The Texas Two-Step: Director Kat Candler on Using Handheld ALEXA for Explosive Tone in 'Hellion'
What's the most important aspect of a film? Acting? Cinematography? Plot? To some, these are all crucial components that lead into the most important expression of a film: tone. However, setting the tone of a film is one of the most difficult things to do. Kat Candler's Hellion, starring Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, and a handful of emerging young actors, is a film that's all about tone -- the 13-year-old, heavy metal, motocross kind. Read our interview with Kat Candler, where she talks about anything from the dance of shooting handheld on the ALEXA, starting Hellion as a short, and the current heyday of independent film in Texas.
No Film School first sat down with Kat Candler at her SXSW premiere of Hellion, and this weekend the film is coming out in theaters in VOD! (There's a list of theaters at the end of this interview.) Before you start reading -- or watch the opening sequence of the film that Kat has shared with us -- here's the trailer for a first look:
NFS: Hellion has a strong tone that has been called "heavy metal lyrical." Can you talk to us about the style and tone you wanted, and how you achieved it?
Kat Candler: When we were approaching the project, I had a couple of films in mind for the style, and the look, and the kind of feel of it. Southeast Texas in general is a very dusty and gritty kind of place. And so I love Urban Cowboy, which is kind of one of the only movies [or TV shows], up until True Detective, where I'd seen that place, a refinery town. Over the Edge is one of my favorite movies and has that quality to it. The Outsiders, and basically a lot of 70s, early 80s kind of stuff. I had my little look book with all my images and stills and everything that I would take and show people. I came in with all of my examples of what I wanted it to feel like and look like, and how I wanted it to breathe.
NFS: The camera feels like its moving the whole time. Was that part of the strategy for creating that tone?
KC: We shot handheld, which was twofold in having that energy and intimacy with the characters. But also, we were on such a tight schedule and we were shooting with 5 kids, who you only get to work with so many hours day. Shooting on the ALEXA allowed us to not have to set up a million lights, so it allowed us to move quickly, but also keep the energy of the film. Brett Pawlak, who shot Short Term 12, came on board, and he’s great on handheld. He has this sweet dance with actors, allowing them space in the room to do their best work, and feel like the camera is not there.
NFS: Do you feel like the freeing up of space and time, when not having to set up lights, was important for the set?
KC: Yeah, it was really helpful for us. I mean every project is different, the approach, the style, and the aesthetic. And so for this one, because I was dealing with so many kids, three of which weren't actors -- giving them the room and feeling like they weren't inundated with lights and craziness and trying to give them space -- that allowed us to move quickly which we needed to get through our days.
NFS: Working with those kids -- 13-year-old boys-- delivering these serious performances --
KC: What's it like?
NFS: Yes! How?
KC: The casting process -- I love, love, love casting. Even though it's so much work, because you're just searching, and searching, and searching and seeing so many kids. At times it becomes a little numbing, where you're like, "I just need some beacon of light to just shine down on one of these guys." And I think that's probably like 3/4ths of the battle of getting good performances -- finding the right actors. Our Texas casting director did Tree of Life, so we approached it in the same way, going out to all these small towns in Texas, finding all of these kids who had never acted before. We went to a bunch of motocross races. We found one of our kids through a motocross race.
KC: Yeah! One of our kids we found in the area that we shot -- in our very first casting session. In that casting process, you're figuring out how they work. If you're gonna be able to get a performance out of them, and to what extreme you can get a performance out of them. All the boys came out a week before we shot and we would run through the scenes maybe once or twice. But then it was just them going swimming together, and like, going bowling, or going to the arcade down the street. Just hanging out. And by the time we were actually shooting, they had that friendship and that bond that we had to communicate on-screen. And it's real, and they continue to talk and trade texts and Instagrams and tweets and all that! Socially media connected.
NFS: You shot in Texas, and you're based in Texas?
KC: I've been here since 1997, so I consider myself a Texan! All the boys [in Hellion] are from Texas. The only people that we brought in from outside of Texas were Aaron and Juliette -- I think. I was really proud, because the boys -- we saw a ton of LA kids, a ton of NY kids, and in the end, I don't know, it made my heart really happy that we were true to our roots.
NFS: What are your thoughts on the Texas film scene? Can you come here and have a career without moving to NYC or LA?
KC: Yeah! I mean, the Texas film scene is special. I think maybe Seattle has a really good film scene? We have a bunch of friends that straddle the two communities. But, it's just -- I've grown up here with the Zellners, who did Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, with David Lowery, James Johnston, Toby Halbrooks who did Ain't Them Body Saints, Yen Tan who did Pitstop, Heather Courtney, Margaret Brown --
NFS: Fantastic list!
KC: All these people who have been making movies for well over a decade! And have been supportive in a million different ways of each other. Whether its loaning your house, loaning a car, bringing cookies to set, or just having coffee and being like, "You can do this! I know it's really hard." There's something really special. There's no competition. Whenever somebody else has a success, it's everybody's! It's a very shared success. I think that's really sweet. I think that everybody, too, has their own voice. Everybody is very different and unique and distinct. It's a good place to make films! Whether we can pay the rent -- [laughs] is a different story! It's still challenging to pay the bills, but I wake up every day and I love what I do and I love where I make movies. And I wouldn't trade that for the world.
NFS: So, you wouldn't move to Corpus Christi?
KC: No! I would go down there to shoot -- but I probably -- no -- I love Austin!
NFS: Hellion was a short before it became a feature. Can you talk about what you learned from making that? Did you know when you made it a short, that you were definitely turning it into a feature?
KC: I hadn't made a movie in a little while. I sold a script that someone else directed. I was just so antsy to get on set again and make something of my own and just play. I had a short script that was based on a story that my uncle Frank had told about him and my uncles setting fire to my grandfather's Jeep, and the aftermath of that. And it was just like a 6, 7 page script. And I wrote probably about ten drafts of it, and really just carved and carved and crafted my three act structure, and you know, just everything that goes into a feature script into these tiny pages.
We shot it summer of 2011, no expectations, we just wanted to play and make something. After we wrapped shooting, I just loved this world and I loved these crazy kids and the single dad struggling. Someone said I think this world is in Port Arthur, Texas, a small refinery town. And so Kelly Williams, my producer, who grew up there, started taking me down for long weekends. And just sitting and kind of observing and soaking up the people, the place, my story wheels just started rapidly going nuts. We found out we got into Sundance on Thanksgiving in 2011. By the time we got to Sundance in January, I had a first draft. Kelly got into the creative producers Lab through Sundance, and that really just opened a lot of doors and legitimized the project and gave us that stamp of approval. And then of course, when Aaron came on board things really started rolling. You know, you work so hard for so long, it's like, finally! It's my turn! I guess it wasn't as long as some folks, but it was a cool journey. So many people just believed in us from the beginning and that meant the world to the film.
NFS: When you were trying get the feature made, was anyone skeptical of a female filmmaker trying to make this particular story?
KC: This male dominated film? No! I never really feel that in my life -- in my career. I teach at the University of Texas, and I teach upper level undergrads in film production. So, I usually have a class of like 20 to 24 students. When I first started teaching, I would have 2 to 4 girls in a class of many. It was a little disheartening. When I was younger, I definitely had that lack of confidence. All I needed was someone being like, "You can totally do this. I have faith in you, and I see potential in you." Cindy Kirkland said that to me years ago -- well over a decade ago. And that stuck with me at such a tender age and really motivated me. I see that as very much-needed in mentors. It's simple, but it means the world to the younger generation of girls.
NFS: What would you say is the importance of independent film?
KC: It's vital! It's so vital. There's a lot of schlock in the movie theaters that gets really redundant and talks down to us as audiences. There's so many crazy, inventive, imaginative stories out there! Kumiko the Treaser Hunter is like, when they told me that log line years ago, I was like, "Oh my god, I've never heard of anything like this! I want to see that movie." And then when I saw it at Sundance, I was like, "Holy shit you guys, this is such a great film." It's their unique vision and style. You won't get that -- studios wouldn't fund that. And it's important to have that imagination and unique qualities on-screen that otherwise we wouldn't see or hear.
NFS: What advice do you have for fellow filmmakers?
KC: If you are kind and respectful to your crew and cast, they will give you their best work -- It’s a small community, smaller than people realize. You want to be that person who the community speaks highly of, and people want to work with. One of my friends, Bryan Poyser, who’s also really talented, came to speak to my students and he said, “If you’re cool with not getting in to Sundance for ten to fifteen years, and you’re going to enjoy the journey and the process, awesome. If you’re going to get disgruntled and jaded and be impatient about it, it’s probably not for you." Because if you're think you're going to get in to Sundance, if you think it's overnight, you're foolish. If it’s in your blood, you won’t stop. And if you’re insanely passionate about it, you won’t stop -- It’s hard, but god dangit, I love what I do!
Thank you, Kat!
If you want to check out Hellion for yourself , it's opening on the big screen and on VOD this weekend! Here's the shortlist of where you can see it, and check out the Hellion facebook page for updates:
Are you planning to check out the film this weekend? What do you think about establishing the tone of a film? And are you a part of a film scene off the beaten path?