LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In 2007, “Hounddog” went to the Sundance Film Festival carrying a controversy that made it the hottest ticket in town, but it left that January after getting a cold shoulder from film distributors and critics.
But now, “Hounddog,” starring young Dakota Fanning, is howling again with Friday’s debut in U.S. theatres roughly 18 months after its difficult Sundance premiere, and few people are as happy as its writer and director Deborah Kampmeier.
The girlhood drama kicked up a fuss even before it premiered at Sundance, the top festival for U.S. independent cinema, because religious and conservative groups objected to Kampmeier’s use of then 12-year-old Fanning to depict a child rape. There was no body double.
The outcry, coupled with some negative reviews, sent distributors scurrying for the doors instead of ponying up the cash for the right to release a coming-of-age drama starring a top child actor who captured hearts in films such as Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.”
“It was painful, some of the responses,” Kampmeier told Reuters in a recent interview. “A lot of people were projecting their own agendas on this film that had nothing to do with it.
“No one wanted to see the film again” after the festival, she added.
Kampmeier said the version shown at Sundance 2007 was rushed through editing to get a version finished in time to be screened. She knew there were ways to make it better, and refused to let the experience put her or “Hounddog” down.
So, she went back to the editing room and spent nine months cutting each scene in ways that enhanced the performances and making one key change to the story’s structure.
“Hounddog” tells the story of a spirited 12 year-old girl named Lewellen (Fanning) growing up in the rural south with just her father. She has an interest in music and like many girls in the 1950s, Lewellen idolizes Elvis Presley. She even does a mean impersonation of the rock ‘n’ roll singer.
But on a dark and stormy night, she runs into trouble with a teenage boy and is raped. The pivotal scene is shot mostly in the dark with only flashes of lightning illuminating Lewellen’s face as she yells “stop it.”
The event serves as a turning point for young Lewellen. She must learn to cope with what happened, eventually overcome it and try to return to a normal life.
The movie “is about taking that which can poison you and turning it into something that is good. That’s really what Lewellen does in the film,” Kampmeier said.
But ahead of the 2007 Sundance, conservative and religious groups criticized the film’s makers, Fanning, her parents and her handlers for placing a 12 year-old in a rape scene.
One group even called for a federal probe to see if child pornography laws were broken, which made for good newspaper headlines but a huge shame for the movie’s makers.
“One of the things that was so upsetting was, ‘what message does that send to victims of abuse?,” Kampmeier said. “If Dakota is being so shamed, what message does that send to our daughters, our sisters?”
Eighteen months on, there is no longer a controversy. Fanning is 14 years-old and out promoting her upcoming movie, “The Secret Life of Bees,” and Kampmeier, at last, is seeing “Hounddog” in theatres.
She calls this new version “more nuanced and layered (with) space for the performances and actors to live.”
“I’ve had women come up to me in tears, mothers standing up in the audience who said they wanted to bring their 13 year-old daughters to see it because it was important.”
Editing by Jill Serjeant