A smart, charming teenage girl, Hayley probably shouldn’t be going to a local coffee shop to meet Jeff, a 30-something fashion photographer she met on the Internet. But before she knows it, she’s mixing drinks at Jeff’s place and stripping for an impromptu photo shoot.
It’s Jeff’s lucky night. But Hayley isn’t as innocent as she looks, and the night takes a turn when she begins to impose a hard-hitting investigation on Jeff in an attempt to reveal his possibly scandalous past. Hard Candy is an edge-of-your-seat psychotic thriller.
Hayley’s a smart, charming teenage girl — but even smart girls make mistakes. She’s hooking up in a coffee shop with Jeff, a guy she’s met on the Internet. And even though he’s a cute, smooth high-end fashion photographer in his early 30s, Hayley shouldn’t be suggesting that the two of them go back to his house — alone. When they get there, Hayley quickly finds some vodka and starts mixing screwdrivers. She even suggests a photo shoot and strips off some clothing. Everything is going well for Jeff… until his vision blurs and fades, and he passes out.
It turns out Hayley has spiked Jeff’s screwdriver, and when he revives, he’s tied down with Hayley searching through his place. She doesn’t think it’ll take too long to get a confession that she’s not the first teenage girl Jeff’s brought home and, more importantly, that her prisoner knows what happened to Donna Mauer, another girl who disappeared from Jeff’s favorite coffee shop. And if he’s unwilling to confess, well, she has another plan –She uses an icepack as a homemade anesthetic… She starts shaving an incision site… She’s learned a lot from the internet — including this little surgical procedure she’s dying to try…
A cat-and-mouse psychotic thriller as incisive as it is stylish, Hard Candy delivers a provocative take on the revenge drama while jangling the nerves at every turn. Directed by innovative music video and commercials director David Slade and written by accomplished playwright Brian Nelson, Hard Candy plunges us into an unstable universe where we cannot readily identify the “good guy” in the tense confrontation between a 14-year-old girl and the 32- year-old man she suspects of pedophilia and murder.
Rather, the film introduces us to two intelligent, strong-willed individuals who are engaged in a battle of wits – a battle in which it is unclear who is telling the truth. Adding fuel to the film’s fire are the powerhouse performances of its two stars, the young Canadian actress Ellen Page and acclaimed stage and screen actor Patrick Wilson (Angels in America).
As the adolescent avenger Hayley Stark, Page invests her 14-year-old character with all the passion, certitude and coltish charm of the age, while Wilson’s subtle interpretation of photographer Jeff Kohlver draws us to his character even as his behavior remains open to speculation. Making his feature debut, director Slade makes deft use of color, sound, texture, intimate close-ups and editing to ratchet up tension and illuminate character, making Hard Candy a thriller that stimulates the emotions and the senses alike.
The initial inspiration for Hard Candy was a spate of real-life attacks that took place in Japan. Producer David Higgins read about the cases, in which schoolgirls turned the tables on older men trolling the Internet for underage dates. After one girl established an online relationship with a man, she and her friends would ambush him at a pre-arranged rendezvous.
Higgins began mulling over the dramatic possibilities inherent in the story. “It opened an interesting and different perspective on who was the predator and who was the prey,” the producer recalls. “Then I thought: what if it was just one girl going after Internet predators? I’d never seen a movie about a 14-year-old vigilante do-gooder.”
Higgins imagined a minimalist setting for the story, with two characters confronting one another in a strictly defined space. Such a film would be a psychological study as well as a thriller, and the creation of multidimensional individuals was uppermost in Higgins’s mind when he approached playwright Brian Nelson about writing the screenplay.
Explains Higgins, “It’s nice to have the concept, but it’s the execution that matters — and that’s why I wanted to work with a playwright. I needed somebody who could write character, and not just plot. With two people in a room, there are no car chases and nothing to fall back on except character. I’d read one of Brian’s plays, and knew he’d be perfect.”
A leading figure in Los Angeles theatre, Nelson is a co-founder of the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute and an award-winning stage director. Nelson’s plays are largely driven by character, and he recognized that the movie Higgins outlined to him demanded the same approach. “The heart of this piece would be in the duel between two opponents who only seem mismatched at first,” affirms Nelson. “The opportunity to write a two-character duel in the vein of Misery, Sleuth, and Oleanna was too interesting to pass up. And coming from theatre, where there are always more talented actresses than there are roles, how could I resist the chance to create a unique heroine like Hayley?”
Nelson and Higgins spent two months fleshing out the story to their mutual satisfaction, after which Nelson began work on the screenplay. From the characters’ first meeting in a coffee shop called Nighthawks, the story sets up an atmosphere of erotic tension as 32-year-old Jeff and 14-year-old Hayley trade suggestive banter. As a photographer whose work regularly brings him in contact with beautiful teenage girls, Jeff seems to know just the right things to say to Haley, who is by turns bold and awkward as she tries on the role of sexual sophisticate. It is only later that it becomes clear that both Hayley and Jeff have arrived at Nighthawks with hidden agendas.
As the drama unfolds, they continue to play their cards close to their vests. In creating evenly matched characters, Nelson drew upon his own experience as a chess player. “It’s hard to find people to play chess with, so I got used to playing both sides of the board,” the writer explains. “Asking yourself the best move you can make against yourself is, I think, invaluable training for writing two characters who are both at the top of their game, who are involved in a life-or-death duel.”
Nelson’s experience teaching theatre at high school and college levels helped inform his conception of whip-smart 14-year-old Hayley. Says Nelson, “Most of my theatre students are female, most of them are brilliant, and most of them are wrestling with a world that is fundamentally unfair. I wanted to make Hayley as bright and funny and inventive as my best students have always been.”
Related Link: Read full production notes for Hard Candy