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HARD CANDY (R) (2006)

Lions Gate Films

Official Site

Director: David Slade

Producers: Michael Caldwell, David Higgins, Richard Hutton, Jody Patton

Written by: Brian Nelson

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ellen Page, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Holmes

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 nice guy!”

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 professional—

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 out.

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 character?

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 of controversy.

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 thing.

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.

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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