SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 8, 2012
Kat Candler’s six-minute short film Hellion promises to grow — funding-permitted — into a mayhem-filled feature-length film; but, for now, the short serves as a medias in res introduction to three young brothers (Deke Garner, Arthur Dale and Tommy Hohl) and their incredibly rambunctious ways. On the day that we meet the three hellions, we find that they have been left alone with an obviously unqualified babysitter (Karinne Bersti) who has already been — how should I put this? — removed from the equation. Left to their own devices, anarchy ensues (in tandem with a heavy metal soundtrack); but the Lord of the Flies atmosphere instantly evaporates into thin air as soon as their father (Jonny Mars) gets home.
Candler (Cicadas, Jumping Off Bridges) has an undeniable talent for creating very specific atmospheres within her films. Shot on location in Georgetown, TX, Hellion relishes in the youthful ecstasy of absolute freedom. Although a different era altogether, Hellion is somewhat reminiscent of the scenes of the young boys in The Tree of Life. Both films brilliantly reveal the wildness of boys when left to their own devices as well as highlighting the irresponsible choices that they tend to make — in both films this feeling is captured purely with visuals, with the use of very little dialog.
Hellion works well as a short film, but it is a really awesome teaser for a feature film. It left me incredibly curious about how this six-minute sequence of events will fit into the timeline of the feature-length film… We chatted with Candler as she prepared for her Texas premiere of Hellion at SXSW 2012…
Don Simpson: I really love the atmosphere/environment that you create with Hellion, so I am very curious about your approach to the visualization of Hellion.
Kat Candler: Growing up I was obsessed with Lord of the Flies. I still am. Both the book and the 1963 film were huge inspirations for the film. As far as camera and lighting go, I brought Drew Xanthopoulos (Director of Photography) Lord of the Flies (1963) and a 1969 short film called A Day with the Boys. And in turn, Drew brought The Tree of Life. We also talked a lot about E.T.
We always wanted to keep the camera at seven-year old, Petey’s level. This is an adult film about a kid’s world. Drew’s idea was also to never get a close up of the dad until one defining moment in the film. I think that worked really nicely. You’re really not sure how to feel about this father. He’s aggressive. He’s gruff. He isn’t a warm guy by any means — until this one moment of discovery with his character. It’s my favorite moment. People are freakin’ complex. It’s something I think about a lot, as I’ve gotten older. How we have this perception or memory of people from childhood and how as we get older we really questions those perceptions of, who we thought they were and who they really were. Does that make sense?
Our production designer, Ashlyn Fielder was a former student who’d gone out to LA, not felt the vibe there and came back. She was an exceptional student in my class. And so knowing her work ethic and her talent, I approached her about coming on to Hellion. My ultimate goal– make it real. Make it honest. I know I’ve talked a lot about films like The Last Picture Show and Gummo when it came to design. I wanted a more timeless look to it. Finding the perfect house was 3/4 of the battle. When Drew Saplin (Locations) sent me the photo, I instantly knew. “That’s our house! That’s where they live!” Luckily the homeowner, his son and their dog (who has a cameo in the movie) were extremely cool. They welcomed us in and went above and beyond helping us out.
DS: Music plays a very prominent role in forming the tone and atmosphere of the Hellion. At what point did you determine the role that the soundtrack would play in this story? And when did you decide on the music selection?
KC: The style of music was always written into the script. It reads, “Heavy metal blares” on the page. I wanted a 80s thrash metal to emphasize these kids in chaos. Curtis Heath, our composer, nailed it. We had never worked together before but some trusted friends recommended him. I knew his band, The Theater Fire, but they’re the polar opposite of metal. So when I got back the first draft of the music, I was pretty much like, “Holy crap you’re awesome!” Our working relationship has been over the phone and email so I’m excited to hang out in person at SXSW. They’re playing some shows during the music part.
DS: Casting, of course, is a very key part of this film — especially the three brothers. How did you approach the casting of the three boys and the father?
KC: Katie Richter, our phenomenal casting director spread our net pretty wide across the state of Texas. We got a ton of kids for first round auditions and then video submissions came in from tiny pockets of Texas. I told Katie the kids would have to cry in their first round audition. I’ve learned that if they can’t cry in an audition, they can’t cry on set when the camera’s rolling. So we weeded out a bunch of kids that way. And then the fun part were call-backs. Were able to find the chemistry with this family and also with Jonny.
The major thing with Jonny was that I wouldn’t allow him to be nice or chummy with any of the kids — in call-backs, in rehearsals, or on set. They had to genuinely fear him and never know what to expect from him. It definitely kept the kids on their toes.
Jonny Mars was always my first choice for the dad. I never auditioned him. I just walked down the hall where we both office, handed him a script and said, “I want you to play the dad in this little film I’m doing.” I’m a huge, huge fan of Jonny Mars. I think he’s wicked talented. And any opportunity I get to work with him, I’ll jump at it. I’m crazy proud of the performance he gave for Hellion. And I’m really excited to see what amazing performances he’ll give in the future. And I hope to be a part of those performances. With my luck he’ll get super big and be like, “Sorry, Kat I can’t work on your petty, little films any more. I’m big time now.” And then he’ll pat me on the head and walk away. I’d be so sad. I think the world of that guy.
DS: Do you feel like you need to approach directing kids, teens and adults differently? You definitely seem drawn to young protagonists…so I’m guessing that you probably enjoy it!
KC: I really enjoy working with kids. They’re just cool.
There are definitely different approaches to working with super young kids to teens to adults. First off, you have to find kids who just have “it.” If they don’t, you’re not going to get a performance. So 80% of the battle is the audition process and finding talented, honest kids who feel comfortable in their own skin and feel comfortable with you.
With any actor, you want to protect them on set. And create a space they feel safe to go where they need to go emotionally. And so anyone under the age of 18, you’re extra extra careful to protect them. I have a “no expletives” (ridiculously hard for me) and a “be careful what you talk about” around these kids on set rule. You have a responsibility to the actor and to their parents to treat them with respect and professionalism.
In a film like Hellion where you’re getting extreme emotions from little, little kids, you have to explain the process of working together and always “check in” with them. I explained to Deke, I’m not going to let you enter this scene until I see you’re emotionally ready. And Jonny’s going to yell at you in character as your dad to help get you there. So my poor editor, David Lowery would have long takes where Deke wouldn’t come into frame for a good long while as Jonny just yelled. And after almost every take, because Jonny would have to be physical with these guys, he’d always ask, “Are you okay? I didn’t hurt you did I?” Jonny and I definitely took these kids through the ringer. But they were little bad asses who stepped up to the plate and held their own. And I think it shows. And I’m crazy proud of them.
I remember having a conversation with Jonny on set about his concerns with how to play the opening scene. “But it’s supposed to be funny here. How angry do you want me to be?” — “Dude, you’d be crazy pissed if your kids set fire to your yard. You can be super angry.” I feel like if it’s honest, the comedy and the drama will play. Don’t force it. Just be honest.
As far as directing style …you’re just always reminding actors where they were emotionally and physically right before the scene and where they’re at emotionally in this moment. And sometimes you toss in surprises and curve balls to keep them fresh. I don’t know. You figure out what the actor needs from you as a director and you go from there. It’s a fun process of discovery with every film and every actor. I love it.
There’s definitely a weird tone to Hellion that I feel like we lucked out at achieving. I honestly didn’t know how people would react to this dark drama with comedic elements until we started playing bigger audiences. Trust me, I was really, really nervous. And in the end, that tone is something that makes it special. I’m trying to preserve that in the feature version.
DS: What can you tell me about the feature-length version of Hellion?
KC: The feature focuses more on the oldest son and the father’s relationship in small town East Texas. In the short there’s an absence of the mom and that plays a big role in the feature. Ultimately it’s about the length you’d go to for your family. No matter what genre, I’m a total sucker for any story or film that revolves around the parent/child dynamic.
DS: This was your first time to screen a film at Sundance — was it all its cracked up to be? What was the fun vs. work ratio like for you? Do you feel like it was a productive experience?
KC: It was everything and then some. I mean, really amazing. I couldn’t stop tearing up before our first Sundance screening. And after the film was over and the audience seemed to really love it, the waterworks turned on. I was a little bit of a weeping mess. But yeah, it was awesome. Fucking, fucking awesome.
Being at Sundance with a film is a lot of work. The downfall is you don’t get to see as many films as you hoped. I went out there with a jam-packed schedule of movies I wanted to see every day, all day but quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen. You’re constantly going to parties, brunches, dinners, meetings, interviews… Luckily a lot of films I missed that I wanted to see are screening at SXSW.
It was really productive. We came out of the week with a whole new set of friends, connections, leads on future projects, inspiration and extreme gratitude … oh, and the flu (for which I was not grateful).
DS: Now you’re screening at SXSW…which I’m assuming should be a bit more relaxed experience for you… What is your primary goal with the SXSW screenings?
KC: We just want as many people to see the film in a dark, movie theater with a big audience.