One of the dirty secrets of the film business is that it takes women directors a long time to get their films made. The Women, which opened recently, took Diane English 14 years to bring to the screen; other examples include Tamara Jenkins award-winning The Savages and Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss, which took 10 years each. Writer/director Deborah Kampmeier joins this illustrious club with her own decade long trek to see her film Hounddog starring Dakota Fanning finally released in theatres.
Hounddog, a small film with a budget under $4 million, doesn't seem controversial on the surface. But it seemed to raise a storm at every turn. Why? (Full disclosure--I am a consultant helping on the release of the film.)
Kampmeier wrote a film about a young, poor, motherless girl, abused physically, emotionally and sexually. The sexual abuse has created the biggest problem for Kampmeier, so much trouble that she thought it was going to land her in jail. When Dakota Fanning, an extremely popular child star who was looking for a more mature role, signed on, Kampmeier thought that raising the budget would come easy. But that wasn't the case. She was promised money from a variety of people on one condition--that she remove the rape scene. Kampmeier refused to compromise her vision. "I walked away from $5 million dollars over and over, literally, because I would not remove the rape scene. After Dakota came on board it was great to have her team telling investors that no one touches the script, no one takes the rape scene out."
Nine months passed and the day before she was going to lose Fanning to another project, Kampmeier put herself, her daughter and her dog in the car and drove to North Carolina determined to begin pre-production to keep her star. This desperation caused the involvement of some agents of questionable character. One disgruntled "finder," who had agreed to seek out investors, leaked a story after they parted ways blowing out of proportion the rape aspects of the film. In the subsequent firestorm the film was dubbed the "Dakota Fanning rape movie"--a moniker it can't seem to shake.
Kampmeier went to great lengths to protect Fanning during the shooting, especially during the rape scene "I would never allow for Dakota to be harmed in the making of this film...if the rape scene were exploitative in anyway it would be betraying the whole reason I was making the film. I have a daughter, I am a daughter, I honor and respect female sexuality and the soul of girls." And Fanning, who has been acting since she was five, is more clear-eyed on the topic than the adults trying to protect her. As she had to explain to a reporter about the scene, "It's not really happening...it's a movie, and it's called acting."
That did not prevent organizations like the Catholic League and the Christian Film and Television Commission from calling for an investigation of Kampmeier and Fanning's mother for child endangerment and child pornography. Keep in mind that no one called for an investigation of Steven Spielberg or Tony Scott--both big name Hollywood directors who directed Fanning in violent scenes in War of the Worlds and Man on Fire. Yet, when depicting the epidemic of violence against women and girls, which happens according to statistics every two minutes in our country, an investigation is warranted? The district attorney in Wilmington, North Carolina, where the film was shot, said he received 10 to 20 calls a day from people wanting his office to prosecute this film but did not receive a single call about his recent prosecution of a man who had impregnated his 10-year-old daughter.
The film was given new life when it got into the Sundance Film Festival, but at the time of its showing there in January 2007, the controversy had escalated to the point where Kampmeier needed a bodyguard to protect her against death threats. She and the film became fodder for the Hannity and Colmes show on Fox for two straight weeks. Kampmeier likes to describe that experience by saying "they were selling Tide with my blood." The problem for Hounddog and Kampmeier was that the film didn't live up to its nickname and people came away wondering what all the hype was about. Sadly, if the film had warranted the controversy it probably would have easily gotten a distributor.
Kampmeier left Sundance exhausted and scared but ready to re-edit--not knowing if she could but determined to try to get her film out to audiences to judge for themselves. She continued to lose potentially lucrative distribution deals because of her refusal to take out the rape scene. Finally the Empire Film Group, a relatively unknown company, promised her a wide release along with some serious advertising buys. It hasn't turned out that way, at least for the opening weekend, which was limited to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Memphis (because of the Elvis connection). Kampmeier's re-edit changed about 50 percent of the film, and, she says, the result is a "more nuanced" Story. But the controversy has not ended. Just this past weekend, Concerned Women for America released a statement calling for citizens to boycott the release of Hounddog.
One of the outcomes of being the target of a religious right smear campaign is that this film, a small personal story about a girl able to break the cycle of violence in her life and told from the heart of a female director, has been turned into a political, feminist film. People who have never discussed their own rapes have come up to Kampmeier after screenings crying, thanking her for giving voice to their own stories. All these stories have validated and vindicated Kampmeier's long journey to stick with her vision. She has created a film that can touch audiences in ways most filmmakers only dream about.
Originally published by The Women's Media Center