Interview: Kat Candler
Hellion, the first feature film from Texas-based writer/director Kat Candler, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and won SXSW Film Festival’s Gamechanger Award. It tells the story of an out of control, motocross obsessed teenager, his younger brother who is taken by Child Protective Services, and their hard drinking father (Aaron Paul) who struggles to get his son back.
We talked to Candler about Hellion, her writing process, and how she got started in filmmaking.
BLUECAT: How did you first come up with idea for Hellion?
CANDLER: I had a short film called Hellion that played at Sundance in 2012 and that came from a nugget of a story that my Uncle Frank would tell at holiday gatherings — he and my other two uncles had set fire to my grandfather’s jeep when they were little.
CANDLER: They were quite the hell-raisers. And sort of the aftermath of that destruction was my grandfather trying to tame these unruly boys. It’s a six-minute short film that I just really fell in love with, these characters and the parent-child struggle. Someone mentioned that they thought that this world was in the Southeast Texas area and my producer, Kelly Williams, piped up with “I actually grew up in Southeast Texas.” So Kelly started taking me down to that area for these really long observational weekends where I would sit in barbershops and listen to factory workers coming in and out and telling their stories. I went to the Child Protective Services offices and talked with a couple of the women there, and just kind of immersed myself in that world and listened to their stories and was inspired by all these locations, and this world I’d not quite seen on screen before. The little story wheel started spinning for me.
BLUECAT: Is research an important part of your writing process?
CANDLER: I think that’s number one. For me, my biggest thing is honesty – trying to put every ounce of honesty I can onto the page and then to the screen. I think that’s wildly important as a storyteller. For me, I’m finding all of these intricacies of characters, and place, and nuances that I couldn’t ever come up with on my own – and that’s exciting and hopefully refreshing to see these little bits and pieces that just feel very authentic and real to that world. I genuinely enjoy it. I try and find a world that I am not a part of for a story and then just kind of dive in headfirst. I just try and be authentic and respectful of that world as best I can by really just living and breathing there. Yeah, I think that for me research is number one. I think it’s probably one of my favorite parts of the writing process.
BLUECAT: Do you usually approach writing a feature project by doing a short film version of it first, like you did with Hellion?
CANDLER: It wasn’t typical at all. At that point I hadn’t made a film in a little while. I was doing a lot of writing, but I hadn’t been on set. I teach at the University of Texas, so all of my students were making stuff like every weekend practically, and I’m like “why am I not making stuff all the time like they are and really honing my craft and playing?” I had no expectations when I was making the short whatsoever. I just really wanted to get back on set, and play, and hang out with my friends, and talk with actors. And then it just became a really magical journey for the last 2 to 3 years of short to feature.
With that said, last year I had a short called Black Metal that was at Sundance and I knew that it was going to take a little while to get to the set of Hellion, so in the meantime I wanted to make something again. So it was just very rejuvenating being on set and I had a feature script that I’ve been working on and really wanted to kind of explore more so I pulled the first act of that feature and just kind of re-fashioned it into 13 pages and then shot that. That was great in terms of I just had gone back to that feature script and kind of scrapped it and started completely from scratch.
BLUECAT: How do you generally approach rewriting?
CANDLER: I am in the midst of Heavy Metal, like basically the expansion of that Black Metal short right now. I whipped together a first draft – which was fine. I guess your first drafts are always kind of crappy and not amazing by leaps and bounds. So when I was approaching my second draft I was like “God, I need to know my characters infinitely more than I already do,” so I spent a week just crafting these huge character outlines and doing research online and digging back into my old notes from the short, and just kind of living with the characters and their histories and figuring out everything that happened when they were like 5 and when they were 13, and relationships with old girlfriends or parents. And then diving back into the next rewrite was so much easier because I just knew those characters way more and could navigate their choices a lot more intelligently.
BLUECAT: How do you approach your first drafts?
CANDLER: I have character sketches and then I really put together the real spine of the story. What do they want? What are their goals? It’s a mathematical equation of the story which then will shift and change as I go through rewrites but at least I have those few key words that keep me grounded and have that sort of spine and that backbone. Then I always have one or two words – with Hellion, “responsibility” was always the word that was on my laptop – like the post-it that I was always coming back to in every character. How does responsibility define them or have they lost it? And so this new one I’ll have one word and then just recently going from first draft to second draft, that word shifted. I also talk to myself a lot. I’ll drive long distances and I’ll just sit there and talk to myself in the car and look like a total weirdo.
BLUECAT: What was your first script and what did you take away from the experience of writing it?
CANDLER: Oh God. I was in my early 20s and I thought, “I don’t need to study,” so I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t study screenwriting. I went to school for creative writing, so I wrote short fiction, I wrote one act plays, but never studied the craft of screenwriting. I was in that early 20s “I Know Everything” attitude. I quickly learned I knew nothing and had to go back and study. Those early drafts of those scripts were not great. They were still fun to write, but in terms of crafting and really honing story and characters they were just very loose and not amazing by any means. When I started teaching at the University of Texas in 2008, I think that’s when I really upped by game and really became a student again. That’s where I grew as a storyteller and as a filmmaker. I think you should always be a student and always be learning or growing. If you think you’re perfect, that’s boring.
BLUECAT: When did you find the time to write?
CANDLER: I only teach one class – well I take that back – there were certain semesters I was teaching more than one class. The early part of the semester is reading scripts and giving notes, which again is great because you’re learning what’s working in their scripts and what’s not working, and how to communicate that helped me to craft my own stuff. Usually I will wake up 6/6:30, go to the coffee shop (my little Einstein’s bagel up in Austin where all the elderly guys know my name and ask me how the movie business is going). I sit there and write for several hours. A friend of mine long ago was like “You have to treat it like a job. You have to clock in and you have to clock out. You have to put in the work as if you were going into an office job for finance or whatever.” That was huge training to really treat it like a job and treat it like you would any kind of profession. It’s being very disciplined about it regardless of being inspired or not being inspired – just sitting in front of a computer and writing and knowing that even if you spit out something really bad, you’re going to go back and revise and rewrite.
BLUECAT: How do you stay motivated?
CANDLER: Right now it’s incredibly challenging. I have a grant from the San Francisco Film Society which is a huge, beautiful organization that supported us through Hellion. I have a grant to write the next one in the Bay Area off and on this summer – which is amazing because I can lock myself in a hotel or an apartment and kind of shut off the world. But this Summer balancing the release of Hellion and trying to write has proven difficult. I try and watch a ton of movies.
BLUECAT: My favorite scene in Hellion is when the two boys are just kind of raging out and dancing in the living room. That was so fun.
CANDLER: I played that scene for Lars Ulrich, who was helping us with the music. He was very excited that “Battery” was being used in that context. That sort of celebration of music and brotherhood. Any time I can make Lars Ulrich happy is like “YES!”
BLUECAT: The relationships between the kids in the movie seemed very realistic. How did you approach writing the kids and how was it different from writing the adults?
CANDLER: It’s funny, I think that writing the kids is way easier for me. I definitely am a kid at heart and I relate to youth oftentimes more so than adults. So that came with a little more ease, but with that said, I’d show a draft to my husband and there were definitely times where he’s like “you’ve got to go further with them. You’re being a little bit tame with things like porn or them loving boobs.” So I would definitely get him kind of prodding me to take them a little bit further and to a little bit grimier and bolder subjects. It is definitely on the page, but then when you find these kids – because our casting was really just looking for normal, real, authentic boys. A couple of them had never acted before. I found one at a motocross race. I found one in the town that we shot in. And then they bring what makes them dynamic to the screen as well.
BLUECAT: How do you know when a script is done?
CANDLER: Yeah, that’s like the million dollar question: when are you finished? I feel like, for me, I don’t know if it’s this kind of gut feeling where you feel like it’s getting tighter and tighter and tighter, and you’re finding less things to kind of nit-pick at. Hellion took me about a year and a half to write – from when I first started going down to Southeast Texas. It went through 10 to 14 drafts and we went through the Sundance Producers Lab – which was fantastic. I wasn’t there – my producer was there with all of these other producers, mentors, advisors – all people that I really, really respect, and they ripped my script to shreds. Just tore it apart, which was incredible. You know, it stings for maybe 24 hours and then my producer had like 30 pages of notes for me.
BLUECAT: What were some of those notes that came out of the Sundance Producers Lab?
CANDLER: I think I turned in about a 120 page script. I loved the world down there in Southeast Texas and I had a ton of characters and I had all of these different plotlines and stories. The big note from a lot of people was: you’ve got too much going on, and it feels more like a television series because you have all these characters. So it was really kind of chiseling away and taking out all of these plots and side characters. Really just finding the father-son struggle and that’s what it ultimately was about. Then also, there was a back and forth with several drafts of – is this the dad’s movie or is it Jacob’s, the 13-year old boy’s movie? And once I kind of figured that out, even though there is still very much a parallel between the two, that helped a lot as well.
BLUECAT: What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a screenwriter or a writer/director?
CANDLER: Gosh, there’s so much advice to be given. For me, it’s a lot of feedback, it’s a lot of workshopping. It’s really not being precious with your material and knowing that the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth drafts are not going to be the best drafts, to keep going. Then, originally when I first was wanting to make movies, I really just wanted to write. I was like, “I’m going to write screenplays and then I’m going to hand them off.” Then when I started taking little film workshops I was like, “Oh no, no, no, no, I want to make these. I want my voice to be on the page and then I want it to be on the screen as well.” I feel like if you can direct, if you can make your own material, your chances increase in terms of actually getting it to the screen. Or with finding directors that you really love and on an indie level, on a smaller level – not like Scorsese or Clint Eastwood or someone, but really learning the independent film scene and the directors who are a little bit more attainable that you admire and meeting those directors.
CANDLER: And being patient. Being patient.
BLUECAT: In terms of your career, or writing, or all of the above?
CANDLER: All of the above. It’s been a long journey for me. I’ve been doing this for well over a decade. I’ve made stuff that I’m really proud of and I’ve made stuff that I will never show anyone. But the journey has been a really beautiful thing. I’ve grown up in Texas with a wealth of talented filmmakers who, we’ve all been doing this for a really long time. There’s such a collaborative spirit in Texas and we all support each other. So now that so many of us are having these bits with success it’s so neat because it’s so shared. We’ve all been in these trenches for a really, really, really, really long time.
BLUECAT: Who are some filmmakers and screenwriters that continue to inspire you?
CANDLER: I adore Jeff Nichols – he’s a friend and a mentor, and an inspiration to me. I think he’s an incredibly talented storyteller. We would go have lunch every so often and whenever we would sit down at the table, he would just start spinning a tale and just start telling me a story that he’s working on and I’m sort of the litmus test to see – am I leaning across the table listening intently, or am I bored with this character or what not. It was a test in terms of crafting a story. He would talk them out over lunch with friends and kind of see what’s working and what’s not working. He just crafts a story so well, I’m constantly leaning across the table to find out what happens next. I think he’s a really great screenwriter. I love reading his scripts.
I love Lynne Ramsey. She’s a huge influence on me. I think she’s such a phenomenal storyteller and visual artist. Jane Campion. I think I watched The Piano when I was in college like 20 or 30 times. I worked in a movie theater from age 15 and then all through college. When that came out in the theater, it played at the movie theater I was working at. I watched it a gazillion times. I was just so enamored by what was on screen and these characters I had never seen before. Such a compelling piece.
BLUECAT: Do you have a certain page count you like to hit every day, or a certain amount of time you set aside for writing?
CANDLER: You know, right now life is so weird and off-kilter because of Hellion that if I get to write, I have this little coffee shop on Melrose that I’ll go to before I have to go to a meeting or a call or something. I try and cram in as much as I can. Or on the airplane I’ll try and catch an hour or two, or sitting in the airport. On a normal schedule – I mean it’s really just hours. It could be like polishing and trying to get through the whole script in a couple of hours, or I’ll spend an entire morning on just like a couple of scenes. It just really kind of depends on where I’m at, but just spending the time and carving out the time is really, really important.
BLUECAT: Hellion is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. How do you approach writing something that’s original and unpredictable?
CANDLER: My producer, Kelly, is always asking me like “What makes this special? Why is this character special? What is it about him or this situation that’s special?” I hadn’t seen motocross on screen before and when I started going to races and kind of figuring out like “oh, what an incredible risk-taking sport.” These kids break collar bones and get life-flighted to hospitals and they come back on their bike to a race like two weeks later. Again, it’s really family sport and family-oriented, and so in the context of this film, it being such a family-motivated sport, I thought it was kind of a nice juxtaposition to this kid who is lacking family at this point.
It’s always kind of asking yourself: what is special about this? For me, Hellion was a lot about place and this part of Texas I’d never seen, dealing with Child-Protective Services. With the next one, it’s about a heavy metal artist – which I’m super excited about. What makes it special is you’ll get to see the other side of heavy metal and the reality of what happens at home and, you know, these guys take out the garbage and get sick and have day jobs and that’s interesting to me. The whole humanity is why I get on the edge of my seat to watch something – real human beings making beautiful mistakes and how they resolve those mistakes.