In January of 2007, when the film industry descended upon the Sundance Film Festival, there was the usual buzz surrounding a select group of films. Among them: Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog, which soon became known more for one scene than its Grand Jury Prize nomination or critical praise.
As the precocious young Lewellen, Dakota Fanning took on what is perhaps the most controversial role she’ll ever have. Growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement meant repression, freedom and the blues. And for whites, no one could sing the blues quite as well as Elvis Presley. Lewellen loves Elvis and is known for her imitation of the icon, singing “Hound Dog”—snarling lip, swinging hips and all.
Living in a shack with her unstable father, Lewellen too is experiencing repression. The King is her only refuge but soon becomes the reason for her unraveling. When a local milk deliveryman becomes interested in the young girl’s imitation—perversely enjoying Lewellen’s writhing hips as she performs lying down—what was once an enjoyable escape leads to an inescapable rape. The scene is short and aside from Fanning’s squirming and disgusted expression, nothing is shown. But it is the implications the scene carries that provide the motivation for the rest of the film and the protests of citizens across the country.
Lewellen is silenced by the trauma she has experienced and only recovers with the help of Charles, the caretaker who reintroduces her to the blues and her own voice. More than a movie with a taboo rape scene, Hounddog is a story of resilience—a story of hope that people can overcome tragedy. And despite a re-edit of the movie since its initial festival screening, a select group is still outraged by what they call “child pornography.” Donna Miller, campaign director of No More Child Porn’s North Carolina division (the state where the production was filmed) recently released a statement saying, “Our concern is that this film would say to other children that this behavior is acceptable.” The group is calling for the distribution of the movie to be banned and blaming the nature of the story for the independent film’s difficulty in finding a distributor.
“I will say that by Dakota taking on this role, which I think is a courageous thing to do, she gave a voice to millions of silent women and girls,” Kampmeier explains, addressing the debate that has been surrounding the movie. “I think, unfortunately, most of the time, their voices stay silent and we need something to help us step out of the silence and transform our own wounds, so we don’t continue down a path of either self-destruction, or join the cycle of abuse, and turn our lives around; make something positive out of it.”
Hounddog, which also stars David Morse as Daddy, Robin Wright Penn as his Stranger Lady and Piper Laurie as Grammie, will hit theaters Friday, September 19 as a somewhat different version than what Sundance audiences saw in 2007. Yet still, it remains a moving and fitting tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. Writer-director-producer Kampmeier recently spoke with MM about the movie and why she chose to take on the challenging subject matter with a 12-year-old girl.
Mallory Potosky (MM): So, I just want to jump in and address the controversy that surrounded the film years ago. Some people claimed it wasn’t appropriate or it was too harsh, and then it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. So there were obviously two sides to the story. What was your take on the controversy when it first premiered?
Deborah Kampmeier (DK): Well, you know, I didn’t make the film to create a controversy and I didn’t make the film to create a social commentary. I actually made the film from my heart. If it touched someone’s heart, that would mean a lot to me and make me happy. The controversy was really, really quite surprising to me and I think that it was unfortunate. I don’t think it gave people the opportunity to really see the film for what it was. I think that there were a lot of people’s agendas being projected onto the film that the film wasn’t really about. I actually had a lot of compassion (and have a lot of compassion) for the people who were generating the controversy—the people who were so angry about the film. I think that the film touches on a lot of issues that are difficult for people to face and that when people are afraid to look at these issues inside themselves, they project their fear and anger outward. A lot of that was projected onto my film. I’m just excited that people will have the opportunity to see the film and judge for themselves.
MM: How did you feel when you had to re-edit it? Was there a lot of rearranging that needed to be done?
DF: Sundance was an incredible opportunity for me because I had no money to finish the film. So to get into Sundance meant I was actually editing underground. My investors were all in a battle and no one knew I was editing. I got accepted into Sundance and then they were all quite shocked to find out I had actually been editing the film. They thought they’d stopped me. So then I had an opportunity to bring everyone to the table, get everyone on the same page and get the financing to finish the film. But the thing was, I was so rushed. At that point, I had a month. The film was not even close to being finished; it was a rough cut. So it was really rushed and was really about getting a cut together. I felt like the cut we took to Sundance was really about action, whereas this cut is about reaction. It has so much more room for the performances and I think it’s much more nuanced—the emotional layers are there.
I had time after Sundance to go in and really finish the film. Fifty percent of the film is different because the performances change within each take. Structurally, I changed one thing and that was not a reaction to the controversy, but was just me trying to clarify the arc of the story for myself. Because for me, the film is about a lot of things. It’s about motherlessness, about consciousness, about bringing what’s darkness into light, about female sexuality, about feeling, about art, about finding one’s true voice. It’s about all these things. For me the most important thing it’s about is taking that which can poison your spirit and turning it into something powerful and good, which is what we as artists (sometimes, if we’re lucky) have the opportunity to do and what Lewellen does in the film. I really wanted to make clear her voice is silent and then reclaimed; her true voice is reclaimed. And so I made a decision structurally.
The big change I made is that after the rape, she doesn’t say a word, except the one time when she screams at her father. Other than that, she doesn’t say a word until the end of the film when Charles pushes her to sing, pushes her to reclaim her voice and her power and her spirit. Then, at that point, instead of it being Elvis’ voice she’s using to express herself, it’s her own true voice she’s connected to. With that, she has the power to walk away from this world that could harm her and walk forward into a new life for herself.
MM: You mentioned “poisoning of the spirit,” which brings me to a question about all of the snakes in the movie. Robin Wright Penn’s character is bitten, but Dakota Fanning’s character is able to live among them. Does it have something to do with the resilience of spirit?
DF: Exactly. Charles talks about snake medicine people, which is what Lewellen is, and that their initiation comes from getting and living through many snake bites: Poisons of the body, poisons of the mind, poisons of the heart, poisons of the spirits. They are able to turn these bites, these poisons that can kill you, into something powerful and good. That’s what Lewellen does and that’s the lesson of the film—you have to take those things that can poison you and turn them into something positive for yourself. I think Lewellen is bitten metaphorically, not literally, but she also goes through a transformation from the snake bite, where she is able to embrace herself. As Charles says, she’s able to put her arms around herself since her mother never could.
I think the church has done to snakes what it has done to female sexuality, which is make them evil and dangerous. But in other cultures and religions, the snake has a very different meaning, especially in female-based traditions. It’s a very sacred animal and it holds a very sacred energy. So that’s the snake that I’m bringing into this film, not the Judaic-Christian or Freudian snake.
MM: In the South, in the 1950s, there was certainly this other movement for freedom going on. Obviously this is a movie about this girl’s freedom but why did you choose to set it in this time? Did it have something to do with the Civil Rights movement, or was it significant in other ways?
DF: I set it then because I wanted it to be Elvis’ music she was obsessed with and I wanted it to be the blues that led her to a truer voice. Elvis had this huge financial success with “Hound Dog” and this woman, Big Mama Thornton, who originated the song and went to number one with it, died in poverty. I grew up in the South and it’s a world that’s very mythic in my imagination. That period worked but I also like the mythology of the Elvis story. Black people have survived centuries of collected trauma. Black music is the absolute embodiment of expressing sorrow and rage in an attempt to tell a story, and be healed by the telling of it. I think there’s an identification between Charles and Lewellen in terms of the repression of their spirits. Growing up in the South, I know people keep talking about the cliché of it, but there really is that kind of relationship that happens [there].
MM: Were you always interested in casting Dakota Fanning?
DF: No, you know, I wrote this film before she was born. (laughs)
MM: But after you saw her? She’s known for being this peppy little doll with blonde hair.
DF: I wasn’t sure. I had been trying to make the film for so many years and then someone said, “What about Dakota Fanning? Can we give her the script?” I said, ‘Yeah if you want, but there’s no way we’ll be able to get her.’ And I sent the script off, forgot about it and continued trying to get the money. It’s been 12 years in the making so it’s just been a continual process. Two months later, I flew out to meet her and the moment I met her, I knew she was perfect. I knew she could do it, I knew she had the depth to do it. There was a connection she and I both shared. We understood each other on a deep level. She’s young, but she understood. She and I loved Lewellen. I think [Dakota’s] gift, because she’s so talented, is the depth of her presence. I felt that the moment I met her. We took each other by the hand and we walked into this world together; we went through it together and didn’t let go until we got out the other side. It was an extraordinary experience.