Step one to becoming an overnight success: Schedule a decade of prep. Step two: Add a few more years. (Who's counting?)
Meet Austin director/screenwriter Kat Candler. Her short "Hellion" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. Check. She expands it to a feature film also named Hellion. Check. Said feature film attracts hot actor Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame and indie stalwart Juliette Lewis. Uh huh. Feature premieres at Sundance in 2014. Check plus. Said feature film gets distribution deal through Sundance Selects. Candler brings it on home to Austin with a victory lap at South by Southwest. Now we're talking.
Flash back to 2000. Candler, then 25, is being interviewed for the first time ever prior to the premiere of her debut feature, Cicadas, at the Austin Film Festival. She carries a spiral notebook with a wish list of actresses for her next film. Kate Winslet? Liv Tyler? Her nervous smile is infectious. She's been in Austin three years, working days at BookPeople. She learned film from Steve Mims with classmates Scott Bate and Shawn Higgins, and the three hatched Cicadas as a tale of teens trying to figure life out. "No matter how pretty it is or how great your effects, if your story stinks, it stinks," she says then.
Brandon Howe was 20 but looked younger when he auditioned for Cicadas. His reading bombed, he recalls, but the director agreed to let him improvise with film star Lindsay Broockman, and he got the part. "I remember her being like a little kid on set," says Howe, now living in Los Angeles and head of production for FilmOn.tv. "She was in control, but playful. I remember Kat having this very big heart. Now, looking back, I see that as a rarity in show business."
Candler now considers Cicadas a "good film that could have been better. I didn't know how to tell a story with the camera. I was much more comfortable with the actors than with lights and technology."
Today, the wall of her North Austin office at Arts + Labor features a poster for the 1982 teen rebellion flick Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains and lots of photos from the Hellion shoot in the Port Arthur region, including producing partner Kelly Williams' hometown of Port Neches. The two drove to the oil refinery area and loitered in Blaine's Barber Shop, where Williams' dad gets his hair cut. Candler eavesdropped and took notes. "That's my favorite part of the process," she says. "You just go and immerse yourself in a world you don't know."
Hellion is about 13-year-old Jacob, who is into heavy metal and motocross, but reeling from his mother's death and acting out in increasingly dangerous ways as his father tries to connect with him. In his screen debut, Josh Wiggins is near-perfect in the lead. Candler's three feature films have shared an obsession with teen angst and parent-child relationships. "I don't have kids of my own," says Candler, who is married to major film fan Mark Osborn. "I want kids, but it just hasn't happened for us. Perhaps I'm living vicariously?"
Her husband says her filmic obsession is with the notion of morality. "My one-word arc for this film is from irresponsibility to responsibility," she says.
But perhaps Candler is also reliving semi-tomboy days of youth in Jacksonville, Fla., collecting tadpoles and playing in the dirt, chasing after her older brother while he built tree houses.
"I'm betting her favorite movie is something like Stand by Me," Howe muses. Bingo. And The Outsiders. For Hellion, add a dash of Lord of the Flies. The film's look is a faded Seventies-esque dream through cinematographer Brett Pawlak's lens. "Movies were so good then," Candler says. "It felt like Hollywood wasn't editing. They took bigger risks in storytelling. It felt more real and honest."
After Cicadas, Candler's life had big changes: An important personal relationship broke apart, and she strengthened bonds with other Austin independent filmmakers like David and Nathan Zellner, Yen Tan, Duane Graves, James Johnston, and David Lowery. She traveled to Sundance in 2001 just to watch movies. Afterward, Candler wrote like crazy and made a few independent films, leading her to team with Stacy Schoolfield and Lorie Marsh on her second feature.
"In early 2004, Kat asked me to help her out with auditions for this short she was directing, 'Roberta Wells,'" recalls Marsh, who now makes films from her home in Minnesota. "I spent the better part of the audition day hopping around pretending to be a 7-year-old imitating Peter Rabbit. We both shared an attitude about being nice and keeping auditions respectful, open, and playful. Kat actually cast me in the short, and it went on to premiere at Slamdance. Being on set for that shoot reminded me what I loved about filmmaking: human foibles, authentic performances, attention to nuances and craftsmanship, the teamwork and camaraderie. There would be no alternative career for me; I was hooked."
Cicadas was Candler's undergraduate film program, but 2006's Jumping Off Bridges was graduate school, she says. It's about a teen boy dealing with the loss of his mother – this time to suicide. He and his friends make a game of jumping off high bridges into water.
Schoolfield, now a clinical social worker in Colorado, remembers hitting a brick wall while seeking permission to have the young actors jump off a bridge into Lady Bird Lake. "After a very long, hot day of shooting, we reluctantly attended a film industry event and spotted then-Mayor Will Wynn," she says. "Fatigue and desperation are great motivators, and we cornered him with a soda and asked for his help. Mayor Wynn agreed to jump off the bridge himself the day of the shoot, making our stunt a city-sponsored event. This saved us a small fortune in fees for the necessary police boats and divers and made the key moment of the film possible. Getting a film made is a test of creative problem-solving."
These days the help Candler receives is from bigger friends, like George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, where the crew spent two weeks mixing sound, courtesy of a grant from the San Francisco Film Society. A real Star Wars light saber on the wall! A Norman Rockwell original painting in the main house! "It was a bubble of tranquility and creativity," Candler says.
Williams and Candler and the Hellion bunch were greeted just as enthusiastically in Port Arthur. They were given access to a high school football stadium and dance halls. Food and cookies appeared on set. For a scene involving youth football, a bus arrived with Pop Warner players, cheerleaders, and fans fresh from a game but ready to do it again for the cameras.
It's all about the kids for Candler. She flew to the set of Need for Speed in Macon, Ga., to meet with Paul about her film. The echo in her mind: "Is he a nice person? Will he be cool with my kids?" He is. He was.
At the film's first major audition, Candler saw more than 100 kids and heard their heartbreaking stories. It's clear that this process is bigger for her than making a movie. "It's just that kids go through shit well beyond their years," she says. "I sometimes want to grab them – the families, the teachers. They don't ask these kids, who need to be able to get these things off their chests without doing it in a destructive way."
So, for the kids, Hellion is a chance for this filmmaker – this "overnight success" – to give those kids, maybe all of us, one big hug. "I'm full of hope," Candler says. "It's just that the mistakes we make as human beings are way more interesting than the good choices we make."
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