SXSW 2012: Interview with Filmmakers Kat Candler and Kelly Williams
Mutual friends introduced filmmakers Kat Candler to Kelly Williams over ten years ago at Sundance Film Festival in Utah. But little did they know their next trek to Sundance would be together and with a film of their own. The writer/director team is on a roll - touring the festival circuit from Sundance to SXSW (and more) with their short film “Hellion.”
In “Hellion,” written and directed by Candler and produced by Williams, seven-year-old Petey is left with his two hell-raising older brothers up to no good. After duct taping the babysitter to the house exterior and starting a fire in the front yard, Dad pulls up in his truck and things go from bad to worse.
Candler and Williams sat down to discuss their experience with “Hellion” – from casting the kid actors to finally experiencing the short film on a festival big screen.
NT: What is the greatest challenge of telling a story in six minutes?
Candler: I think the greatest challenge is creating full character arcs and creating change even if it is subtle with all the characters. Also, just placing classical story telling within 6 minutes. In the writing process we did several drafts, so a lot of it was fine tuning- going in and making sure there is growth. Every little detail was thought out.
NT: Why did you want to tell the story? What was it inspired by?
Candler: My mom told me this story about her three younger brothers and the day that they set my grandfather’s jeep on fire. She told me the story of the plot twist in the middle of “Hellion.” That just stuck with me for so long. I wrote a draft of it years ago but didn’t really want to take it on because of the challenge of working with three little kids and pretty extreme emotions. But I wanted to do a short, so I pulled it out, dusted it off, did a rewrite and sent it to Kelly.
NT: Kelly, what do you like most about producing?
Williams: Honestly I like the creative part and working with people like Kat. I like bouncing off ideas with people, putting something together and ending with a finished product.
NT: From here, what are your plans with “Hellion”?
Candler: After we shot the short, Kelly and I was stirring around the idea in our heads of making a feature. And we ended up taking a road trip to where Kelly grew up – Port Arthur and Port Neches – like these tiny little cluster of towns in East Texas. We spent a few days walking around and just breathed in, watched and took in that whole small town world.
Williams: Well, breathing in was a bad idea since it’s a refinery town.
Candler: Yeah, like refineries frame all the houses. But it’s an interesting backdrop to this small town world. So from there, ideas were growing and growing so I came back and busted out an outline focusing on the oldest brother and the father’s relationship. We did a couple of revisions of the outlines, then we found out we got into Sundance. In my mind, I’m thinking ‘I’ve got to have a first draft before we get there.’ So I just hunkered down and worked to create a first draft of the script literally up until we arrived in Park City. While we were there, there were opportunities that arose for grants and so forth. So I came back and spit out another draft of it. Because of the response to the short people are showing interest in it as a feature from different angles of the film world. Our ideal scenario is shooting this time next year. I feel like we created a weird, fun, odd dark tone to the short that I want to translate to the feature because I feel like that’s what makes it special.
NT: What draws you to stories about adolescence?
Candler: With my first feature, when I was directing the actors the best performances came out of the kids because I related to them so much more for whatever reason. I like stories about teens and that sort of heightened world.
Williams: It’s a pretty complex time in one’s life. Most people look back on childhood with very simplistic memories, Kat seems to remember – and capture in her films extremely well - how complicated that time was.
NT: What was it like working with the three kid actors?
Candler: A lot of it was just allowing them to let go and they were excited to do that. And to be like ‘It’s okay to be crazy, it’s okay to scream and act like a fool.’ The first few takes they’re totally into it but by take ten they’re tired and like ‘do we have to scream anymore?’ and I’m like ‘I swear it’s the last take!’
Williams: We even cleared the set so our DP could go anywhere with the camera and follow the kids as they run around. So no one was standing around to watch, all they had to do was ignore the camera.
Candler: And I think finding the right kids through auditions is half the battle. We saw a ton of kids, about 50 for all three parts. It’s just about treating them like adults and treating them professionally. I explained to our actor who played Petey that I wanted him to walk into the scene when he was emotionally ready – you have to get that emotionally consistent performance from one scene to the next. The other fun thing was that I wouldn’t let Johnny (the father character) hang out with the kids; I just kept them separated so he would have that intimidation factor.
Williams: Separating them was really smart of Kat, and it paid off – the kids were genuinely terrified when he pulled up in the truck.
NT: What was it like to see “Hellion” screen at Sundance?
Candler: Amazing. That’s my standard quote. It was one of the best days of my life for sure. Getting the call from Kelly that we got into Sundance was definitely one of my favorite times of my life.
Williams: The first screening was great, I mean we hadn’t screened at a festival at all before that.
Candler: I cried a lot.
Williams: It was pretty emotional for me at our last screening at Prospector Theatre – where I took tickets as a volunteer a few years in a row about ten years ago. The guy who was the projectionist actually remembered me. And honestly it was incredibly satisfying, as a producer, to see Kat so happy.
What’s next for you guys?
Williams: I’m about to produce a feature for a local writer/director called “Pit Stop.” Then we’ll hopefully be working on the “Hellion” feature for next year and hopefully a few shorts between now and then. I like to think of them as good practice, but they’re also an art within themselves. You have to put the same type of energy into a short as a feature; it just doesn’t take as long.
Candler: I’ll spend the next several months on drafts and revisions for the “Hellion” feature. I have another project called “Nikki Is A Punk Rocker” that we’re packaging right now with cast and financing. I also teach a class at UT every semester, which definitely makes my heart happy. I get to watch college kids discover filmmaking with wide-eyed enthusiasm and excitement and realizing how hard it is to make movies. It’s hard but it’s awesome. I started a group called Women in Cinema because when I started teaching I would only have one or two girls in my class out of 20-24. It sucked being one of the few female narrative filmmakers in Austin. I started the group to grow the community – we do panels, workshops, fieldtrips, and mentorships.
After the final SXSW screening of “Hellion,” friends and strangers alike congratulated the filmmakers. Candler and Williams, though thrilled about their festival acceptances, won’t pause for a minute. Exciting projects are around the corner so keep these two filmmakers on your radar. They may be one step away from hitting it big in the indie film world and beyond.
Reach Katie here.