Being a successful female filmmaker in 2014's male-dominated landscape is hard enough. When Kat Candler decided to adapt her 2012 short film into a feature, only 9 percent of the 250 top-grossing films of the same year were directed by women. Still, the professor from Texas didn't waver in her ambition and began crafting Hellion: the story of Jacob, a 13-year-old delinquent (Josh Wiggins) and his absent father Hollis (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), set in the backdrop of bleak Southeast Texas and the harsh roar of motocross races.
"The short is loosely based on my uncle Frank and my two other uncles when they set fire to my grandfather's jeep," Candler told Bustle. "It focuses on this single, blue-collar struggling Dad and these hell-raising boys. In the short there's an absence of the mother, so that's where the story was going to grow: What happened to this mom and how did they come to such dysfunction?" she said. "When you're a kid, your parents can do no wrong. You put them on a pedestal and they're very God-like, but as you get older you realize the mistakes that they make and the struggles along the way."
Candler spoke with much admiration about choosing Southeast Texas as the backdrop for the family drama. She immersed herself in every way possible, from sitting in barber shops with refinery workers to eating alligator at the Cajun market. "I wanted to live there a lot longer so my little story wheels started turning."
But eating exotic animal meat and hobnobbing with the locals was only half the battle. Candler chose to use the world of motocross as a catalyst for Jacob's behavior. "I had to do a lot of research," Candler admits. "I didn't really know that world when I started writing the script. I knew I wanted this character to have something interesting and unique. It's a sport that's so fearless and risk-taking, and yet a very community, family-based sport. I watched a lot of races, I got to know a lot of the people that organize them and a lot of the kids who raced ended up auditioning for me."
And the 39-year-old female filmmaker found another hurtle in relating to the majority of her cast — that is — teenage boys. Like most coming-of-age flicks about adolescent boys, finding the joy in Victoria's Secret catalogs and smashing things with bats were themes as relevant to growing up as a boy's relationship with his old man. "My husband's really great in terms of getting me in the mindset of 14-year-old boys. I would show him drafts and he'd be like 'Take it a little further, they look at porn and they love boobs,'" she said. "It's part of the challenge early on as a director with any kind of kid you have to gain their trust," she said, noting that she auditioned the "kids" for weeks on end so they would get to know her on a more comfortable level.
While Candler seems as composed and thoughtful as ever — as seen in 98 minutes of on-screen precision — she admits to indulging her playful side for the film. "I am a 12-year-old at heart and I'm goofy and dumb. [The boys] are so much fun, they're so silly and weird — 14-year-old boys are kind of hilarious."
But how does a female filmmaker successfully relate to and truthfully portray father/son relationships on screen? "It doesn't really matter in terms of gender, male or female characters, everybody is challenging because everybody is so unique in their histories and their struggles and their mindset. It's a universal relationship, no matter what background you come from, that parent/child dynamic," she said. "And so much of it is observation and talking to people, listening to stories and just being an observer of human beings."
For her adult male lead, Candler looked no further than Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, who played the role of Hollis with a brooding and heartbreaking angst that nearly mirrored the frustrations of his teen son. While Candler admired the actor's work in James Ponsoldt's 2012 film Smashed, she had only seen two episodes of the AMC show that made Paul famous. "I went back and binge-watched [Breaking Bad] on my couch with a tub of rocky road ice cream all of the seasons and fell in love with him in this different character. So I was excited to bring him onto this project because I hadn't seen him do a role like this and thought he would bring some really great honesty to the role."
Candler experienced success with the film at Sundance Film Festival this year, but her recognition is statistically very rare for women filmmakers. The director recognizes this struggle and actively seeks way to shift the tools of success into young, female hands. " I teach at the University of Texas and early on I'd have few narratives by female filmmakers in class and it was really disheartening. So I helped start an organization to help foster those girls and their voices," she explained. "For me it's really about being someone they can look up to. So much of this business, filmmaking and art is about mentorship, always reaching back and helping the next generation. There are so many amazing stories and amazing voices to be heard."
Candler's striking feature Hellion is available on VOD platforms now and hits select theatres June 20.
Images: IFC Films