You’ve read it a hundred times – the studio steps in and changes the by-the-numbers sentimental ending because a test audience crack up or they remove the big-laugh scene because the same audience can’t muster a titter. Now, take your time, search publications and scour the web but you won’t find a similar story about Hard Candy.
Without giving too much away, this pant-dampening thriller tangos with the touchy subject of paedophilia and then turns the tables - keeping the viewer engaged, surprised and flitting dangerously between outrage and amazement. The key to the purity of the project is the deal the creators struck with distributor Lionsgate at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
“It was sold in its finished state, under the understanding that they couldn’t change a thing,” first-time director David Slade happily tells totalfilm.com. “They were contractually bound in such a way that they couldn’t change a frame and they didn’t, they never pressured to. So the test screenings were literally just to find the right demographic to aim the movie at and even then, it wasn’t black and white. When we tested it to see which demographic to aim it at, you’d see people walking out and dropping the test sheets on the floor,” Slade continues. “It wasn’t a simple movie to test.”
With a rapier-sharp script by former Lois And Clark scribbler Brian Nelson, starring New York stage stalwart Patrick Wilson as photographer Jeff and 17-year-old screen starlet Ellen Page as 14-year-old Hayley - Hard Candy is the kind of movie that leaves the viewer with questions… lots of questions.
“We did a lot of Q&A’s after screenings and to be honest, it would almost be better to do those a day or so later, you need to live with this film for a few hours before you discuss it.” He’s not wrong. Not only does the narrative deal with the dicey issue of paedophilia but also teenage psychosis and how far the audience would go if a paedophile was strapped to a table in front of them.
Slade and his team developed a fail-safe way of distinguishing how rough a time an audience would give them in the Q&A, by measuring the nervous laughter during the screening.
“People have to let out the odd laugh in this film because they need to release the tension but at Sundance everybody just sat there and it was horrible, the tension in the room was amazing.” Which, in it’s own way is still pretty damn good.
“Yes, of course but when it came to the Q&A’s, people were literally screaming at us,” he says with a disbelieving chuckle. “The first question came from this guy who stood up with a list saying, ‘I knew I wouldn’t remember it all, so I wrote everything down. I think if we’d have met up after a couple of days, the reaction might have been different.” Undoubtedly so - Hard Candy is a movie that needs time to percolate, allowing the rash and instinctive judgements to arise, then pass.
Made for a shade under the million dollar mark, the movie has been sold all over the globe, “French-speaking Benelux have it now and Lionsgate have just sold it to Iran.” Not bad for a true indie flick then. “Not at all, our investors made their money back at Sundance, so we’re up already.”
Intricately pieced together over eighteen days, after only five days of rehearsal, the bulk of the action takes place in Jeff’s swanky abode, which was built on a sound stage in LA. “It’s funny because we held out for Ellen for around eight months and that gave us time to detail the storyboards and work out exactly how the set was going to work. We made trap doors in the walls so that we could get the kind of camera direction we wanted, it was important that the audience see nothing more than they’re supposed to see.”
Keen-eyed TF readers may recognise the talents of Page from Brett Ratner’s leather-clad super-tale X-Men: The Last Stand and according to Slade, the young lass is about to strike it big in Movieland.
“I’ve no doubt she is going to be huge, it’s happening right now for her,” he says, wildly enthused and rightly so. Page gives a staggering performance as an unhinged angel-faced teen, pure no-holds-barred thesping. “The hook is that people believe that when you’re of a certain age, you’re incapable of a vocabulary or a strength and Ellen, on and off camera, proves that theory wrong. She’s a great actress capable of great craft and that is rare. However, sometimes I had to hold her back to make sure she survived the whole three weeks! When it comes to the wild stuff, you have to make sure she won’t get hurt because she’s so committed.”
Page and co-star Wilson will no doubt ascend from Hard Candy with buffed reputations and glittering careers but a nice hefty return at the box office wouldn’t hurt either would it?
“We’re not focused on that to be honest,” Slade states convincingly. “We’ve just recorded the commentary for the DVD and we actually say, ‘However you got this film, whether you downloaded it for free, or maybe it’s a pirate copy, whatever, we just hope you enjoy it and get something out of it.’ We’re not precious about it, so long as people see it.”