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By K.J. Doughton | April 25, 2006

Wise-a*s film critics will have a field day with “Hard Candy.”

“A thriller that truly goes balls-out!”

“The actors never drop the ball!”

“One would have to be nuts not to love ‘Hard Candy!’”

Meanwhile, male viewers will writhe in agony during an onscreen crash course in surgical sterilization. But the mind behind “Hard Candy” is a surprisingly agreeable sort. Clad in camelhair sport jacket and sporting wavy, brown hair and beard, screenwriter and co-producer Brian Nelson conveys friendly enthusiasm when speaking about his film.

Sitting before a sold-out crowd alongside a slew of the movie’s other creators – including lead actress and future superstar Ellen Page – Nelson guests a Q&A during the film’s Seattle premiere. Space Needle City plays an important part in the evolution of “Hard Candy.” Not only did Puget Sound billionaire Paul Allen help bankroll the film with Vulcan Productions, but he also owns Cinerama, the sprawling 808-seat theater hosting this evening’s screening.

After being handed the microphone by a hosting emcee, Nelson reveals the dark roots beneath his deliciously clever thriller. “David Higgins, the film’s producer, read an article about underage schoolgirls in Japan who would go online, promising illicit sex to businessmen in exchange for money. After the businessmen would take the bait, they would be beaten and robbed by the girls. It got me thinking about story ideas. What if the stalked became the stalker?”

The next question is directed to Page, a freckle-faced, 18-year old brunette who can’t weigh over ninety-five pounds. Having recently graduated from high school in Canada, Page wears a denim jacket and tattered slip-on shoes. In contrast to Nelson’s elegant polish, Page is blunt and edgy. When asked to talk about the squirm inducing “surgery scene” from “Hard Candy,” she radiates the type of jaded teen spirit that Kurt Cobain would relish: “Umm… I dunno.”

Addressing the punishment dealt by her 14 year-old avenger Hayley Stark onto smooth, predatorial photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), she explains, “For me, I was playing a character. Her goal was to manipulate his mind so that he would do what he did at the end of the day. I did go through medical books. The scene was sixteen pages of dialogue, shot in one day.”

“Hard Candy” begins with images of a PC computer screen. We’re transported into a particularly unsavory chat-room, where Stark – using her online pseudonym Thonggrrrl14 – cheerfully types out flirty innuendoes with Kohlver. Never has the clatter of a keyboard sounded so ominous. Having been in contact for several days, the duo plans an in-the-flesh coffee shop meeting. To Nelson’s credit, he implements the kind of double-entendre-laced talk that likely occurs today between young hipsters who think they’re smarter than they really are. There’s nothing particularly graphic in the exchanges – nothing overtly criminal – but it’s still obvious that Kohlver is a man of particularly bad judgment who, at 32, should not be treading in these waters.

We expect pedophiles to cruise low-rent neighborhoods and inhabit the seedy strips of town. But “Hard Candy” places us into the very contemporary world of java joints – seemingly pristine hangouts where chums trade bootleg MP3’s of rock concerts. It’s frightening to think that amidst all the Ipods, laptops, and Wi-Fi, modern-day Jack the Rippers stalk unknowing, younger prey. Does any ground remain safe? Or, for that matter, is Kohlver really a Jack the Ripper to begin with?

The couple drives off to his abode. Like “American Psycho” Patrick Bateman, Kohlver is a man of expensive tastes, whisking Stark home in an impressive sports car. But does he share Bateman’s lust for bloodshed? Another teen girl has recently gone missing. Meanwhile, his pad is one of those swanky photographer’s studios, its walls painted in stark yellows and reds. Kohlver’s hot car, his camera equipment, his knowledge of current bands – make him a magnet to a young teen like Stark, whose eyes widen at this handsome stranger’s material assets.

We expect the worst.

But then, “Hard Candy” takes a truly unexpected turn. Kohlver gulps a tainted drink. He awakens, only to find himself shackled to a chair. All the while, Stark’s been busy. “I went through your medicine cabinet,” she reveals. “How boring. No ‘Valley of the Dolls’ stuff at all.”

In the kind of onscreen transformation that launches brilliant careers, Hayley’s soft, perky face becomes lean and alert. Her once-bright eyes go dead dark. “Playtime is over,” she proclaims to her bound, would-be suitor. “Now it’s time to wake up.”

Reclining on a hotel couch in downtown Seattle, where he and Page respond to the questions of Puget Sound journalists, Nelson expands on what drew him to this premise. Following producer Higgins’ reading of the Japanese schoolgirl tale, “Hard Candy” quickly took form. “David started thinking about the storytelling dynamic of starting a film thinking that there’s this character you should be afraid for, and then very soon, realize that all is not what it seems. That this is, perhaps, a character you might be afraid OF. That turn of the tables is really what launched the story. David pitched the basic concept to me. It was a story I couldn’t stop thinking about. Even though I was working on other projects at the time, I carved out a couple of days a week that I dedicated to ‘Hard Candy.’

Cinema is no stranger to the exploration of aberrant behavior – or revenge. But with its timely theme of illicit cyber-courtship wrapped around the most intense verbal volleys this side of “Silence of the Lambs,” “Hard Candy” is sure to be a hot-button topic. But was the film fabricated to be “Death Wish” for teens, or “Dirty Harry” for the underage crowd? With its angry anti-hero demanding payback for past misdeeds, is there a message to “Hard Candy?”

“I don’t think it was about making a statement or advocating vigilante justice for a single second,” confirms Page. “Not for me, Ellen Page. But for Hayley? Hell, yeah! She is very much, one hundred percent, cut-and-dried, ‘This is what’s gonna happen, this is my agenda, and I’m going to succeed in this.’”

Prior to “Hard Candy,” Page cut her teeth on Canadian television productions when she wasn’t enjoying a Nova Scotia-based childhood. According to Page, there was no master plan behind her ascension to Hollywood films like “Hard Candy” and the upcoming “X-Men III” (playing Kitty Pryde, a.k.a. Shadow Cat). “I actually started doing drama in Canada at age ten,” she explains, “moving on to film and television. One thing would lead to another thing.”

While it’s difficult to picture the film without Page’s embodiment of the intensely determined Stark, first-time feature director David Slade initially auditioned over 300 girls for the role. Unhappy with the results, the one-time rock video guru received fateful news from a casting director. Having caught Page on Canadian television, she urged Slade to seek out the charismatic young thespian. “I actually don’t even know what series she saw,” Page confesses. “Maybe it was ‘Trailer Park Boys,’ a huge cult series. It might have been another show I did, called ‘Pit Pony.’ Another was called ‘Regenesis.’

“When I got the script (for ‘Hard Candy’), I was astounded. It blew my mind. It was unbelievably engrossing. It was also refreshing to read a role written for a teenage girl, with so much passion, intelligence, and honesty. That does not come along often in an entire career, let alone when you’re a sixteen-year old girl. I’m grateful to have gotten the role, and been the one to be able to do it.”

An established playwright, theatre director, and television writer, Nelson insists that despite its intimate, two-person setup, “Hard Candy” was always perceived as a very cinematic project. “There are stories that I wouldn’t write as movies. They really feel as though they should be plays. People sometimes ask, ‘So is this really a play?’ No. Some ideas you hear and you realize, they’re an op-ed piece! They’re not a screenplay or a play. They should be political cartoons, which is fine as well. It’s important to know what medium a particular idea is really best for. I wrote this as a screenplay.”

And despite the fact that “Hard Candy” is shot primarily under one roof, its striking set design and cinematography create a unique, attention-getting visual mood. “Hard Candy” uses color and composition in the manner of masterful photographs to heighten its effect. “One thing David Slade did so brilliantly was to make the film very much in-your-face,” reflects Nelson admiringly. “So much was David’s vision. What David brought to the table was a remarkable sense of composition, movement, timing, and color. I would put maybe a couple of color references into the script, because I tend to be a very specific writer whenever I can – for instance, the brand name of a chair or camera.

“David was always advocating for color to be a character, to work psychologically on the audience. In the same way that the story and the acting raise questions that you have to answer, the color does, as well. When you see subtle gradations changing within a scene, you ask yourself what’s going on – ‘Can I trust what I’m seeing?’ It is absolutely an element of David’s vision.”

As for his own contributions, Nelson deftly pitches tasty-tart wordplay that’s both cringe-worthy and hilarious. When a shackled Kohlver pleads that his life will be ruined if he is perceived as a pedophile, Hayley’s zinger of a retort is a jaw-dropper: “(Director and convicted child rapist) Roman Polanski just won an Oscar.” That Polanski also directed “Death and the Maiden,” a film boasting victim-to-victimizer role reversals similar to “Hard Candy,” will not be lost on seasoned cineastes.

Meanwhile, the screenwriter’s decision not to explain certain details of character history or plot was an impressive move. We’re never completely clear as to Hayley’s relationship with the missing girl she suspects Kohlver has murdered, or whether abuse has haunted her own past. Rather than confuse viewers, this approach will likely lend resonance to “Hard Candy.”

“It was a very conscious decision,” Nelson explains of the film’s ambiguity. “Ellen has her own thoughts about (Hayley’s history), as I have my own thoughts about it. We haven’t actually sat down and discussed them, because we prefer to keep our own counsel. But I know an established producer who loved the script, and was ready to place it in the studio system. But he made it very clear that it would need to answer a lot of questions. Rather than write flashback scenes, and so forth, it was important to us to leave those things for you. The film leaves a lot for you, because what you can do, as you read a film, is more interesting than anything that we can didactically do.”

Even if the film doesn’t blatantly spell things out onscreen, it’s still an intense, disturbing piece of work. When asked if parents had misgivings about her involvement in “Hard Candy,” Page pauses for a moment. “Slightly,” she finally admits. “All it really was, was my father saying, ‘Are you sure you want to go into this person’s mind?’ But he read the script, and loved it. I’m really lucky, because I have really wicked parents. I just fell into this when I was ten years old. I don’t have parents who push me – not even for a second. They are very supportive, but would never be willing to push me into a direction I won’t want to go into.

“There was definitely down time after the film. I took a year off. I went home to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I’m from. I’m sure I slept for a week, and did ridiculous things with teenage friends. Just going back to normalcy, to be myself, on the ground. That felt good. I also think that it’s really important as an actor that you not shrug off or not validate what you might be feeling. Make sure you work through what has happened. I think sleep and connection with people on the ground helped me to decompress.”

And despite the sinister, suspenseful vibes emanating from “Hard Candy,” a vital sense of goodwill and enthusiasm surrounds Nelson and Page. “It’s a very interesting and satisfying time now,” confirms Nelson. “As a writer, I’ve been as fortunate as you can be. At any point, a project like this could go south so easily, as one element or another goes awry. But at every stage – with our director, financers, actors, and our wonderful musicians, the right people came into play. I think that (composers) Harry (Escott) and Molly (Nyman) deserve more mention. Many people don’t realize that there’s very little music in this film. It may be fifteen minutes. But the music doesn’t function as typical underscoring, going, “YOU MUST FEEL THIS NOW!” Rather, it asks questions. You’ll hear a little electronic throb under about seven lines of dialogue, and go, ‘What the hell is that?’

“I want my work as a writer to be more than just my work. That’s why I work in a collaborative field, where what everyone brings to the table makes it richer than the sum of its parts.”

The interview concludes with a question about the current zeitgeist of horror in cinema. And not just any horror. In 1976, Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist in “Marathon Man” drilled into Dustin Hoffman’s teeth – without providing anesthetic. Back then, it was the pinnacle of onscreen sadism. Today, it takes the full-blown mutilation of “Hostel” to raise eyebrows. In fact, extreme torture is a common aesthetic, found in Mel Gibson actioners and Asian horror alike. In fact, critics have likened “Hard Candy” to “Audition,” Takashi Miike’s Japanese terror classic, which featured its own take on female revenge.

Nelson and Page have reservations about the comparison. “I didn’t see “Audition” until well after I’d written this film,” insists Nelson. “But people started saying, ‘Did you rip off ‘Audition?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ I thought I had better check it out. It’s remarkable, but the reasons why that’s happening to that man are elliptical at best, unless you’ve grown up in Japanese society and are sensitive to certain cultural currents there. But why this is happening to Jeff (Kohlver), there’s no doubt about.”

Page chimes in. “This film’s being compared to “Audition,” but there’s virtually no similarities other than the fact that there’s violence from a female onto a man.”

As for why horror and suspense films are all the grue-soaked rage, Nelson has no cut-and-dried answer. “I don’t know if I have any sort of brilliant comment on that. I mean, some of it is an accident of film history, in a way. In the seventies, you had horror films worked on by the major directors of their time. Then, market forces conspired to make horror films something that a guy in a garage would make. The horror genre lost a lot of its credibility and currency for a while. Around the time of movies like “Audition”, “The Ring,” and “The Blair Witch Project,” suddenly it became something that studios realized they could make. I think there are some sheer economic things that drive it.

“I also thing that people are responding to issues that are out there in the world. It’s a scary time.”

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