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I still think she's creepy and even though I see everything with her in it, I will not see this.

Article One

Dakota Fanning will turn 13 next month, and she has a short answer for anyone who questions her decision to play a 1950s girl who gyrates in her underwear, wakes up as her naked father climbs into her bed, demands that a prepubescent boy expose himself to her in exchange for a kiss and, finally, is raped by a teenager who lures her with tickets to an Elvis concert:

She’s growing up. Get used to it.

Ms. Fanning, best known for leading roles in children’s movies like “Dreamer” and “Charlotte’s Web,” thrillers like “Man on Fire” and “War of the Worlds,” and the horror film “Hide and Seek,” now is starring in “Hounddog,” an independent film that is to have its premiere on Monday at the Sundance Film Festival. It has already won attention far out of proportion to its budget of less than $4 million.

When “Hounddog” was still shooting last summer near Wilmington, N.C., rumors about the rape scene kicked up a storm on the socially conservative end of the Web spectrum. Some suggested that Ms. Fanning was being exploited by the filmmakers, her parents and her agent. Hundreds signed a petition to persuade a local district attorney to prosecute the filmmakers under a law banning simulated sex with a minor.

The furor hampered the production, and it continues on Fox News and on Web sites like A Minor Consideration (minorcon.org), run by Paul Petersen, an advocate for child actors. Mr. Petersen, himself a former child actor who played Donna Reed’s son on her 1960s sitcom, said in an interview that Ms. Fanning should never have been allowed to play the victim in a rape scene, no matter how much she wanted to or how sensitively it was filmed, and that her doing so violated the letter of federal child-pornography law.

“Nothing excuses it,” he said. “The plain cold fact is this is illegal, the statutes are what they are, and Hollywood chose to ignore it. If they’d made the character 15, and hired a 19-year-old, they wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me.”

But the Wilmington district attorney, who was shown a cut of the movie, said no crime was committed, and the film’s writer and director, Deborah Kampmeier, said Ms. Fanning was treated more than appropriately: Though her character, Lewellen, disrobes under duress, for example, she is not seen nude, and Ms. Fanning was always clothed during the production.

Ms. Fanning, for her part, says she is mystified by the outcry. Anyone who sees the film, she said on Monday in her first interview on the subject, would understand that the rape scene wasn’t the point of the movie.

“That’s not who Lewellen is,” she said, sitting in her agent’s office in Universal City, braces on her teeth and a small crucifix over her sweater. “Because that has happened to her, that doesn’t define her. Because of this thing that has happened — that she did not ask for — she is labeled that, and it’s her story to overcome that and to be a whole person again.”

“There are so many children that this happens to, every second,” she added. “That’s the sad part. If anyone’s talking about anything, that’s what they should be talking about.”

Her mother, Joy Fanning, waited outside, and her agent, Cindy Osbrink, sat in, but it was Ms. Fanning who fielded the questions, and who made clear that her choices were, well, just that.

“You know, I’m an actress,” she said. “It’s what I want to do, it’s what I’ve been so lucky to have done for almost seven years now. And I am getting older. February 23 is my birthday, I’ll be 13 years old. And I will be playing different kinds of roles. I won’t be able to do the things I did when I was 6 years old when I’m 14. And that’s what I look forward to — getting to play new roles that aren’t too old for me and aren’t too young for me, that are just at the right time.”

She added: “Lewellen is still very innocent, she’s still a child, but she’s also a little bit wise beyond her years because of the things she’s seen and been through. So I think that I should be able to do what I feel is at the right time for me.”

The story of “Hounddog” is about not just rape but also about the cycle of violence: nearly every major character in it is motherless, wounded, repressed and destructive. Lewellen’s grandmother (Piper Laurie) violates her too, if only with her eyes; her father (David Morse) has been abusing her more directly, and it appears likely that, if nothing changes, Lewellen will become an abuser too.

Ms. Kampmeier said in a telephone interview that she had originally written the character as a 9-year-old, and first signed the actors Robin Wright Penn and Mr. Morse for the project in the late 1990s. But a succession of financial backers withdrew four times in four years, and she set the script aside in 2002 to make “Virgin,” her first feature, about a pregnant girl who believes that she is carrying God’s child; Ms. Wright Penn played the girl’s mother in the film, which received mixed reviews.

When Ms. Kampmeier sent Ms. Fanning the script for “Hounddog” in July 2005, Ms. Fanning said: “The bottom line was, I couldn’t not do it. It’s all I could think about. I knew I was at the perfect age.”

She had to wait nine months as Ms. Kampmeier hunted for investors; the subject matter remained objectionable to most, even with a proven star in the central role, the director said. (Making the most of that delay, Ms. Fanning said, the director sent her an e-mail message with a new question about Lewellen each morning: Favorite color? Favorite food? “That’s why I was so comfortable in Lewellen’s skin,” Ms. Fanning said, “because I knew so much about her.”)

Ms. Kampmeier said investors kept balking at the rape scene, demanding that it be shunted off-screen, merely implied or removed from the plot altogether.

About the online petitions to have her arrested, she said that the district attorney’s office in Wilmington was busy prosecuting real sex crimes, like one in which a 10-year-old girl was impregnated by her father. “All these cases are reported in the newspaper, and nobody ever calls them about that,” she said. “But they get 10 to 20 calls a day from people insisting that my movie be prosecuted.”

Ms. Fanning said the most taxing scene for her was one in which her sleeping character is covered by snakes that slither in through the open window of her tumbledown shack.

But it may be an earlier pivotal scene that draws more critical attention, should “Hounddog” find a distributor. In it Lewellen sings and dances her best Elvis impression — horizontally, on her bed — upon learning that the singer is coming to town. While she does, however, a teenage milkman is in the room, looking on a little too hungrily.

Overly sexual behavior in minors is often a telltale sign of prior abuse, and provocation is, unfortunately, in the eye of the provoked. But to Ms. Kampmeier’s mind, and more important, to Ms. Fanning’s, Lewellen’s dancing in this scene is as innocent as her already corrupted life can get.

“She’s 12 years old,” Ms. Fanning said. “She’s doing that because that’s fun. She’s not going so far as to think, ‘Oh, am I doing something wrong?’ or ‘Is this going to look in a weird way?’ He’s just her milkman. He’s coming to pick up the empties.”

Article Two

By early Thursday evening, Deborah Kampmeier had arrived from New York after spending 29 straight hours putting the finishing touches on "Hounddog," perhaps the most eagerly anticipated film of this year's Sundance Film Festival. Operating on two hours of sleep, she was still smarting a bit from the criticism leveled by religious activists who had not seen her Southern gothic tale but object to the rape of the character played by 12-year-old Dakota Fanning. Mostly, though, she sounded happy to be able to share her long aborning project with the world.

"I am hoping that this film is going to touch a lot of people," she said. "When you go to a theater and you see the truth, you feel less alone in the world." As for the critics, who have tried to unleash a milder version of the opprobrium hurled at Mel Gibson before "The Passion of the Christ" came out, she has decided to turn the other cheek. "I have to say I have started to feel very sorry for these people who are out to silence this," said Kampmeier, who wrote, produced and directed the film. "These are really wounded people, just like the characters in the film."

The film is set in rural Alabama in the late 1950s. Fanning plays Lewellen, a motherless child who is obsessed with Elvis Presley and does a mean impersonation of him. Her father (David Morse) is a creepy, abusive farmer for whom Lewellen's love is so complex it borders on hatred. Her grandmother, a blowsy Piper Laurie, is an angry and suspicious woman who tosses firecrackers into her garden for pest control and is obsessed with the wickedness of the flesh.

"There's plenty of time for you to grow up and be evil," she tells Lewellen as she inspects her after a bath. "I just want you to be good while you can."

Robin Wright Penn — does anyone do wounded vulnerability better? — plays the woman who becomes Lewellen's ray of hope, and Afemo Omilami is the wise farm hand who nurses the damaged young women around him back to emotional health. A transformative history lesson is provided by jazz and blues singer Jill Scott as Big Mama Thornton, whose Leiber and Stoller-penned hit "Hound Dog" was a hit in 1953, then nearly forgotten after it was eclipsed by Elvis' recording. (In Kampmeier's view, another example of how women's voices have been silenced.)

As for the scene that has put this film on the map long before its premiere here on Monday, it is the powerful, and yes, disturbing, heart of the film, and delicately filmed. Like rape itself, it becomes a thing of transcendent violence, not just a physical violation. Fanning's victim is an ethereal child on the cusp of sexuality whose soul withers before your eyes.

"When we first met, I said to Dakota this is a difficult and dark world that she would have to enter into, but that I would be there with her every step of the way," said Kampmeier, 42. "It was not about manipulating her; she is a deeply talented and mature actor. To say she was violated to achieve her performance denies her talent. She moved very carefully and intelligently through the work. It was a heavy scene, but after we shot it, she was laughing and dancing because she knew what she had done was an incredible performance."

Though several groups, including the Christian Film & Television Commission, have objected to putting a child actor in that position, Kampmeier stressed that the rape was achieved in the edit, not on the set. "You have a child yelling 'Stop it!" and only when you put that next to an image of a boy unzipping his pants do you see that it's rape." Contrary to reports, there is no graphic nudity, but there are several scenes, carefully shot, where child actors with bare shoulders and legs are presumed to be naked.

There is no question that the rape scene, and a couple of others, particularly where Lewellen radiates a precocious (if unconscious) sexuality as she gyrates her hips and sings Elvis, make for uncomfortable viewing. When Kampmeier screened rough cuts for associates, she said, reaction was split along gender lines. Women saw the innocence and joy in Lewellen's gestures; men thought she was provoking a sexual attack.

Such moments are not without precedent — at approximately Fanning's age, Brooke Shields in Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby" and Jodie Foster in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" played prostitutes. Those films too were met with outrage, accusations of exploitation … and critical acclaim.

Though most of the indie filmmakers here can tell hair-raising tales about how they got their films made (let alone dealing with preemptive censorship strikes), Kampmeier's story seems more harrowing than most.

The film, which she finished writing in 1996, was originally budgeted at $6 million, then $3.75 million. (Her first and only other film, 2003's "Virgin," about a young woman who finds herself pregnant with no memory of having had sex, cost $65,000.) Along the way, financing was in place then fell out four times, always because prospective producers demanded the rape scene be cut, Kampmeier said.

After Fanning signed on in August 2005, a serious Hollywood clock began running. The young actress — who starred as Fern in "Charlotte's Web," as Tom Cruise's memorably fraught daughter in "War of the Worlds" and with Robert De Niro in the horror film "Hide and Seek" — does not lack for big budget work. (Her fee, it has been reported, has hit $3 million per film.) Each time the film's financing fell through, it became harder for her to remain committed, since she was turning down so much work. Also, to prepare for her role, she spent nine months working with a voice coach three times a week.

"Her agent finally said, 'I can't keep doing this to a 12-year-old,' " Kampmeier said. "After nine months, they said, 'This is your drop-dead date.' " Last April, with no money, Kampmeier said, she simply packed up her 5-year-old daughter and drove to Wilmington, N.C., to begin pre-production. Local casting agents put her in touch with a local producer, Sam Froelich, who tried to raise $250,000.

"At the end of the third week, I called him and said, 'You have to put money in the bank today or this isn't happening. I will give you a producer credit whether your other guys come in or not.' He said, 'How about $100,000?' " The money lasted a week.

Producer Jen Gatien had gotten involved after falling in love with the script. "It was like Faulkner and Tennessee Williams," she said Friday morning, moments after arriving in Park City. "It was so poetic and beautiful, I just had to be part of it."

When Gatien started to raise money — from male producers almost exclusively — she heard a constant refrain: "Oh. This is that rape movie. Who is gonna pay 10 bucks to watch a kid get raped? So what if you've got Dakota Fanning. None of her fans are going to come to see it anyway."

It did not matter that the movie is rated R and is geared to an adult audience. Nor did it seem to matter that women really responded to the subject matter, which ends in emotional triumph. So Gatien turned for help to some of her progressive women friends in Santa Barbara, where she lives part-time. She thought of Rebecca Cleary, someone who lives modestly, supports artists and had not been involved in a film venture such as this. Maybe, Gatien thought, Cleary could kick in $200,000. Cleary ended up investing around $2 million.

"She is into empowering women, and she really stepped up," Gatien said.

After the film was shot, however, the producers were drawn into a legal battle with a funder who was asking Kampmeier to give up her director's cut in exchange for meeting his financial commitment to the film. Kampmeier refused, struck a deal with another production company and ended up in a legal battle between the two.

That was in August, Gatien said. There was no money for post-production. So Gatien sold her car, and tapped her friends for cash, coming up with $65,000. (Though multiple producers aren't uncommon, "Hounddog" must set some kind of record: 21 people are credited as producers, co-producers and associate producers — a nod, said Kampmeier, to all those who invested in the project.)

With the Sundance deadline looming, resolving the legal issue was crucial. There was also fear the movie would become outdated if it were tied up in litigation. Over the last couple of weeks their attorney, Linda Lichter, has resolved the legal dispute, settled with vendors in North Carolina, and will be able to make a distribution deal.

"Everyone wants to see it," Gatien said. "The response has been overwhelming." Which is an irony for Kampmeier, since some of the distributors are those who turned her down for financing in the first place.

"It's not conscious, but the men who run this business don't have ears to hear our stories yet," Kampmeier said. "Our stories in fact have a huge audience. Women want to see their truths up there on the screen."


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2007 05:12 pm (UTC)
While I definitely find it creepy, I think that she's doing the right thing by establishing herself as a mature and flexible actor. I mean, she could have done a slightly less disturbing role to prove that she can do anything, but it's good that she's already trying to get rid of that little-girl reputation. Look at all the actors that can only play one role. Do you think you could ever take Ben Stiller or Will Farrel seriously if they were to play axe murderers?
Jan. 20th, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)
Axe Murderers
Insane axe murderers, yes. But... hmm, what's a good example.... Ben/Will as the guy from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? No, I don't think I could see that.

It's like with Robin Williams (for me, anyway.) He's GREAT with comedy, but I recently saw a serious movie he did and I was waiting the entire time for something funny to happen. He's good at moxing seriousness WITH comedy, though, like in Mrs Doubtfire.

But still.... I think Dakota should've done a different one. Hell, even a child prostitute role wouldn't be as creepy as this.
Jan. 20th, 2007 06:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Axe Murderers
Yeah, I'll admit, if she wanted to establish herself, she should have at least gone with a less...disturbing movie. She's done horror movies already (Hide and Seek) so she's already shown that she can play multiple roles. Still, this is a little...intense.
Jan. 21st, 2007 04:03 am (UTC)
*incredibly irked the more I read about this*

Look, I'm sure Dakota's very talented and has the chops to play an intense role, but come ON. This is BEYOND intense. It's like they picked the most disturbing role available to such a young person. (I love how she goes straight from Charlotte's Web to this. Nice smooth, gradual stepping stones toward more mature roles. :p)

If one can hopefully assume that she has no actual experience to draw upon for this role (let's hope to God not) then one assumes she would have to, er, research this role in order to play it, and how does a 12-year-old go about that?

I don't care if she's an amazingly mature, old soul or whatever, 12 is way too young to be trying to channel certain emotions and feelings in certain situations, and I think her parents and management need to be whupped good for ever letting her near this project.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )