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A Conversation With Kat Candler (HELLION)

Kat Candler has been making films for over a decade now, but it wasn’t until this year’s Sundance Film Festival that she found herself stepping all the way into the spotlight. The feature-length adaptation of her Sundance approved 2012 short, Hellion was up for the Grand Jury Prize and featured serious star power in the casting of Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis. And while Paul and Lewis do indeed bring the goods, the heart and soul of Candler’s both hard-edged and tender drama belongs its two young leads, Josh Wiggins and Deke Garner. They play brothers living in Port Arthur, Texas, under the watchful eye of a Child Protective Service that is just waiting to swoop in and take them away from their depressed, hard drinking single father. Even when the narrative heads in a direction one might be expecting, the performances by these young discoveries keep Hellion feeling vital and alive.

In the days leading up to her film’s theatrical and VOD release on June 13th through Sundance Selects (it opens in NYC at the IFC Center), I spoke to Candler about directing child actors, her other day job teaching film at the University of Texas at Austin, and her nervous anticipation about her movie’s comparatively expedited release.

Hammer to Nail: Last night was your big screening in Port Arthur, where you shot the movie. Were you nervous going into it?

Kat Candler: It’s the one I’ve been looking forward to the most, pretty much ever since we shot, because so many people supported this film. Everybody was donating meals and football stadiums and houses and locations; it was really sweet the support we got from the community. Being able to share it with everybody was crazy and incredibly wonderful.

H2N: That was the kickoff and now you’re in an airport on your way to NYC for the real launch, as they say. [KC laughs]

KC: I’m actually terrified about New York. I don’t know why! I have so many friends and family coming out and supporting it, I don’t know why it’s so nerve-wracking. I guess it’s normal, right? It’s normal to be terrified?

H2N: Of course! Are you guys doing a premiere screening/event before Friday or are you simply appearing at the opening night screenings?

KC: We’re doing a sneak preview that Aaron and I will be at on Thursday night, and then I think we’re intro-ing a ten o’clock screening Thursday. And then it’s just the regular opening. We’ll have a couple crew who live in New York, and then Josh comes out Saturday for a few screenings. It’ll be a reunion, because I haven’t seen Aaron and Josh in a while.

H2N: I think the most helpful thing to have you talk about here is how you got from the Hellion short to the feature. What were the concrete factors that turned it from an idea into reality?

KC: We’re releasing a film this weekend that we shot less than a year ago, which I couldn’t be more confused by because that’s just not normal, I don’t think. It’s incredibly exciting. It’s been a roller coaster of severe ups and severe downs but it’s been a pretty magical two-year adventure. When we set out to do the short, we had no expectations whatsoever. I hadn’t made a project in a while and I was anxious to get on set again. I teach, so I see my students making stuff all the time and I was like, “Why am I not making stuff all the time?” And so we just got back on the playground to make a short and didn’t have any idea that several years later we’d be premiering a feature-length version of it with Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis. We made the short and got into Sundance out of the blue—we had no expectations. Once we got into Sundance, I had already been writing an outline for the feature. I was going down to the Southeast Texas area and just getting inspired by the location and people and having that inform the story. So when we got into Sundance I was like, “Oh shit, I need to have a first draft by the time I get there!” And so I scrambled in those months leading up to [the festival] and had a first draft by the time I got to Park City.

The two really big moments at Sundance, outside of having a short film there, were meeting the folks from the San Francisco Film Society, and Kelly [Williams, producer] meeting the folks at the [Sundance] Producer’s Lab. Those two introductions into those worlds led to grant funding [by SFFS] and the Producer’s Lab supporting the project. It just opened a lot of doors for us. All along the goal is to meet people who start championing you and championing your story and your team, and that’s just a beautiful thing.

H2N: When it came to expanding this off-the-cuff short into a feature, did that idea spring from someone else or did you have the inspiration yourself?

KC: It was me. Being on that set for two or three days of shooting with these characters that I had fallen in love with, I really wanted to spend more time with them and figure out how they got to this weird dysfunctional place. Just exploring that. Then, when I started going down to Southeast Texas and really started crafting these characters as a product of this community in this area of the world I hadn’t seen before, I just got really excited. Maybe I should have been a psychology major, because I love deconstructing people and the choices that they make and why they do the things that they do. That was a blast. I got to go down there for these long weekends and interview all of these people—the refinery workers, the people who worked at the boot camp, or the alternative school, or Child Protective Services. That was one of my favorite parts of the process, the research and listening to people’s stories, getting into their reality and then trying to be respectful of that and authenticate it in my own words.

H2N: When you talk about psychology, that concept really applies to directing actors. Part of me thinks that whether you’re talking about a seasoned veteran or a first-timer, it’s all on an individual, case-by-case basis. Do you have a consistent approach that you take when it comes to working with kids, as you’ve done that several times now at this point?

KC: I love working with kids ‘cause I think I’m a total 13- or 14-year-old at heart. So much of it for me is I genuinely enjoy hanging out with them and doing stupid shit with them. [both laugh] It’s gaining their trust, having them feel very comfortable with you, and also creating a really safe place where they can go to extreme emotional places. Especially for some of my kids who had never acted before or been on a set and they had all these people staring at them with a camera in their face. Like you said, every actor is different. All five of my boys were different in their approach to performance and all of my adult actors were totally different. As the director, it’s your job to figure out each person’s process—however they need to get their best work on the screen, that’s what I do.

H2N: You’ve been teaching for many years now. Obviously it would be great if we could simply make movies and pay the bills that way, but do you think that even if things continue on this successful path that you’ll try to keep teaching? How has it informed you as a filmmaker?

KC: I grew infinitely as a storyteller and a filmmaker when I started teaching back in 2008. My work got so much better. I’m not sure if it’s because I had to really know my shit teaching these kids, but it’s equally just been inspiring. You’re learning along with them. For the first time, I’m seeing movies with them, movies I’ve seen a million times but that they’re experiencing for the first time. I love their new outlook on things and watching them take risks. Teaching is so rewarding, and I hope to continue. Even if I can’t teach every semester, I really hope to come back to it, because those kids are fucking cool. Being able to live vicariously through them and through their experience of learning cinema, it makes me a better filmmaker.

H2N: I know your replacement while you were shooting Hellion was Mister Todd Rohal. He said he’d go in on a Monday and ask what the class had watched that weekend and someone would say Spider-Man 2 on their iPad. [KC laughs] Are you sensing an appreciation of cinema history in these kids, or is it the same case of directing actors, where it’s ultimately a sliding scale and every individual is different?

KC: I’m not one to judge Spider-Man 2 versus Hunger. My husband and I go to every single movie. We don’t just go to the art houses. I love the experience of seeing movies. I’m definitely not one to judge what my kids are watching. I taught at Texas State for a semester and those kids are a little bit different from my UT kids. They were into huge blockbusters and Star Wars and all of that stuff, and it was kind of refreshing! To not be in a class where they’re all talking Godard and Truffaut. It was like, “Yes, I love Star Wars too, it’s fucking cool!”

H2N: Do you get to establish your own viewing list so that you can bring that type of balance to the table?

KC: Sure. I definitely try to introduce stuff that they may not have seen in their 21, 22 years. But, you know, I show them The House of the Devil! I appreciate something in almost everything.

H2N: Obviously people have different tastes and not everyone in your class is going to want to make the same movie. They shouldn’t. So does the challenge become finding a balance so that you aren’t alienating anyone?

KC: I think what it is, is I don’t really care what genre of movie you want to make. I’m really about trying to help them figure out how to tell a unique story within that genre, or really trying to figure out how to craft their characters. I don’t care if it’s a big budget comedy or a half-a-million dollar art house film at Sundance. It doesn’t matter to me. My big thing with them is really learning story and narrative.

H2N: This is such a comparatively quick turnaround so it’s all happened very fast, and now you’re two days away from your opening weekend, which seems to be the most obvious place of “letting go.”

KC: It’s so weird! So weird!

H2N: Because this has been such a whirlwind, have you been holding off on diving into your next script, or have you been writing already?

KC: I’ve been writing for a few months now and taking some research trips for my next project. I got a grant from the San Francisco Film Society to work on an expansion of the Black Metal short that I had at Sundance last year. It’s nice to be in a different world and with different characters than Hellion. But this week is really weird! I don’t know, man. [H2N laughs] You caught me at a weird place. I’m in the airport, we just screened for our Port Arthur folks… I’m in a weird place. It’s such a roller coaster. People have warned me about the super highs and plummeting lows. We’re trying to savor every second—the good and the bad—because this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’re making movies. We’re doing what we love. I wouldn’t trade that for the world, man.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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