Interview : Brian Nelson

The writer of the new film, “Hard Candy”


He’s a handsome, charming photographer in his 30s, she’s a precocious teenager who looks but doesn’t act her age. Weeks of semi-flirtatious online banter have finally culminated in a face-to-face meeting, and the inappropriate but undeniable connection between the two seems to be reinforced when they encounter one another in the flesh. An invitation to the photographer’s home studio starts off nicely enough, with more flirting over a couple of cocktails, but before too long someone ends up drugged, tied to a chair and facing the business end of a scalpel.

“Hard Candy”. It ain’t no romantic comedy.

Drawing inspiration from both Clint Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter” and a true-life Japanese criminal case involving a gang of schoolgirls who would beat and rob their older male Internet admirers after meeting them in person, “Hard Candy” is the kind of movie that will get audiences riled up, pissed off, thinking deeply and debating furiously. Its writer, playwright Brian Nelson, calls it “an interesting Rorschach test about a lot of issues, about gender and what’s acceptable to see a male character do and what’s acceptable to see a female character do. About age and what people can accept from people at certain ages. It’s a flashpoint about justice”.

Approached by “Hard Candy”’s producer David Higgins to breathe life into the basic storyline, Nelson admits that deciding to take on the task required some soul-searching, not to mention some discussion with his better half. “I asked my wife, ‘So there’s this guy who has this idea, and I think it’s interesting, but if I write it will you still be married to me?’” he said. Indeed, the subject matter seemed to prove incendiary before a frame of film was even shot. “One of our producers showed the script to his wife, and when he came back into the room after a couple of hours she threw it at him and said, ‘How dare you make me read this!’ And he said, ‘But isn’t it great?’ And she said, ‘Well, yes…but how dare you make me read this?’”

Something as confronting as “Hard Candy” is certainly going to make viewers uncomfortable. However, it’s not just what the film presents that is going to get under the skin of moviegoers, it’s the questions raised by the plot’s developments and the characters’ actions. “We don’t resolve things for you at all,” said Nelson. “We ask a lot of questions and we leave it with you. The film doesn’t make it easy in terms of allegiances. That in itself makes it difficult for some people.”

According to Nelson, there are many themes running through “Hard Candy”. “[It’s] about responsibility. About knowing whom you are and what you are capable of. Of knowing what you are not capable of. Under what circumstances would you face the truth about yourself,” he said. “We really tried to look at the price of retribution. As much humour as there is in the script to ease the tension of it, everyone has an idea of what they think should be done to certain people but what would it be like to actually follow through on that type of wish fulfilment?”

It’s tough stuff for any performer to convey, but any thoughts that a young actor might find the material too daunting are soon dispelled by Nelson. “Actresses would come in to audition and turn to me and say, ‘Thank you for writing this’,” he said. “There was an incredible outpouring of interest from all sorts of actresses.” In the end, one of the two central roles went to 17-year-old Canadian actress Ellen Page, who claims she based her characterisation was based on Joan of Arc. Hers is an astonishingly powerful performance, one that effortlessly shifts between wide-eyed innocence and righteous fury.

“What was interesting about some of the good [actresses] was that they brought such a kind of soundstage polish to it that you didn’t fear for them,” said Nelson. “There were some who were so snappy they could’ve played Jennifer Aniston’s kid sister. They had tremendous presence and tremendous intelligence and I had watched them in many, many films, but you didn’t fear for them at the same time. We didn’t want someone indestructible – we wanted someone who would bring this really unique blend of drive and strength and vulnerability, someone for whom you would cheer, but someone whom – at times – you might be scared of as well.”

- GUY DAVIS

Hard Candy opens in selected cinemas on Thursday.