Writer-director Kat Candler has the knack for stories of disaffected young people and dysfunctional families, as evidenced by her previous features Cicadas and Jumping Off Bridges. Candler's new film, Hellion, introduces teenage actor Josh Wiggins, who mightily holds his own opposite Aaron Paul. The father-son drama garnered attention at the Sundance Film Festival before wending its way to the San Francisco International Film Festival. On that occasion, I discussed the project with Candler and Wiggins at the Fairmont Hotel.
Groucho: How you holdin' up?
Kat Candler: Good!
Josh Wiggins: Good. The weather here is fantastic.
Groucho: That's good. That's a good start.
G: Alright, so Kat, you've said that—
Kat Candler: Uh oh!
G: "I've always been drawn to stories of youth."
G: Why do you think that is, and where did this particular story—for the original short film, and as you expanded it—spring from?
KC: Yeah, I love how everything as an adolescent is so new, that everything is so heightened, and firsts: there's all these firsts. And there's just high drama in that, which I gravitate towards. I think also because I don't have kids of my own, I kind of live vicariously through my characters as well. "Hellion" the short was from a story that my crazy uncle Frank would always tell at Thanksgiving dinners about how he and my other two uncles set fire to my grandfather's jeep when they were little. And what happened when my grandfather came home. It was one of those stories that it would just tell over and over again, and it's really funny and wild, and it's like "That's kind of crazy." I mean, they also stabbed each other, too.
Josh Wiggins: Of course. regular kid stuff.
KC: Yeah! Just regular kids. But I just—the idea of these boys was always so kind of fun to think about, and imagine what their lives looked like. And so the short: you know, we shot it for three days the summer of 2011. And I just loved the characters, and the relationship between the father and these boys. And I just wanted to live there a lot longer than the six-minute short that it became. And so I started going to southeast Texas, where someone mentioned they thought the world lived. And the first time down there, you're driving down I-10, and then you start to see all of these refineries just glowing at night, and the fires shooting out from these towers. And it was just something I hadn't seen before. And then going and exploring that whole part of Texas: we shot in Port Neches, Groves, Nederland, Port Arthur, Beaumont. It was just a place I hadn't seen on screen before, and that was really exciting. That no one had—outside of Urban Cowboy, at that time—really captured that place. I just started taking long field trips down there, like every other month, and exploring and talking to people, and the little story wheels started spinning out of control.
(Kat and Josh laugh.)
G: So those refineries that she's mentioning, those are probably fairly alien to you as well—
G: 'Cause you grew up in the suburbs, right?
JW: Yeah. Yeah.
G: What did you do to immerse yourself in this different culture, this kind of depressed community that was probably new to you?
JW: Yeah, it was all about just kind of reading the script over and over and just kind of taking in the environment and the characters and their relationships wth each other. And just kind of considering that while doing everything. And just being there, immersed in—I mean, the people were incredibly nice. You do see refineries everywhere you look, and so it's pretty easy to jump into that world.
G: Did you reprogram your iPod, or iPhone, with the music of [your character,] Jacob?
JW: Oh! (Laughs.) Not yet. But I will say—'cause growing up in suburbs in Texas, that's not really the music around.
CK: Kids do listen to heavy metal! Just not your friends.
JW: They do, but not in small suburban towns in Texas.
CK: Yes they do.
JW: For the most part. (Laughs.) But there are a lot of kids who do. I mean, after this movie, I kind of have an appreciation for it. 'Cause before it was like "Oh no, metal? No no no no," but now I'm just like "Okay, okay." Like I can roll with it now. I've kind of grown an appreciation for it.
CK: I made them mix CDs before, and gave them all mix CDs to listen to. And I think they all listened to them, like, once. And then just kind of like—
CK: I'm like, "But I swear to God, there's good stuff on here!"
G: I wanted to ask, too, about the rehearsal process. And looking back on it, what was most helpful for you about that time?
JW: I mean, the rehearsals make you feel—you grow with the people you're acting with, and you become comfortable with them, which is insanely important. And just being comfortable with your actors, just the crew, to be comfortable to go to these places that you need to go, to know that it's okay. Yeah, that was a huge part of the rehearsal process.
G: Cat, you did research. You interviewed Child Protective Services folks and kids and parents in that area. What did you learn about families like the Wilsons, and how these types of cases get handled by CPS?
CK: Yeah. I had a draft of the script that we'd gone out to actors with at one point, and I wanted to go back and talk again with some of the CPS officers. Just because I had talked to people in Austin, and then I really wanted to go down there and talk to people in that area. And it was interesting...there were differences between Austin, the bigger city, versus a smaller town where everybody knows everybody and everybody is aware of the situations going on in different families. And there was a gender change in one of the characters from one of the original drafts. Just in the little things, in terms of the cops being there, and how do you handle this particular moment and this particular moment? I mean, the sweet thing about women that we were able to talk to, and who then we gave the pages of the script to, to kind of give us their blessing on it: they were all, as I was wandering the halls of CPS, like "Please don't make us look like bad people because our job is to protect the children. And we're doing the best we can to service those children."
G: Josh, how would you describe what's going on in Jacob's head?
JW: Thhew! It's a lot of layers. I think a lot of madness. I think a lot of people don't really—in the movie—don't really take in what's he's been through? And just kind of say, "Okay, here's this stupid, rebellious kid," but he really does have a good heart. He just doesn't know how to use it. He can't use it, 'cause he's been polluted by all this stuff that's happened in his life. Just building off that. And just showing that this skin that he puts on is not who he really is. And so I think he's got a lot of inferiority issues from his dad leaving him and kind of this pressure of being a parent to his brother for a little while. And yeah, just—there's a lot of stuff going on in that head of his.
G: And being sort of inarticulate, I guess, at this stage, he's still learning how to express—
G: All that stuff he's bottling up, too.
JW: Yeah. He's not comfortable with it. He wants to, but he just can't take that step, 'cause he needs to—he feels like he needs to be the alpha male.
G: What did you both observe about the process of Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis? How do they go about their work?
CK: That's a good question. Aaron: he does a lot of research leading up to, and then he definitely finds his quiet—they both do—find their quiet spaces leading into a scene. The first time that I brought Aaron and Josh into the room to go rehearse, it was just so validating, because he was so trusting of me as a director, and kind of giving everything over to me, taking any kind of direction and trying anything, all the while having a very open dialogue about his ideas. And just trying things. Juliette, the same way. There's a really fun moment in the bedroom scene, towards the end, where I remember we were playing around with the scene, and you [Josh]—it's always so tricky in scenes like that, where you're dealing with—
G: So many variables, so many characters.
CK: Yeah! All of that! And I think Josh and Juliette, there was a moment that wasn't quite working. And I remember telling Juliette to do something that took you [Josh] totally by surprise, and it was just this beautiful moment of "Yeah, that's what it's supposed to feel like. And that's the reality of what it looks like." And so it was finding those fun little secrets to tell actors to play off of and kind of surprise each other with, which I always love and I think is really cool.
G: There are some really heavy emotional scenes and some dark places that this requires you to go to. And though those YouTube videos that got you noticed are nothing to sneeze at—they got you in the room—
G: This is sort of upping the ante, right?
G: In terms of your acting. So how did you both work together to help you get to where you needed to be to access those emotions?
JW: Cat encouraged me to not be afraid to "Go to where you need to go. Just kind of make it your own." She's not, like, y'know, "It's my way or get out of here." She's very much "Make it your own. And do what you need to do." And, doing it for the first time, that meant the world, to know that this director was okay. I'm free.
CK: I think two-thirds of the battle of getting a great performance is in the casting. And really spending the time with these actors—specifically with all these kids. And you get to see the glimpses of knowing that they can go to these places. And going back to the YouTube videos, what I was so struck by with him was how easy it was, and how flawless. Even these kind of little silly things, playing bad detective in the backyard, with the swimming pool, and fake guns and stuff, there was still something very easy about his performance that translated into harder, more difficult material, but the essence of that ease and that flawlessness was always there. And it's very—whether he'll say this or not—for me, I feel like it's a very instinctual thing with him. And everything is always in the eyes, and it's so subtle. And he just got that from the beginning. So there's nothing forced. It was never forced with him. It was just all very easy.
G: A big term in acting you hear all the time is "commitment."
G: It sounds like committing to the reality of any situation
G: Is what's working there. So the mom is a hugely important character who we never actually really see.
G: So what did you do to make her real for the actors, or for yourself?
CK: I'll let you speak too, but I know with Aaron, we talked a lot about—I gave him character outlines for her, and then character outlines for their relationship. And then we talked a lot about the day that she passed away and what happened, and specific arguments that they had, and the actual events leading up to it. So, as a writer, it's all about building that history, whether you know what they did five days ago or they did ten years ago or they did two weeks ago. It's knowing all of that backwards and forwards so when you do get into a room with the actors, you can answer those questions easily and confidently, hopefully. But it was. It was talking a lot about their relationship. And those were conversations that we had when I first met Aaron, last April. When we were talking through the character and their world and that story and that relationship.
JW: Yeah, she did, for us, for everyone, she had us do the same thing like that she did with Aaron. We wrote, like, papers on our characters' relationships. And we talked a little bit about the mom and how it got left off with everyone. Yeah, that definitely helped.
G: So it's sort of ironic, Josh, that you get to do something a lot of people would love to do: trash a truck.
JW: Mmm, yes!
G: But in a sense, you couldn't fully enjoy it—
G: Because your character is sort of tortured and angry. You had to be in that angry place.
JW: (Laughs.) Oh, I enjoy it! Yes. But yeah, I remember that was what we were all looking forward to, at the beginning. "When are we going to do the truck?" And when I first got the baseball bat and I first took it to the hood, I was like "Yess!"
JW: It is so—I don't know what it is about humans destroying things that's so fun, but there's one where we put—I hit the side mirror, and I hit the window. And they put a little firecracker in the window, so that when I hit it, it shattered. And as soon as I did it, I felt like the coolest cat in town.
G: And these are all, I would assume, one-take situations, right, considering the budget?
CK: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, we did a wide of it. And, like, all of a sudden the boys started going nuts. And I'm like "Go in! Go in!" Our DP was great in just being able to react to everything going on. But yeah, that was one of my favorite scenes to shoot too.
CK: Yeah, I love that scene.
G: So tell me about motocross, 'cause that's sort of a big element of the film. But I guess largely for insurance concerns, none of your principal kids could really ride, right, for the film? But you experimented.
CK: He practiced once.
JW: It didn't go too well.
CK: And that was the last time he was able to get on a bike.
JW: Okay, so—
JW: I've ridden a bike probably twice in my life, so Cat signed me up for dirt-biking lessons. And so I did, and at first we were just going around this hill for—it was probably around ten minutes. "So, okay, I got it, I got it." And so the instructor says to let go of the clutch, and, y'know, you go really fast; it accelerated fast. So I did, and the first time, I was fine. And then the second time he asked, he's like "Okay, let's do it again. Let's do it a little harder this time." I was like "Okay." And so I did it, but I just hit it way too hard, and so I did a wheelie on the bike, and I throw myself back up on it. And at this point, my stomach's on the seat, so I'm like Superman position onto the bike, swerving away, swerving away, and of course, going towards the only tree that's in the area for miles. So I'm heading towards that, panicking, trying to rear back the wrist, and I eventually fall, and try to act like it wasn't horrifying, but it was a little embarrassing.
CK: It was funny too, 'cause the one kid, Cameron Owens, who was, like the motocross kid that we found at a motocross race, he was not allowed to ride the entire month and a half that we were shooting and rehearsing, and he was just crushed by it. 'Cause he's used to riding, like, every single day. And every day, he would ask me, "Can I ride my bike?" I'm like "No, you can't ride your bike today."
CK: Not for another few weeks.
JW: And then at the end—.
CK: Oh yeah, as soon as I called wrap, we were shooting at the track, and literally the second I called, "Okay, that's a wrap everybody!" and we're all, like, hugging and crying, and he's out, got his bike and is just lapping around
JW: (Laughs.) Literally we look over, and he's out there—
CK: Out there.
JW: Doing a wheelie. It was pretty hilarious.
CK: We were like "We're done! We'll see you at the hotel!" (Laughs.)
G: Alright, well, I'm out of time. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
CK: Thank you so much!