Kat Candler Moves to TV With Queen Sugar
OWN’s breakout hit comes to ATX Television Festival
When you're an indie movie director, how do you gain experience directing big-budget TV when you're constantly turned down for not having any?
That was writer-director Kat Candler's quandary in 2015. A stalwart of Austin's indie film community, she was riding the breakout success of her award-winning 2014 feature Hellion, an adolescent angst flick starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Juliette Lewis (Whip It). The triumph, however, hadn't guaranteed an easy segue to the small screen. "I [was] thinking, 'Oh, doors are gonna open," said Candler. "And when it came to television, I realized how difficult it was to break in."
In an industry where "every day is money," why take a risk with a director outside of their medium when there's an arsenal of seasoned vets? Candler saw the key as finding someone willing to cash in their chips on you, sight unseen. "It's just someone taking a chance on you and believing in you."
Her golden ticket came in the form of 13th and Selma director/producer Ava DuVernay. The pair first met in 2011, and reconnected at SXSW 2015 where DuVernay was delivering a keynote address. "We met up afterwards and she said, 'I'm doing this television show called Queen Sugar. Would you be interested in directing an episode?'" recalled Candler. DuVernay was seeking those just like Candler: wildly talented female directors facing barriers to breaking into TV. "She's visionary," said Candler. "She literally ripped the hinges off the doors and built her own house and said, 'Come on in.'"
Based on Natalie Baszile's novel, Queen Sugar chronicles the Bordelon family's fight to restore the family sugar cane farm following the death of the patriarch, Ernest. At its narrative core are Ernest's adult children – Nova (True Blood's Rutina Wesley), Charley (Wesley's former Juilliard classmate Dawn Lyen-Gardner), and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe, MTV's Awkward.) – a trio of estranged siblings navigating the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class against the Spanish moss and humming cicadas of St. Josephine, La.
Though the medium is new, the thematic bedrock is familiar ground to Candler. Much of her earlier work echoes Queen Sugar's exploration of responsibility and allegiance to family, parental loss, and the shortcomings of father figures. She said, "Whether it's rural Louisiana, whether it's heavy metal, whether it's a refinery town in Southeast Texas, I've always had a gravitational pull toward family stories." She posited that's why DuVernay reached out to her: "I think that we share a lot of the same sensibilities of family, of drama, of moments, of sort of in-between spaces."
Just as the Bordelons' story has evolved onscreen, Candler's role behind the camera has changed. From directing two episodes in season 1, to becoming season 3's showrunner, Candler sees her ascension as a complete education: "I'm trying to steal as much as I can from everybody else. I mean, the first season, it was just getting thrown into the world of television and just trying as hard as I could to do the best job possible. Season 2, as producing director, I was able to support all of these directors – from Julie Dash to Aurora Guerrero – and be a student. [And before] this season I had never been in a writers' room."
Work, work, work, indeed. "It's a lot," admitted Candler. As the "creative manager of everything," she supervises every facet from script workshopping to costume decisions. But it's more than well worth it when you're running one of the most groundbreaking shows on television right now. "The beautiful thing about this show is the opportunity to reflect real life and be able to put families that we don't normally get to see onscreen," said Candler. It's the same quickening of possibility she felt on her first day directing an episode. "I walked into a set that was filmed with women in all different positions [and there were] people of color in all different positions. It was such a beautiful reflection of everyday life on a set, which is so incredibly rare to see."
ATX Television Festival 2018June 7-10. Tickets and info at www.atxfestival.com. Follow all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/atx-television-festival.
Queen Sugar screening and Q&A with Kat Candler, Rutina Wesley, Dawn Lyen-Gardner, and Kofi Siriboe: Saturday, June 9, 2:45pm, Alamo Ritz.