Hard Candy is a visceral, ambiguous, and unsettling movie
about well… pedophilia. Not just pedophilia but internet predators
and how they look for young women through the internet. Patrick
Wilson plays Jeff Dahlmer (yeah I didn’t get it until
later either, ’cause I’m slow like that), a seemingly
clean-cut and nice adult guy. He meets up with 14-year-old, Haley
(Ellen Page, to be seen in X-Men 3 as
Kitty Pryde aka Shadowcat). So they hook up and he takes her back
to his home… savvy? Right off the bat you can probably sense
the subtle resentment from Haley, which pays off in that, after
he takes her home, Haley drugs Jeff and ties him up.
I don’t want to give away too much, but this movie really
screws with your head, much like a game that’s at work in
the movie as well. By the end you will understand. I spoke with
screenwriter Brian Nelson and director David
Slade the next day at the SFA Hotel. And this really is
a hard movie to define and talk about. The issues under discussion
are complicated, but the movie does take an “unfaltering”
look and it will definitely make you think.
—Jeffrey "The Vile One" Harris
Hard Candy Interview with director David Slade
and screenwriter Brian Nelson
On Wednesday, March 17, thanks to the good folks at Reinhart Marketing,
I was able to participate in a roundtable interview session with
the filmmakers of the new movie Hard Candy, which played
the night before at the South by Southwest film festival.
Due to it starting a little late and my next interview time scheduled,
I unfortunately had to cut it a little short and leave early.
Once again, not all the questions here will be my own. I will
mark the ones I asked as “Hybrid”.
*WARNING* this interview contains heavy discussion of the movie
and might contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
Hybrid: Just to get us started, one of the more surprising aspects
of the movie to me, other than [well you know], would have to be
Patrick Wilson’s performance. Having seen the The Alamo, I
thought he was a wimpy Travis. Phantom of the Opera, he was kind
of wimpy as Raoul. Here this was a really different performance
for him and I was surprised by how strong he was.
DS: He was fantastic.
Hybrid: I just wanted to ask you guys how your casting process
went and how you came to Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson.
BN: Patrick is also a guy who’s been a Broadway star and
was the lead in Full Monty, stripped down before audiences night
after night after night. You know, that takes some manliness.
DS: It does. And you know for me as a director, one of the things
is we had to, I mean I said last night, the film was shot in eighteen
and a half days. The half day was for some of the driving sequence;
having an actor that comes from the stage, that’s a bit of
a blessing because they act all the time. They don’t wait
for their close-ups. *laughter* They’re just constantly acting
because they’re used to being in front of an audience the
entire time. Patrick went well beyond the call of duty on this,
but that’s not your question, we’ll talk about that
later. Finding people who wanted to play Jeff, and had the right
attitude, and had the right, you know, approach is tough. And we
met with Patrick and he had just one set of concerns. Really good
ones to me those concerns because they kind of were indicative of
that he was going to play a human being, not a monster. The fact
that he had those concerns...
BN: This was so important. You know we had... there had been a
number of names that producers had talked about with us.
DS: People that came in and we talked with.
BN: And some of them were interesting, but they were people who
look a little creepy. When you think of them, they’ve been
in scary films. That’s a great asset that Patrick brought
to the film, that you don’t think, “Oh that’s
scary Patrick Wilson.” You think, “Oh that gorgeous
DS: He actually is a nice guy and one of the things that you know
in terms of performance was that he was really uncomfortable with
the material, “Is it alright to you?” Well most of the
time your job is to make the actors feel comfortable. Actually after
a while it became apparent to me, no don’t make him feel comfortable
because you’ll get the reality of how uncomfortable he is
from that. Which is to underscore that he was actually a really
nice guy. And a really solid technical performer as well as an emotional
one. Let me give you an example, he would be in a scene and he could
hit six marks on the floor every time and then I remember the DP
and I said, “Can he tilt his head back, so there’s a
glint in his eye?” “How much? Here?” “You’ll
never be able to do that once you hit those marks.” So he
came around *SHOOK*. Glint in the eye every time. So, a consummate
BN: And a great craftsman, you know a bold guy to do what this
film asks of him clearly. It was so important to us that we have
a guy who we understand why he is able to attract women, that his
past is not telegraphed in the film. And you know, were very fortunate
therefore to end up with him. I teach a class at USC, and I brought
a handful of my theatre students to watch a rough cut of the film.
And they came up to me afterwards and they were just watching the
whole film thinking, “Oh! Patrick can’t be guilty! He
can’t be because he’s just so dreamy!”
DS: I say to a guy who takes a fourteen year old home, “GUILTY!”
From the fourth minute of the film you know he’s guilty. Because
you just don’t take a fourteen-year-old girl home... You don’t
do those things. And yet his performance is so forgiving that you
just somehow some people just let that go by and that is the strength
of his performance.
BN: So we’ve given a twelve-minute answer to one question.
We should answer another question.
What about the girl?
DS: Ellen Page, God, we could give you a twenty-five minute to
a half-hour discussion.
BN: We love talking about Ellen.
Hybrid: Ellen really is about to hit it big, that X-Men 3 coming
DS: I actually know the situation. Brett Ratner saw a DVD of this
movie and said, “I want to cast her.” Anyway we saw,
I want to say collectively 300, we don’t know how many people
we saw, around 300 actresses trying to find the lead role, Haley.
There were various criteria that we were looking for. Beyond the
script, there is this humanist element of, I can’t cast anybody
young and vulnerable so that they end up emotionally scarred making
this movie. That was a very clear point in my mind that whoever
we cast had to be strong enough and mature enough to get through
this film. But they had to look right. They had to look the age.
They had to be able to match an actor like Patrick Wilson, who’s
a phenomenally accomplished actor. And you know it was tough. It
took a long time. God knows how many months we took looking, reading
people, and some phenomenally talented actresses came in—
BN: Some of whom you’ve gone on to see in other films since.
And are rightfully successful. Finding the right balance for us,
you know we would read some actresses who were Medea. Some of whom
we read on the other side were Jennifer Aniston. And we needed to
find someone who had that balance of having a sense of humor when
she needed it. And having the ability to play with the edgy lines
of the script at the same time come from a very deep place and passion.
And one of the interesting things in that Ellen said when she came
in to read was that she was asked how she saw the role and she mentioned
Joan of Arc.
DS: It was one of the questions where somebody—it was one
of the producers—
BN: I remember wincing—
DS: We all winced.
BN: Where is this going to go?
DS: And then she just said Joan of Arc and were like YES!... The
thing was and not to say there were conflicts, and so on and so
forth between production—you know the film was made for under
a million dollars. And you can buy a decent house with that. You
know everybody, there is a degree of when you’re dealing with
such difficult issues, you’re gonna get conflicts and you’re
gonna get concerns and worries and “Oh are you sure?”
And Brian and I are sure because he can see it in his mind. I’m
sure because I can see it in my mind. But very few people can and
legitimately they worry, they have concerns, and with Ellen, she
just had so much passion to bring to this role. And she was so true
and honest about it that it was difficult to... she had answers
to questions I wouldn’t be able to, or at the same time the
one scene of direction, one word, and she would take it and blossom
it into a whole rose bush of performance because she came from this
place of great passion. And her reasoning at the age, fourteen,
your attitudes are black and white, no shades of gray, because you
hadn’t lived yet. And you know she wasn’t much past
that age. But of course she’s very emotionally mature. And
when you are driven with such passion like the mother who can lift
the car off her child when it’s crushed, you are so empowered
by that passion that you can unquestioningly, unwaveringly do anything.
And she really didn’t just pay lip service to that. She really
went the whole way with that. And God bless her for it because she
turned her into such a three-dimensional character.
BN: I’ve seen the film so many times, I’m still—Look
at this little moment, there’s this little moment where she’s
been listening to the music and she just looks at him with this
incredible deadpan and says, “A little angry are we?”
You know, it’s little moments like that, that are all through
the performance that just even having seen it as many times as I
have, still fascinate me.
Hybrid: I always felt this resentment. There always seemed to
be something under the surface with her. And that intimate almost
invasive cinematography really caught all that. And not just from
her, but Patrick Wilson as well. What about Haley being a very ambiguous
DS: What we were completely against was that we were making a
film advocating vengeance. And so came the ambiguity. This is a
film which in its chief themes is about A) making you evaluate it.
Maybe you now have to re-evaluate it because well actually you rooted
for someone who had similar values to you personally, emotionally,
and oh God he turned out to be the bad guy. And now do I have to
change how I look at certain things? And where I draw a line in
the sand in what I accept or not? And actually this process of whatever
it may be, looking at pictures online, is actually a very complicated
business... And 2) one of the most central themes of it... is responsibility,
taking responsibility for your actions. Taking responsibility for
everything you do. And in this film, that responsibility is ultimately
left in the hands of a fourteen-year-old girl to live a life now.
And those were the themes that were more important, more interesting
themes to us as filmmakers. Do people ask questions, not be told
what the answers are.
You had to know making this movie it was going to cause a lot
DS: Pandora’s box open!
You guys can’t be surprised by that, but talk a little bit
about in general approaching a film with such hot button issues.
DS: I think you have to be unfaltering. The thing is I read the
script. I was completely on morally sound ground. And so that’s
the end of the discussion, you get on with making the film. If there
was anything morally ambiguous about it, then I wouldn’t be
here today. I do believe strongly that it is not a film which advocates
anything which would move us remotely toward exploitation. But one
which is designed to make you think. And I think that is a good
thing, and a rare thing. And I think that’s what drew me to
the story. And some people are going to explode. People are going
to hate this film so much that they are going to write three pages
about how much they hate it. And it’s just going to happen
you know. You go to message boards, if you look at message boards
which I don’t, my girlfriend does, those are places where
people are empowered to express their opinions. But ultimately,
you make the choice to make the film. You don’t falter. You
make the film, you get through the film—I wasn’t allowed
final cut on this film, that was left with the producers, but I
with the exception of one shot, I won’t even tell you what
it is, it’s absolutely completely utterly irrelevant to any
emotional polemic drive of the film, I got every shot on the movie
I wanted to and precisely the order that I wanted it to be there.
So, I’m very confident with the film. And yes, people will
come out against it—
BN: You know people just misread films. A good friend of mine
wrote Falling Down, the Michael Douglas film from many years ago.
And at that time, he was so taken aback by people saying, “Well
doesn’t this film endorse this thinking, white male anger?”
Because they thought well Michael Douglas is the star, he must be
the hero. And I think any intelligent reading of that film says
no, Robert Duvall is the hero, Michael Douglas is the problem in
that film and it hardly endorses... because it brought it so close
to home for them they had to think about it. And thinking is a scary
Hybrid: People labeled Dirty Harry as fascist.
DS: Well... no comment.
Talk about the decision to not show the scantily clad girls, when
she opens the box, you don’t see what’s in there. And
when he stabs the picture at the end, it’s a panty shot. Could
you talk more about that?
DS: Jeff’s photography was done by someone I know, who is
a fairly well established photographer. And it was important at
that moment for him to kind of cross a line for the audience, regardless
of what you thought of him at that point, regardless of who he was,
to cross a line. Now the fact that you didn’t see those photographs,
ones you see weren’t even that graphic, what is graphic about
it is that the head is removed [from the shot], you know it’s
just a body. And the fact that he just stabs that picture... I remember
shooting that scene. It was a tough scene to shoot emotionally,
a lot of the scenes were tough, emotionally, very tough emotionally
on the actors. And Patrick said, “Help me, what are we doing?”
I gave him some direction, said a few words to him, and then he
just let loose. And from that point onwards he seemed to change.
BN: This is a key scene in the script even before you look at
it in the film that it was so important that this moment show us
a Jeff that we have never seen before. And the fact that he does
this transgressive thing and then just turns and says the words
to the effect of thank you, I get who I am. That was a vital thing
in the crafting of this role because people like Jeff are so effective
at masking themselves and denying who they are. So I think what
works well in that sequence is that there’s no masking that.
DS: And let’s not forget that he took that photograph, that
it’s his own work that he’s attacking, not necessarily
the girl in the picture, that he’s attacking. So there is
a subtext there that is riding him to stabbing a picture.
[At this point I had to leave to go to my next interview.]
David Slade and Brian Nelson are currently working with Columbia
on bringing Steve Niles’ renowned graphic novel, “30
Days of Night,” to the big screen.