Hard Candy isn’t the kind of film you see every day. The disturbing horror drama about a young girl torturing a would-be pedophile was greeted with a wave of controversy on the festival circuit before it was finally acquired by the good folks at Lionsgate Films. The Horror Channel recently had a chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson where they talked about the pressures of making this groundbreaking film. <!– zoom:/img/story/ –>
Question: Tell us how this opportunity came up.
David Slade: As a director, you’re always trying to find the film that’s gonna get made. You don’t want to attach yourself to something forever. Then came this script with nothing attached to it. [laughs] I began reading it, going “Oh…I can’t make this/Oh! I have to make this!” I thought, “Well, there’s no chance this film is going to get made, but I’ve just gotta make it because this is the kind of film that I would like to see.”
It was very different than anything I’d done. I’ve come from ten years of production in music videos and commercials. There’s a school of directors, and at the very high end we have Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, and at the lower end you have people like me and John Hillcoat, who did The Proposition, who often get confused with these directors who do Britney Spears videos. But actually, we just do these little films, we don’t get paid much and we’re broke, but we use it as a film school. We tell little short stories and we have fun doing it.
Two people in a house for a whole movie is quite challenging. And you want your first film to challenge the hell out of you. The writing was so powerful. It just made me question myself. We all draw lines in the sand as to what we believe. We believe that a certain type of behavior is acceptable and a certain type isn’t and this script questioned my values. Here I was vouching for a character whom I shouldn’t really be vouching for. I was really confused. I know morally where I should be standing, but my heart was somewhere else. And I thought to myself, “God, if we can make a film that does this, then it’ll be worth something.”
Q: How do you come up with something in the realm of this subject matter and think it’s normal?
Brian Nelson: There’s a great big assumption there.
DS: Can we talk about David Higgins for a second?
BN: Sure. David Higgins is a producer on the film who read my work and said, “Brian, you have a certain skill with dialogue and character, and I have a really intense small film idea that I’d like to talk to you about.” He pitched me the basic concept of this film. I listened and thought it was interesting, so I asked to have some time to think about it. I walked down the hall and I asked my wife, “So, there’s this guy who has this idea and I think it’s interesting, but if I write it, will you still be married to me?” [laughs]
DS: I had a discussion with my girlfriend where we were both reading the script together, and we went from “You can’t do this!/I know I can’t do this” to “You have to do this!/I know I have to do this!” [laughs]
BN: One of our producers showed the script to his wife and when he came back into the room after a couple of hours, she threw it at him and said ,”How dare you make me read this!” And he said, “But isn’t it great?” and she said, “Well yes, but how dare you make me read this!”
DS: That statement is funny, because we were on solid moral ground with this piece. It was never meant to work on any exploitational level whatsoever, and I think David Higgins was very lucky when he got Brian Nelson. Brian has this way of creating complex arguments with incredible subtext in very simple words.
We were at Sundance and the film provoked a lot of rage. A guy stood up and he had a piece of paper covered in writing, and he began with “What gives you the right…?!?!?!” We listened and we couldn’t hear a question in the rant. It was just this cathartic outburst.
Q: Is it different aspects that affect people differently?
BN: This film, in a way, is an interesting rural shock test about a lot of issues, about gender and what’s acceptable to see a male character do and what’s acceptable to see a female character do. It’s a touch point about age and what people can watch or accept from people at certain ages. It’s a flashpoint about justice. People always say what they think should be done with a sex predator. Well, what if someone followed the logical extension of that? What would that do to them, as well as to their target. Because, as David said early, the film doesn’t make it easy for you in terms of allegiances. That in itself makes it difficult for some people.
DS: People want things to be resolved. People want to feel cozy and warm when they walk out of the cinema and go back to their lives. And this film doesn’t resolve these issues.
BN: We don’t resolve things for you at all. We ask a lot of questions, and we leave it with you.
DS: Haley Stark preaches, but that’s not to say the film preaches. She a character and that’s an element of her character. We’re not taking Haley’s side. We’re just throwing those questions out to you.
Q: How hard was it to convince actors to do this?
BN: For actresses, it was not particularly an issue. Actresses would come in to audition and turn to me and say, “Thank you for writing this.” There was an incredible outpouring of interest from all sorts of actresses.
Q: How did you find Ellen Page?
DS: Ellen is astonishing. As you probably know, she went on to X-Men 3 cause Brett Ratner saw this film and immediately offered her the role, which she immediately turned it down… [laughter] which is very Ellen, and we’re proud of her for that. We saw something like 300 people. They would all come into the audition, meet me and Brian and the producers. They read a couple of scenes and there were some good ones, and some okay ones, and some really good ones…
BN: What was interesting about some of the good ones was that they brought such a kind of soundstage polish to it that you didn’t fear for them. There were some who were so snappy they could’ve played Jennifer Aniston’s kid sister. They had tremendous presence and tremendous intelligence and I had watched them in many, many films…but you didn’t fear for them at the same time. We didn’t want someone indestructible; we wanted someone who would bring this really unique blend of drive and strength and also vulnerability; someone for whom you would root, but someone for whom – at times – you might be scared of as well.
DS: We saw Ellen on an episode of a TV show, and she basically acted everyone off the screen and she had done one other feature called Mouth to Mouth which I recommend. I spoke to her on the phone and immediately found an incredibly articulate and incredibly passionate person. As a director, one of the casting prerequisites is that you try and find somebody who you know can get through the film and not be scarred – otherwise you’re a misanthrope. [laughs] She came to L.A. and read, and she was fantastic. I wanted the producers to know how articulate she was, so I said, “Guys, do you want to ask her some questions?” One of the producers came up with this question: “What character in history does Haley remind you of?” She sat there and said “Joan of Arc.” And that was it.
BN: We loved that!
Q: How are you expecting to get audiences into the theater for this?
DS: I don’t know. It’s a good question. Lionsgate bought the film in its entirety. It was finished at Sundance. Because of the subject matter, we chose the low budget roots so that we wouldn’t have pointing fingers going “Do this, do that.” One of my speeches at the bidding war was, “I’m the director. If you think this is material that you can make into something, then don’t buy it. If you like it as it is, then buy it because the contract will state that you can’t cut a frame.” So it took them a long time, and we’re pleased with the materials that [marketing] produced. God, it must have been hard, because…
BN: How do you make a trailer for this film and not give it all away?
DS: I know! And they did a great job in the end. What kind of box do you put it in besides Pandora’s Box? Is it a suspense film? Is it a horror film? I have no fucking idea. I wish I knew. We just went out to make the film we wanted to make, and we were lucky to be able to do it.
Special thanks to Alice Zou and Lionsgate Films for letting us speak with the filmmakers. Hard Candy opens on April 14th in limited release, so if you’re sick of safe cinema, be sure to show your support. Visit the film’s official site right here for more!