MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Hounddog Redux

Hounddog‘s heavy baggage was wrought in large part, according to director Deborah Kampmeier, by a disgruntled “finder” who helped secure financing to get the film through post, then demanded his 5% before the film’s team even had money in hand to finish it. When I talked to Kampmeier by phone about what happened to the film before and during Sundance 2007, she said that she was shocked by the controversy that swirled around the film at the time.

“It started the day before we finished filming,” Kampmeier said. “I’d driven to Wilmington based on a promise that we were getting funding, and I got the call that the investor we thought we had was not going to finance the film. We started pre-production with $100K, then had to shut down four weeks into shooting because we were out of money. So we were desperately looking for money, and one of my producers got in touch with a friend of hers who came on board as a finder and got us the money to make the film. During that period of time there was no cash flow, and the finder of the money was demanding his 5% right then. We wanted him to wait, but he said if he didn’t get paid he’d go to the press. In order to make a bigger deal out of it, to draw attention to himself, he said that Dakota Fanning was naked in the film, that there was a graphic rape scene, which there wasn’t. And it snowballed from there, it was a nightmare.”

Kampmeier said that the cut of the film that played at Sundance was a very rushed rough cut that didn’t end up conveying the message of the film in the way she’d hoped. “I had investors fighting, trying to seize the film from me,” she recalls. “I ended up editing underground and submitting the film to Sundance without the investors even knowing I was editing, and it wasn’t until we got accepted to Sundance that I was even able to get everyone around a table and get the financing to finish the film. We only had one month to get the Sundance cut ready, and it was very rough.” Kampmeier also feels, though, that the “Dakota Fanning rape-scene” controversy took over press about the film.”It was impossible … everyone’s always saying to me that no press is bad press, but I don’t think people could see the film that was right in front of them. I was certainly surprised.”

When Hounddog played Sundance, overall critical response to the cut shown there, including my own, was largely that it wasn’t as good as it could have been, and that the hubbub surrounding it had made a bigger deal of it than it was. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch a screener of the recut. I hadn’t much liked the film much the first time around, and wasn’t particularly looking forward to a second take on it, but I’d heard conflicting accounts of the edits, so I decided to check it out for myself. And wow, what a difference the editing has made.

The recut version is tighter, leaner, and puts more focus on the arcs of the characters; more importantly, it highlights, rather than detracts from, the strongest point it’s always had — Fanning’s performance. Despite word from some in critical circles that the film hasn’t changed much, Kampmeier said she re-edited 50% of the footage, changing out scenes, fixing pacing issues, and overall looking to focus more on the performances. “With every character I was able to go in and choose the performances that really told the story, give room for the actor’s incredible performances to tell the story,” she says. “The space that’s allowed for the performances really layers the film and gives nuance that wasn’t there before. That cut (the Sundance version) was about action, the recut is about reaction.”

One of the ways in which this is most evident is in the arcing of the relationship between Fanning’s character, Lewellen, and her friend Buddy, which feels substantially different in the new version compared to how it played in the Sundance cut. “It’s because of the takes I chose for the scenes (in the recut),” Kampmeier said, “I wanted to emphasize the love story between Lewellen and Buddy — the sweetness and innocence of their friendship, the betrayal, the guilt he feels … all that was much clearer because I changed many of the takes for those scenes — there were performances there that really clarified the characters arcs that are in the new cut.”

As for how the controversy surrounding the film affected Fanning, who was 12 at the time it was shot, Kampmeier said, “She was very hurt, it was devastating — that was the real abuse, the way people reacted to it. After we shot that scene (the rape scene) — which was not rehearsed, it was just me and Dakota and the camera —  she wasn’t devastated or upset, she was out on the bridge dancing, she knew she had hit the zone. She was proud of her performance. And then we had to have bodyguards for her at Sundance, she didn’t get a single moment to celebrate the exquisite performance she did. The people protesting the film made Dakota feel shamed for this incredible performance — that is what was abusive. It was terrible. She loved this character so much, and it was very hurtful — some people were even starting online petitions to have her mother arrested, did you know that?”

When the controversy heated up, Kampmeier decided to face it head on. “I didn’t make this film to be a controversial film, or to be social commentary. It’s a story I wrote from my heart in the hopes it would touch someone else’s heart, and suddenly it was this huge controversial thing. Here I am, I’m actually trying to speak, to bring light to this issue of rape and abuse. And if Dakota is so shamed by others for just doing this movie, what message does that send to our own daughters and sisters whose voices are being silenced by abuse?

Kampmeier called the DA’s office in Wilmington to show them the film. “They ended up doing a full investigation, talked to the cast and crew, everything. And they gave me a letter on letterhead saying that there would be no prosecution for the film — they ended up thanking me for making the film. The week before they (the district attorney’s office) had convicted a father for impregnating in his own daughter — I think she was 10 years old. And they got no calls about that real-life case of abuse, but they were getting 10 to 20 calls a day from people asking to prosecute us for this film — it was just ridiculous.”

The rape scene that caused all the controversy is actually much longer in the recut, but the pacing and emotion of the scene feels very different. “I shortened the lead-up to it because everyone knows it’s coming, they’re waiting for it to happen, so I wanted the lead-up to happen as quickly as I could without it feeling rushed,” Kampmeier said. “I extended the length of the moment at the end of the scene where she’s looking up and the water is dripping; in the Sundance cut, the camera pulls up and continues to pull until you see the boys running away; now the focus stays on Lewellen and then cuts to black. Afterwards, for the whole part where she’s walking home alone, and crawls into the car, I just really wanted to intensify the sense of aloneness and isolation she felt, so I eliminated the music and everything else to emphasize that. And also, in the new cut, Lewellen doesn’t talk at all after the rape, except for the one scene where she blows up at her father. She doesn’t talk until Charlie (the black man who’s Lewellen’s friend and watchful guardian-from-a-distance) gets her to find her voice, to sing again.”

This aspect of the film, of Lewellen finding her voice again after the trauma of the rape, plays much stronger in the new cut as well. “That moment, that arc, is really all about Lewellen reclaiming her own voice,” Kampmeier noted. “Before, she was a little girl imitating a man’s voice; in that scene she claims that song as her own, and after that she’s able to move forward, even if it means letting her father get bit by a rattlesnake. She’s not taking care of anyone else anymore, she’s moving on to take care of herself.”

Fanning’s performance, which was striking even in the Sundance cut, comes across even more strongly now. The recut of Hounddog is mostly the same in terms of overall story, but the editing changes the arcing and flow so substantially that it was like watching a completely different film. The heavy-handed use of symbolism in the first cut has been toned down to a more subtle use of metaphor that plays more realistically because the characters are better developed, and the arcs in their growth mirror more closely what Kampmeier wanted to convey — the emptiness of a soul needing to be filled, and the way others can poison your perception of yourself. Interestingly, the controversy that’s surrounded the film since it played at Sundance — and in particular, the way it impacted both Kampmeier and Fanning — mirrors what Lewellen goes through in the film.

The voice Kampmeier sought to portray — that of a girl overcoming abuse to find the strength to move on — got rather lost amid the swirl of anger and outrage and the need to edit quickly for the fest. In recutting her film, Kampmeier seems to have found that voice and made it stronger, and, in her determination to see the film she set out to make finally be seen, the director also seems to have found that strength within herself.

The recut of Hounddog is an infinitely better film that the early cut, and I hope people will give it a chance. Perhaps the end result of all this will be some redemption for Fanning, whose powerful performance was lost both by the way the first cut was edited, and by the controversy that overpowered the film at Sundance. The film in its new iteration is a high water mark for Fanning as an actress. Here’s hoping that the trauma of Hounddog won’t keep the young actress from taking more chances as a performer in the future; if Fanning stopped taking on challenging roles like this in favor of less-controversial, but more tepid roles that don’t give her the opportunity to stretch as an actress, that would be the real tragedy.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon