Skip to main content

DAVID SLADE - Brit director shares Hard Candy

 "We made Hard Candy for under a million dollars, we shot it in 18 days, and the reason we did that was because if we hadn't, we would have been forced to change the script and make it a little more lightweight. That was never something we wanted to do. Or would do. In fact this is a rare instance where the filmmakers set out to make a film and pretty much made the film they wanted to make. I said to Brian [Nelson, the screenwriter], ‘Do they realise what we're doing?' and he'd kind of look at me and go, ‘I don't think they do, no.'

"It has become almost normalised to portray women of whatever age as a sexual object - almost accepted within the structure of society - and to prime a child for that end is a dangerous thing. But it is the norm here, and many other places, and if you are irresponsible as a male and seek to exploit a young woman, society has set up the odds in your favour."

 You've had a lot of extreme reactions to Hard Candy from audiences. It really shook things up at Sundance last year, I read.

"The film has ended up quite a Rorschach test for the viewer in that what they bring into the theatre, more often than not reflects what they take away, and they kind of feel a little weird about the way they feel by the time they've finished the film [laughs], and that can cause all manner of results from ‘Wow' to ‘I'm very angry and I want to kill you.' We've had all of them."

Were you expecting such strong reactions when you made it?

"Of course. We made it for under a million dollars, we shot it in 18 days, and the reason we did that was because if we hadn't done that we would have been forced to change the script and make it a little more lightweight. That was never something we wanted to do. Or would do. In fact this is a rare instance where the filmmaker set out to make a film and pretty much made the film they wanted to make. I said to Brian [Nelson, the screenwriter], ‘Do they realise what we're doing?' and he'd kind of look at me and go, ‘I don't think they do, no.'

"We were very aware of how charged the material was and how responsible we had to be in the telling of the story and that exploitation wasn't something we could enter into. You know, and leading the audience with something as blunt as music cues wasn't something that could be part of lexicon of this film. All kinds of responsibilities lay in our hands through the shooting process. And even before that, when we knew the script we wanted to make."

What drew you to this project in the first place? First features are difficult enough to get funded without making a paedophile one of your characters.

"Well, you know, there's nothing like a challenge. [Laughs] I come from about 10 years of commercials and video experience, which is not to say I've met a choreographer in my life or done any of those bigger videos. I guess the biggest artist I worked with is Tori Amos. I come from an art college and journalism background, so the type of work I tend to do is the kind of more interesting stuff, in my own opinion. I used that whole industry as a film school, and so I've done all kinds of things: I've blown up cars, shot people running, I've done tons and tons of stuff, and when I came to Los Angeles I did get offered a lot of action movies and stuff, which I said no to. I grew up with the films of Nicolas Roeg, and those were the kinds of films that excited me, the kinds that had something to say. You see the text of this film is really almost immaterial to me, the fact that Jeff is a predator. It's the dynamic between the two characters that really drew me on this. So, you know, a film with two people in a house for its entire duration was a massive challenge, and totally something I hadn't done before. So that was one of the things that drew me to it. And the writing was so damn good.

"It's very, very rare to come across a script so eloquently written, with such complex arguments put into such simple words, and that's what drew me. I had read so many scripts and then suddenly there was this one and I couldn't put it down. The dialogue was amazing, the plot twists I couldn't guess from one page to the next, and then when I got to the end of the script, I had to sit down like every viewer of the film and have a bit of a re-evaluation of my worldview. I thought, ‘Well, if this is doing this to me on the page, then I think a film would be quite something.' So I went after this film.

"As a director you go after two things. You go after a film you want to see - a film that you've probably never seen before but you want to see exist - and this was certainly one of those. And you go after the film that's the closest to being made, and this wasn't one of those. But I was just driven to make this because it really spoke to me on the conundrum level, because this is really a film about responsibility, not the subject of paedophiles. The extreme circumstance of this film is a kind of little equation for: how, as adults, we may or may not want to behave. Both characters are as monstrous one another, so society dictates that one is the bad guy and one is the innocent good guy. No, this is more like reality. And if you're a big fan of vigilante movies like Charles Bronson movies, I think you'll watch this and go, ‘God, Charles Bronson couldn't just go home to Chicago at the end.' No, it's a really horrible, messy business, and the fall out and the echo is going to live with somebody in their life. All these things resonated when I picked this up. I thought, ‘Well there's never going to be another script like this that comes to me, probably. I might as well try and instigate it myself.' So it was irresistible in that sense."

Is there any political import here? The torture element in the film almost seems to be saying, ‘Look, there's torture happening in your name now. This is what it looks like. Is it something you can put up with?'

"That's a valid reading, but it's not one I consciously thought of. You got to remember we shot this in 2004 and all of these scandals you're talking about certainly hadn't happened. But it's a valid reading and if you want to read that into it I'm not going to disagree. It's not my particular reading but I don't dispute it. I would say, again, it's a film about responsibility and that's a damn responsible thing when you say, ‘There are shades of torture. This kind of torture's okay, and this kind of torture's not okay.' But I don't want to align myself politically outside of the film, so my personal response would be that's a valid reading. Yes, you can read that into it because it comes under the broad umbrella of human responsibility."

Does Jeff represent something wider than just the fact that he's a paedophile? He's an image-maker, we see these pictures on his wall, which, we're told, are (legal) sexualised images of underage girls, and then we hear about these photographs which are "officially sick". Is there a kind of hypocrisy you're alluding to there?

"Yes, you've hit upon a nerve there. That's very much a subtext of this film. You go up to your local Toys ‘R' Us and you stroll around, for instance. I went the other day to get a memory card for my Playstation, and I'd never really been in a Toys ‘R' Us, so as I was looking around I saw these dolls for kids and they were like sexual victim primer kids. [Laughs] And yes, you know, there is that dimension, this aspect, that the media is all-pervasive at the end of the day, and he is an agent of that. So yes, absolutely, is the answer to that question."

It's interesting too that Hayley says, ‘Just because a girl imitates a woman, it doesn't mean she's ready to do what a woman does.' It's almost as if all this media, whether it's the advertising industry, magazines, pop music or whatever . . .

"And the film industry as well. Let's not miss one of the cores of our existence in terms of dictating iconic values. Indeed, it's one of the things Ellen Page [who plays Hayley] says many times, it was certainly what she said when someone tried to attack me at Sundance, I mean physically. He got up at the question and answer with sheets of paper he had written, pages of text, and as he read he was getting more agitated and eventually began to advance upon me.

"Ellen was furious because she's, like, you know, ‘This is just really simple. This is a switch of roles. If this was a woman in this position, she could be up for an Oscar. But because it's a man . . .' And, yes, it's a reflection of the established values, which are heavily flawed. You know, I'm not a prude, and I'm not anyone who's dictating any moral code, because I believe moral codes change from person to person, situation to situation. Nor am I in any way religious. But, you know, the fundamental moral values, particularly in Hollywood, are deeply skewed, I will say - skewed is a good word - they are skewed, and they are skewed in a direction which is not conducive to being a responsible adult. [Laughs] You might say I'm sounding like a parent here but no, I'm sounding like a human being that's not a fucking misanthrope. So, you know, that was what I found fascinating about the script, and then I believe it's something we managed to retain, if not augment, through the intervention of our actors. They were both passionate. Ellen, being the young girl, had a very specific point of view on this stuff and really brought home how much of a powder keg we had in terms of the way people were going to respond to this material."

Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say that Hollywood's moral values are skewed in a way that's not conducive to being a responsible adult?

"I mean that it has become almost normalised to portray women of whatever age as a sexual object - almost accepted within the structure of society - and to prime a child for that end is a dangerous thing. But it is the norm here, and many other places, and if you are irresponsible as a male and seek to exploit a young woman, society has set up the odds in your favour."

Do you think this sexualisation helps to normalise certain transgressive behaviours in the minds of people like Jeff?

"Of course it does. I mean looking at pornography, actually, is a very complex business. And people don't like responsibility because it's dangerous and it's scary and it's going to cause us all kinds of problems. But looking at pornography is something that people do not . . . they see it as entertainment and they're very passive in their viewing. But, as we know, it's a complex and often very aggressive act. Part of our subtext, I guess, is just because she's wearing pigtails, and it says on the website that she's 18, doesn't mean that you're off scot-free. You really ought to think about what you're looking at, because there's a lot of things involved here.

"I'm not saying there's anything particularly, in any specific sense, wrong with pornography. But, at the same time, you've got to admit that if there's nothing specifically wrong, that it's complex. You know? And you've got to take onboard those complexities if you're going to view it, be involved in it, or whatever. God, if you were involved in the making of it, you'd be well aware of the complexities."

Do you think that the availability of porn on the net, because obviously that's something you touch on in Hard Candy, is changing the way we relate to one another in real life?

"Desensitising and changing our very DNA, I would hazard to guess. I agree completely. I think you're absolutely right. And I know I'm not giving answers, I'm just going ‘Yes, you're right', but yeah. Abso-fucking-lutely. Yes they are and this is disturbing. And this is one of the subtexts of this film. Protecting our children is really not the main text of this film, as Lionsgate and many people have tried to suggest it is, because that's a bandwagon they can jump onto because it's a very difficult film to market. And their job is to market, and there's nothing wrong with that, I'm not using that as a dig at Lionsgate because they had a terrible, terrible, terrible time trying to market this film, because it's not a very marketable film. Although it seems to be doing well regardless, I'm pleased to say. Not because it's making money, because I'm not going to see a penny, I'm sure, but because I'm just really pleased a film this complex - as much as it's being completely and utterly ripped apart in the media, it's probably being embraced equally, too, and that's heartening. There's people out there that are smart enough to see what we're doing, and I always thought there were. I just thought there would be more of them than there are. [Laughs] No, there are people out there in America who are actually smart enough to see this for what it is and read it for what it is, and actually be moved by that."

Yes, I think there are a lot of ideas presented in what is essentially a very linear narrative. You don't hammer the points and ideas home; they're left for the viewer to pick up.

"And we knew that if we took it somewhere and got real money to make it, a real schedule to make it, we would have to hammer them home or we would have to take them out, which is why we stuck to our guns the way we did. But absolutely, that's what I saw in the script as well. These are all the things that I pride myself in not being a misanthrope, so, you know, what I saw was a great way to open these debates in a cinematic form. And also in a very linear thriller form, too, because we want to lure people in, and not beat them over the head. Yet make them walk away and have to think. The thing is, once people get in the cinema, and I've seen this film, I don't know, a hundred times, on various press tours and stuff I've done, once people get in the cinema, very few people leave. I can count probably, of all the screenings, probably less than 15 people have actually left. You know. So no matter whether they love it or hate it, they stay to the end, because they want to know what happens. Which means you' got ‘em. [Laughs] And then they're going to have to go away and respond to it. Sometimes they just go to the message boards and go, ‘That was just the most disgusting filth ever made'' and sometimes they really think.

"A number of very well-respected producers that I met - two very big names, I don't want to name them, but very, very well-respected, big producers - said, ‘I'm still thinking about your film two weeks later.' I think that's something. We've also had other reactions like on two occasions I've had members of the law enforcement come to me and say, ‘We would love to show this film as part of our training, or to offenders.' I'm like, ‘I don't know about that, but go talk to Lionsgate. It's not really my bag, that.' You know, oh boy! [Laughs] And I've had a very famous, again, person say this was one of the most wonderful post-feminist films they'd ever seen. I was like, ‘Hm, okay. That's interesting. Alright then.' I know what this film is. I know where its flaws are and what its strengths are, and I stand by it. I don't defend it because it doesn't need defending in any way. I'm very passionate about this film and always have been since we began. A number of times people said, ‘Is this going to work?' and I'm like ‘Is it going to work? This is going to be like a fucking, huge, nail bomb going off in a kids' yard in some areas.' You know, our job is to make it as soft a bomb as possible so that people don't get turned away, and I believe we did that. As intense as this film is, it could have been a lot gnarlier. And, again, the responsibility to make a film that was engaging and not repulsive was a very, very big part of it."

You were setting yourself limits beyond which you would not go?

"Absolutely. Bringing the audience to the edge of their seat is one thing, and that was something we had to constantly do throughout the film. But, you know, staying within the visceral was of paramount importance. And then there was the day-to-day stuff. I'm working with Ellen Page, who was 17 at the time we were shooting, and I had been casting her, who we found after 300 people - she hadn't done much and now she's going to become huge, famous and successful, and deservedly so - I had to be sure that she could get through this film and not be scarred. You know, it took only a couple of conversations after meeting her to know that, but that was important to me too. Because there was the day to day and yes, at the middle of this film there is something very extreme that happens, and we were going to shoot it, and we had to devise a way to shoot it that was not going to damage people. That's the humanist in me. I don't believe in humanism but it is the latent humanist in me that wanted to protect everybody from the radiation of the situation, and it was incredibly draining, incredibly painful, for me as well as for the actors. It wasn't easy to shoot those scenes but we did them with a closed set. You know, Patrick was wearing a little thong thing so she didn't have to be exposed to anything that wasn't necessary. [Laughs] But it was still emotionally raw and draining and we had to take breaks when it was time to take breaks. And we had to be, you know, sensitive about it. We could not be brutal about that stuff. We had to be very, very careful."

Was the part of Jeff difficult to cast, because when Nicole Kasell was casting for The Woodsman, she had a terrible time finding anyone willing to play a paedophile?

"Yes, we had one specific actor - I've since met him, weirdly, for the project I'm working on now, 30 Days of Night - and his agent said, ‘He loves the script, really loves your show reel, would really love to work on this, but he just will not play a paedophile.' I was like, ‘Well, you've really got to see past that.' ‘He's not interested in playing a paedophile.' And yes, there were a number of actors who really wanted to play this, there were a number of actors who wanted to play this and wouldn't touch it, and in between those we found a few that would take meetings and Patrick [Wilson] was just the perfect one. There's always a tension when there's money being spent to cast the most famous person you can, because that way lots of people will come and see your film. But from a director's point of view you're looking for the best person. So there's a dichotomy there to be had. Patrick wasn't the most famous actor that was willing to do this but he was certainly, I think, the right person in the end. They were very brave and allowed us to cast him."

Tell me a bit more, finally, about some of the reactions the film has received.

"Well, I have heard of crazy message board postings about the Apocalypse and all kinds of religious things. But that's a fundamental misunderstanding of the film, and I'm not in favour of that at all. I think those people ought to look a little wider than their own values and have a look. Everyone will project their values on things, of course, you can't avoid that. But you would hope the signposts were clear enough on this film. I can't give you any juicy anecdotes other than to say we did have someone saying, ‘Damn right!' I was at an AMC screening, which is a test screening, and AMC is like your multiplex audience, and it's like in a suburban area of California, in the middle of nowhere. Lionsgate just did a rough screening and they'd got kids who had just come out of House of Wax, I believe, you know, not the kind of audience we were aspiring to, but still, this is the audience we had. You make your bed and you lie in it. All 300 of them, not a single one of them left. But at a certain point, when Patrick gets loose, I hear this chant of ‘Kill the bitch!' I'm like, ‘Oh God. Noooo.' It makes me very scared for the human race. Without being overly dramatic about it, that's not something that we wanted. Of course, by the end of the film, those people were silenced, and obviously in deep confusion, or anger or whatever. [Laughs] But, you know, the fact that that point of view is out there already is indicative of the kind of reactions we're going to get. There are misogynists out there who are enraged by this film. That's the occupational hazard of making a film like this."