’s a fantastic mom to all of her kids because she was so loving and maternal towards us and we were just technically her coworkers. So she’s a really great person.

“The Only Thing Worse Than Being Marion Hawthorn, Is Wanting To Be Marion Hawthorn”

Trachtenberg: I had read the book. It was still, at the time, on school curriculums. It was always a favorite of mine. It was rare to read a book with such a strong passionate heroine who was my age. I never spied or ran around my neighborhood, but I thought it was fabulously brave that she did.

Hughes: I love Harriet because she has a vision and she has guts and she pursues her own pact and marches to her own drummer, I love that character, I really do. The ultimate goody two shoes? No thank you. Don’t want that in anybody.

Trachtenberg: I also felt a kinship to Harriet, as I was bullied by all of the students in school for being an actress. Jealousy has no age restrictions.

Chester: I absolutely loved playing Janie Gibbs. I felt like, at the time, there were a lot of similarities with her and I. We’re a little funky, we wear some weird clothing, my hair was in this cool little afro. She was just a great girl and I happen to be a serious nerd. I absolutely love science, I love chemistry, I love math. At that time my biggest hero was Bill Nye the Science Guy so this was an opportunity for me to play out a dream of another job I could possibly have.

Hughes: Vanessa, of course, is quirky with a capital “Q” as Janie and the geek, which used to be a bad thing but now it’s an excellent thing to be a geek, so I guess we’re at the turning point there in that period of time where geek is good. [Laughs.]

Chester: When [Hughes] wanted to figure out my clothing she was like, “I want Janie to be like this badass scientist, kind of like a tomboy.” If you notice all my clothing is completely handmade. They would take old overalls and cut off the top and add overalls from another pair and then put me in these industrial work boots. I loved my wardrobe. And I totally attribute that to Bronwen’s vision.

Smith: I really liked the books and I remember I really liked Sport. He was sort of an adult and matured at a very young age. I sort of grew up as an actor, by the time I did Harriet the Spy I had already done maybe 20 to 30 TV shows and movies, so I always felt like I sort of grew up at an early age as well, and I think that was definitely a way into the character and something that I connected to.

Hughes: I think there’s a lot of sympathy for Sport because we all know we’ve judged too harshly, as young kids, someone for their home situation, which is not their doing. And Gregory Smith playing Sport, you just love him and want what’s best for him.

Smith: I also felt self-conscious of my hair. To this day people come up to me and are like, “Oh my God, you’re the bowlcut kid.” [Laughs.] I was always really self-conscious of my bowl cut. It’s the haircut that’s going to follow me around my entire life. It’s very emblematic of the mid-’90s.

Sullivan: It’s hard to distinguish between the two [Marion and Harriet] because both characters are lashing out at one another and one provokes the other.

Chester: Marion is just a bully in your face whereas Harriets makes observations and doesn’t tell you. And I feel like a lot of people do that. A lot of people have a Marion in them were they’re just outright mean but I feel like Marion is misunderstood in a way. She was a very insecure girl. She had family issues, she didn’t feel loved. And all Harriet sees is the anger and the negativity coming from Marion but she was hurting more than anyone probably.

Sullivan: At the end of the day even good people have a little seed of evil inside of them.

Chester: There’s something amazing about the Boy With Purple Socks because he’s such a prevalent part of the movie yet he doesn’t have a name. And that shows so much about his character and it’s amazing he doesn’t talk the whole movie and the minute he opens his mouth everyone is like, stop what you’re doing. And what he says is just filled with so much empathy and heart. How do you not fall in love with this character, how do you not love this guy? Even though Harriet made fun of him he still found a way to find compassion and not be a bully like all the other kids.

Hughes: I think Dov Tiefenbach is amazing, he’s an amazing face, which is half the job of course for a non speaking role. Without Dov in that role we wouldn’t have had such effect on people. So we were very lucky, he’s very talented.

Chester: Harriet the Spy is just a great story of the everyday lives of people and what they go through and their struggles and the things that break their heart and people who matter to them and I would say there are a lot of themes but that’s the one that sticks out the most — that you really can’t judge a book by its cover. You have no idea what someone’s going through.

“I Never Get Caught”

Hughes: A feature film is like a chemical combustion, so everybody’s thought it through as hard as they can but only when all the elements start coming together do you start realizing what you’ve got. But as far as how I shot it, I feel like I just did my thing. And they really loved that, then I had to go down to Paramount in post-production to make sure that thing could keep going.

Trachtenberg: Bronwen was really wonderful. She had a tough job taking on so many kids and different personalities. She gave great direction and pointed things out that I hadn’t realized. It was always important to her to keep the dialogue rhythm going so we all sounded natural.

Smith: [Bronwen] was always encouraging us to have fun, it was less telling us what to do and how to do it and more seeing what we were doing and figuring out the right way to capture it and keeping us as natural kids.

Trachtenberg: I never felt like I was a kid and she was the adult telling me what to do. She was my director and I was her actress. It was a collaboration.

Hughes: I like to dance, I actually see the world that way. I was a dancer and in anything I do I’m trying for some kind of visceral feeling.

Sullivan: When she would direct us, if we were walking she’s like, “Okay you’ll go bop-bop this way then bop-bop this way,” she was always dancing. I don’t remember her not dancing on set. And music was always playing. It was very cool and in terms of performance art she was pretty ahead of her time. It was a great way also to direct children. It was a way to keep things alive.

Hughes: One of my big words is “buoyant.” I want the audience watching this movie to feel like they are carried along on a wave of emotion, dark and light. So I don’t want a cold distancing music, I want a music that is warm and engaging. I didn’t want it to be a jukebox musical where it is pop songs of 1996 and in 1997 they’re old news and tired. And it was on this emotional bent that we had to make sure it felt right, so mathematically we should have just chosen songs that were the hits of 1996 but that would have just been tired too quickly.

Trachtenberg: My mom and I worked on feeling the poignant moments in the scenes in a way that wouldn’t actually be hurtful to me, Michelle, but important to show as Harriet. The paint scenes were difficult just in the actual filming, running down the street covered in blue paint in thin clothes and it was basically zero degrees outside in the middle of winter in Canada and the kids weren’t delicate in “trying to get the blue paint off.”

Hughes: It gets pretty dark sometimes. Actually the real shocker that people used to talk about was how dark we let it go. I remember someone was so shocked when we did that underwater sequence where it kind of suggests she’s killing herself. I’m like, well, I didn’t really think of that but we do let it get really dark. Because when I was that age, and things went wrong among your friends or in your world, it was like the end of the world. It was very serious and it meant something, so I was trying to have the movie feel like that. Not like some dismissible, lightweight sort of kid problem, but rather when you’re a kid it is the end of the world when your friends turn against you.

Trachtenberg: I think the darker elements in any movie are incredibly important. An accurate depiction of life, even childhood has ups and downs. Louise Fitzhugh didn’t shy away from turning a mirror onto such storylines, I’m glad the movie didn’t either. Perhaps such reality wouldn’t be allowed in a children’s film today.

Smith: I hated doing that scene where we stole Harriet’s journal because I really felt awful about it. The lines are blurred between reality and fiction when you’re a kid. I remember that scene was mostly very traumatic to do because we’re all picking on our friend and sitting around and making fun of them. Even though you’re doing it for the camera, it felt real emotionally for the kids.

Sullivan: I remember doing [the] scene where I’m reading her diary out loud to humiliate her and they let us improv anything and just go off. The really funny experience of that day was they were going to do the scene regularly, then they were going to do a slow motion shot of us all shaming her. The kids on action started doing everything in slow motion and the crew was laughing their ass off. We had no idea that the camera just does it [laughs]. We thought we had to do the whole thing slow.

Hughes: I don’t even know what she’s talking about, maybe I threw them for more loops than I’m unaware of but they picked things up so quick. If they were weirded out by slow-motion that lasted probably a second and then they were totally fine.

Chester: I’m pretty sure Michelle did all of her own stunts. When she puts all of the furniture, stacks them high up so she can go talk to Sport through his window, I remember being so jealous that she was able to do some of those scense and they just put her on a harness just to make sure she didn’t fall and really hurt herself.

Hughes: We were trying to make a 10-year-old into a stunt person. That was challenging but Michelle Trachtenberg is pretty physical and so we had a good time creating this junk pile. I was keen on doing it as much real with the real Michelle as possible and she was game.

Smith: You know when sometimes you remember things but then they’re not actual — for a minute there I was thinking, was I hanging out of a window? But it was Harriet who was hanging out of a window spying on me. I think it was because I wanted to do that stunt so bad that I almost gave myself a false memory that it was me doing it [laughs].

Trachtenberg: Diving into the bathtub was exciting for me but, of course, scared my mom. They built a couple stories tall platform with an extra large tub that had a plexiglass bottom and the camera rig underneath it. They did several test runs with full size adults to make sure that it was safe. I was able to hold my breath for a long time so Bronwen was able to capture every emotion on Harriet’s face.

Smith: The most stressful thing for me [was] how to dance to James Brown dressed like a chicken. [Laughs.] I always had stage fright, which is very strange, but even back then doing a scene with a camera and crew, no problem. But as soon as I’m on a stage where there’s an audience, even though it wasn’t a real audience, it was just a bunch of people pretending to be an audience. But for some reason, psychologically, that freaks me out still to this day. Also funny thing about that scene is my little bothers are both in it. They were other pieces of dinner dressed up. It was very much a family affair.

Chester: The scene where the health inspector comes and takes all his cats, he has this huge burlap bag that he’s holding that the audience is supposed to assume are a bunch of cats inside of a burlap bag moving around that he’s about to take to the shelter or the pound. And what most people don’t know is the bag is filled with my little brother. So the producers were like, “Kevin, do you want to do something fun?” And they put him inside the little burlap bag and were like, “Just squiggle around when he picks you up.”

Trachtenberg: I’ve only seen the movie fully once at the premiere, and maybe bits and pieces at other premieres I made appearances at. I don’t like to watch myself. I did catch it midway on TV probably 10 years ago, and watched the last half. I was impressed how great the production design was, as you don’t notice those things as a kid — also how modern it still felt.

Sullivan: The clothing aesthetic and some of the visuals I felt were of that era, whether or not we mentioned it. I think even my clothes were very sort of ’60s inspired. The classroom setting, we’re watching a puberty video, I remember there being a roll of film and we’re all learning about puberty and they used a vintage roll of film from that era.

Hughes: Certain things about the ’60s story, especially the relationship between kids and their parents, had to be adjusted to make sense because you don’t have that same kind of formality that you had in the book in the ’60s between parents and kids. So those things needed to be made more natural for the 1990s kids audience. But it was very important to me that the things that really affected Harriet in the book would be the things that really affected Harriet in the movie.

Trachtenberg: I feel like it’s timeless. The only difference between then and now is that none of the kids have a smart phone, and there is no social media, which is very special. Being able to go home and be herself without the continuation of bullying was invaluable for Harriet. I only wish kids today had that same chance, just to be themselves and be creative without being tormented by their classmates 24/7.

Chester: It’s a very current piece of art. I think it can translate to any generation and I think that’s why that people love it so much still.

Hughes: It is a mix of [decades]. This is kind of a fresher prospect in the ’90s when we made it, but we wanted to avoid an electronic existence for the characters because that changes everything. And now, of course, that’s just radical. Kids are not starring at screens, the classrooms are not computer classrooms. We realized that so much of the relationships would change if people were on cell phones, I can’t even remember what was going on in the ’90s right now. [Laughs.] But we decided we would stay away from electronic classrooms and electronic communication because the relationships from the book would be utterly altered by it.

“I’m Not Gonna Cry, I’m Not Gonna Cry”

Chester: I think kids who watch it will be completely changed when they’re done. It sparks that curiosity inside of a kid that makes you want to go out and see what the world is about, which is exactly what kids should be doing, just absorbing everything.

Trachtenberg: I always kept a diary as a kid, and I probably started calling it my notebook after reading Harriet the Spy. Notebook sounded more adult and professional than diary to me.

Chester: When I was younger I read the script and I was completely transformed. I made my mom buy me a composition book and I started spying on everyone. And I get it. After I read the book, it’s just such an amazing compilation of imagination and storytelling. It’s such a special novel and I think it’s exciting that the author was able to write a book about basically the inner monologue that kids have. Someone with a mind like Harriet’s, precocious, a bit mature for her age, who knows what she wants to do.

Sullivan: When that film came out Nickelodeon had given us a spy kit, but then I felt like a creep.

Hughes: I wasn’t a spy that would write in a notebook like that but I took photos from a very young age, from probably the age of 8 I took photos, which is a kind of spying. You’re looking for moments and watching the streets and waiting for people, to capture moments on the fly.

Sullivan: Whenever you watch a film, especially as a kid, you want to emulate. You remember the movie The Craft? I would like to drink blood and cast spells, that was my takeaway from the film. [Laughs.] As a kid, when you watch Harriet, you want to be a spy. I would want to be the Eartha Kitt character. I thought she was the coolest character of the whole film.

Hughes: Eartha Kitt is Eartha Kitt, we hired her to be Eartha so you can’t come up with an imitation of that. But the other thing I would say about Eartha is she’s, in private, a very quiet person. She would arrive for set in the morning very introverted and not flashy and she would go to the makeup trailer and she would emerge as Eartha Kitt. [Laughs.] The transformation in the makeup trailer was extreme and amazing.

Chester: I definitely tried [a tomato sandwich] and was like, this is disgusting. [Laughs.] I remember making one for myself because I was like, wait, what’s this about? She loves them. And I was like, okay, Harriet’s weird and this is really gross.

Smith: I think definitely, there’s no other character in that movie that I could have imagined playing. Certainly to this day if I hear somebody yell, “Sport!” I’ll turn my head. And then it’s like, oh that’s weird and awkward [laughs]. There’s a few characters so have stuck with me as I’ve gone on and Sport was definitely the first.

Chester: I see a bit of myself in all the characters. I was definitely a bit of a Marion Hawthorne when I was around 9. Kind of bratty, a little standoffish, a little bit of a mean girl. But I think more than anyone I probably identified the most with Sport. I was raised by a single parent, I have a fantastic mom. My dad is also an amazing human being but I totally understand where Sport is coming from.

Trachtenberg: I have always only ever wanted to be Harriet.

Chester: Another thing that’s really special about Harriet the Spy, it came out in the ’60s and I think it’s really important for little girls to see a little girl just like themselves who is precocious and confident and independent and has a clear vision of what she wants to be. And I think that’s why so many little girls gravitate towards Harriet because they’re like, “Whoa, she’s a power female and she’s only 11. I want to be just like her.”

Trachtenberg: I think Harriet achieved whatever she set her mind to. I would imagine she is probably the editor of a super hip magazine that puts out a great message to their readers of empowerment. Or followed in her father’s footsteps and became a writer on TV, a Shonda Rhimes type creative force.

Smith: Maybe [Sport] would be a hairdresser, giving children bowl cuts everywhere.

Sullivan: I want to say something inappropriate but I feel like I can’t. It could go either way. But being the feminist that I am I’m going with that [Marion] would have become an avant garde equestrian artist. Let’s say she painted ponies. She’s painting ponies left, right, and center. And making lots of money from her ponies. [Laughs.] She has stuff at the MoMA, she’s doing well, she’s doing great. I could have gone graphic on you but I didn’t. I went through a negative, negative land of really nasty shit. So I won’t go there.

Hughes: I remember being shocked that people en masse would laugh or cry and they did both of those things and I thought, holy cow, what a power this movie is, it was a shock and also a very weighty realization. That you could affect people with this kind of movie form and you better take it seriously. So it was a shock to know that your hard labor could turn people’s emotions.

Trachtenberg: The message for me remains the same, from book to filming to movie to now. Don’t let the bullies grind you down, believe in yourself and you will succeed, and don’t hurt anybody along the way.

Hughes: One day after a screening, it was probably the best review or the review I was most proud of, a kid came up to me, a Harriet-aged kid, and he said, “What happened to Harriet is the worst thing I could ever imagine in my life.” [Laughs.] I thought that was the best review ever.

Smith: I remember the movie seemed to instantly find a place with people, where people were thinking it was just going to be another kid’s movie. I didn’t fully understand why at the time but I do remember that is was exceeding a lot of people’s expectations.

Hughes: I actually feel like the lesson for Harriet is that as you grow up you realize that nothing is black and white, that there are ways of being with people and ways of getting your way that you have to maneuver as an adult or as a grownup. There is a gray zone and maneuvering in the gray zone is part of maturity… One would like to think that the lesson is tell the truth, truth is good. But actually the Harriet lesson is if you put the absolute truth in your book and someone finds it, it might not be the right way to hear it. And that’s the gray zone, so I think it’s more about opening your eyes to the way the world works. And it ain’t so black and white after all, or good and evil.