Family dramas don't hit much harder than Hellion. An expansion of director Kat Candler's 2012 short film, Hellion tells the story of a broken family trying to pick up the pieces. Mourning the loss of his mother, motocross-obsessed 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) begins to act out. When one of his antics goes too far, resulting in Child Protective Services placing his little brother in the care of their aunt (played by Juliette Lewis), Jacob and his distant, alcoholic father Hollis (Aaron Paul), must get themselves together to bring him home.
Since premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Hellion has hopped from festival to festival, including SXSW, where Candler received a special mention in the Gamechanger Award category. And now, the film is finally hitting theaters.
Director Kat Candler, who's also a teacher at the University of Texas, took a break from writing her next film to talk about the inspiration for Hellion, how she vicariously lived through her characters, and how her students helped her with her debut feature.
Where are you right now?
I'm actually in San Rafael, California at a hotel. I have a writing grant that I got from the San Francisco Film Society for my next project, so I holed myself up here for few weeks so I could write. And so I'm out at the pool every so often writing on my laptop, getting horribly sunburnt, then hanging out at night watching movies on VOD.
That sounds like a dream.
It is. I'm kind of in heaven right now. It's pretty awesome.
So, Hellion. You've talked a lot about how your Uncle Frank’s stories inspired it, but is there one specific story you vividly remember?
I mean, there's the one where he set his grandfather's Jeep on fire. But there is another story, which gets butchered every time it's told, but—this is horrible—it involves one of the brothers stabbing the other one accidentally in the eye. I don’t know the ins and outs of it because it was one of those “Holy shit!” moments. Now, they're just my uncles whom I love and who are all grown up and totally normal and don’t set things on fire or stab each other, but they were kind of power riders in their day.
What inspired the father-son relationship in the story?
In the short film, there's the struggling dad with the unruly boys. I was interested in those quiet conversations that a father and son would have behind closed doors. It started from there and then thinking about my own grandfather and my uncles' lives. The older you get, you realize what mistakes they made along the way that was the result of them struggling. I'm drawn to these beautiful mistakes that people make.
How close are you to the world of motocross and the world you present in Hellion?
I wasn’t close to motocross at all when I started this project. When I started writing, I was looking for something that this character would just be so in love with and have such ownership over, and I hadn’t seen motocross on screen. So I reached out to a kid that I knew in Houston who's an actor but also a really big motocross racer and he gave me the low-down on the sport. After that, I thought it could be an interesting angle for the main character. It gave me a two-fold story in that motocross is such a dangerous sport but also a very family-based sport. When you go to motocross races, you see the same families and the same community going from one race to the next.
One of my favorite parts about what we as do as filmmakers is research. Because a lot of these worlds that I'm writing about I'm not a part of, I love the fact that I can go in, discover, and just listen to all of these new stories.
Did you ever get on a bike just for fun?
Hell no! [Laughs.] I don’t even get on rollercoasters. Maybe that's why I write, so I can live vicariously through characters. My lead actor Josh was on a bike for a couple of hours and then was no longer allowed to be on a bike anymore. But, no, I'm kind of the opposite of fearless and I'm very fearful of heights, and roller coasters, and dangerous motorbikes.
When you were filming, were you ever terrified for your actors?
So we have stunt doubles, and we have this stunt double who actually was the stunt double in Motocrossed, the Disney movie. He made us all feel very safe and comfortable, but I just can’t imagine being a parent to some of these kids. I would go to some of these races and see these kids crash; as a parent, my heart would like fall out of my chest.
It's crazy because these kids will break all of their bones and then a few weeks later they’re back on their bike as if nothing had happened. It's just really weird and really interesting, this mentality of these young kids who feel like they can do anything and be invincible.
I was never going to give up on filmmaking. I had a lot of beautiful voices behind me, including my mom and dad when I was little, telling me that I could do anything.
And you're a teacher, right? How has that informed your writing of these characters?
In the last six years, I've been teaching at the University of Texas, but I have done after-school programs here and there and have worked with some charter schools. I naturally gravitate towards youth but I'm still a kid in my head. I love that there's something so heightened about that level of experience, when everything is new and everything is a first. In Hellion, you have these kids who are dealing with adult situations and circumstances and at age 14. How do you wrestle with something that is way beyond your maturity?
Also, I don’t have kids of my own, so I live vicariously through these parent-child relationships in that respect. Plus, hanging out with a bunch of 14-year-old boys is kind of fun. They're pretty dumb, and goofy, and silly.
How were they on set? Were they pulling pranks on each other?
They were a handful and they were hilarious, but they were all super sweet boys. That was part of the audition for us, finding kids who are really wonderful and charismatic, but who are also really cool kids with cool parents who would help create that family aspect on set.
The kids definitely gave our makeup and costume folks a run for their money at times, but nothing crazy happened. There were a couple of minor injuries here and there that were fine with a bag of ice or an Advil.
Did casting all of these boys from Texas bring a certain authenticity to their characters?
Yeah, absolutely. My number one thing was to find real kids. You get a little numb to seeing hundreds of kids, many of which are very trained and have done a lot of work. So when you get someone like Josh Wiggins, who has only made these little YouTube videos with this friends, there's something so natural and raw about him. It was like the heavens opened up and here was this kid who felt real and was exactly what we're looking for.
How did they interact with Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis? Because they're both inherently cool people.
They totally are. That goes back to finding cool people to work with. Before I even approached Aaron Paul, I called up some friends to ask if he was a nice person and if he would be cool with the five boys and people were like, “Oh my god, he is the best human being!” The same thing with Juliette Lewis; she has like a hundred nieces and nephews. It was really cute because the boys got starstruck for, like, a day and then after that it was just hanging out with Aaron and Juliette, who are both so fun and silly.
It was great to watch the bond between Aaron and Josh because they became very close. Aaron took Josh under his wing very early on and he's become quite the mentor for him. Josh has been navigating a lot of new projects, bigger projects, so I love that that relationship formed.
Has Hellion opened any doors for you?
It's definitely opened a lot of doors. You struggle and you make stuff for so long and all of a sudden you get this stamp of approval from this community and it's a beautiful thing. But, also, having that experience of a decade long struggle to make movies, I'm definitely trained to be pretty careful about what I choose to do next.
Here in San Rafael, I'm working on a script that's an expansion of the Black Metal short I did last year. I can’t lie, it's pretty fucking awesome and it's incredible; but even with that, you should still try to be true to your voice and true to your heart about the projects that you're going to fall head over heels for. Making movies is such a long process and you have to immerse yourself 150%.
Trying to break out for so long, have you ever felt discouraged or thought of a plan B?
No! There has never been a plan B, which is why I had to make this happen. It's the only thing that I'm good at besides teaching and I am a really good teacher. I really am. It's the only thing that I will brag about. I love teaching and I love working with kids.
I was never going to give up on filmmaking. I had a lot of beautiful voices behind me, including my mom and dad when I was little, telling me that I could do anything. I didn’t know that it was going to take so long necessarily, but it's been great because I've grown up with a lot of great filmmakers in the Texas community and we're all kind of having this success after a decade of working our asses off. It's pretty wonderful.
It must be awesome that everything is coming full circle now.
It is and it's pretty fucking great and I am super happy. And even though I'm not able to pay my rent just yet because indie filmmaking is still a financial struggle, I hope that in the next year or two I can pay my rent a little better. That is the next step. [Laughs.]
You bring up an interesting point. There's this misconception that once you've made a movie that's getting a lot of mainstream attention, you're set.
I was in Target buying a shirt or something and I ran in to a friend of mine a couple of months ago and he was like, “What are you doing shopping at Target?” And I was like, “Are you kidding?” I can’t afford a lot of things still. So it is a huge misconception! My husband’s co-workers are like, “Oh you’re in the money now!” And I’m like, “No, we are still having hard times.”
It's a struggle and it will probably continue to be a struggle for a while. The important thing is that you make choices not on money, but on your heart. It's sometimes the hard choice to make but still, you have try to be true to yourself. And no there is no money!
How did your students respond to the movie when they saw it? Were they really proud?
Yeah, the people that I'm really excited to see it are my students. A whole group of them came to SXSW and, afterwards, it felt like your mom and dad being so proud of you, even though they're like 20 and 21. [Laughs.] They were just so sweet and have been my biggest fans. They've been able to watch part of the process as well, so they've seen the struggles and I've let them in on the conversations about how things work. It's given them a little bit of ownership with the film and with my experience. But yeah, they've been my biggest army of voices trying to get people to go to the theaters.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)