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BRIAN NELSON - Confecting Hard Candy

A common thing that I come to again and again is I’m very drawn to stories where people face what they are capable of. I think that society is a big construct that we’ve erected to keep from too close knowledge of ourselves, because we’re all capable of much more than we want to admit to ourselves, and that’s both for good and for bad. I’m very drawn to stories where people find themselves in a situation where they can maybe make their own rules. When they’re in a grey area, and the rules are up to them, what will they find that they can really do that they didn’t think they could do before? That’s one thing that drew me to this story.

“Another thing I loved was that it was an opportunity to write a really smart teenage female protagonist. I have two daughters and I love stories in which young women really sort of kick some tail. I’ve been a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for years. I’ve also been influenced on some level by [Abel Ferrara’s] Ms. 45, which I found a really striking and disturbing film; disturbing for me being a good thing.”

The seeds of Hard Candy were sown by the producer, David Higgins. Tell me how it developed.

"Well, he initially started by telling me this anecdote that he had read in an article somewhere about these Japanese schoolgirls that would pose as offering illicit, underage, sex to businessmen, and when the businessmen would take the bait and head up to their apartment, they would mug him and rob him, beat him up, and leave him. This started David thinking about an interesting storytelling dynamic, because here are the people in this story who you would think, ‘Oh, I would be afraid for them,' and actually, maybe, you should be afraid of them. So he came to me and he pitched just a very simple idea. He said, ‘I have an idea for a film that maybe we could make for a budget that would turn the tables in the early going, where we see this character and at the beginning we're afraid for her, and then we realise no, she's actually maybe the much more dangerous person here. And, you know, put out the idea that maybe she's tracked down this guy, and ties him down, and threatens to castrate him.' It's funny because I thought, ‘Hm, that's interesting. Let me think about that.' So I wrote a couple of pages in which she tied him down and said many really cruel things, and David came back to me and said, ‘Well, no. When I said castrate, I wasn't talking figuratively.' So then it took a moment where I said, ‘Huh? Wow!' I sort of walked down the hall and talked to my wife and said, ‘You know, this guy's got this idea. Am I crazy to think this is pretty interesting?' But I couldn't keep from thinking about it.

"David and I shot ideas back and forth at each other for a couple of months, where I would write up a treatment and then he would ask questions and troubleshoot it, and provoke me further. At a certain point, I had, like, a seven-page outline, and we were both really happy with it, but, you know, David was frank about the fact that he was starting out as a producer and he could not pay me to write this. So he said, ‘I can't ask you to do anything more on this. But if you decided that you wanted to spec it, we could possibly have some fun with it.'

"As I said, I was working on some other things at the time but by this point I was so engaged by these issues and these characters that I managed to carve out a couple of days a week where I thought, ‘OK, the other days I'll cover my money-making, my income, but I'll squeeze in this time to just dedicate two days a week to seeing what happens to this.' And it wrote so easily - I don't know what that says about me - but it was a pleasure to write. That was a tremendous sign to me."

You're a playwright. Did this touch on any themes that you have explored before in your work?

"I think so. I'm not sure whether David just got lucky with me or he saw that in me somehow. He had read a play of mine and complimented me on my sense of dialogue and character. But additionally, yes. I mean a common thing that I come to again and again is I'm very drawn to stories where people face what they are capable of. Because I think that society is a big construct that we've erected to keep from too close knowledge of ourselves, because we're all capable of much more than we want to admit to ourselves, and that's both for good and for bad. I'm very drawn to stories where people find themselves in a situation where they can maybe make their own rules. When they're in a grey area, and the rules are up to them, what will they find that they can really do that they didn't think they could do before? So that's one thing.

"Another thing is that of course I loved that it was an opportunity to write a really smart teenage female protagonist. Because I have two daughters and I love stories in which young women really sort of, no pun intended, kick some tail. You know, I've been a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for years. I've also been influenced on some level, I didn't think about it until later, but well after I'd written it, somebody mentioned the film Ms. 45 to me, which I found a really striking and disturbing film; disturbing for me being a good thing. I was always a big Hitchcock fan, and there's an old film called Shadow of a Doubt in which Teresa Wright is this teenage girl who is the only one who can see that her favourite uncle, who everyone thinks is so charming, is also a serial killer. Since she can see that, that gives her the only power to do something about it, and what's she going do about it? That relationship was fascinating to me.

"I like the idea of writing a villain who is incredibly charming and attractive, who does not radiate villainhood. We were so fortunate to find Patrick Wilson, who is an actor who never judges his character, who doesn't resort to the easy choice. Because I think there's very few people out there who wake up in he morning and say, ‘I am a villain.' Even the people who do horrible things have solid cases in their own minds for why it needs to be done. So writing this antagonist, who was in incredible denial about who he is and what he's capable of, was also fun.

"I could go on and on. I was drawn to the ambivalence we have towards vigilantism. It's not a film about vigilantism per se, but it is an interesting dynamic that we're drawn to the power that a vigilante seems to have, but what's the effect of that on them later? The fact that what Hayley [played by Ellen Page] does is not easy for her, that it clearly takes a psychic toll, that she's not Charles Bronson who can just, at the end of Death Wish, decide, ‘Well, it's not working out for me in New York. I guess I'll go to Chicago. There's a gruelling aspect to deciding that the system is flawed and you've got to take things into your own hands. Personally, I love Batman. And yet if there somebody who for reasons I did not know was dressing up in a dark costume and taking out criminals of his own volition, I would be the first to say, ‘Something's got to be done.'"

You mentioned Buffy but I couldn't decide whether Hayley was more Red Riding Hood or the dwarf in Don't Look Now.

"Well, you know, you're not the first person to mention Don't Look Now, which is also a film that I think is pretty damn interesting. Again, I am very happy with the fact that when you watch this film, it doesn't say to you, ‘Oh, here's your heroine.' Several years ago there was the Michael Douglas film Falling Down, and there was a big foofarah here in the United States in the press about, ‘Is this film endorsing white male rage?' People could not figure out that Michael Douglas is the antagonist in that film. They thought, ‘Well, it's Michael Douglas. And he's on the poster. So, obviously, he's who we're supposed to be following.' And yet you look at that film and you go, ‘Look, Robert Duvall is the cop who's about to retire, it's his last day on the job, obviously he is the moral centre of that film.' But people were so thrown by the fact that the film would give you such a prismatic look at a character who does unsympathetic things. And a big part of our work in this film has been to take that idea and stretch it even further."

Is this film partly your way of entering the debate about what we do with paedophiles?

"Well, I mean this film is not making programmatic recommendation about what should be done with paedophiles.The closest that we come to a statement is there's that moment where Hayley's talking about what you do when you download things from the internet, and she just looks right at you, right at the camera, and just says, ‘Stop!' That's our pretty unequivocal comment there. But in terms of how should we be dealing with them, again, it's a complicated issue. I'm not trying to take any side in this debate."

Of course not. But I wondered whether the film was raising these issues for discussion? Because how we should deal with paedophiles is a pressing question.

"Well, you know, we did not set out to say, ‘Oh, let's get into that debate.' But, you know, when we ask ourselves, if you knew someone had done something wrong, and you felt like you had an ironclad case that would require any sort of measure to get them to confess, what would be just the most loathsome crime we could think of? So in that respect, then, many questions started coming out of that, because many people all the time say, ‘Well if I were faced with such a person, I know what should done: we should rip their balls off.' Well, you know, that's fine and well to say around the coffee table, but who's going to go and actually do that? What would it take to do that? In this respect I don't think we are talking about paedophilia is so much as about any guilty party of any crime, what does punishing them do to us?

"Patrick spoke at one point about how he has a family member - I have to be careful here because I might get the details wrong - he has a family member who was a witness to the execution of Ted Bundy, and that was not an easy thing to in, even though we all agree that Ted Bundy is guilty. If we are going to be a society that takes vengeance, which maybe we have to be, what's the cost of that? I don't want to get too highfaltutin here but, again, I was speaking earlier about the cost of meting out what you see as justice or vengeance is not easy. In many films we see characters who face down the bad guy and, with great glee and visual panache, easily blow them away and are never affected by that. One thing that I was very happy with in the beginning, that continued to develop as we worked on this film, was that with every discussion we had, people said, ‘Can we make it harder for her?' That was exactly the right call."

Yes, I did wonder whether the film has wider resonance in that right now torture is being done in our name in places like Guantanamo to people who may or may not be guilty, and you're showing the cost of that.

"Absolutely. You know, we, sadly, in my country are living with a President who has to convince us that we don't torture. What a state of affairs have we come to? Again, in this case, we've presented a situation where a character feels very, very strongly, ‘Wow, I am very justified in doing what I'm doing here.' Maybe she is but still, we don't actually just cut away and say, ‘Alright, now you know what is going on and you can just not be faced with it.' This is a particular testament to David Slade who, as a filmmaker, was incredibly fearless, and Patrick and Ellen as well, incredibly fearless, in being willing to face this question: if you think a certain kind of torture is justified, again, what does that do to you and what is the cost?'"

You also appear to want to bring up the question of what we regard as acceptable images. We see the pictures on Jeff's wall, which are kind of sexualised images of underage girls, and then there's what Hayley calls "officially sick" in his safe. But where do we draw the line between the two? Is there a kind of hypocrisy being pointed out here? 

"I don't know that this film specifically asks you to focus on that. Having said that, we do, as a sort of subliminal text in the film, implicitly ask you, ‘Well, what is too far?' The photos that Jeff has around his room are unsettling, and yet they're not bannable anywhere. So is that a slippery slope? Does Hayley see them as worse than we do, necessarily? We're not going to show you what Jeff has been downloading because we don't want to be guilty of the same sin he is guilty of. And yet that implicitly raises the question of, well, an audience member must then contribute in their own imagination: ‘Well, what would be so bad that we would call it officially sick?'"

And that's a more disturbing thing for a viewer, I think, the idea that one is capable of filling those frames with something. There is a kind of guilt there, too.

"Yeah, I know. We're hard on people. [Laughs] Yeah, man, I know. It's true. We don't make it easy for anybody with this film, do we?"

Jeff is producing the kinds of photographs that appear in magazines and there has been a lot of talk here about the sexualisation of children in magazines, advertising, the pop industry and so on. Is that something else Jeff represents? Because he is part of something which people fear is normalising the sexualisation of children.

"Well that's a very interesting comment. Sometimes, when we have had people who have criticised the film, they have occasionally felt that we're exploitative, and yet the most that we do is show a teenage girl with a bare midriff. And we do it in a very non-titillating way. So, you know, compared to what's out there, there is so much material. You know, look at videos from the late 90s of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. When you look at clothes that are sold in stores for even quite little girls, there is a very unpleasant sexualising of little kids. It's true that Jeff has been a part of that. We've tried again, and I think we've been successful, although some people might disagree, we have tried very scrupulously to make sure we were not guilty of that ourselves, because that's part of what we are decrying."

Is that what Hayley thinks? That it's not just him but what he represents? That there's a bigger issue she's taking on?

"You know, we deliberately avoid saying too much about what Hayley's life has been outside if this story, but Ellen has commented, in her own mind, that for her, Hayley is somebody who just couldn't stand it anymore. Who looked at what was going on around her in the world and in the way that when we are young, although you don't necessarily have to be young to feel this way, but certainly in the way that we're especially prone to feel when we're young, had reached her limit and felt something has to be done. Whether what she does is a good idea or not is one of those troubling questions we leave you with."

As a father of daughters Hayley's age . . .

"It's been said that they're Hayley's age but they're not really. Somehow that idea sort of got out there. They're 10 and seven years old."

Okay, but were you putting any of your own anxieties as a father into this?

"I don't see how I could avoid that, you know? We leave our computer in the family room because we want to know what's going on on it. We've spoken to our daughters because we'd like them to be able to be technology-friendly and yet that also means that they need to be able to ‘surf safe', to quote our campaign."

What kinds of questions were you asking yourself as you were writing this?

"Well, a big issue for me, again, it's just vital in any important writing that you do, in any writing you do, whether it's going to be important or not, that you push yourself to ask questions. The work doesn't necessarily have to answer them but asking the question is in a way its own process, its own answer. Many years ago I wrote a very uncontroversial project, for example. I wrote the ABC miniseries of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but for me that came from a very personal place, because I had an incident when I was a teenager when I almost drowned. So I started that story by asking myself: what on God's earth would compel a bunch of people to go under water for the rest of their lives, you know? So although you think of 20,000 Leagues as this light, escapist piece, for me it was coming from a very deep, personal place. And, in a way, if you're going to do any sort of writing that speaks to people, I think it needs to come from that personal place.

"Part of writing this script meant that I had to walk in both Hayley's shoes and Jeff's shoes for a while, and that was a little scary. I think when David [Slade] refers to how the film made him re-think things, I think one of those things is certainly that, as I said earlier, we're trying to deal with an evildoer here in a very prismatic way. We don't simply say, ‘Oh, those people are bad and sick and someone smart in society will take care of it,' because we know that a) someone won't always take of it, or take care of it right, and b) that if we simply dismiss our antagonists as bad people, then I think the odds of our stopping them are greatly reduced.

"I think that we need to understand what makes people do horrible things if we're going to change things. Now there's a certain risk in that. There's the famous saying of when you look into the abyss, does the abyss look back into you? And I guess that's our moral challenge in this film. Hayley looks into the abyss; has the abyss looked back into her? And is she strong enough? Are any of us strong enough to do what we think needs to be done when we face - I don't want to say evil with a capital E, because again I think that that's the sort of nomenclature that trivialises things."

Yes, I think evil is a bit of a red herring. I think we have also to look at the wider culture because there's a kind of toxic environment that perhaps validates people's ways of thinking in a negative way.

"I think this is why, on some level, when David Higgins came to me with this idea, why again I just had to write it, had to keep focusing on it, because the premise and the issues in this film are such that they don't go away. This film fits at an intersection of a number of disturbing issues of how society deals with predators, how society deals with justice, how society deals with the commodification of sexual images and so forth. You know, this story sits at the nexus of a number of troubling issues that can't be worked through simply and that's why we don't sum up the issues with a nice, little, thematic statement at the end of the film about what you ought to think. That would be doing an injustice both to those issues and to all of us to do it that way. Yet having worked that way that's why we've gotten the breadth of provocative response that we have. There's people who thank us, very sincerely, for putting these issues out and raising them, and people who are very disturbed at our poking at the woodpile.

"We had a guy in Sundance, who was just bitterly angry about the film, who stood up in a question and answer and asked us, in no uncertain terms, ‘What give you the right to make a film like this?' Clearly the film had taken him to a place that he was not interested in or prepared to go. So that's part of the risk we take here."