For ‘Hel­lion,’ Austin film­maker Kat Can­dler found in­spi­ra­tion in life’s harsh re­al­i­ties.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By­matthe­wodam modam@states­man.com

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.

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