As star Ellen Page and director David Slade make the rounds for Hard Candy, it looks like Lionsgates very careful handling of the film festival hit may be paying off.|
by Pam Grady, published on Wednesday, May 3, 2006 at 6:00 PM
Coming out of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Hard Candy was one of the big success stories, a small drama with no big stars and a budget of less than a million dollars sold to Lionsgate Films for big bucks. But after spending four millions for the film, the studio faced a bit of a dilemma: Exactly how do you market a film in which a 14-year-old girl terrorizes a pedophile? "It is a film which is difficult to categorize," suggests director David Slade during a recent stopover with FilmStew in San Francisco. He and Hard Candy's now 19-year-old star Ellen Page (she was 17 when she shot the movie) are making the promotional rounds together, hoping to generate buzz for an unflinching film that perfectly taps into the current zeitgeist but may prove to be a tough sell. After expanding from two to 152 theaters this past weekend, Hard Candy sits at a very respectable domestic box office gross of $502,000. "[Lionsgate] spent a long time trying to find a box to put it in, besides Pandora's box which, you know, is the most relevant box for it," Slade continues as he explains why it took the studio 16 months to release the film. "I think the interim was them kind of going, 'How the hell do we market this film that's not really any of the genres that you would expect?'"
Hard Candy is not the only recent film to deal with pedophilia L.I.E. and Mysterious Skin both come immediately to mind but it is unique in its approach. The poster that Art Machine Digital designed for the film brilliantly encapsulates it: a young girl in a scarlet hoodie stands perched between the iron jaws of a bear trap. But like Little Red Riding Hood, 14-year-old Hayley Stark is no pushover when she agrees to meet the 32-year-old photographer who has been seductively flirting with her online. Jeff Kohlver (Angels in America's Patrick Wilson) thinks he is in control of the situation when Hayley allows him to take her to his house and ply her with vodka. She is just a little girl, after all, barely five feet tall and oh so very young. That she is fierce, intelligent, determined, knows exactly what he is, and has very definite ideas of what to do about him never occurs to him. Halifax-born Page, who will soon be seen as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand, has been acting in TV and movies in her native Canada since she was 10. She is no stranger to tough, character-driven drama. She recently starred in Mouth to Mouth, Alison Murray's gritty autobiographical tale about a runaway who becomes ensnared with a cult, and she won an ACTRA award for her performance in Marion Bridge as a teenager coming to grips with the mystery of her parentage.
Even with films like that on her résumé, she was still blown away by Brian Nelson's script. "It was so engrossing, it made me sweat," she says. "It was so refreshing to see a character that was written for a 14-year-old girl with such passion and intelligence. Society and media is really devoid of that idea, which is very it exists, you know? Very, very intelligent young women. They need to be nourished and fostered." "I was just really inspired. And all I wanted was to play this role." Slade, a commercials and music video director, was offered other films with bigger budgets as he prepared to transition into features, but like Page, he found himself irresistibly drawn to writing that challenges assumptions, that forces the viewer to recognize a pedophile as a human being and to acknowledge the extremity of Hayley's actions. This girl is nobody's victim, more like a pint-sized, Death Wish-era Charles Bronson exacting a punishing vengeance. According to Slade, the way Wilson approached the role was to presume Jeff's innocence. That elicits a snort from Page. "And it's OK to bring a 14-year-old girl back to your house. I mean, bring a 14-year-old girl back to your house guilty!"
But she admits that the film is quicksand; sympathies shift constantly. At screenings, she has noticed that that aspect infuriates people. "I really like getting that anger out of people, because it's like, 'Huh? I wonder why this is making you so mad. I think it's because you're a little freaked out, because you don't have somebody you can cozy up to and agree with.'" But while Wilson may be convinced of Jeff's innocence, in Page's eyes he is clearly not and Hayley is acting within reason. "Obviously to me, she's 150 quadrillion percent right, no question," she asserts. "She sees something wrong and people are ignoring it and she's going to do something about it. Obviously, it's up to the audience to decide whether there were certain lines crossed. That's another thing that completely drew me to this film. You're not going to feel safe; there are no answers. Life isn't safe." By Slade's estimation, it took about eight months after he signed on to make the picture before he and his producers found their Hayley. He saw close to 300 actresses, but none were right for a role combining vulnerability and ferocity, that required youth yet demanded enough maturity to deal with material that presents an emotional landmine. From her home in Canada, Page sent in an MPEG of herself, her head shaved for her role in Mouth to Mouth, a look that gave the financiers pause, taken aback by the radical haircut, as well as the fact that it made her look so young that it seemed like she might be too young for the role. The director was ready to counter any resistance after he and Page made initial contact over the phone. Her honesty and passion impressed him; he knew he had his Hayley. He remembers, "She was just so solidly there. When I spoke to her on the phone, she was so solidly mature and one of the jobs of a director you know, unless you're a misanthrope, which I hope I'm not is to find somebody who you know isn't going to be damaged by the film and I knew that Ellen certainly had the head and the shoulders to get through it, as well as be articulate all the way through." The news remains replete with stories of predators stalking children and teens over the Internet, but as much as Hard Candy is about that danger, it is more about responsibility, says Slade. The revenge theme, he notes, is strongly resonant. "But look how messy it is. Look how difficult it is. Look how conflicted you become when you see that act played out. It's not simple. It's not black and white. There is a great responsibility as much as there is a great responsibility in men looking at pornography." Page adds simply, "Film is art. Art should provoke. It's as simple as that. It should be honest and honesty scares people, because most of the time we're not that honest."
More recently, she has had her first real taste of that other kind of filmmaking, the big Hollywood blockbuster and she admits that she was hesitant to take X-Men. "It was a really massive transition," she explains, "They are just completely different kinds of filmmaking, but they both have their place and their value."
"It's just about being versatile and the big things let you do the small things and the big things are fun and you wear leather suits and run through explosions and who gets to do that, honestly? So I'm very grateful for it all," she says. Her heart is definitely with films like Hard Candy, as she mentions that she recently wrapped a role in a film that is just as intense, Tracing Fragments, for Canadian director Bruce McDonald. "I'm excited about it," she says. And she's proud of Hard Candy. "The beauty of this film, there's no, you know, we live in a society that's obsessed with categories. Not always, but a lot of times Hollywood reflects those categories. We like to feel safe and shove things here and there. In this film, it's not black and white."
Slade concurs. "Hopefully, if we do anything with this film, we get people to men, women, whatever to think about the way they view these things in the future, where they draw the line in the sand as to what is acceptable and what is not. Which is not to say we're advocating the lines of our characters. It's a stage we set and within that you read it's like a Rorschah test in a way almost for our audience."