Promotional image from Hellion.

Austin Director Kat Candler, on the Familial Inspiration Behind Hellion

Kat Candler’s three-year journey with Hellion has taken her throughout Texas and has included stories from her own family as well as those from refinery workers and hurricane victims.

The Austin-based director and University of Texas film professor turned her acclaimed short film into a feature exploration of family dysfunction and juvenile delinquency.

The short was based on a nugget of a story Candler’s uncle would tell her about childhood hell-raising with his two brothers, when they set fire to her grandfather’s Jeep.

“The short made me reflect on my own parents and my grandfather, and how you have this idea when you’re a kid of who they are, and they can do no wrong,” Candler said during the recent Dallas International Film Festival. “When you grow up, you realize that sometimes they make mistakes and that they’re fallible. There’s so much more that they’re struggling with than you realized. They’re people making poor choices, but they have a good heart.”

That anecdote didn’t make it into the expanded feature, but rather served as the inspiration for Hellion, a story of teenage rebellion that centers on Jacob (newcomer Josh Wiggins), a 13-year-old who enjoys dirt bikes, heavy-metal music, random acts of vandalism, and often a combination of the three.

The death of Jacob’s mother has driven his father (Aaron Paul) to alcoholism, making his aunt (Juliette Lewis) the most influential adult in his life.  Still, absentee parenting only makes the situation worse, especially when Jacob’s younger brother (Deke Garner) becomes involves in his misadventures. When the local authorities take his brother away, however, Jacob becomes determined to mend his ways and get him back.

After two screenplays, the characters in Candler’s feature are only loosely based upon her family members. Instead, she mixed in some qualities of those she met along the Gulf Coast, who are struggling in working-class jobs or trying to recover from a hurricane. By contrast, she made the short film in Georgetown.

The idea for turning the short into a feature came into focus for Candler two years ago, when a producer took her to Southeast Texas, where she interviewed everyone from displaced refinery employees to emergency medical personnel as part of her research.

“I loved the world, and I loved these characters, and I just wanted to live with them in a longer expansion of their lives,” Candler said. “That’s when my wheels started spinning like mad.”

After an extensive casting search for the two brothers, Candler found Wiggins almost by accident, through a series of YouTube videos he made with a friend who happened to be in the Hellion short.

Funding the feature was a challenge, but Candler had a few acclaimed short films on her resume, as well as some features that played the festival circuit, which helped entice potential financiers.

The project was accepted into the Sundance Creative Producing Lab, which gave it some momentum. Another boost came when Paul signed on. A few months later, Candler and her modest crew returned to the Beaumont area to begin shooting.

“With the feature, it became a completely different world. Once I started exploring that area, that really became the source of a lot of the characters,” Candler said. “I had never seen that part of Texas on the screen before. I’m way more interested in worlds that I don’t know much about.”