Acceptance into the Sundance film festival is both mystical and a grim reality check. At least, that’s how radio-television-fim lecturer Kat Candler feels about her short film’s appearance in the showcase.
The Utah-based behemoth of a film festival is a defining moment in any filmmaker’s career, and Candler understands this all too well. After all, she just returned from Park City where her short film “Hellion” made the Sundance Film Festival Official Selection. The story of three young brothers dealing with the consequences of their actions, “Hellion” was one of the 64 short films selected to screen from a record 7,675 submissions.
“Getting into Sundance is the prestigious stamp of approval that you’re hoping to get for most of your career,” Candler said. “It has been huge for us. It’s already opened a lot of doors that were otherwise closed.”
Even though the festival has become a somewhat polarizing event because of the staggering number of happy-go-lucky socialites and marketing savvy start-ups that descend every year upon Park City, the Sundance Film Festival is still the defining arena for American independent cinema. Sundance is notorious for defining yearly critical taste by setting the pace for the year in filmmaking. Films like “The Kids are All Right”, “Winter’s Bone” and “Little Miss Sunshine” were all Sundance premieres before going on to critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations.
As “Hellion” cinematographer and RTF lecturer Drew Xanthopoulos said, “Sundance offers fantastic exposure to new or lesser-known talent to both the larger commercial industry and within the smaller, independent one. The short film serves primarily as a sampling of everyone’s work and typically leads to connections and support for the artists’ more ambitious projects.”
Candler, who wrote and directed “Hellion,” said the short was inspired by a childhood story.
“My mom told me about her three younger brothers when they were little and set my grandfather’s jeep on fire,” Candler said, “and what happened when my grandfather got home and found the destruction in the front yard.” Even though the script was written several years ago, she was reluctant to go forward with it because “it involved three little boys going through a range of extreme emotions.”
The film was shot over three days in July 2011 in Georgetown and relied heavily on UT alumni and current students for crew positions, many of whom have taken classes with Candler.
“I knew I could trust them to do great work,” Candler said. “When I’m looking for crew and cast, first thing that’s important to me is that they’re good human beings...then talent. I don’t want to work with assholes.”
Kelly Williams, “Hellion’s” producer, agrees.
“Living in Austin, it is hard to get too far away from the RTF department. It can be a great resource for Austin filmmakers,” Williams said. “There is a great deal of talent coming out of the department, not just directors, but sound recordists, production designers, editors, etcetera.”
Because of the overwhelming nature of the festival, where hundreds of filmmakers have to fight for both the attention of the media and the audience, Williams and Candler came up with a distinct viral marketing campaign to set “Hellion” apart. Aside from the usual film festival paraphernalia (postcards, stickers, posters, t-shirts, pins) the filmmakers released a series of videos chronicling the experience of making the film and going to Sundance called “The Hellion Sundance Chronicles.”
Private press screenings were also held for the film prior to the festival to get as much coverage as possible — and it seems to have worked. Earlier in January, Candler wrote about “Hellion” and Sundance for The Huffington Post as part of an ongoing blog called The Sundance Diaries.
“That Huffington Post blog we did was huge for us,” Candler said. “It got a lot of national eyes on our trailer and our film early on.”
Making short films is a completely different skill set than feature length filmmaking. Williams, who was the film program director for the Austin Film Festival, understood what was expected of a short film in order to be chosen for a top-tier festival like Sundance. Festivals are on the lookout for shorts that can tell a compelling story in an ingenious and brief manner but, most importantly, have enduring characters that audiences care about.
Williams, also a UT alumnus, attributes the film’s success to Candler’s ability as a storyteller. “She has the rare ability to take a simple story and expand the world and the characters in it,” Williams said. “And, in the case of ‘Hellion,’ she does it all in six minutes.”
The filmmakers are currently working on developing “Hellion” into a feature film. “Right now our plan with ‘Hellion’ is to play as many festivals as possible,” Candler said. “But because we’re developing a feature film based on the short, it’s a tool to further that development. That’s our ultimate goal: make the feature.”
Candler is also teaching her signature advanced narrative production course at the RTF department this semester and although she ‘skipped’ a week of class to go to Sundance, it is safe to assume that none of her students were complaining — after all, some of them might have even worked on the film.