For Harriet the Spy‘s Harriet M. Welsch, not even scrawling the “PRIVATE” across a composition notebook could keep snoops at bay. The observant heroine of Louise Fitzhugh’s beloved children’s book and its 1996 film adaptation learns this lesson the hard way after her classmates discover Harriet’s not-so-nice musings and retaliate by dumping paint onto her during art class. Twenty years after the movie’s release, director Bronwen Hughes and star Michelle Trachtenberg, who starred as Harriet, relive the blue moment.
Harriet the Spy marked Nickelodeon’s first film, but still, some parents thought it was too dark, even suggesting that it touched on suicide.
BRONWEN HUGHES: When your friends turn against you as a kid, it’s the end of your life as you know it. I wanted the scene to feel true. It wasn’t some happy-go-lucky comedy moment with blue paint, but a devastating psychological assault.
MICHELLE TRACHTENBERG: It was a really hard scene because in my own life, I’d been bullied up until the day I graduated. It was emotional, which was the point.
HUGHES: I was interested in assembling a cast of young actors who didn’t have a false bone in their bodies. They understood deeply how this scene should feel. Most had been subjected to dirty tricks, or had inflicted them on others. We shot it during the middle of production because by then, you have confident kids who’ll try anything. And it’s kind of a naughty dream come true to be encouraged to throw paint around…
Production went through all types of paint until settling on the water-based tempera variety used in elementary schools.
TRACHTENBERG: The paint was so cold! My trailer was covered in it, and they even had to hook up extra water tanks to my shower. I’m so pale that I actually got dyed. I had patches of blue that didn’t come out for a while.
HUGHES: We did it in as few takes as possible. I didn’t feel the need to physically devastate Michelle to get [the emotion] out of her. She’s a fantastic, natural, instinctive actress.
TRACHTENBERG: I wasn’t scared, but it was hard to have that many people grabbing [at me]. Those paper towels were really scratchy, and I remember the girls saying, “Sorry, we’ll go lighter.” I had to separate myself from Michelle and be Harriet — that many people ganging up on you would make anyone go bananas.
Harriet, dripping in paint, runs home through the streets of New York City, though production took place in Toronto in the winter of 1995.
HUGHES: It was Paramount’s financial decision to make Toronto look like New York, although to tell you the truth, nothing looks like a row of brownstones and stoops like New York, so we just started choosing great locations to create a visual experience.
TRACHTENBERG: It was literally zero degrees outside, and while everyone was standing by ginormous electrical heaters in parkas, I was in a T-shirt, covered in wet, cold paint, running down the street. My mom was the furthest thing from a stage mom — she only ever cared about my safety — but she was like, “Only two takes. She’s not getting sick!” Bronwen was so cool and knew exactly when she got it.
To film the underwater bathtub scene, the crew shot below a steel-framed Plexiglas tank on a platform.
TRACHTENBERG: Water has always been holy, dangerous, and cathartic, and that’s what Bronwen captured. As a kid, I was able to hold my breath for a really long time, and I remember my mom dug her nails into Bronwen’s arm. She was terrified that I was drowning, even though we were all safe and there was a lifeguard. I was a very odd 10-year-old.
HUGHES: It represented the worst moment of Harriet’s life, but she’s no shrinking violet, which is what I loved about her forever.
TRACHTENBERG: I was a tiny leaf of a waif, but I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to break the Plexiglas, destroy the cameras, and we’re all going to go down!”