Georgia-born and Austin-based, writer-director Kat Candler makes her feature debut with “Hellion,” an expansion of her short film about a troubled boy acting out after the death of his mother. In an interview that coincided with the screening of the film at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival, Candler, who also lectures on film production at the University of Texas, spoke about shooting the film around Galveston in August and September.
“I warned [everyone] it’s going to be hot in Texas, and I apologized ahead of time. They said, ‘It’s fine,’” Candler recalled. “I don’t think they realized how hot it gets here. And I didn’t realize the mosquitoes down there…like walls of mosquitoes everywhere. I grew up in Florida, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was rough, but it’s all part of the environment on-screen—hopefully it translated, gritty, hot, dirty. That’s the fun part about making movies and telling stories—place is such a character in anything you do, not only the video but the audio of that place.”
The film serves as one of the first post-“Breaking Bad” starring roles for Aaron Paul, who plays the boy’s equally troubled father. “I’d seen ‘Smashed’ a couple of years ago in the theatre and really loved the performances and Aaron’s honesty on screen,” Candler said. “I’d only seen two episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ at that point. So after I got out of the theatre I had to check out ‘Breaking Bad’ and plowed through all the seasons. I was excited to see Aaron do something completely different from what I’d seen him do prior.
“So I went out to Macon, Georgia, to meet him. James Ponsoldt, who directed ‘Smashed,’ reached out to Aaron for me after I’d vetted him and found out that he was a nice human being with a really god heart. We sat down with him in this little pub in downtown Macon and talked about the script and the characters and our lives, and after that meeting we were in the street of downtown, desolate Macon and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
But the most remarkable performance in “Hellion” certainly comes from Josh Wiggins as Jacob, the title figure. “We went to all of these small towns in Texas,” Candler said, “and with permission I sat in [school] cafeterias during lunchtime, and figured out which kids I really wanted to bring in [to audition]. We went to Motocross races and interviewed all these kids who had never acted before. It was just a simple interview process—talking about their lives a little bit and then improving a scene or two.
“I was having a hard time finding my lead—I’d found all of these kids that fit the other roles. We found one of them in a cafeteria, one of them I found at a Motocross race, one of them I’d worked with on the short film…and the last one was through the traditional audition process in Austin. A [producer] friend…was interested in one of the boys from the short film of ‘Hellion,’ and started looking at [him] on line and found these You Tube videos that this kid had made with best friend Josh Wiggins. And she called my producer up and said, ‘You have to check out this other kid in these You Tube videos.’ So I brought [Josh] in for audition, and it was just one of those defining moments where he walks in, he’s got this incredible look, and you say, please God, let him open him mouth and be brilliant, and he’s good. After seeing hundreds of kids over and over again, he walked in and was just so authentic, and real, and honest.”
As Candler noted, Wiggins, was only one of a number of young boys in the cast, and though he stands out, all give natural, unforced performances. “You have to go on a huge search and see a ton of them,” she said. “And after you find them, it’s just making sure that they’re good with improv and figuring out—since all of them are different, all five boys work in different ways just as all actors do—the directing style for each of them to get the best performance. And you’re also editing in your mind as you’re directing these scenes, knowing ‘I can use that piece, I can use that piece.’ I’m being called a child whisperer, but there’s nothing magical or smart or intelligent about it. It’s just seeing that honesty in them from the beginning.”
Also appearing in the picture is Juliette Lewis as Jacob’s aunt, who takes in the boy’s younger brother after CPS intervenes in the home. “Juliette signed on pretty much right after Aaron came on board,” Candler said. “Her agent called us saying that she’d responded to the script and I went out to L.A. and met with her over omelets at some little corner diner. She was awesome—an incredible actress, and such an icon of American acting, and so funny.”
Candler talked about future projects, including possibly directing scripts written by others, though for now, she said, “I think that for my career I think it’s important to do one or two more things of my own, to have my own original voice on the page and the screen.” Her immediate hope is to expand her short “Black Metal,” about the leader of a band who must cope with the ramifications of a murder committed by one of his fans. “That short was actually a feature that I’d written, and I took a piece of that to see what I could make of it,” she explained. “Now that I’ve made that short, I’ve gone back and scrapped the original script and started a little bit from scratch.”
But she doubted that a sequel to “Hellion” would be in her future. “I think [these characters] are going to have their life without me from here on out,” she said. “I love them, and I’m excited to think about them go on and hopefully come together as a family. But there’s a new family I want to go and hang out with for a while.”