Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hard Candy

Caught an advance screening of Hard Candy at the Clay Theater this evening with director David Slade and actress Ellen Page present for a post-screening Q&A. As Juan Manuel Freire reported to the Greencine Daily from the Sitges International Film Festival last October, the awards for Best Motion Picture and Best Screenplay went to Hard Candy.

After the South by Southwest festival last month Micah reviewed the film for Dumb Distraction and Cinematical's Jette Kernion took part in a roundtable interview with writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade.

Todd Brown at Twitch reviewed the film from the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival.

David Hudson gathered up yesterday's reviews for the Greencine Daily: " 'A schlockfest dressed up in sleek designer duds that feigns gruesome violence and flounders with psychological power dynamics, music video vet [David] Slade's directorial debut desperately tries to shock and disturb by exploiting male fears of castration and feminine revenge fantasies, both of which form the crux of his story about the torturous tête-à-tête between 32-old photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) and 14-year-old student Hayley (Ellen Page).' Nick Schager on Hard Candy in Slant. More from Rob Nelson in the Voice. Related: Ray Pride on that red hoody; Daniel Robert Epstein talks with Slade for SuicideGirls and, for Film & Video, Bryant Frazer talks with Jean-Clement Soret, one of the first colorists to be credited in the opening titles."

Reminiscent of Misery and uncomfortably compelling, Hard Candy is a drama-thriller hybrid about a 32-year-old man who takes home a 14-year-old girl he's met on the net. The film is dark, edgy, and primarily seductive because of Page's powerhouse performance. I was fascinated by her character even as she creeped me out. Here's my transcription of the post-screening discussion.

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Director Slade was asked to talk about how Hard Candy came about. He underscored that, first and foremost, Hard Candy is a completely independently-financed film. Producer David Higgins had the kernel of an idea based around a newspaper article he'd read about girls in Japan who would arrange to meet men on line for sex via the internet. The men would come lured and the girls would jump out of the closet and beat them up and steal their wallets. With that he sought out and found an amazing voice in Brian Nelson, the writer, who teaches theater for a living and is a screenwriter and a playwright. Rather than just take the article as read and make a straightforward thriller, Nelson elected to write a multitextural piece. This was the early first draft that Slade read, which he loved. "Usually as a director," Slade explained, "you look for a film that's ready to go because you don't want to go through development and all that stuff and this was a film no one was going to make. I could see that nobody was going to make this. But I loved it. My personal tastes—I grew up on the cinema of people like Nicolas Roeg and the like and it just spoke to me and I desperately wanted to make it so I went and I met with David who immediately attached me. Once we had a little package together, we very quickly financed it, under the specific caveat that we were going to make it for a million dollars or less so that we kept control." They didn't want it to be a studio film; they wanted it to be a "proper" independently-financed film, not one made through Warner Independent or any of the major studio independent labels. "It's a very very tough subject matter," Slade concedes, "and a very very tough film to make and we didn't want to be in a position where we would be told, well, you have to skew in this direction for this audience or skew your argument this way or resolve anything." They wanted to—as you do when you make a film for practically no money in Hollywood terms—make the film they wanted to make and Slade is proud of the fact that they got to do just that. Hard Candy was independently financed. "[T]hen we took it to Sundance," he continued, "where we were fortunate enough to get into a bidding war and Lionsgate Films bought it, again under the caveat that they weren't allowed to change a frame, and they haven't and—God bless them—they haven't asked us to either."

"We're very very pleased to be coming out on the 28th. We come out in New York and L.A. first and then here on the 28th. There was development along the way, but only very little. Brian Nelson and I fought hard to keep the original energy of the script exactly as it was."

Slade was asked to talk about getting Ellen Page involved in this project because—for such a young character and her being so smart in the movie—without the right actress it would have been definitely borderline cheesey. Page was dynamite and she actually pulled it off, so how did he come across her?

He said they saw about 300 people before Ellen was brought to his attention. He watched some of her television work and then sent on the script. "I remember you read with a shaved head," he smiled at Ellen. She had just gotten off of a film where she had shaved her head. The film's producers were quite strong and supportive but a little nervous as producers tend to be, and practically crapped their pants when they saw Ellen with a shaved head but Nelson, Higgins and Slade knew Page was the one. "There were some great actresses who came in," Slade admitted, "but Ellen just brought this passion that no one else did. She read it in a way that was honest and natural and it felt exactly how Hayley should be. She didn't play in a way that many actresses did, overplaying the sexual flirtation, she just played with great passion and that was the most important thing because in this film the actors have their lines, the actors have their points of view, these are not the points of view of the filmmakers, these are the characters' lines, we're not advocating Hayley's point of view, we're not advocating Jeff's point of view, we're leaving this to you as an audience to read into."

They managed to get Ellen to come to Los Angeles, they met in Starbucks and exchanged some notes and then she read "and absolutely blew everybody away, and that was that!" One of the most important things for a director is the casting, Slade insists. He quotes Billy Wilder: "The three most important things for directing is the casting, the casting, and the casting." They spent a lot of time, he adds, it was the longest time in the production of the film, waiting for and getting the right cast.

So then Ellen was asked what drew her to the part? And exactly how she decided to play Hayley.

When she first got the script, she was in Toronto, having just gotten back from Europe where she'd shot a film, and for which she'd shaved her head. "I wasn't supposed to look at anything," she explained, "I wasn't going to work for a while, and of course the first script that I got like three days after I got back was Hard Candy and I read it and I was just completely blown away and completely engrossed. I couldn't believe that a character like Hayley had been written for a teenage girl with so much intelligence and passion. It was really refreshing actually to not have the typical portrayal of the teenage girl that our media has currently. So I was really just inspired and all I wanted was to be in it and I'm really grateful that I got to be."

Asked her age, Ellen responded 19, though she was 17 at the time she made the film.

Asked how she prepared for the role outside of reading the script, Ellen said: "To be honest, I really just wanted, y'know, my heart to connect to her heart really, in the sense of her passion and the fact that she saw something that was happening in society that people were ignoring and justifying and it really angered her and she was going to do something about that and she was sick of peoples' passive natures. Yeah, there's a lot of things that piss me off. It's just channeling that and connecting on an emotional level."

Slade interjected that he believed adults have a "romantic misconception" that people at the age of 14 don't behave like Hayley or can't or somehow can't articulate. "I think this is a romantic misconception that we have as adults—I think this is something Ellen brought in ... this tremendous passion, this absolute belief, and it was so refreshing." There are those who still argue that a 14 year old wouldn't do something like this but Slade insists no, she would. "Really she would, she was so driven, her values were black and white because she hadn't lived to the point in which she'd filled in the greys." The film has been criticized for being an older man's interpretation of what a young 14-year-old girl thinks but Slade states: "In terms of vocabulary Brian will tell you, he will say, well, it was this student on this day who gave me the idea for that line and they were 14 and I always like to say that because it's one of these weird misconceptions we have and I think it's a romanticism that we like to have as adults."

Ellen was asked: Being that you're a younger woman and just ending your adolescence, how did you feel doing the movie knowing that this is based on pedophiles? I mean, did you recall any experiences that you may have had on your own or did you sort of have to imagine what it was like to be pursued in such a way?

"All I really need to think about is the fact that this guy would do something like this," Ellen responded, "regardless of my personal experience or Hayley's personal experience, the fact that this exists hurts her, the fact that these people are doing this damages her and angers her to an extent that she can hardly even articulate it and she is gonna frickin do something about it, y'know? And it was just about connecting with that. I've never been exploited while I was just trying to grow some basmati rice but it really annoys me that people are patenting seeds, know what I mean?"

I had to ask the obvious question about the red hood. Was the script purposely playing with the Little Red Riding Hood story which has been interpreted by some to deal with the sexuality of young women?

Both of them protested no. "The hood was red," Ellen explained, "and I like to put my hood up, literally, and now I keep getting all these analytical questions about Little Red Riding Hood." Slade added that they had a very little budget. The stylist spent most of it on Patrick's wardrobe. "Yeah," Ellen complained jokingly, "his pants were like $600!" And all she got were jeans and a red sweathood. But it looked right, Slade explained, and he asked her if she felt comfortable in it and Ellen said, yeah, and that was that. And then later he thought, "Oh shit, people are going to read this as Little Red Riding Hood." Besides, Ellen added, she recalled that in Little Red Riding Hood the wolf eats the girl and that's not exactly what happened here.

I took them at their word but it didn't truly satisfy me. If the symbol was not consciously used, perhaps it snuck in anyways. It's true that the wolf eats the girl and the granny but the woodsman comes along and cuts him open. And then what most folks don't remember is that the woodsman sews stones in the wolf's belly, which makes him sink in a body of water. The wolf drowns from the weight. I couldn't help noticing that Jeff's big dark secret was kept underneath a bunch of stones. But again, if they say they weren't playing with these images, I'll begrudgingly accept they weren't.

Ellen was asked if there was a scene that was especially difficult for her to film or for her to get in touch with? Obviously the scene being referred to is the grisly castration scene intent upon titillating morbid prurience. Slade answered for Ellen: "You know, we had 18 and a half days to shoot the film. We shot it for under a million dollars which meant that kind of schedule. Every day was emotionally draining. Every day was tough. Every day was hard work. We prepared and prepared and prepared. We had rehearsal which really helped. I would say there were some days that were harder than others because some days were more physically demanding because we were doing physically demanding stuff. There were some days that were emotionally demanding. But when you're stuck with an 18-day schedule, every day is tough and the only solace in that is that in 18 days it's going to be over."

Ellen countered that she thought the 18-day shoot was a luxury in a way. "I'm from Canada and we have no money," she stated wryly, adding that pretty much all the movies she's done have been shot in 18 days, so it wasn't really that unusual for her. At the same time she thought it helped the film because it added to the sense of immediacy and the film's manic nature.

Slade offered that they also shot pretty much in sequence except for the café scene, which was shot at the very end. "That was sheer necessity," Slade explained, "because we had to rip down the—we shot the entire interiors in a tiny stage that we built and then when we went out on location while the art department were ripping down the apartment to make a café, which is why we had to shoot that at the end but the relationship between the two characters, I think between the two actors had to grow over that time and that was very important in that schedule."

They were asked how much time was spent rehearsing before they actually started shooting? Slade said they had five days in a room about the size of the stage kind of square. Or less. The rehearsal period was really good for determining that they all understood what they were doing and they all agreed they were doing the same thing. Ellen and Patrick both were completely prepared so that the rehearsal period was really just diligence and ironing out certain things which might read well on the page but might not come out right. Slade asked Ellen directly: "What was your experience with rehearsal? Would you rather not have done it?"

"No, no, it's good to cultivate trust," Ellen assured him. "I know that sounds cheesey but without it I don't think you can do something as intimate as make a film, which is pretty crazy."

Ellen was asked what she thought about the film's R rating? "Oh it sucks! Yeah, it really makes me go … Balls (pardon the pun)! I mean it just sucks because I really would like teenage girls and boys to see this and to see a character like this. Hopefully, they'll just sneak in or something."

"I'm sure they will," Slade concurred and then praised Patrick Wilson's performance. Trained on Broadway, Wilson hit all his marks perfect, which is great when reined by a tight schedule. "He just acted nonstop because he's used to the stage. And he really went beyond the call of duty body and soul, bodily. People say, 'Oh, the makeup on his hands look great.' No makeup on his hands! His hands were really tied up and blue." Only one stunt was done by a stunt double; everything else was done by the actors.

Ellen reminded Slade that he made her watch Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing. "It was my only reference piece," he explained, "I said this has to be real, the performances have to be real, the violence has to be real and so I need you to kind of do it!" And they did, and they did it safely with a fantastic stunt coordinator. The exteriors were shot at the stunt coordinator's house; it was a safer place to do stunts and stuntwork, hence all the roof scenes and running around the house were shot there.

Ellen was asked how she and Patrick were able to draw on such raw emotions take after take after take? Especially Patrick when he had to pretend his balls were being cut off. What did they have to do to get those emotions to come out?

Ellen seemed at a loss for an answer and then replied simply, "I dunno, I just like really really love to do this more than anything, y'know? And I really just like to disappear and lose my mind, it's like a drug. To find those elements and just pull them up and just literally disappear so, I dunno, I totally get off on it so it's just what I love to do. It's hard to explain. It's just … I just dig it and I just love to keep going for it. It's just like something that I love to do, you know what I mean? Yeah, yeah, he was getting his balls cut off but I'm the one standing there with all the friggin dialogue!"

Speaking for Wilson, Slade added that Patrick has said a number of times that when you're tied to a table there's not a lot else to do but act. You're tied up! You take an inch of pain and you turn it into a pound of pain and you engross yourself in that. All that he asked of them as a director, however, was that both of them come from a very honest place. This has proven kind of problematic for some people; they ask, "Who's the villain?"

"If both characters come from an honest place then they're both the villain," Slade states, "or neither of them are. That's up to you. So chiefly the text becomes about responsibility and how much responsibility does each person take and how much responsibility do you take as an audience and how do you assess your values having gone through the film, having rooted for one character and then maybe perhaps change your mind and had to root for another character because at the end things turn out a different way. There are people who would love to have people like Hayley go out and become vigilante-type people, but, here we show that it's actually quite a complex, very very complex thing to do."

Slade concludes: "You can see at the end of the film that she takes the weight of the whole day on her face, that she's taken on the responsibility that Jeff refused to take. He would rather die than accept the responsibility for what he'd done. For me that's one of the chief things about Western society is that we don't like responsibility because it's scary and it's full of danger. To me, more than the text which is very current right now, the film is about responsibilities."