It’s been over 18 months since Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog premiered amid much controversy and criticism at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, much of it revolving around a scene in which the film’s main character Lewellen, played by then 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, is brutally raped by an older teenage boy. Up until that point, Lewellen is a pre-teen girl from Alabama living alone with her drunken and abusive father, played by David Morse, who finds solace by singing the songs of Elvis Presley. The film follows the things that happen to both of them that changes their relationship and awakens a revelation within Lewellen that changes her life.
Considering Fanning’s age, one might understand the outrage, but the advance negative backlash made it hard for the critics to get past that one scene, which is less than ten minutes of the movie. Since Sundance, Kampeier went back and restructured the film to create something more like she had intended, and after struggles getting distribution, her very personal film is finally being released independently this Friday.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with Kampmeier to talk about the film, and we had a very candid conversation about the movie, the negative knee-jerk reactions it generated mainly from people who didn’t see it, and everything that happened which almost kept the movie from ever being completed, let alone released. Kampmeier had some amazing stories to tell about getting this film made that may be of interest to any budding filmmaker wanting to explore a difficult subject matter in their dream project.
ComingSoon.net: First of all, I was curious about your background and whether you actually spent any time in the South.
Deborah Kampmeier: Yeah, I was born in Tennessee, raised in Georgia, and I moved to New York when I was eighteen. I fled the South. (laughs)
CS: I was wondering about that because I knew you’d been based in New York a long time.
Kampmeier: No, I grew up in the South.
CS: Were you ever in that area of the South where the movie takes place
Kampmeier: Yeah, we spent some time in Alabama in the area where the script was written.
CS: What was the first seed of the idea? What was the thing you wanted to do? Did you want to do something set in the South or something revolving around the music?
Kampmeier: There were issues that I wanted to wrestle with that were personal to me that were the core of the film. There’s been criticism about the film being sort of a Southern gothic cliché, and I think there’s a truth in the South that I felt at least growing up that there’s something mythic in the dysfunctions of our world, and there’s something beautiful in our desire to wrestling them… and this was my wrestling with my dysfunctions of growing up in the South. (laughs)
CS: But you weren’t living there in the time this takes place, which is the early ’60s.
Kampmeier: (Note: She gives away a fairly large plot point in her response.) I was born in ’64, but I wanted to use Elvis’ music. I loved the layer–well there were many layers–I loved the layer of her using a white man’s voice to express herself. It was the place that she had to go to express herself, was music. It was a place where she could express all of her pain, and her rage and her joy and her love, but it was Elvis’ voice. Then she encounters this woman, Big Momma Thornton, who is singing Elvis’ song, but no, it’s a black woman’s song. I loved revealing that thing that people don’t know. Even Jill Scott who played the role, she didn’t know that, so I loved revealing that. Then this girl goes through this journey where at a certain point, she loses her voice, her voice is silent, and Charles really pushing her to reclaim her voice, pushes her to sing, and in that singing she actually connects to her true voice instead of Elvis’ voice. Once she’s connected to her true voice and her true power and reclaims her true spirit, she’s able to turn and walk away from this role that can harm her into a new life for herself. How that’s going to look, it might not be so great, but it’ll be better than it was and that’s because she’s connected to herself again, her true self now.
CS: When you knew you wanted to use Elvis’ music, what was involved with getting clearance to use his songs?
Kampmeier: I wrote this script twelve years ago before I made my first film, before I made any of my shorts–no, that’s not true, I made one short–but I didn’t know about music licenses. I was a bit naïve when I started writing the script, and I loved all this music of Elvis. I was obsessed with this music and I actually wrote exactly what song I wanted into the script, and every time there would be this difficult moment, you’d have Elvis’ music and that particular song to lift her spirit and raise her out of it. I think that Elvis’ music to me represented this exuberance of youth and this spirit that couldn’t be broken in her. So it was always a device when I was writing this script where suddenly there was this accurate difficult moment, this burst of Elvis that I had written into the script. So it was written twelve years ago that way, and then as I started moving along and encountering, “Oh, this might become an issue,” I was already so deep in it that I couldn’t abandon it. After I’d gotten Dakota attached, her movement coach said, “I just talked to Budd Carr about your project and he’s interested,” and Budd Carr is the biggest music supervisor there is. He’s done all of Oliver Stone’s films, and he’s done like ninety films. He had a lot of favors he could pull and he loved this project and he pulled his favors. He told me, “Sometimes you’re working for big companies, and you pay at least the rate the label’s asking for, and you can come in and ask for a favor.” And he asked for a lot of favors for me, and we were very lucky.
CS: As far as getting Dakota, she’s obviously a very experienced actress even at her young age, having done a lot of movies where she stole scenes from far more experienced actors. This is an amazing role for her, and she’s carrying the film more than she has in the past. What was involved with getting her on board? Was it just a matter of showing her the script?
Kampmeier: I wrote this script before she was born, so it’s not like I had her in mind. (laughs) I’ve been trying to get financing for years and in fact that had financing four years in a row, and it fell through, then I made my first feature “Virgin,” and then I came back to trying to raise money. At a certain point, one of my producers said, “What about Dakota Fanning?” And I said, “Well, yeah if we could get her, but we’re not going to get Dakota Fanning.”
CS: How long ago was that?
Kampmeier: That was the summer of 2005.
CS: So it was right around the time when “War of the Worlds” was big?
Kampmeier: Exactly. “We can’t get Dakota Fanning,” you know? But I sent the script off with a letter and then forgot about it and started going about my business of trying to continue raising money. Then I got a call two months later saying, “Dakota wants to do the role, can you fly out tomorrow?” “Yeah.” I flew out, I thought she’d be great, but when I walked in the room and met her, I knew, I just knew she was it, she was perfect. There was a connection we had to each other that was immediate; there’s a presence about her. I think that this extraordinary talent she has comes out of her gift, is really about this presence she has that is in the moment, and I connected with that the moment I met her. We both connected I think through Lewellen, and we both loved the character, and there was an immediate connection. It was like we took each other by the hand and walked through this world together, and didn’t let go of each other until we got to the other side. It was an extraordinary experience working with her.
CS: She’s certainly very smart and very mature for her age, but was there anything in the film that you had to explain to her or discuss how they’d be filmed? There are some things in the movie that might be tough even for an actress twice her age, so did you have to talk about those scenes?
Kampmeier: We had nine months after I had attached her to finance the film. We couldn’t get financing even with Dakota Fanning attached in the starring role. Nine months we had worked together, and we had a daily email dialogue and I actually went to L.A. and worked with her. She came a few weeks early and we started handling snakes together, and it was more talking around the story than directly at it. Certainly there was blocking that we talked about, but we didn’t go into the details of the direct meaning of each scene. We really talked around it a lot, and I shared my life with her, and she shared hers with me, and we continued to explore what the film was about, but not sitting down and going through every scene.
CS: Did she have any singing experience before this or had she sung just for fun on her own?
Kampmeier: She had not. She actually worked with a singing coach three days a week for nine months. She really worked on it and I think she did a great job.
CS: Did she have any connection to Elvis’ music at all?
CS: So Elvis was a new thing for her to discover.
Kampmeier: It was.
CS: You mentioned the snakes. In that one scene in the bed, were all of those real snakes?
Kampmeier: Yeah, that was the most intense scene to shoot. There were twenty snakes on her. We had a great snake handler. There were Corn Snakes and Hognoses, and they are very docile, gentle snakes. She and I started handling snakes for a couple weeks before, and it was I think scary at first, but actually my five-year-old daughter was there and just went right over and started picking up the snakes and I think that helped break… I was working with both Dakota and Cody on the snakes because they handle them so much, so there was this wonderful sort of playful introduction to them with my daughter there, and then Dakota was a pro by the end. She was handling the snakes, and she’d just hang out on set with a snake in her hand, but that last scene was pretty intense. We had the wrangler and assistants and I was even assisting. When a snake starts coming towards the camera, my cameraman would jump and get all upset, so I was like, “Don’t worry, I’ll get him.” In that scene, it was important to me that the sort of collision between inner life and outer life, and “Is it real, is it a dream?” I think that the snakes represent so much for me in the film, and they represent something different than the Judeo-Christian or the Freudian implications around snakes. I think that the church has given snakes a bad rap, and the church has done to snakes what they’ve done to women’s sexuality, they’ve turned it into something dangerous and evil. The snakes actually in other religions and other cultures, more earth-based and female-based cultures, the snake is a very sacred animal and holds the most sacred images. So that’s the idea of snakes that I was bringing into the film.
CS: It’s interesting that at the same Sundance, Craig Brewer had “Black Snake Moan” which also featured Southern roots music in it.
Kampmeier: It had no snakes in it. (laughs)
CS: It had no snakes in it, exactly.
Kampmeier: I was a little freaked out when I heard “Black Snake Moan” was coming out because I assumed that there were going to be snakes in that too.
CS: David Morse is an amazing actor, always very daring, especially in this movie. What did you tell him about this role, about this character? I’m hoping your family wasn’t as dysfunctional as he was, but he’s playing a very interesting character in this.
Kampmeier: (laughs) I think he does an amazing job. I think it’s a complicated character, and it was important for me that the audience feels sympathy and compassion for him, not just hatred and disgust. I feel like there are no evil characters in this film, there are just wounded characters. The film is about so many things for me, one of the ideas in the film is about motherlessness, and how all the characters except for Charles are pretty much motherless, and that empty void that’s left there is filled with different things: Grammie with the Bible, Lewellen with Elvis, Stranger Lady (Robin Wright Penn’s character) with bad men and sex, and Dad with violence. Then after the accident with Lewellen and his need for her is a childlike need, but it’s coming out of an adult’s body, and the inappropriateness of it is palpable and his need is what is so damaging. There’s the potential for a lot of other damaging things.
CS: Especially after what happens to her…
Kampmeier: She becomes the parent and she has no one there to guide her or to nurture her or go to where she’s hurt. Instead, he says to her, “Don’t ever leave me” and his need for her is what’s so oppressive and damaging. She has to leave him in the end even though she loves him. I think that’s what’s complicated, she loves her father and he’s not good for her and she has to leave. Even if that means he’s bitten by the snake, even if that means he dies, she has to leave. She can’t take responsibility for him and his life anymore. I think that’s a really challenging choice to make for a lot of women.
CS: It’s funny you mentioned being sympathetic to him, because I think that’s what a lot of people had a hard time with. It’s hard to accept him as her father and then after his accident, you don’t know what’s going on there. We know how the critics received it, but what about when you saw it with other people at Sundance?
Kampmeier: It’s so interesting because I heard that the critics booed the screening, but all of the screenings for the people, not everyone liked it, but so many people responded to the film. I had women lining up to hug me and thank me and tears. And I actually had a man come up to me, a big burly guy, not an intellectual, a working guy came up and said that he hadn’t cried in his entire life and I made him cry. I had a guy come up to me on the bus (in Park City)–this was the one that was so astonishing to me–this guy came up to me on the bus in town, I’d say late sixties, and he had a thick Alabama accent. He had been abused and there was a real history there. And he came up to me and he said in this thick accent, “You know, I read about this film and I was so angry at you, and I did not want to see this film. I am so grateful I saw it because you made me face something in my life that I have never been able to face before.”
CS: I was really curious whether it was a male/female thing or a regional thing because obviously people from New York and L.A. (including critics) have not really experienced things like this, so it’s hard to relate.
Kampmeier: Yeah, I think a lot of it goes on the gender lines, but that’s what surprised me about Sundance, is that it had a lot of positive responses from men, but it was not intellectual responses, it was emotional responses. I think we’re so used to receiving information cerebrally and I think this film is like a myth, a fable, like the first stories were told. I think they can reach it on an intuitive, emotional level, and the people who respond to it have gone on that emotional ride. I think the people who are particularly critical of it are watching it from an intellectual position. I didn’t make this film to create controversy; I didn’t make this film as a social commentary to solve any big problem in the world, to heal rape victims, I didn’t do any of that. I wrote it from my heart. If it touches someone’s heart, well I’d be happy. I do find that in terms of the men being responsive it’s been non-intellectual, but I have found women have really respondednot every woman certainlybut this is an epidemic in our society and I think that it speaks to a lot of women. I think that Dakota taking on this role has given voice to a lot of silent women and girls, and I’m finding a great response from women to the fact that a story that has been buried silent. It took me ten years to get this film made, and I am not a political filmmaker, but I have not been able to ignore the politics of being a woman filmmaker in the process of getting this film made. This story has been so silent and women’s voices in general have been silent. I think that as I am experiencing the reception to this film by women, there is a gratitude to a story that they know and they see, and it makes them feel less alone in the world. It’s not a story that as many men know and so I do think that women are really identifying with it much more than men.
CS: Sure, I can understand that. I’m sure you were aware that before Sundance, a lot of people were talking about the movie because of the scene where Dakota is raped. How did that affect your process of finishing the movie and how did that reaction affect you as a filmmaker?
Kampmeier: It’s affected more than me, the people surrounding the film. It was really hard on a lot of people. I’m just horrified that Dakota’s mother… there are petitions for to have her thrown in jail. Dakota is being shamed for making this film.
CS: Wow, that’s amazing, really?
Kampmeier: People want to throw me in jail. We had bodyguards at Sundance. There were death threats, and I went down to Wilmington when all of this controversy got really intense.
CS: These were people who hadn’t seen the movie obviously.
Kampmeier: Yeah, and people on my team were getting very frightened because there were threats of child pornography laws being broken, and people were really suddenly scared, like, we don’t want this film out in the world scared. So I took the film down to Wilmington, North Carolina, down to the district attorney, and I said, “Can I bring this and show you?” because that’s where it would be prosecuted since that’s where it was shot. I took it down and the D.A. did a full investigation, they talked to cast and crew. I took down the roughest cut, the most graphic, violent cut possible which wasn’t terribly possible because I just had her face in the rape scene. I put everything in that could possibly be offensive or inappropriate or illegal, and I took it down and showed it to them and after they screened it, they in writing on their letterhead said, “We will not prosecute this film, we will not prosecute you or the Fannings. Nothing illegal has been done in the making of the film.” Then they went on to thank me for showing it to them. They prosecute the real thing every day, and just the week before they had convicted a man who had impregnated his ten-year-old daughter. It had been in the newspaper and not one single phone call about that real rape, but ten to twenty calls a day from people asking for my film to be prosecuted.
CS: I had no idea things had gotten that serious. I knew there was a lot of talk in the press about it, but did you end up changing the movie a lot after it showed at Sundance?
Kampmeier: Sundance was so great for me. People would think it wasn’t great because of all the controversy and criticism, but I had no money to finish my film. I was actually editing underground because there was internal fighting from my investors and they were trying to take the film from me and they thought they could stop me from editing. So I’m editing underground, no one even knows I’m editing until we get accepted into Sundance and then everyone was like, “What? What?” But getting into Sundance allowed me to get everyone on the same page and get the money so I could finish the film. Of course, I was so rushed because I just had a very rough cut, so then it’s all about getting the plot together from beginning to end that tells a story. I felt that the Sundance cut was really about action, whereas this cut is more about reaction; I feel like it’s more nuanced. Fifty percent of the film is different.
CS: Really? That much of it is different from what was shown at Sundance?
Kampmeier: I know it doesn’t seem like it right? But I didn’t take out a lot of scenes or add a lot of scenes. I went in and changed the performances. I had time to go in and really look at the takes and let the actors tell the story because I thought they were amazing and really focus the story on the performances. So it’s literally fifty percent different, but that’s just because we changed the performances. There was one structural thing that I changed. The film is about so many things for me, and in the midst of all that complexity, I was trying to define the arch of her voice being silenced, so I chose after the rape to take out any scene where she was talking. So literally, her voice is silent except for when she screams at her dad. Other than that, she never speaks until the end when Charles pushes her to sing and reconnects her to her voice. So that was the big structural change I made and interestingly it was about her voice being silenced which is what sort of the making of the film became about. So for me, after Sundance, I didn’t hear everything, I tried to protect myself, but when my friend comes up from reading “Variety” and weeping, I’m like, “Oh, no.” (laughs) But it was really a matter of me going in rigorously as an artist and trying to continue to hear my voice. And, “Yeah okay, they don’t like the snakes, I’m putting more snakes in because I need it to tell the story.” Of course, you want the critics to like it, but ultimately you’ve got to make your film for yourself, not for everyone else. Certainly, there were a lot of opinions and I listened to them, and the ones that were useful I integrated, but the ones that weren’t, I fought, and I continued trying to hear my own voice and tell my own story.
CS: Even the making of the movie is an interesting story. I’m curious how much of that is going to end up on the DVD, because it feels like there should be a documentary about the making of this movie.
Kampmeier: There should have been. Hopefully there will be a book. I wish I’d had a camera the whole way through. I literally started preproduction with a hundred thousand dollars because I was driving to Wilmington. The Fannings had said, “Look, you can’t keep pushing it. It’s killing Dakota, she loves this, it’s breaking her heart.” So they gave me a deadline and I got in my car and started driving to Wilmington based on a particular investor who’s been in the news for letting other productions down, but he will be left nameless. Anyway, he had told me and Dakota’s lawyer money was going in the bank and it would be there, and I got in my car and started driving and a half hour outside of Wilmington, he told me he was not going to finance it. I started preproduction with a hundred thousand dollars and I continued week by week we were financing the film. We got shut down a week in preproduction and a week in production because we were out of money. It was stressful getting this film made.
CS: So where do you go from here? Do you have another movie you want to start working on and do you feel that’s going to be a different experience?
Kampmeier: It’s called “Split” and I can’t talk about my projects before they’re done, but just in general, it’s about a woman who has to face her own darkness so she stops putting it in the hands of her lovers, so that’s sort of the little teaser of what it’s about. We’re in development and hope to be shooting it pretty soon.
CS: For better or worse, making this movie must have been a learning experience I’m sure, so is there anything you’d want to do differently with your next movie?
Kampmeier: Have the money in the bank before I start… but I would also say that I would still do what I did on “Hounddog.” I mean it was a film I wanted to get made.
CS: From what you’ve told me, this is a personal story, not something you were making to appeal to a mass audience, because at that point, you might as well be making studio movies, and there’s no art in it if you’re not making the movie you want to make.
Hounddog opens in select cities on Friday, September 19.