Hellion grew from a short film director/writer Kat Candler submitted to Sundance in 2012 into a feature-length film that premiered at SXSW and is out in theaters today. The quiet yet striking movie is centered on a family of three in southeast Texas: Hollis Wilson (Aaron Paul), the deadbeat father mourning his late wife while trying to raise their two young boys; Jacob (Josh Wiggins), the older brother who is caught between being the bad boy and the good brother/son/motocross racer; and Wes (Deke Garner) the sweet younger brother who looks up to his sibling. The film takes a close look at how far boys can and will go to uphold the adage boys will be boys, and the roles a father and son are supposed to take.
I had the chance to speak to director/writer Kat Candler earlier this year at SXSW about casting Aaron Paul, the pleasures of doing film research, discovering Josh Wiggins, and the responsibility of being in a family.
How was it transforming the original short film into a longer movie?
Kat Candler: I had a six-seven page script that I’d written based off my Uncle Frank telling this story about how he set my grandfather’s Jeep on fire when they were little. I just wanted to make a short. By the time we wrapped, I loved the world, I loved these characters. Kelly started taking me down [to Port Arthur, Texas] and I would take furious notes, sitting in barber shops and going to the boot camp and going to restaurants and watching the refinery workers. I just interviewed a lot of people. Things just started expanding in my brain. Story-wise, too. In the short, there’s this absence of a mother. You’re not really sure what happened to her, but she’s just not there. So thinking about what happened to her and how this family came to this point and what their history was like and how they’re going to continue and remedy the situation that they’re in.
How did you go about researching the film?
Candler: My mom and her brothers grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I would just take trips during Christmas and the holidays so I knew their characters, and all the stories that they would tell about their stupid hellraising ways. But southeast Texas, I didn’t know at all. I’d never been down there. That’s one of my favorite parts of what we do as filmmakers and storytellers is the research. Going into the world that you have no idea what and who and how and why and figuring that out. Finding and interviewing the people, and observing, and soaking it all in. That’s the best part because you’re just trying to go in and make something real and honest and respectful.
How did Aaron Paul become involved?
Candler: Bringing Aaron Paul on board last April, that just set the ball rolling even faster. I knew his face early on because I remember seeing him in Last House on the Left. Then it was really seeing Smashed in the theater. I loved his performance and I loved Mary [Elizabeth Winstead]’s performance. James Ponsoldt is just so great with actors.
I had only seen two episodes of Breaking Bad at that point. I got to the bathtub episode, which is the defining episode for people to stop or continue on the journey. After I walked out of Smashed, my husband was like, ‘You need to go back in and continue watching Breaking Bad,’ and I did. I was just like, ‘This guy is really awesome.’
My rule of sets and my rule of filmmaking is only to work with nice people. So I was reaching out to a couple friends who knew Aaron: ‘Is he a nice person? Is he good people?’ and got a resounding ‘He’s the nicest person in the world.’ That was the check that needed to be checked off.
Then we reached out to him and Ponsoldt reached out to him for me and then we went through his agency. Then I was on a plane to Macon, Georgia to go meet with him, drank some chocolate milkshakes, and talked about love, life, the script and characters. By the time we were leaving, he was walking me to my car, he was like ‘Let’s do this. Let’s make this movie.’ ‘Fuck yeah. Let’s do it.’
What was the process of hiring the kids for the film like?
Candler: Our local casting director also did casting for Tree of Life. So we took the Tree of Life approach in that we went to small towns across Texas. I went to a bunch of motocross races and just started scouring all of these non-actor kids. I’d sit down with them in the room and just have normal conversations, asking about their lives. Then we would improv a scene to see how I could work with them or if i could work with them.
Deke Garner played the youngest boy in the short. But I put him through the ringer, I made him audition and audition and call back and call back. Camron, the kid who has a really thick Texas accent, the womanizer (Roger), he I found at the very first motocross race I went to. Never acted before, just rides his bike every weekend, every day, as much as he can, but he has such a charm about him. In the audition, I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. He would talk and has this real thick accent [mumbling], ‘Wait, what?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know what it is about you, I can’t understand what you’re saying, but I love you.’
And then Josh [Wiggins]. Our friends, who produced this movie called Little Accidents, they were looking for the same age range of kids as we were, Southern boys. Our friend Summer was inquiring about one of the boys from our short. She started investigating him online and found all these YouTube videos that he made with his best friend Josh Wiggins. ‘You guys need to check out this other kid in these YouTube videos.’ Bad detective, cops & robbers, things they would make by their swimming pool in the backyard with cowboy hats and sunglasses and stuff, really cute kind of stuff you’d make with your buddies on the weekend. But there was something there. There was such a natural quality to him. So I brought him in to audition. After seeing hundreds of hundreds of kids, you get numb to them. But then when someone like Josh walks into the room, they have IT, whatever IT is, and he had IT. There was such an authenticity and such an honesty. Even though he says now, ‘I was so nervous, I was so nerve-wrecked.” I couldn’t tell, you just seemed flawless and comfortable. It was one of those moments where the heavens would’ve open up and the sun shines down on him: ‘That’s my kid.’ Through the audition process, I made sure he could go to the emotional places I needed him to go and that he could be a leader in this group of boys.
Those boys are ridiculous and hilarious and funny and weird and got a little too comfortable with me at times. They would talk about things, and I’m like, ‘I don’t really need to hear you guys and boobs.’ Working with them was definitely a highlight. I’m so proud of those boys.
Ultimately, what do you feel the movie is about?
Candler: I always knew from the beginning that it’s a movie about responsibility. It’s a movie for both the dad and son going from irresponsibility to responsibility.
Kat Candler was very concerned that Nadia Chaudhury will experience her first Texas summer.