Writer/director Kat Candler‘s ‘HELLION’ paints the powerful portrait of a family on the brink of dissolution set against the haunting backdrop of the refineries of Southeast Texas.
Obsessed with heavy metal, dirt bike racing and partaking in the occasional act of vandalism with his band of delinquents, the behavior of 13-year-old Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins in his feature film debut) has begun to raise concerns around town, especially when it starts to involve his younger brother Wes (newcomer Deke Garner). While the boys’ father Hollis (two-time Emmy Award-winner Aaron Paul) loves his sons, he is still reeling from the loss of their mother, spending more time drowning his sorrows at the local bar and working on his damaged beach house than being an active parent.
When the local authorities catch wind of the increasingly volatile situation, Wes is taken into custody by his Aunt Pam (Academy Award nominee Juliette Lewis), leaving Jacob and Hollis to fend for themselves. In Wes’ absence, Jacob becomes increasingly obsessed with two things: winning a local motocross championship and getting his brother back.
Anticipating the June 13, 2014 NYC release, as well as on VOD, of ‘HELLION‘ we spoke with the film’s Writer/Director Kat Candler about how Austin supports its filmmaking community, her personal approach to working with child actors, the benefit of the Sundance Lab process and much more. If you are in NYC be sure to catch this Sundance Film Festival & SXSW screened film at the IFC Center.
How do you find the filmmaking environment in Austin in comparison with that of New York, LA and other larger filmmaking hubs?
I have been in Austin since 1997. I moved about a year after college. It is a place where I have grown up with a great handful of filmmakers, including the Zellner Brothers, Yen Tan and, if we are speaking Texas, David Lowery, James Johnson and Toby Halbrooks. It is an incredibly supportive community and a very collaborative one. We all share script drafts, rough cuts and contribute to others productions. This support has really contributed to each other’s successes. It has taken a while, though. We have all been doing this for well over a decade and it is incredibly sweet to have this shared success with everyone over the past couple of years.
What are some of the major film institutions in Austin that have aided your career or influenced you?
For all of us, The Austin Film Society has been there from the beginning. My first feature was a tiny film and I got a $5,000 grant from AFS, which was huge for me at the time. It was a vote of confidence from an organization I highly respected and I became part of the family as well. They have been there through pretty much every project I have had since then. I am sure all of the community will say the same. They are critical and instrumental to all of our careers. Beyond that, in the last couple of years, Sundance Institute and San Francisco Film Society have also been widely supportive of us, but specific to Texas, Austin Film Society would definitely be the one.
As ‘Hellion’ originally premiered as a Sundance short film in 2012, did you always have the intention of expanding its narrative into a feature length production?
Originally it was just a short script I had tucked away in my writing folder. Since I teach at the University of Texas I see students making films all the time. I had not been on set for a while and had been itching to get out and make something. When we were done shooting the short I just loved the world and the characters. Someone had mentioned they thought this world was from Port Arthur, Texas. My Producer Kelly Williams is from there and started taking me down to Southeast Texas for long weekends of living and breathing that world. That is what really got my wheels spinning about how to grow the story and the characters. It was an organic process. It was never an intention so it was a nice progression in that respect.
Did your approach toward directing each format differ?
The feature became a bigger ballgame. With the short I gathered my friends to make something very innocent, fun and playful. Not to say the feature was not because it absolutely was, but you have people’s money, you are working with bigger actors and it takes the project to a whole other playing level. Still, you try and keep that vibe of family and play along with the process of filming in order to have fun. Making movies should always be fun. It is why we do it. For me, it is hugely important to gather a group of people who are excited and good hearted in trying to create something we feel very passionate about.
What is it about the heavy metal genre that makes you include it so prominently in your work?
With the original short, because it centered around these hell raising boys, I loved the aspect of this music being an externalization of their internal wildness and anger. This translated into the feature. My husband is a huge music nerd and started giving me all these records to listen to. I became very fascinated with the metal scene in general; seeing this fear based music scene and wondering what the offstage reality is. It is funny because all the metal folks I have met in the last few years are the sweetest, coolest, nicest people in the world.
What was your approach to the cinematography of ‘Hellion’? Before production began, what were your initial conversations like with your Director of Photography? Did any of these approaches change over the course of the physical production?
I approached it with a very 70s style, like an ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore‘, ‘Over the Edge‘ or ‘Urban Cowboy‘ feel and style. I definitely had images and pictures, all over my office and hotel wall. Brett Pawlak (Director of Photography) came a little late in the game so it was a fast pre-production, but we spent a lot of time in a coffee shop in Port Neches creating storyboards. The beautiful thing about where we shot was that the locations and landscapes were all so rich and cinematic. This was planned early on as I had been making trips to the region and knew exactly what I wanted to shoot.
Hand held was always how we imagined the film being shot. It lent itself cinematically but also production-wise, since we were working with so many kids and could only work so many hours. We had to move incredibly quickly. We shot this film in 26 days with 5 kids which is difficult.
What was your approach to working with so many child actors?
2/3 of the battle in getting a great performance out of kids is in the casting. We took a lot of time searching all over Texas, New York and LA. I went to schools, with permission, and sat in cafeterias. I went to a ton of motocross races too. I was looking for authentic kids, whether they had 10 films or no films under their belt really did not matter. When I found these boys, they were all so different in how they worked. Some had never made a movie before and some and had made a few. On set, you treat all your actors the same, in that everyone works differently, and it is your job to figure out how to get the best performance out of each. With kids it is about creating a safe place, especially when going to heightened emotional levels. It is about creating a workspace where they feel comfortable and protected in order to make those emotional leaps. Since it was the first time for so many of them I also wanted to make it an experience. Hopefully they will want to do another film after this. If you treat them with intelligence and respect they will respond back with the same.
How did you go about nurturing the father/son dynamic between Josh Wiggins and Aaron Paul?
When Josh walked into the room for the first time it was magic. When I brought him to read with Aaron it was obvious they had chemistry and a rapport without having met each other. From there, Aaron being the amazing human that he is took Josh under his wing in a really big way. Outside of our conversations specific to the script, Aaron had a lot of conversations with him about acting in general. He provided little tricks of the trade in how to get comfortable and how to go places as well. They hung out a lot early on. Honestly, when it comes down to it, both are really solid actors who are very giving in their performances.
Since ‘Hellion’ was part of a few Sundance Labs, can you explain the benefit of going through that process?
The Institute is very much about mentorship and creating connections in order to have more experienced figures who will constantly answer questions if you get stuck or need help. It also is having really intense workshops with your script, ripping it to shreds and getting thirty pages of notes to go back and rework. For the last 2 years, anytime we needed script notes or rough cut notes they would do it. So much of what we do is creating these mentorships for the younger generation where the older generation is able to reinforce the idea that you can totally do what you are trying to do.
– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson