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Scott Macaulay talks with David Slade about his searing story of sexual trespass and vigilante justice, Hard Candy.
ELLEN PAGE IN DAVID SLADE’S HARD CANDY.
There is so much to be scared of now. Partisan politics aside, however, few of today’s fears have a human face. H5N1, peak oil, the baby boomer retirement outlook — many of our most dangerous demons lack the easy personifications that allow us to see them as the threats that they really are.
One contemporary monster with a human mug, however, is the Internet predator, and his power grows with every Dateline exposé and AMBER Alert. Last year’s The Woodsman tried to offer a redemption tale about a pedophile, but the independent film’s slight box office only confirmed the child molester as American society’s modern-day bogeyman.
Attacking the monster from a different angle is David Slade’s directorial debut, Hard Candy. A masterfully directed and acted thriller, Hard Candy harkens back to both classic art films dramatizing psychological gamesmanship (The Servant) as well as the vigilante pictures of the ’70s and ’80s (the Death Wish series and Sudden Impact, for example). Like the former, Hard Candy wrings maximum tension out of the minute shifts in power — and audience empathy — between two compelling and complex screen characters locked in a grueling emotional battle. Like the latter, the film asks difficult social questions about the lines between justice, punishment and vengeance within the guise of popular entertainment.
In Hard Candy, Jeff, a suave, good-looking photographer specializing in “edgy” corporate work, meets the innocent 14-year-old Haley over the Internet and arranges a face-to-face. (“You don’t look like the kind of guy who needs to meet girls over the Internet,” Haley says when she first spots Jeff. “I think it’s better to meet people online first,” he replies. “You get to know what they’re like inside.”) But when they return to his gorgeous designer home, Haley, who, it turns out, has been stalking Jeff online for months and knows all about his predilection for young girls, reveals herself to be anything but innocent.
Wilson turns what is almost a thankless role — his character is bound and gagged for much of the film — into an acting tour de force as he bravely embraces the depths of his character. And as the teenage terminatrix, Ellen Page delivers a performance that will surely be remembered as one of the year’s best. Frighteningly precocious and self-assured, Page blends a cool technical dexterity with a kind of primal inner rage; her layered, nuanced performance is what enables the film to be as much a rhetorical social inquiry as it is a pulse-pounding thriller.
Orchestrating it all is first-time director David Slade, an intense, hyper-articulate Brit known for his art-minded commercials and music videos for the likes of Aphex Twin, Tori Amos and numerous corporate clients. With visual imagination and real assurance, he brings the battle between Jeff and Haley at the heart of Brian Nelson’s smart script to screen with all of its contradictions, subtleties and troubling truths intact.
DIRECTOR DAVID SLADE (CENTER) ON THE SET OF HARD CANDY.
Having worked for years in commercials and music videos, how did Hard Candy wind up becoming your first feature?
I’d been offered a lot of scripts, but this was the first thing that took me back to the roots of why I wanted to become a filmmaker, which was seeing Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. Performance hit me like a brick — it really moved me, intrigued me and kept me on the edge of my seat, particularly the first half with James Fox. It was only later when I was [learning] the language of filmmaking and cinematography that I realized that part of what hit me was that Roeg’s craft had informed the emotions of the film as much as its storyline did. So Nicolas Roeg was the man who made me want to become a director, and [Hard Candy] is a script Roeg would have done, a harrowing relationship story with many, many subtexts, with questions that can’t be answered unless you answer them yourself and don’t tell anybody. I think that in this climate, right now, a film that can make the audience ask themselves a question is important.
And what do you think that question is?
I would say this film asks you to acutely evaluate what your prejudices are.
Your prejudices towards...?
Your prejudices toward sexuality: where you personally draw the lines of pornography, what you deem acceptable and what you don’t. The film’s two characters are monsters. The only thing redeeming about Hayley is that she’s at that uncertain age where passion drives her life. Morally, she has no redeeming features. The only thing that allows you to identify her as a human being is that she is doing what morally should be the right thing, but she’s going so far over the line. In a world where we’ve seen so many monsters, from rubber men in suits to CGI creations, monsters just aren’t scary anymore. The one monster left could be a pedophile, because crimes against children are the worst crimes of all. So Jeff is the scariest monster human society has left. And this character was beautifully written by Brian Nelson, because here you are identifying with someone who morality and society says you can’t. So there alone, you question your prejudices. Another thing that really attracted me to the screenplay was that Brian had managed to [construct] arguments and put them into the words of human beings who talk in a way that people talk. That’s such an astonishingly hard thing to do.
Did you go into this film with a specific political or social intent you wanted to express?
Politically speaking, I’m a solipsist — I believe I’m the only one who exists in the world and no one else is around! Or, like any other existentialist nihilist, I have poor politics. But I abhor conservatism in the non-political sense, and so the film is something that gets ahold of values, goes “wham” and says, “Now put them back together.”
PATRICK WILSON IN HARD CANDY.
The reason I ask is that, in a way, the film ends, not all inappropriately, on the most conservative note — it’s practically Old Testament.
It is a little Old Testament. [laughs] One of the producers believes that it’d be great to market it to the religious right, like putting in the trailer, “What do you want? An eye for an eye? A tooth for a tooth?” We’re joking, of course, but it would be wonderful to play to that audience because they would have to question themselves too.
How did the script change, if at all, once the actors became committed to the project?
We changed the dialogue. We were forced to because of what the characters were becoming.
What do you mean?
When Ellen came aboard, she’d just come through [the age of her character], and she said, “As a girl of 14, everything’s black-and-white. You have so much passion for everything you do, you make everything deeply personal.” I said, “That’s fucking brilliant — this is the way we’re going to go with this.” Ellen’s contribution was to take this character who was disconnected in the screenplay — who was this killer, this avenging angel — and to make her this living, breathing girl with contradictions.
How did you gain the experience or confidence to direct such an actor-intensive film the first time out?
I know what annoys actors and what doesn’t. I know to be very specific in talking with them, to not over-direct them, to just listen and find out what their strengths are and exploit them rather than trying to force them into a character type. There was a difference between the kind of work that I did in [the music video world] and the work that is usually perceived [as coming from] that arena. The work I did was so sparse and idiosyncratic that I got to direct actors and learn a lot. Working with Tori Amos kicks the shit out of you as a director — I had to regress to childhood with her for a couple of months! And once you’ve regressed to childhood with Tori Amos, you’ve learned pretty much everything you need to know about directing. [laughs] Those eight years were not wasted. My drive was always to make cinema. The fact that Hard Candy is 103 minutes rather than three and a half minutes, I still maintain that the language that I learned with actors over eight years informed this film. There’s a craft to directing, but there’s also a humanity to it. Living life, watching how people act in life, understanding why people do the things they do is as much a part of directing, and this is something you can’t teach. It’s just an instinctive thing, feeling people’s emotions and knowing when you’d better not say something. One of the things you can’t do on an 18-day shoot is fucking upset anybody. If I got into a row with Patrick Wilson on day 4, I would have been screwed. So there’s a degree of diplomacy that you learn as well.
ELLEN PAGE AND PATRICK WILSON IN HARD CANDY.
The film’s two performances are so tightly enmeshed with each other. Did the actors approach their craft in similar or different ways?
Patrick comes from a theater background, and about halfway through this film he has practically no lines. Yet he still has to perform, and his non-verbal reaction shots were so moving and heart-destroying at times. If you are a theater actor, you have to act full-time, and Patrick knew that. If I said, “Okay, I’ve got six marks I want you to hit. I want you to hit this mark and then this line, this mark and this line. And when you’re here, if you just turn your head just here — no, that way — here, that’s great — the light glints in your eye,” he could fucking do it. He was just astonishing.
What about Ellen? Her performance also has that high degree of technical skill, but she also seems like she’s connecting in a very deep way with her character.
Ellen internalizes everything and becomes an emotional ball of fire. And she’s also the ultimate character actress. Do you know how fucking difficult it is to direct a character actor who disagrees with you? [laughs] She’s fantastic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. They are both these amazingly talented, amazingly technical actors too, which meant that we never did any more than three or four takes.
How did they interact with each other during the shooting of the film, when the cameras were off?
Patrick pretty much went to his room. Because it was so physically demanding, when he was off, he was off. Ellen would come around [set] a lot more. Initially, they were able to communicate and talk [with each other out of character]. But after a while I could see they were strained because they were becoming their characters. They may disagree, by the way, and if they disagree then I defer to them. This is just my personal take on what I thought I was seeing. We had a week’s rehearsal, which wasn’t enough, so we were rehearsing and still finding the characters during shooting. We shot in sequence, because there’s no way we could have shot the end of the movie before they’d gotten to know each other as actors who were characters.
Hard Candy was one of the first films financed by Vulcan since their announcement that they were focusing on a series of $1 million films. But other than the fact that the cast consists of only two actors, your feature, which is shot on film on a good-looking set and which is extremely precise visually, doesn’t feel low-budget in the slightest. How do you achieve this kind of production value on a tiny budget?
You work with a production designer who has worked with you before and who just does it because he wants to be involved in the project. The construction guys do it because they want to be involved in the project, and they get paid next to nothing. I had 100 percent of the quality crew I’d have on a commercial or music video because they all trusted me that the material was great. Patrick Wilson had just come from Angels in America and The Alamo, and I was promising them that Ellen was going to become a big star, which I really believe. And so [the crew] trusted that, even the people I never worked with before. We couldn’t get a sound guy, so we had these old grumpy guys who made all these independent films and had never been [properly] paid. Even those guys, by the end of the first week of shooting, tried to cash in their [salaries] for points in the movie. But what truly made us able to make the film within the budget and the schedule was the fact that the filmmaking crew had all come from a background that allowed us all to work at the speed of our own thought process. My first a.d., who came in from England — he’s 65 and had just had a double bypass surgery. He got on a flight to work for 100 bills a day for me because he wanted to be involved in the film. His name is Barry Wasserman, and he, the d.p. and I, we scheduled [the film] together. We’d go, Okay, it’s a long shot, we know it’s a 150mm lens, we know it’s a rack [focus], it’s going to take this long to set the tracks up, it’s going to take this long to balance the track, okay, that’s another few minutes. Then we’ve got to get the camera mounted, we’ve got to get the camera tight — that’s going to take this much time. It was literally scheduled in that much detail.
With two characters, one central location and long scenes, how did you break the film up visually? It doesn’t feel like the movie was shot with a conventional “coverage” style.
There’s no coverage. The film was designed and storyboarded to be shot in a specific way. Obviously blocking would sometimes take us away from the storyboard, but the storyboard got the essence of the meaning and emotion of the shots. There was a language to every shot. For example, when Hayley is in control, the camera is always smooth. When Hayley loses control, the camera isn’t smooth. We never go handheld unless she’s in danger. But after a point we had to change that language in order to keep the audience on their toes. The fact that we shot [with long lenses] was to keep the film in [the viewer’s] mind, and nor as a spectacle. You never know what’s outside of [the camera’s] focus. I remember early notes [on the edit]: “Please establish the geography of the space.” Why the fuck do you need to establish the geography of the space? If you show a close-up of someone’s face and then they look in a certain direction, the language of film explains where they are at this point in the scene. For me, so much of this film takes place in the mind of the viewer and not on the screen. I could have made this as flat as anything, but I made the decision that I should make it very impressionistic, and that decision was firmly made when I first saw how real the performances are. I believe that the surface of the film is something that people just see through as a transparent window. It goes back to that thing I was saying about Nicolas Roeg, that [a film’s style] can enhance its emotions and performances. And the fact that we had a specific language meant that the film could never be an “okay, let’s grab some footage” run-and-gun guerrilla [production]. And there was no coverage. During the edit, [people would say], “We need more two-shots.” “There aren’t any.” “Just put some more in.” “There aren’t any.” “No, really...” “Come and look at the rushes.” I’ll give you another example. One day we had to go handheld. The handheld kit didn’t turn up. Have you seen the size of a Platinum XL2? It’s the size of a fucking small car. My d.p. put it on his shoulder and shot almost a full day with a Platinum XL2 on his shoulder because [that day’s shooting] had to be handheld. We couldn’t come back or shoot another way, which is the way most people would do it. The d.p. had the dedication to the language that we had established to say, “Okay, fuck it. I’ve just got to pick up this 300-pound monster and put it on my shoulder.”
After you storyboarded, did you turn those storyboards into shot lists?
Shot lists are demons of optimism that are destructive to film. I never make shot lists. You ask a director to say what shots he wants, he puts down all the coverage in the fucking world, and you’ve got 2,000 shots for the day. Then he’s got another idea he likes, and another idea. It’s the devil’s business. You have to be a pragmatist if you’re going to make an independent film in 18 days. But that doesn’t mean that you have to do a shit-looking film.
I know storyboards are much more prevalent in music videos than in features, where, especially on lower-budget films that can’t afford a storyboard artist, shot lists are more prevalent. How do you get from your initial conceptualization of those storyboards to your day’s activity on the set?
I sketch storyboards with my own limited ability to draw. I sketch our boards and then, if we have the money, I work with an artist to be very precise. After seeing my ideas on paper — how they’re going to look, how the story is going to cut — then you say, “You know what? I actually need this shot but I don’t need that shot.” And then you get to the shooting day and you block [the scene] and go, “All right, here’s my new version of what we’re doing, and it’s on a 150mm lens.” The storyboard distills into shots, but it’s a process of pragmatism. For me, knowing everything about the camera is essential for a director because all a director has if he’s not a writer-director is his vision. And his vision is the thing that differentiates the look of his film from the look of that other film that the other director would have made if he had the same script.
Where do you want to go from here, in terms of what you want to do?
Well, I have to make this movie Egress. I developed it with a friend of mine named Charlie Cantor, and it is based on a short story by Lawrence Connelly, who is a horror writer. And I know I can’t make it next because of how conservative the paradigm of what a film is in this country. It’s a very existential, phenomenally disturbing and really shattering story. I have to do something more commercial first so I’ll have the freedom to go back and do it with final cut, because I couldn’t make it with people telling me how to rewrite it. The reason I make films is not just to tell stories but to have a social impact. Filmmaking, while it’s the bastard child of art and commerce, is also a platform. For me, it shouldn’t be just purely entertainment. I did a degree in fine art, and I see no usefulness now in fine art. I see it for what it is — just another fucking institution. I believe film can work, certainly now, on a greater level and can have more social relevance than art. I believe that it’s a place where you can actually meet a larger audience and use a language that can articulate very complex arguments. And I think there are two kinds of filmmakers. There’s the kind who believe that film serves them and their experience, and because their life is important they want to make films. And there are filmmakers who believe that they serve the film because that film has a life of its own.
And you’re the latter?