Hollywood is rife with teenage rebellion films, many of which either over-dramatize the experience of being a teen or over-demonize their subjects. The best of these flesh out the real struggle of coming of age and plumb the depths of kids and their families, broken or otherwise. The new film by one-time Jacksonville Beach resident Kat Candler, Hellion, falls into that latter category.
Hellion follows 13-year-old Jacob Wilson, played by the fantastic newcomer Josh Wiggins, and his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), as they deal with their father's absenteeism in the aftermath of their mother's recent death. Dad, played by Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul, is a boozer who can't deal with the loss of his wife, a guy who loves his kids but can't get his shit together enough to show them. His neglect leads to the removal of Wes by Child Protective Services for fostering by Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis).
As his family splinters, Jacob, a budding motocross star and metalhead, lashes out in increasingly violent ways as his father tries to pull what's left of his life together. When Pam is offered a job in a distant Texas town, Jacob unravels and all hell breaks loose. All of this plays out with surprising restraint and sensitivity in Candler's capable hands.
Folio Weekly interviewed Candler last month about her obsession with youth and heavy metal, her views on family and her favorite rebellion films.
Folio Weekly: Some here in Jacksonville are under the impression that you are a Jax native, but you were born in the ATL, right?
Kat Candler: I don't know what's up with that. I was born in Atlanta and then spent four-and-a-half years of my life on a cul-de-sac in a suburban Atlanta neighborhood. All I really remember is that cul-de-sac and the treacherous hill I'd race my Big Wheel down for hours on end.
I grew up in Jacksonville Beach from age four-and-a-half until I graduated from Stanton College Prep at age 17. So, basically my formative years [were in Jacksonville Beach]. I have countless Mead composition books filled with my youthful adventures in Florida. It was a pretty magical time in my life with friends who are still my closest and dearest.
Now you're in Austin, Texas.
I moved to Austin in 1997 after graduating from FSU with a degree in creative writing. In Austin, I worked a day job in a bookstore and an artificial intelligence software company — very glamorous — while I taught myself how to make movies by making movies. In that time, I made two tiny features — Cicadas and Jumping Off Bridges. I didn't go to film school, so I consider those two films my undergrad and my grad program. I've made a ton of short films, written a bunch of screenplays, sold some stuff, made some stuff, proud of some stuff, not so proud of some stuff.
In 2012, my short film Hellion got into Sundance, and that's when everything changed for me. In 2014, we brought the Hellion feature to Sundance, and since this last January, life has been very different. I can still barely pay my rent, but the opportunities I've always dreamed of are finally here.
Your film Jumping Off Bridges centers on teens, and Black Metal involves a metal fan who goes bonkers and commits a murder. Where does your interest in youth stem from?
When I started making movies, I was in
my early 20s. Adolescence was a very romanticized time in my life. Again, countless journals filled with so much angst. Everything in youth is so wide and heightened. Everything is a beautiful first. And there is a mountain of drama in those first times that you're discovering the world.
As I've gotten older, I've matured into older characters. Black Metal is actually about a man dealing with the public blame when his music is linked to a murder. I also don't have kids of my own, so I think I live vicariously through my characters dealing with family struggles and the parent/child dynamic.
You have a great cast for Hellion, but kids are kids. What's the hardest aspect of directing young people?
Really, it's just finding the right kids. I think that's the hardest part because it takes a lot of patience. We scouted high and low to find these five boys. I saw hundreds and hundreds of actors and non-actors across the U.S. I searched in tiny towns all over Texas, motocross races, community centers and then traditional auditions and taped auditions from L.A. and N.Y. We were relentless in our search.
After finding the right kids, it's about creating a safe place on set for them to feel free and comfortable to go to extreme emotional places. With that said, I'm all about bringing a cast and crew together who have good hearts and are good human beings who provide that protected environment.
Deke Garner, who plays Wes, was actually the lead in my short film. Dylan Cole, who plays Hyder, I found through traditional auditions in Texas. He'd done a few commercials but never a feature film. Camron Owens, who plays Roger, I found at a motocross race. He'd never acted before, just had this charisma and charm that I fell in love with.
Dalton Sutton, who plays Lance, I found in Port Arthur, Texas, where we shot the film. Again, he'd never acted before. I think his mom made him go to the audition. And then Josh Wiggins I found through YouTube, strangely enough.
For the ultra-violent stuff, what did you do to prepare the kids? How did you protect them?
We had a stunt coordinator, special FX coordinator and fire department for all of the fight scenes, [the] truck-bashing scene, bonfires, motocross scenes, anything that was potentially dangerous. These guys walk the kids through every beat of the scene. They carefully choreograph everything to keep everyone safe. I'm hypersensitive to all of it. If someone gets a scrape, I freak out. But when all of the elements are in place, and you watch this truck on fire and boys beating the crap out of it — man, it's really cool.
Movies about teen rebellion can be trite and patronizing. But two that come to my mind as superior are 1979's Over the Edge and Harmony Korine's and Larry Clark's KIDS. Were these films, or others like it, on your radar when you were writing and/or filming Hellion?
Over the Edge was probably the biggest influence on Hellion. I'd seen it years ago, and it had such an impact. These kids, bored and aimless, stirring up all kinds of trouble. That last school scene is just epic. I would also say Lord of the Flies was pretty influential, both the book and the 1963 movie. I'm fascinated by good kids doing bad things and trying to figure out why. With Hellion, I wanted to give voice to these kids who wander the small town streets in search of adventure, respect and understanding.
Other films that were instrumental both narratively and visually: Urban Cowboy, Tender Mercies, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, The Outsiders, Stand By Me. When I'm writing, right up until I'm shooting, I have a wall of images that I'm always staring at and referencing.
I had a pretty charmed childhood. My older brother and I certainly spent a lot of time home alone fending for ourselves. I ate a lot of cheese toast and watched The Price is Right every summer. But I was also the kid in the woods in our backyard with her dolls, Matchbox cars, Legos and frogs I'd find in the ponds after a good rain, creating these little narratives and building tree forts. I think that's where this whole movie thing all started.
The music in Hellion is great — all heavy and stoner metal — as are the T-shirts the kids wear. How much of a headache was it to get the rights to that stuff?
Honestly, we were pretty lucky in terms of bands and labels. We had a bad-ass music supervisor, Lauren Mikus, who already had relations with a couple of the labels through her work on a Terrence Malick film. Jeff Nichols, the director of Mud and Take Shelter, who's a friend and our executive producer, knew Lars Ulrich.
Jeff knew it was a dream of mine to work with Metallica, and so he put us in touch. They were beyond generous with their music, and it was very surreal to have these conversations with Lars about the film and the scenes. He was incredible.