Kat Candler

Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and Roger (Camron Owens) are up to no good in Kat Candler's "Hellion." Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of press | Daily Texan Staff

With buzz for the film steadily building out of its Sundance and SXSW screenings, “Hellion” is one of the most heavily hyped indie releases of the summer. Not only is it Aaron Paul’s most substantial role since the conclusion of “Breaking Bad,” but it’s also a great showcase for the talents of UT professor and writer/director Kat Candler, who establishes herself here as a promising voice in indie cinema. A downbeat but beautifully acted exploration of grief and deeply felt defeats, “Hellion” marks an impressive third feature for Candler.

Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as Jacob Wilson, the titular troublemaker whose antics in the aftermath of his mother’s death cause Child Protective Services to take a closer look at his family. His father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is falling apart, blinded by grief as he fumbles through life, and his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), is taken away and put in the custody of their aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis).

“Hellion” was filmed in the port cities of Texas, and Candler wrings plentiful atmosphere out of her setting, creating a world brimming with rage and grief, setting the mood with energetic heavy metal music. The film’s most energetic scenes show Jacob and Wes wreaking havoc to shrieking guitars, but Candler is just as effective in the quieter moments. Her storytelling is remarkably efficient, especially in the opening stretches of the film, which forgo excessive dialogue and allow the measured but emphatic performances to tell the audience what’s important to the characters and what the stakes of the story will be.

Of the many great performances in “Hellion,” the best is also the riskiest. Candler had to gamble on Josh Wiggins, who had never acted before, but Wiggins’ pained portrayal of a boy reeling as his family collapses is heartwrenching. Wiggins sells every moment of confused rage and regret, and plays beautifully off of Deke Garner, who plays his younger brother. Garner was in the short film that Candler expanded into “Hellion,” and proves to be a skilled, understated young actor. His performance is surprisingly complex, as Wes thrives on having maternal attention again but remains guilty about leaving his brother and father behind.

Among the adult performances, Aaron Paul continues his streak of playing the tortured character he made his name with on “Breaking Bad.” It’s a smart bit of casting, asking what happens when the train wreck character Paul specializes in is responsible for human lives, and despite an occasionally spotty accent, his performance is painfully raw.

Juliette Lewis is just as good but plays the film’s most problematic character. Rather than defining the plot, Pam is defined by its needs, and she’s often cruelly antagonistic because the film needs some conflict. Candler does a good job making Pam’s irrational villainy feel like the pettiness that often pops up in tumultuous family conflicts, but Lewis’ performance is much better suited to the moments of tenderness between Wes and Pam than to the ugly side she shows when dealing with the other characters.

If there’s a major complaint to be filed against “Hellion,” it’s in the film’s finale, which dramatically raises the tension and stakes only to end on a fairly inconclusive note. While the main character’s future is reasonably easy to assume, the issue of Wes’ custody is left frustratingly unresolved. The ending is also relentlessly bleak, offering the slightest of silver linings, and after the painful 90 minutes that preceded it, a hint of redemption or happiness for the characters would have been appreciated.

It’s a testament to the power of the story and characters Candler has created that any issues with “Hellion” arise from the conflict she injects into the film. The characters are so well drawn and the actors portraying them are so perfectly tuned that it’s genuinely painful to watch them put through Candler’s emotional wringer. “Hellion” is a savvy bit of summer counter-programming, an impressive declaration of voice that brings an honest perspective to a painful story that easily lives up to the hype.

Candler will be present for Q&A at the 5:10 p.m., 7:00 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Saturday and Sunday showings of "Hellion" at the Violet Crown.

Director: Kat Candler
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 99 minutes

Kat Candler, UT professor and videographer, has taught film production since 2008. So far three of Candler’s films have been shown at the Sundance Festival and she will be showing her new film, Hellion, during SXSW this year.

Photo Credit: Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

The raging guitar of a heavy metal song blasts as fire crackles in a burning pickup truck. A gaggle of teens smash the windows, gleefully basking in the warming glow of their destruction. As the truck’s owner runs toward his car, screaming profanities, the hell-raisers sprint off, giggling until they see the flashing lights of police cars speed into view.

This is the energetic opening of UT professor Kat Candler’s feature film, “Hellion,” which is playing at this year’s SXSW festival. One might expect such a vivid snapshot of teen rebellion to come from a younger, angrier voice than Candler — whose appearance and demeanor couldn’t be friendlier — but the inspiration for “Hellion” came from an authentic place: Candler’s own family history.

“All three of my uncles were hell-raisers when they were kids,” Candler said. “My Uncle Frank tells a story of how him and his two brothers set fire to my grandfather’s Jeep when they were very little … That idea of this father and these unruly boys — I loved that dynamic and that father’s struggle with these kids.”

Her uncles’ childhood antics formed the basis for “Hellion,” a 2012 short film that was expanded into a feature and premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The film stars newcomer Josh Wiggins as Jacob, a teen struggling to get over his mother’s death.

Candler discovered Wiggins on YouTube after a fellow producer recommended his videos. All that was left was to make sure he had good on-screen chemistry with co-star Aaron Paul.

“I sent Aaron this one callback that Josh did, the pizza scene, he just breaks your heart,” Candler said. “So it came down to Josh and this kid from LA who was great in his own right. Josh walked into the room with Aaron, in his shorts and T-shirt, just totally cool and collected and professional. As soon as the two of them started reading, I remember turning around to my casting director and saying, ‘OK, this is it.’”

Candler balances filmmaking with teaching an advanced narrative production course for radio-television-film students at UT. She got her own crash course in filmmaking at Florida State University, where she studied creative writing.

“I worked in a movie theater from age 15 all through college,” Candler said. “It didn’t pay a lot of money, but I’ve gotten used to that in my entire life. But I got to watch movies constantly … So I’ve always been a huge movie fan, but I didn’t know how they were made.”

In college, Candler was invited to work on a set for the first time by some film students she knew. 

“I just watched the whole process of the [director of photography] setting up lights and the director working with the actors. I realized it wasn’t rocket science to make a movie.”

Since then, Candler has been working steadily, directing four short films in addition to her feature adaptation of “Hellion” in the six years she’s taught at UT. Her students appreciate having a teacher with hands-on experience in filmmaking.

“The biggest benefit of having Kat as a teacher is getting a sense of working with someone who’s from the industry,” said radio-television-film senior Dew Napattaloong. “She’s bringing in all these people who she’s met through Sundance, and they provide us with experience and knowledge. When I do stuff in her class, I feel like I have to meet a standard, and that credibility goes into everything we do.”

The work ethic that Candler’s students exhibit is an inspiration to her. 

“I had this story [of ‘Hellion’] for years, and finally wrote it down back in 2009,” Candler said. “So I was teaching at UT, and I see my kids shooting movies all the time, and I’m like, ‘Why am I not shooting movies all the time too?’ So I handed it to Kelly Williams, my producer, and was like ‘Let’s just fucking make something this summer.’ And that’s how it all started, without any expectations or anything. We just wanted to make a movie.”

For aspiring filmmakers who aren’t in her class, Candler has three lessons.

“Be nice, be professional and work your ass off,” Candler said. “It’s pretty simple, but it’s true. I tell my students, ‘Your job interview started when you started college, because all of us work in the industry. We all know everyone, and it’s a small community. Austin, New York, LA, everybody knows everybody. You want to be the person that we want to work with, and that is a good human being, a professional.”

There’s an energy to Candler when she speaks, which is reflected in the energetic metal songs on “Hellion”’s soundtrack. 

“I kept telling them to turn the whole thing up,” Candler said. “From the very first scene, I just want to punch people in the face.”

“Black Metal” is a narrative short film following a singer in the wake of a murder committed by a teenage fan in the name of his music. The Daily Texan sat down with the film’s writer and director, radio-television-film lecturer Kat Candler to discuss “Black Metal” and her approach to filmmaking. 

The Daily Texan: Why do you make short films?

Kat Candler: I think making shorts is a little bit more difficult than making a feature in that you have to compact a story within six to 10 minutes ideally, and it takes a lot of crafting to put that together and really connect with an audience or punch people in the face, metaphorically speaking. I love short films and I’ve definitely immersed myself in that world a little bit more over the last couple of years having made two shorts. But it’s because it’s cheap and you want to constantly hone your craft and keep making things, regardless of [whether] it’s a minute short film or a 90-minute feature fiction film.

DT: Do you instantly know whether an idea will develop into a short film or a feature?

Candler: With “Black Metal,” I had been writing a feature script about a metal band that was publicly blamed for their music being linked to this murder. But for whatever reason it wasn’t quite working, and so doing this short was actually me getting to immerse myself more so in the metal scene and with these characters and kind of figuring out who they are and how they live and the realities of it. So now having done this short, I’m going back to the feature script with very different eyes and with a different approach to it as more of a drama. 

DT: Why have you used metal music in both “Black Metal” and your recent short “Hellion”?

Candler: I’m a huge music person, my husband more so … And for whatever reason, he started getting into metal and started feeding me CDs and buying books and doing all the research. We started watching all these documentaries and so we just became really fascinated. I love the idea that what we see onstage can be so drastically different from what life is like offstage. I find that really interesting and fascinating, what the reality of, maybe not a Metallica, but maybe a band that’s popular within a state but not necessarily so nationally and what they have to go home to every night. They’re just normal human beings, whereas fans put them up on a pedestal. It’s such a fear-based genre of music, so then when you see what life looks like at home, it can be so strikingly different, and I love to see the humanity in what’s offstage.

DT: Why should college kids see your film?

Candler: You can’t ignore that there’s something really great going on in the state of Texas when it comes to filmmaking. What I love about Austin in particular is that you have so many great filmmakers who have [such] varied voices. Everybody’s very different and very distinct in what they do and the stories they tell and the visions that they have on-screen, and I think that’s why you see so many eyes on Texas from outside of the state. We all support each other. Everybody is very supportive and very open to each other. There’s nothing competitive about it. Everybody enjoys each other’s successes and benefits from each other’s successes, you know, trying to help each other do the best work and tell the best stories.

Kat Candler, a lecturer in the Radio-Television-Film program, wrote and directed a short film titled “Helion” that was selected for the Sundance Film Festival. Candler’s six minute movie was inspired by a true story about her uncle and his two brothers when they were kids.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

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.