It became known as the "Dakota Fanning rape movie."
Hijacked by controversy for the one scene in which Dakota Fanning's 12-year-old character is sexually assaulted by a teenager, the movie "Hounddog" finally lands in theaters today, nearly two years after it was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
The controversy was brought on by a disgruntled producer who went to the media before shooting wrapped with a false report that Fanning was naked in the film and had shot a graphic rape scene. That night, CNN was asking its viewers whether a 12-year-old actress should be doing a rape scene.
Soon after, the film was being debated by Sean Hannity and protested by evangelical groups, including the Catholic League, which urged the Justice Department to investigate whether any child pornography laws had been broken.
"I was totally thrown off by it. I had no idea it was coming," said Deborah Kampmeier, the film's writer and director, about the media storm. "I was not making this film to create controversy and social commentary. I was writing this story from my heart, in hopes that it would touch someone else's heart."
The film, a Southern gothic tale set in 1959, is about a motherless 12-year-old girl named Lewellen who finds solace in the music of Elvis Presley. In exchange for two tickets to a Presley concert, she agrees to do a seductive dance for a teenager who robs of her innocence.
Kampmeier asked the district attorney's office in Wilmington, NC, where the film was shot, to do its own investigation. After viewing the film and interviewing cast and crew, the DA found no grounds for prosecution, she said.
In the completed film, the rape scene lasts less than one minute. To shoot it, Kampmeier said there was no simulation of a sex act. Instead she shot closeups of faces, hands and feet. She stood a foot away from Fanning's face and told her when to hold her breath, when to gasp.
"I have a daughter, I am a daughter, I care about the soul of girls," Kampmeier said. "If Dakota had been harmed in any way, if this had been exploitative, it would have betrayed the reason I made this film."
Instead, Fanning was "dancing on the bridge" after she shot the scene, "because she knew she had just hit the zone," Kampmeier said. "She was exquisite."
That didn't seem to matter to the people making death threats at Kampmeier or signing petitions demanding that she and Fanning's mother, Joy, be arrested for child pornography.
By January 2007, when Kampmeier arrived at Sundance, with bodyguards in tow, the FBI was standing by just in case any threats were carried out. Instead it was the film that got flayed by critics and booed by the press. Any possible distribution deals vanished.
"The problem with all this international controversy the film garnered is that it's really a small, small film, too small of a film to carry all of this controversy and hype," said Scott Franklin of the Motion Picture Group, which raised funds to complete the film. "It really raised expectations for this film. It's an intimate film and it got as much press as 'War of the Worlds' did."
Kampmeier took heart from the response she got from the Sundance audience: "lines of women, sobbing and thanking me for making the film, one man in his 60s who hadn't cried his whole life and said the film helped him face something in his life he had never faced."