WHERE AN AUSTIN FILMMAKER FOUND HER INSPIRATION
For ‘Hellion,’ Austin filmmaker Kat Candler found inspiration in life’s harsh realities.
Young “Hellion” star Josh Wiggins likes to joke that the film’s writer-director, Kat Candler, is a 12-year-old trapped in an adult’s body.
The 39-year-old Austin filmmaker doesn’t object to the teen actor’s characterization.
“I actually really appreciate that,” Candler said recently on the patio of the treehouse-like Flipnotics. “I relate to kids. At that time in your life, everything is so heightened and huge, and there are so many firsts. I don’t have kids myself, so I live vicariously through these relationships with my characters, the parent-child dynamic.”
Her ability to empathize with the complexities and revelations of adolescence informs much of Candler’s work, maybe nowhere as acutely as in her latest feature, “Hellion.”
The movie, which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, bows for the first time in Austin Sunday at the Topfer Theatre at Zach as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference.
“Hellion” examines a fractured family in industrial East Texas attempting to heal itself after the loss of its mother. Wiggins stars as Jacob Wilson, a bruised and rebellious kid with a passion for motocross and a temper revved by resentment and mistrust.
Candler’s camera trains on
Wiggins at the actor’s eye level, showing the audience from his perspective. Jacob lost his mother in a tragedy — the details of which come across in haunted whispers throughout the film — and blames his father, Hollis, whom he targets with a simmering glare.
Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) stars as Hollis, a man drained by regret and withered by alcohol. Burdened with the sole care of Jacob and his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), Hollis flails at resurrecting the order and harmony that vanished with his wife’s death. When the job of parenting proves unsustainable, Child Protective Services remands Wes to the care of his aunt, Pam (Academy Award nominee Juliette Lewis).
The story originated from a family tale passed down by Candler’s grandfather and uncle. It served as the basis for Candler’s short film of the same name, but Candler added the specter of the mother’s death to the feature. The mysterious absence looms over every aspect of the film, motivating and restraining the three remaining Wilsons, and focusing the action on a very specific part of the grieving process.
“Hellion” investigates the nuances of father-son relationships and exposes sensitivity in men that Candler says she doesn’t get to see in her everyday life, outside of her relationship with her husband. Tapping into those imagined emotional wellsprings made for challenging writing. “And I like that challenge,” Candler said.
The filmmaker found the voice and shape of her hardscrabble cinematic world by taking trips to East Texas, where she talked to refinery workers and CPS employees and observed alternative schools.
“My big thing about writing and making films is approaching a world I’m not necessarily a part of and trying to get it as honest and real as you possibly can,” Candler said. “These kids are dealing with emotional stuff beyond their years. Stuff even adults have a hard time processing. Maybe a little too often they’re not listened to, and because they’re not listened to it ends up coming out in messed up ways.”
In a part of the world many consider harsh and ugly, Candler found inspiration.
“There’s something special about that place,” Candler said.
The filmmaker with the cheerful voice called the hours of research “field trips,” which makes sense coming from a teacher. Candler has served as a film lecturer at the University of Texas since 2007, allowing her the chance to vicariously share in the students’ excitement and hunger.
“I love their wide-eyed enthusiasm, the newness of everything,” said Candler, who graduated with a degree in creative writing from Florida State University.
Candler stresses three guiding principles to her students: “You have to be nice. You have to be professional. And you have to work your butt off.”
Her students would be wise to study their teacher as an example. Before taking the position at UT, Candler worked a full- time job while making movies. She would take her vacation and sick days every Thursday and Friday, allowing her fourday weekends to write, produce and direct movies. She wakes up every morning and writes for several hours, often beating the sun to work.
“She’s the hardest-working writer I know,” said “Saturday Morning Massacre” director Spencer Parsons, a former Austinite living in Chicago.
Candler considers her early short films and her first two features (“Cicadas” and “Jumping Off Bridges”) her own form of film school, while the films she has created over the past five years truly show her artistic stamp and a voice she honed through more than a decade of work.
Like most Austin filmmakers, Candler, who moved to town expressly to make movies, found strength and support from the local community. Those in Candler’s circle of filmmaking friends share technical advice, lend an understanding ear and offer pep talks. That group has grown in recent years to include people such as Jeff Nichols.
Nichols, the decorated Austin writer-director of “Mud,” served as one of the executive producers on “Hellion,” which was recently purchased by IFC for North American distribution and should hit Austin theaters this summer. The two met when Nichols spoke to Candler’s UT class. Nichols saw a valuable sincerity in Candler’s work.
“There’s no cynicism in her storytelling, which is rare these days,” Nichols said. “Also, she’s a friend. It feels good to help friends — just as David Gordon Green (celebrated Austin filmmaker who directed SXSW film “Joe”) helped me out on my first film — but it is especially nice when those friends are really talented.”
The relationship between Nichols and Candler speaks to a unique film scene that shirks ultra-competitiveness and thrives on the generosity and kindness of its filmmakers.
“It’s a special place to make movies. I don’t know why everybody here is so nice,” Candler says, staring into the near distance with the awe of a child still in the process of discovery.
Kat Candler, director of the film “Hellion:” “I relate to kids. At that time in your life, everything is so heightened and huge, and there are so many firsts.”
Aaron Paul stars in“Hellion”as Hollis, a man battling his inner demons.
Josh Wiggins has been getting raves for his performance.