Kat Candler had been restless. In 2011, the Austin-based filmmaker was five years removed from her second feature “Jumping Off Bridges” and had taken a job teaching film production at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. She had made shorts when she could, but there was a different feeling in the air when she decided to make a film based on the youthful antics of her uncle, who once set his grandfather’s jeep aflame. There was only one problem in making the film, which caused a bit of a sensation when it premiered in Sundance in 2012 — Texas, after suffering a series of devastating wildfires had put a burn ban in place, limiting just how fiery that jeep explosion would be.
“You weren’t even allowed to light a match for a long time,” said Candler, who adapted the short “Hellion” into a feature. “Originally, I was going to have this huge fire on the shore and then the burn ban hit, and there was a declaration of disaster, and we were like ‘Oh, God, what are we going to do?’ So we had a very small fire in the short. In the feature, I finally got to have mass destruction that I was hoping for.”
Although the conflagration is impressive, it pales in comparison to what’s burning within the 13-year-old Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins), the “Hellion” of the title who takes up the responsibility of caring for his younger brother after his mother passes away and his father (Aaron Paul), still reeling from her death, spends time away from the boys refurbishing a house. With no one other than his aunt (Juliette Lewis) looking out for him, Jacob acts out as loudly as the heavy metal he listens to, finding a productive outlet in motocross racing while indulging in some considerably less legal endeavors. His manic energy is only matched by Candler’s in telling this propulsive coming-of-age story, marked by the beautiful amber-tinged cinematography that catches the Jacob’s fiery temperament in all its glory and the ashes it leaves behind and the insight with which it makes sense of all the confusion going on in his head. As “Hellion” begins to open in theaters across the country, Candler spoke about how she’s drawn to the stories of the young, the exceptionally quick turnaround of “Hellion” from script to screen and how she is able to pull such natural performances from her casts.
You only shot “Hellion” in the fall of last year and now it’s out in theaters. It’s such an energetic film, did not having the time to linger on things contribute to that feeling?
Yeah, our post time was really fast. Our editor came just the week after we started shooting in southeast Texas, and he was in a hotel room pretty much working 12-hour days, then he was in Austin for several months. It was just such a fast turnaround and you’re trying to work really quickly, but also give it a little time to breathe. Next time around, I would love to have a little bit more wiggle room with being able to step away and have more of a perspective on different cuts, but I couldn’t have asked for a better turnaround with the film and reception to it. It’s been nonstop for well over a year, because we started casting April of last year. It’s been mad, crazy, busy time for sure.
Is it true you actually were sitting in cafeterias looking for your young actors? I would imagine that just hearing conversations might inform the realism of the film.
Yeah, absolutely. Casting is one of my favorite processes and Vicky Boone, our casting director in Texas, who worked on the “Tree of Life” explained how [on that film she would] go into small towns in Texas and find these kids who have never acted before that have a really special quality to them. When I would go and sit in cafeterias, with permission of course, I would just see the dynamics between all of these kids and see their relationships with each other. When I would get them in the audition room, because they had never acted before, it was really just asking them about their lives, and getting stories from them. It definitely informs the script and the relationships, then each of the boys that I brought to the table brought their own dynamic personalities to their characters and lifted their characters off the page.
Because the family dynamic in this is so interesting, did you build these characters individually or reactions to each other?
I think all of the above. I definitely drew character outlines in depth for the father and the boys, and you’re going through their entire history: what their childhoods looked like, what their high school days looked like. It’s like Wikipedia, a weird format of early childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and try and figure out the entire history of what happened when they were 10 and their relationship with their dad or their mom, how they relate to their children.
There are all of these little intricacies of figuring out these characters and when you get actors like Aaron Paul or Juliette Lewis to the set and they have questions, you have to know characters backwards and forwards to have these kinds of conversations and to also have them trust you with their stories. Then when you get the set there’s all these little things that come out with performances that they bounce off each other. With the boys, I made all of them their own histories of their relationships and their friendships and what happened a week ago or how did they meet a year ago. I think that helps them dive into their characters even more, because for somebody that has never acted before, it gave them perspective on who they were and what kind of friendship that they have together.
What made you want to spend more time with these characters after finishing the short?
I love this dad and this struggle with these boys and wanted to know what led them to this place. In the short, there’s an absence of a mom and I wanted to figure out what happened to her and how the loss of this mother took this family to dysfunction. I am really interested in when you’re a kid how you think you’re parents are these god-like figures who can do no wrong and you put them on pedestals. Then as you get older, you realize the hardships that they went through and the struggles and mistakes that they made, especially as I’ve looked back on my parents and the beautiful mistakes that they made in raising me and my brother. They’re human and they try and they fail and they try and they succeed. That’s what makes us so interesting as people.
I’ve heard you say that you related to Pam, the boys’ aunt (played by Juliette Lewis), because you don’t have children yourself but instinctually wants to take care of them. When you’re working with young actors as often as you do, does something similar happen in making the film?
Pretty much every movie that I’ve made involved youth and adolescents and is often times about that parent-child dynamic. I’m about to turn 40 this year and I don’t have kids, and I definitely reflect on that a lot. I wish I did, but it just hadn’t happened for me and my husband and I live vicariously through my characters. But I have nieces and nephews that I spend time with often and I would go to the ends of the earth for them. That’s how I felt relate to that character and the struggle to be a mom and to really do best by this kid.
You’re currently working on “Black Metal” next as a feature, and like “Hellion,” it began life as a short. Do these start out as their own individual thing and naturally evolve to become features or do you think of them as proof of concepts to see where they go?
With “Hellion” I just wanted to make something. I had been writing a lot, but I hadn’t made anything, so I was just itching to get back on set and hangout with my friends and play. With “Black Metal,” we were developing the “Hellion” feature, and again, I just didn’t want to go another year without making something, so I had a feature script I had been working on, I took the first act from that and we fashioned it into 13 pages. It was great because it allowed me to explore that world a lot more, doing interviews with musicians and just diving into those characters. After I finished that short, I took a different direction with the feature script, so I’m glad I went through that process. For me, it’s a way to get back onto the playground and not having to spend a ton of money. It also hones your craft and allows you to try something different. I hope the shorts that I’ve made over the last couple of years, one is very different from the next, and it’s kind of stretching my filmmaking muscles a little bit.
The visual style of “Hellion” is pretty striking, particularly in the burnt ember-like colors and the use of handheld. How did it come about?
I would say some of the early inspiration came from “Over the Edge” and “Tender Mercies.” I had a image from that film hanging on my wall throughout the entire process writing the movie and I definitely wanted to hearken back to the late ’70s, early ’80s, with that kind of summer, warm feeling with lens flares when these boys are out on their own doing dumb stuff, but yet there’s a darker atmosphere and tone when we’re inside their house with the weight of this loss. Bringing on Brett [Pawlak, the cinematographer], who shot “Short Term 12,” he was just full of ideas and we had to move really quickly because we were shooting so few days and with kids, we were going at lightning speed to get everything done. Luckily, with the camera we were shooting with, we were able to use a lot available light, which very much accented what we were going for along the way with the naturalistic feel.
Were they nervewracking days when your letting the kids cause as much damage as they do in character?
I would actually say that the truck-bashing scene at the beginning of film was one of the most fun days. I mean, how often to you get to burn a truck and just shred? Not very often. So I was definitely having a blast watching the boys doing that on that truck. There’s a little bit a nervewrackingness to it, but overall it’s like, “We’re making movies. We’re destroying stuff.” It’s awesome.