Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant Editor
This Friday, writer/director Kat Candler’s new film Hellion is opening at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. Starring Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis and newcomers Josh Wiggins and Deke Garner, the film is a raw and brutal look at a family struggling after the death of Paul’s wife. Wiggins is the star, the titular hellion, and his actions only further the trouble the family runs up against. We sat down with Candler to discuss the movie, her time at Emerson and more in the following interview.
Emertainment Monthly: So there’s definitely somewhat of a misconception in this industry about female filmmakers. They’re rare enough already, but there’s this idea that every female filmmaker should be trying to be the next Nora Ephron or something, making romantic comedies or something else stereotyped at women. We know that isn’t true at all of course, we just have to look at the likes of a Kathryn Bigelow or Mary Harron to see that. And your film Hellion is also very far from what one might expect from a “female director.” You made a movie that’s about men, boys trying to be men, but also their relationships with women. So I guess my question for you, to start, is what drew you toward this material and what kinds of obstacles did you face making this movie yourself, the way you wanted it?
Kat Candler: You know, the story started out as a short film, so I had this short that was heavily inspired by my three hellraising uncles. When they were boys, they had set fire to my grandfather’s jeep when they were little and sort of the aftermath of my grandfather having to deal with their unruly ways…we made this short six minute piece, summer of 2011, I loved the world, I loved these characters, and this kind of father-son struggle, and wanted to live with them a lot longer. And so, Kelly Williams our other producer, grew up in southeast Texas, and someone had mentioned I think this world lives in southeast Texas, so Kelly started taking me down there and I just started kind of living and breathing in that world, and meeting a bunch of folks down there, talking to refinery workers, talking to CPS officers, and I was just really fascinated by the characters there and about their lives and their history.
I saw your 2009 short Love Bug, which is very different from Hellion in terms of the tone and the style and whatnot. I imagine you were still developing your voice at the time, because what I’ve seen of your other work like the short Black Metal seems much more in line with the film. What helped you discover this unique voice?
I mean, I’m the kind of filmmaker that I want to make all kinds of movies, minus like Transformers. Love Bug came from a feature script that I want to make that’s very much a kid, very vibrant, crazy, animated-type film that I hope to make in the upcoming years. I have a horror film I want to make, I mean everything…I’m kind of all over the map, it’s just that Hellion was the first bigger breakout film for me. But I think I’ve been developing a voice for a long time and it’ll continue to develop and I think it’s really just about the artist’s storytelling and really crafting a story whether it’s horror or action or romantic comedy. I probably won’t do a romantic comedy though, that’s not really in my wheelhouse [laughs].
So on that same point, a lot of independent filmmakers that are also writers tend to focus much more on their writing and kind of let visuals take a backseat. You definitely don’t do this, and working with your cinematographer Brett Pawlak (who shot Short Term 12) you have a very kind of gritty handheld look to the film. How did you develop that look?
Well I mean I’ve been making movies for well over a decade now, and I say that when I first started making films the visual took a backseat to the story, and I really was not a visual storyteller by any means, my camera never moved, I really didn’t have a grasp on using my frame, but in the last five or six years I’ve tried to go back and study again and become a student again. So with Hellion, and even going back to Love Bug, with Love Bug I had a blast visually trying to tell this simple little story, and with Hellion I had movies like Over the Edge, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Urban Cowboy, Tender Mercies, all were very visually inspiring to me. And sort of place being such a huge element to this particular story, even just the location, southeast Texas refineries and the landscape is so rich, and I hadn’t really seen it before, so location was truly a huge inspiration, it’s all there, you just have to almost kind of turn a camera on and it’s got this dusty gritty feel to it.
Everything’s very real.
Right, yeah, it’s just inherent in the place, but with Brett what he really brought to the table outside of a great visual eye was, and this goes along with Short Term 12, is that he’s just very good about getting out of the way of the actors and really letting them play within this space. We didn’t have a whole lot of light setups, we were pretty minimal in the scope of what we were doing, and then going handheld was a visual choice, but on the flipside it also allowed us to go really really fast, we were shooting such few days and working with kids, so you have to get in and and get out. He was always one of the first ones ready to go, you’d be like ‘Camera ready?’ ‘Camera ready’ ‘Okay. Waiting on actors…’ sometimes.
So working with child actors can be a pain and sometimes disastrous to a movie like this that centers on one. You really lucked out discovering Josh Wiggins, who I think is gonna go really far in the coming years. What was casting for this role like?
Casting is probably one of my favorite pieces of the puzzle, I love love actors so much, and it’s funny because I actually started in high school as an actor, I was in all of the big plays and all of the musicals, and I actually went to Emerson my freshman year for acting, learned a ton within the one semester I was there, but realized that acting was…I wasn’t meant to be in front of the camera, but so the casting process of this, we knew we really wanted real, authentic boys, and I was in search of non-actors, I was in search of actors, it didn’t really matter, it was just whoever really could own these kids or own these characters. And so we kind of took the Tree of Life approach, our Texas casting director was the casting director on Tree of Life, and we searched high and low in tiny little Texas towns, we went to all kinds of motocross races and just looking at these kids that had never auditioned, never been in front of a camera before. I found one of my kids at a motocross race, Dalton Sutton who plays Lance in Port Arthur which is where we shot the film, he had never done anything before. Deke (who plays Wes) had been in the short film of Hellion, and then Josh Wiggins. Josh came from our friend Summer Shelton, who produced a movie called Little Accidents that was at Sundance this year as well, they were looking for 14-year-old southern boys for their film, so she was interested in one of the oldest boys from our short of Hellion, she started researching all these videos of him online that he had made with his best friend Josh Wiggins. She called us up and said ‘you’ve got to check out this other kid in these YouTube videos, so there was just something very easy about him onscreen and so, we called his mom up and say ‘hey, we’ve got this film, we’d really love for him to come and audition.’ He had never auditioned for anything before, had never acted before in a film outside of these little YouTube videos, and he was just real. And after seeing hundreds of kids it becomes a very kind of numbing process, but when he walked in the room it was just like, ‘that’s him.’
At what point in your process did Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis come on board the project?
Aaron kind of came to the forefront when I watched a movie called Smashed. I had only seen two episodes of Breaking Bad at that point. I loved him, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to stomach the show. And then I saw Smashed in the theater and was just so blown away by the authenticity of his performance and so at that point my husband said ‘you need to go back and watch the rest of Breaking Bad’ so I binged on the couch for an entire weekend and caught up. It’s so addicting. It was kind of like when I watched The Wire years and and years ago, it’s like you just keep pressing play, episode after episode. I really fell head over heels for Aaron as an actor and called up James, who directed Smashed, and was like ‘Is he a good human being?’ and called up another friend of mine who had worked with him, and everyone just said he was awesome, and that he’d be great to work with and sure enough he was, from a directing standpoint, one of the easiest actors I had ever worked with. He’s just a total pro, and a very giving performer, specifically working with all these non-actor kids, it was really cool to watch Aaron, who has been around for a while and is very seasoned working off of these non-actor kids, and it was beautiful because I think he upped their game and they upped his game as an actor as well. And then Juliette came onboard because Aaron and Juliette share the same agency, so the script was making the rounds through the agency, so her folks called us up and it was like yeah, she’s such a beautiful and iconic actress and she’s such a rad girl, she’s so, so cool. And yeah, it was cool too because both of them get to play characters that are very very different from what audiences know them for, which was exciting for me as a director and as a writer.
I know Hellion was adapted from a short you made, and you’re working now to adapt Black Metal as well. What’s the process like, for you, turning a short into a feature?
Well Black Metal actually started as a feature script that I had written, it was a horror script that I got a few drafts in, but couldn’t wrap my brain around finishing it, so in the midst of us developing Hellion into a feature, I knew it was going to take a little while, so I wanted to make a short. So I pulled the first act from the Black Metal feature and refashioned it into a short, and through that process I got to to a lot more research, and hang out with bands, and go to band practice, and get to know the metal community, and after that short I wanted to go back and scrap the original idea and kind of start from ground zero. I knew I wanted to take it in a completely different direction. Less horror, more drama. The Hellion short was more so inspiring for me for the feature, whereas the Metal short is actually a component in the feature.
How do you feel about the rise of VOD as a way to help smaller movies reach a wider audience? Your movie is on VOD, that’s how I watched it, and that’s a very new process for filmmakers today.
I love it. I may not have said that a year ago [laughs]. We as filmmakers can be very precious about our theatrical release, and there’s nothing like seeing a movie in a theater, I prefer it, I’d much rather go sit in a dark theater with an audience to experience something. With that said, movies like ours that are still very small and get a very select theater release don’t reach a lot of the audience that I want to reach, which are in smaller towns across the states, overseas, and so VOD allows you to reach and audience that is kind of never ending, it’s limitless, and so I’ll get notes from people in random towns, tweets from people in random towns that got to see the film. And we were lucky enough to have a movie theater where we shot, because where we shot doesn’t have an arthouse, so we were very fortunate to wiggle our way into the mall. But those guys are our audience, and they don’t get to see a lot of the indie/arthouse stuff.
Are there any movies out right now that you’d like to recommend, maybe some smaller stuff that people haven’t seen?
Yeah, I mean, some of my favorite movies of last year were…The Hunt was huge, I loved that movie, A Hijacking was another one, [Pilou Asbæk] is absolutely incredible. Wadja was another one that I just…it’s so simple and makes such an impact. This year I’m really far behind on movies this year.
Understandable. You’ve had some stuff going on.[laughs] Yeah, it’s funny, you go to Sundance and there’s all these incredible movies playing all day long and you don’t get to see anything. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter was one of the ones I got to see, which was the Zellner brothers movie, that’s one of my top of the year. Rich Hill is another one by some friends of ours that will be in my top ten, an incredible documentary that won the Sundance Grand Jury prize. Some of my favorite movies of the year are movies by my friends. And how f—ing cool is that?
If you can give one piece of advice to all the potential filmmakers at Emerson reading this, what would it be?
I have three things that I tell my students which are:
1. Be nice, basically be a good person. It’s not that hard.
2. Be professional.
3. Work your ass off
Basically, it’s a really small community, the filmmaking community, whether it’s in Boston or Austin, LA, New York, the United States…everybody knows everybody, everybody talks, and you want to be the person that people talk highly of, that people want to work with. But yeah, making movies is really really hard, and so, you want to surround yourself with good-hearted people who are invested in story and invested in you.
So, what’s next? Is it Black Metal, is it something else that we can’t know about? What are you working on?
I don’t have anything that we don’t know about…no, I’m just writing. Yeah, just spending the summer in the Bay Area just kind of holed up writing. Hoping to be making a movie next year, if all goes well. Hellion has been an incredible experience, opened a lot of doors, created a lot of opportunities, and just trying to stay true to myself and stay true to what I want to put out into the world.
Hellion plays at the Brattle through Monday, July 28th. It’s also available through VOD services such as cable on demand and iTunes.