After seeing Hard Candy at SXSW, I participated in a roundtable interview with director David Slade (shown above) and writer Brian Nelson. Hard Candy was the first feature film credit for both the writer and director.
Our interview was tricky because Hard Candy is full of suspenseful plot twists that are best not revealed. To avoid spoilers, we had to use a lot of euphemisms about "the ambiguity," "that transgressive thing," "that section in the middle," and so on. So if you haven't seen the movie (it played several festivals, but won't be released into U.S. theaters until April 14), it's perfectly safe for you to read the following interview.
How did you end up selecting Patrick Wilson for the role of Jeff?
Brian Nelson: We met with a number of people, interesting people, but who looked a little creepy. One great asset that Patrick brought to the film is that you don't think to yourself, "Oh, that scary Patrick Wilson," but instead, "Oh, that gorgeous nice guy."
David Slade: He actually is a nice guy, and he was really uncomfortable with the material. As a director, most of the time my job is to make the actors feel comfortable. After a while, it became apparent to me that no, don't make him feel comfortable, you want the reality of how uncomfortable he is.
BN: It was so important to us to have people understand why he was able to attract women, that his past is not telegraphed in the film. We were very fortunate to end up with him. I brought a handful of my theater students to watch a rough cut of the film. They came up to me afterwards and said, "We were just watching the whole film thinking, oh, Patrick can't be guilty, he can't be, because he's just so dreamy."
DS: Allow me to say his character took a 14-year-old girl home. He's guilty from the fourth minute of the film, because you just don't take a 14-year-old home. But his performance is so forgiving that somehow some people let that stuff go by, and that was the strength in [it].
How did you end up with Ellen Page as the 14-year-old?
DS: We saw something like 300 actresses trying to find the lead role, Hayley. Whomever 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 and of course they had to be able to match an actor like Patrick Wilson, who's phenomenally accomplished. And it was tough.
BN: We would read with some actresses who were Medea, and we would read others who acted like Jennifer Aniston. We needed to find someone who had that balance of having a sense of humor when she needed it, having the ability to play with the edgy lines in the script, but on the other hand would come from a very deep place of passion.
DS: Ellen had so much passion to bring to this role, and she was so true and honest about it. Her reasoning was that at fourteen, your attitudes are black and white and there are no shades of gray, because you haven't lived yet. And Ellen wasn't much past that age, but she's very emotionally mature. When you're driven with such passion, like the myth of the mother who can lift a car off her child, you are so empowered with that passion that you can unquestionably do anything. And she didn't just play lip service to that, she went the whole way with that. God bless her for it, because it turned her into such a three-dimensional character.
A lot of things aren't clearly resolved by the end of the movie. What exactly do we know for certain about Hayley? It seems like there's a lot of ambiguity.
BN: You do know that she's the person you see in those last shots. She is a young woman who is going to live with what she has done in this film. And the fact [is] that this is unlike the end of a movie like Death Wish, in which Charles Bronson says, "Well, going to Chicago now." Where will she go at the end of this film? Well, we're going to let you think about that. The fact that at the end of the day you're left with only a certain knowledge of her means that she becomes a kind of cinematic Rorschach test for who you are and what you think about the issues that have been raised in this film.
DS: What we are absolutely utterly against is that this is a film advocating vengeance, and so came the ambiguity. One of the film's chief themes is making you re-evaluate what you bring to the cinema. You're rooting for someone who has similar values to you personally, emotionally, and oh God, who turns out to be the bad guy. Now you have to think about the way you look at certain things, and where you would draw a line in the sand, and what you would consider acceptable. Another of the central themes is responsibility, taking responsibility for everything you do. In this film, that responsibility ultimately is left in the hands of a 14-year-old girl who has to live a life after the film ends. It was one of the more important themes to us as filmmakers, that people who ask questions not be told what the answers are.
How did the script change during the shoot? Were you required to tone down or trim any elements?
DS: Brian's first draft was pretty much what we shot. The main development reading was in rehearsal; when we figured out who these characters were, we changed a few lines here and there.
BN: In general, the draft...was very little changed to the actual film. As a writer, I feel incredibly fortunate. David was such a bulldog for the script. When an issue would come up, he would say, "No! Don't let them talk you into a change, it's got to be there!" When I would visit the set, people would tell me, "Now don't get spoiled, this is not the usual experience."
DS: I was fortunate to have the bloody material in the first place. When this film came along, even though there was no money in it, it was the film I had to make as a first film. And challenging too—two people in a house for the whole film, it knocked me off my feet. I read the script all the way through and thought, I have to make this. And I'm fortunate to be continuing to work with him [Nelson] on another project together [30 Days of Night].
How did you approach a film that contains such hot-button issues?
DS: I read the script and felt it was on completely morally sound ground. If there was anything morally ambiguous about it, I wouldn't be here today. I believe strongly that it is not a film which advocates anything that would move us remotely toward exploitation, but is designed to make you think. That's what drew me to it as a director.
I wasn't allowed final cut on this film, that was left with the producers. But with the exception of one shot, which is completely irrelevant to any emotional or polemic drive of the film, I got every shot in precisely the order I wanted it.
You decided not to show the photos in the box—but you do show the photo on the wall that Jeff confronts at the end of the film.
DS: It was important at that moment for him to cross a line for the audience, regardless of who he really was. I remember shooting that scene, it was a tough scene to shoot. Patrick just ... let loose. And from that point onward he seemed to change.
BN: This was a key scene in the script. 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 turns and says words to the effect of "Thank you, I get who I am now," that was vital in the crafting of his role. People like Jeff are so effective at masking themselves and denying who they are, and 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 himself—it's his own work that he's attacking, not necessarily the girl in the picture.
Sound is used very effectively in this movie—how did you put together the soundtrack?
DS: There are only two songs in the film. There's a lot of sound design, and a brilliant score by Molly and Harry. Molly Nyman is the daughter of composer Michael Nyman, and Harry Escott is her partner in crime. They came to us when I was looking for a composer to do some minimal amounts of music. I remember the producers saying, "There's only nine minutes of music in the entire film!" And that's composed music, not music that was bought.
BN: This is another advantage of not being a studio product, you don't have to shove songs by this week's flavor into every moment of the film.
DS: Sound design was a huge element in this film. We created tension through sound design, but also underscored scenes in a nonverbal, nonmusical way. There's that whole section in the middle of the film where the camera pretty much does not cut. Originally we were going to do the sequence as one continuous shot but it became impractical, so there are a few cuts. Using lots of music would have taken away from that scene. What you hear, and of course the words, are so paramount to this film—it's critical that those words don't get cluttered by other people's words in songs. The Blonde Redhead song [at the end of the film] became almost like a theme.
You shot the film in 18 days. How difficult was the shoot? Did you preplan and rehearse extensively?
DS: One of the advantages of a low budget and shooting in 18 days was that no matter how tough it was, we knew that in 18 days it would be over. That certainly was a liberating aspect of making this film.
We shot as much in sequence as we could. We shot everything except the cafe scene and the exteriors in sequence. We built the house on a stage, then we shot everything in the house in sequence until we had to tear down the house and build a cafe. At which point we went out on location and shot exteriors, giving the art department time to turn the house into a cafe, and came back from location as they were still repainting the walls. But it was all clearly pre-visualized, as much as you ever can in a film. It was meticulously planned and storyboarded.
That said, with a film this emotionally charged, sometimes you get to rehearsal and realize that you have to throw the storyboards away because what the actors are doing is so much more powerful than the vision you had. Again, one of the advantages of working on this kind of film with this kind of budget is you are allowed, more than most—if an actor comes up with an idea that's so much better than any idea you had, in terms of the character, you can say, "You know what, you're right, and I'm going to follow that." We had the luxury of rehearsal.
What sorts of reactions to this film have you encountered, and what do you anticipate?
BN: People bring into the theater their own paradigm, their own thought processes. I was at one screening where the chant "Kill the bitch!" came up and I was horrified.
DS: Some people are going to hate this film so much, they're going to write three pages about how much they hate it. But ultimately you make the choice to make the film, you don't falter, you get through the film undiluted. I have the bizarre idea that audiences are intelligent and don't have to be spoonfed every line. The fact that this film got made is a triumph enough.