A New Day
Life in Kat Candler's cinematic world
Kat Candler doesn't have time to watch Lost.
On the one hand that's a good thing: It means the multi-award-winning Austin-based independent filmmaker has an extra hour a week to work on her upcoming projects, including her first comedy feature, Brain Brawl, as well as pursue her newfound sideline as a teacher at the Austin School of Film.
On the other hand, Emmy-nominated Lost star Michael Emerson (Ben Linus), who two years ago took a respite from his usual character roles of prickly bad guys and the occasional nutter to star as a weary suburban family man wracked by his wife's suicide in Candler's revelatory film jumping off bridges, will likely read this article and have to feign grief all over again.
But that's life in Kat Candler's cinematic world: The wiry thrum of teenage misfit melancholy – so much like the whine of the titular insects in her 2000 breakout feature, cicadas – is never far from her characters' hearts and minds, no matter how good they are. Death happens, communication breaks down, tears flow, and then getting your film distributed and out to the public turns out to be the toughest hurdle of all. And then, as if by sheer, grappling humanity, her characters go on, her films garner awards, become guideposts for other people, other filmmakers. They survive. They get better. It's tentative, but it's there. Life goes on at 24 frames per second.
Does Kat Candler have a philosophy of filmmaking?
"I like to see the goodness in people. I like good human beings. I like to see people struggling to be good or trying to do good things."
Those are often the people who are in the most trouble.
"That's true. I guess I want to give people a little bit of hope and a little bit of humanity."
Through your filmmaking?
"In my films, yeah."
If Kat Candler jumped off a bridge, would you jump off, too? If you were in the audience at the South by Southwest 06 Alamo Drafthouse South screening of Candler's second feature, jumping off bridges, then you already have. If you missed it, here's how it went down: sniffles, the occasional muffled sob, and a rousing ovation as the closing credits crawled. It was only the beginning of a yearlong journey for Candler, producer and Storie Productions co-partner Stacy Schoolfield, and a thoroughly nontraditional route to distribution. But that afternoon, with Candler onstage fielding questions – stories, actually – from an emotionally riveted audience, many of whom had tales similar to that of the film's storyline about the repercussions of a mother's (Anne Nabors) suicide on a quartet of tight-knit teenage friends (Bryan Chafin, Glen Powell Jr., Savannah Welch, Katie Lemon), the standard festival Q&A model was seemingly usurped by attendees needing to tell their own stories.
Roundly and rightly praised for its spot-on portrayal of teens in crisis mode (much of the most important information in the film is telegraphed via blink-and-you'll-miss-it looks, shrugs, and a veritable textbook of teen-angst mannerisms, all of which ring true), jumping off bridges seemed like a sure shot for whatever indie distributor managed to scoop it up first, but then ... nothing happened.
"We had a terrible time trying to get it released theatrically," Candler says. "People were interested in it, but they didn't know how to market it or who to market it to. They were terrified of the fact that it was about suicide, that it was a downer of a film. We got a lot of, 'We really love it, but downer films don't do very well.' So nobody would touch it. I mean, nobody. When we were at the [Independent Feature Project] Rough Cut Lab in 2005, there was a guy who was doing a marketing presentation, looking at people's materials, and then offering them advice on how to market their films. He took one look at jumping off bridges and immediately said, 'Look, you can't mention that it's about suicide, and you can't mention that it's sad.' Which pretty much left us with nothing to mention.
"After South by Southwest, we did a couple of festivals, and after a while, it dawned on us that the people who were coming up to us after the screenings were people whose lives had been directly affected by a suicide, or maybe they had lost somebody or they were affected in some way by some sort of mental-health issue. We ended up talking to a lot of counselors, therapists, and mental-health professionals. It turned out that that's who our audience was."
But discovering their film's audience only convoluted the issue of distribution even further for Candler and Storie Productions: How do you distribute a film, theatrically or otherwise, to an audience of counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and survivors?
Schoolfield: "We thought about it for a while, you know? We thought, maybe it's not an arthouse film like we thought it was. And then we figured out that if we move toward teaming up with various mental-health professionals around Texas and, maybe, around the country, we could sort of get the word out about the film and see what happened. So we did a tour."
Buoyed by the positive reaction they'd received from mental-health professionals in the Austin area – Merily Keller of the Texas Suicide Prevention Council and a consultant on suicide prevention to Mental Health America of Texas was sent a copy of the script during preproduction and gave it her stamp of approval, commenting that "it's a remarkably accurate portrayal of what survivors of suicide go through" – Candler and Schoolfield drew up "an enormous spreadsheet" listing all of the major players and organizations in the mental-health industry, contacted them all and mailed out DVDs of the film, and took their film directly to the audience. Results were, well, a little mixed, but, as Candler tells it, a whole career's worth of lessons on the finer points of self-exhibition were learned.
"It's really, really hard to get butts in seats. For example, the first city we played in was Seattle. We didn't know anyone there, and we tried to team up with local suicide-prevention and mental-health groups, but because it was the first screening, we ended up not partnering with anybody. We did get the theatre, the Broadway Performance Hall, for free, because it was a friend of Stacy's, but trying to get listed in the major newspapers while competing with the big theatres was really hard. We ended up having a very low turnout on that one.
"Eventually we teamed up with the American Counseling Association, who reviewed the film and started sending out e-mails to their 40,000 members. That helped. We just started meeting all of the players in the different communities, and then they would start spreading the word via their e-mail lists. We'd have screenings at universities under the auspices of the women's studies department, the psychology department, the counseling center, all of these different groups would team up to present the film, and for those types of screenings, we'd get a great turnout."
"What we discovered from the tour," adds Schoolfield, "was that people in the mental-health community had been really looking for a narrative film like ours to use in their profession as a way to speak to people who are training to be counselors in the mental-health field. And through the tour and working the phones, we were working the CampusBlues websites, and eventually things just started connecting. It was a lot of work figuring that out, but eventually we realized that self-distributing was the way we were going to have to go with this film, and the best way for us to do that would be to join the New Day Films collective."
New Day Films, "the premier distribution cooperative for social issue media from independent filmmakers," has been around for more than 30 years, but don't kick yourself if you haven't heard of it: Until jumping off bridges came along, their entire catalog of films by more than 100 filmmakers – which are listed and made available for purchase and rental to universities, education professionals, and the like – had never had a narrative feature, although their films have garnered one Academy Award, nine nominations, and a raft of other citations and commendations.
"Our friend [and fellow Austin filmmaker] Heather Courtney told us about New Day," Candler says. "It's a pretty wonderful and unique entity in that it puts the power in the filmmaker's hands. You control how many sales you're getting, how much publicity you're getting, and there's this huge structure underneath that's supporting you; you have the resources of all the other filmmakers in the collective. You know from their experiences what works and what doesn't work.
"The way it works is like this: You're putting all the packaging together. You're making all the duplications. You're sending it off to their fulfillment house, and then they take care of all the orders. They put you in their catalog, and they add you to the mailing lists of all these universities and professors and so forth."
Given that jumping off bridges was never likely – or intended – to pull in weekend box-office at the local Regal or Gateway megaplexes, New Day became, suddenly, an obvious route to distribution, if not exactly a "normal" one.
"If you put a lot of work into it, you'll get a lot back, and vice versa. It's really empowering, actually. Some of the distributors we'd been speaking to, once we talked to the filmmakers that had previously signed with those distributors, they were like, 'They're not doing crap for us,' or, 'I wish I had never signed with them.' Stacy and I had been talking to educational distributors, and the way the money was balancing out was along the lines of they get 65%, and the filmmakers get 35%. With New Day, it's flipped. You're getting more money, but you're doing more work, too. Right now we're doing a thousand DVDs for the first run, targeting university psych departments, mental-health organizations, and conferences, and the first DVDs should be going out sometime in September."
Which is right when Kat Candler will be going to film school. To teach, that is.
Candler is a diminutive presence in person, and her demeanor pretty much embodies the definition of sweet, but her frame belies a newfound passion, one that not only adds to her skills as a filmmaker – movies are, after all, just another way of interpersonal communication, albeit a marginally more time-consuming and financially risky one – but also has opened up a previously unexplored aspect of, you'll pardon the pun, her unstoppable sense of "Kattitude."
The whole experience of touring behind her film, as you might expect, was difficult. It's not the easiest thing in the world making a semipersonal film account of a suicide, much less having to go through the emotionally draining process of talking to both survivors and mental-health professionals every night for a month on the road.
"It was hard sometimes," Candler admits, "because at every single screening, we would have people coming up and telling us their own personal stories as they relate to the film. You can imagine what's that like. I actually ended up going back into therapy because of that. It's a lot to deal with.
"But then, the experiences I've had with this film have definitely resonated with me as far as what I want to do in the future. It's nice being able to affect somebody in that respect, and I think that discovering teaching, for me, is really just a natural extension of the experiences I've had with jumping."
In a nice bit of serendipitous career symmetry only a filmmaker could truly appreciate, Candler has recently teamed up with the Austin School of Film (formerly the Motion Media Arts Center) to helm a trio of classes aimed at teaching kids the rudiments of the filmmaking process, from preproduction conceptualizing to screening the final work. And what better place for a filmmaker whose own body of work, as jumping off bridges star Michael Emerson points out, "seems to be a look back, a revisiting of that period in our lives when we are teenagers just coming into the complexities of grownup life and the greater world?"
"I went to Kat's screening of cicadas at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown almost five years ago," recalls Austin School of Film education director Anne Goetzmann Kelley, "and she immediately became my favorite director in town. We tried, at that point, to get her over here to teach as part of our Center for Young Cinema, but she was just too busy – she was always making a film. But we kept bugging her every time we saw her until she finally agreed to teach a workshop here. I don't think she realized how good she was going to be at teaching."
ASF programs administrator Karl Anderson echoes that thought: "Kat is the most natural teacher there is. You'll never find a better teacher or a more enthusiastic teacher than Kat. And the thing is, we don't know how long we'll have her here. There's another film production in her future, and it's probably not that far off. The whole idea of having a good teacher is about having people who are doing it, who are making films, who are having their work seen and screened, and then they impart what they know to people who want to know how but don't yet. Kat is a model of what a film teacher should be, you know? Her enthusiasm is flat-out contagious. And, yeah, I don't think she knew how much she'd enjoy it, either."
By Candler's own admission, the experience has been something of a revelation.
"When you spend a whole semester and you watch the growth of a student from having done nothing at all to having created a story, produced it, and then screening that film, that's the most gratifying thing of all for me. Being in an audience with all of my students and their families and their friends and then afterward seeing them so excited is just the greatest feeling.
"I had one 15-year-old student my first semester who, on the very first day, had all these crazy, wonderful ideas of what he wanted to do. I was thinking, okay, I'm not sure how you're going to do all of that but ... great. Sure enough, he put it all on the screen. His shots were amazing. After the screening, he came out of the theatre and came up to me and told me, 'I had no idea how much this would move me, as far as seeing it with people and people's reactions to something I did.' And I was like, Yeah!
"I think, for me, that's what it's all about: being able to connect with people on that level, whether through film or through teaching or, now, both. It's been incredibly gratifying. To no end."
Kat Candler's Fall Classes at Austin School of Film
FALL SCRIPT TO SCREEN WORKSHOP
Tuesdays, Sept. 11-Dec. 11, 6:30-9pm
Final screening: Saturday, Dec. 15
FALL TEEN FILMMAKING WORKSHOP
Saturdays, Sept. 8-Dec. 8, 10am-noon
Final screening: Saturday, Dec. 15
Enrollment and tuition information: www.austinfilmschool.org